The Last Time
There is never really a last time when the Navy waits and you're as tall as the kitchen cabinets. It seems like forever; a year is a century and next Christmas belongs to a distant country.
But this is the last time. And I am taller now.
The ship is a floating city. It's cliché but how else to describe the huge, the monstrous gray building suspended on the water? We're part of a large crowd watching it come in, tugboats chugging along. They follow like water bugs skimming the surface of Norfolk harbor, escorting the aircraft carrier to rest at the dock.
The day is gray like the ship and I clutch an umbrella. Overhead the sky sags, weighted with moisture. I could reach up and touch the roof the world, bring down the gray heavens with a finger. My mother, my brother, and I wait. There is an edge of excitement to the few words we exchange, my bother bouncing on his heels.
This is the last time that we'll meet his ship. The last time we'll drive East with a captain E. He isn't coming home, not yet. There are still days, weeks, months but not years, allotted to the carrier, to sea duty, before he's transferred back to Oklahoma City. But we've driven halfway across the country to watch the ship come in, National Anthem blaring, to whisk him away for a family vacation before depositing him on the dock again.
Patriotic music crackles over loudspeakers while it's tied off, my vision blurring with tears. Flags snap and sailors in their whites line the deck. From where I stand they are like plastic toys, arms at right angles, startched uniforms stiff. It seems like hours before people begin disembarking. Rain touches me, lightly, misting my hair, cool but not cold. I move to the guardrail separating families from service members.
I scrutinize each figure exiting the ship. I watch the walk, the tilt of the head. Then I see him; hands full of souvenir bags, he's got a purposeful some-place-to-be expression. He's scanning the crowd, moving fast, looking for the faces he loves best.
He hasn't seen me yet. He's walking toward me but he hasn't seen me.
People wave flags and signs reading 'Welcome Home'. A woman with a tiny infant holds one high 'I can't wait to meet you daddy!' as she searches the faces streaming by. A man comes to hug a young woman beside me. They're crying, his hands are tangled in her hair, and he's kissing her face over and over again.
My Dad is walking past. He's passed. A wave of panic consumes me. I am seventeen, jumping up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"
Faces turn to me but not his. He's still walking.
I scream his name like a mother yelling at a toddler, like the start of a fight with my brother, like the world is ending and only his name could stop the four horsemen in their tracks.
He turns. He sees me, and his face brightens like the rising sun.