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An Ocean Apart

Dustin couldn’t say that 1991 began as a year he wanted to remember. A few weeks after his tenth birthday, his stepfather and I received alert orders for deployment from Germany to Desert Shield. The orders were simple. Go to Saudi Arabia and you’ll come home when the war is over. Due to a previous Army assignment, we had only been reunited as a family for a few months. Unfortunately, we had no means of keeping Dustin and our longtime live-in sitter in Germany. After discussion, we made the decision that he would go to Maine for the month of December to be with his paternal grandparents, then to Houston in January to stay with my sister. Her son was a few years older than Dustin and the cousins were close. Dustin’s father had been killed in an accident when he was four months old and even though he loved his grandparents, we felt it would be better for him to be with his male cousin.

The sitter would accompany him to Maine, then Dustin would bid farewell to a woman who had been with him for more than three years. When I said good-bye to them at the Frankfurt airport, none of us knew if we would see each other again. Unlike today, communication from the Persian Gulf was extremely difficult. I received a few letters and wrote many more, yet it was not until later that I learned Dustin’s grandfather had suffered an unexpected heart attack at home in January and died without regaining consciousness. Although my parents traveled from Louisiana to Texas to break the news to him, it was a tragic blow to a child already coping with having both parents in a war zone.

Happily, Desert Storm ended quickly and we were a family again by June of 1991. Due to the postwar reduction in the Armed Forces, we were to be reassigned from Germany to Italy. As luck would have it, I was required to go to Italy ahead of my husband and Dustin although this time it was only a month long separation. Less than two weeks after my departure, Dustin awakened my husband, complaining of stomach pains. Yes, it was acute appendicitis. No complications from the surgery, but not the ideal way to spend Thanksgiving.

I was allowed to rush back to apply some mothering and during a bedtime conversation, Dustin asked about Christmas. From the time he was a baby, we’d either spent Christmas with his grandparents in Maine or they delayed Christmas for his arrival on December twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh.

“Gram shouldn’t have to spend this Christmas alone, not without Grandpa.” His voice was soft and I explained that I already asked Gram to visit us for the holidays.

She was reluctant to leave the house and pets in winter and make a transatlantic journey. I understood her reasoning, but also understood what a difficult Christmas it would be without husband or any other family. Dustin’s father had been their only child, Grandpa had no brothers or sisters and her only brother had died in his youth.

“Well maybe we could all go there,” he suggested tentatively. As much as my heart went out to the idea of Gram alone in a Maine winter, it was simply not possible for us to break away for a week. I said this as gently as I could.

Hardly a minute passed when Dustin looked at me and asked, “Then can I go be with her?”

“But sweetheart, that means you would have to fly by yourself and it would be just a week before you’d have to come back to school.”

“That’s okay,” he said earnestly. “I don’t mind, really. I don’t want Gram to be by herself.”

“Get some sleep and let me think about it.” I kissed him goodnight, too astounded to know what else to say.

My husband and I poured a glass of wine and discussed it. Dustin was a remarkably experienced traveler having being flying from age one and flying unaccompanied at times beginning at age five. In fact, he’d flown unaccompanied from Atlanta to London when he rejoined us after Desert Storm a mere six months before. Granted we were in the process of moving to Italy, but they had direct flights, didn’t they?

As it turned out, we drove up to Switzerland and flew him direct from Zurich to Portland, Maine where he arrived December 27th for late Christmas with his grandmother. When I called to tell her of the plan, she initially protested, as expected. He was barely eleven, it was winter, she would be fine. At that point I turned the telephone over to Dustin. He assured her it was his idea and that he would be very unhappy if she didn’t want him to come.

Not want him to? How could she say no?

And so it was that Dustin kept a tradition that he has continued no matter where we were assigned. He traveled alone for another trip from Italy and two from Hawaii before we finally returned to the East Coast. Dustin is no longer a child and now has to juggle his own hectic schedule, but come Christmas Eve, or within a day or two, he is unwrapping presents at Gram’s house. And perhaps in the not too distant future he will have children of his own to make such memories with.