Ultimately, joining the Navy isn’t a spontaneous decision, and you definitely won’t be shipping out the same day you enlist. Therefore, I knew for several months my son would be leaving for Boot Camp, yet still, nothing prepared me for that final departure September 21, 2019.
I remember as those last few weekends approached; our last family day, the last time asking him to detail my car…or buying his favorite snacks for the last time. Geez, looking back on it I can’t help but chuckle. He’s joining the Navy, Michelle, not dying. Only sitting here today I can say without a doubt, a piece of me did die that day.
Saying that last goodbye, feeling that last hug, knowing I was saying goodbye to my “baby” while preparing to say “hello” to a new man. Further torturing myself listening to the Dixie Chicks sing, “Traveling Soldier” while driving back home. Still feeling his arms around me and hearing the fear in his voice as he reassured me he would be okay. If I only knew then how much music was going to be my weakness. And strength.
One Friday night at a football game
The Lord’s Prayer said and the anthem sang
A man said folks would you bow your head
For the list of local Vietnam vet.
Separation is nothing new for our family. In fact, I could write a memoir on that alone. Our family has spent several years apart, thanks to incarceration. In fact, six years of separate lives. Spending Mother’s Day year after year, in a visiting room, having to hear what my kids got for Christmas, and what their teachers are like since I was not able to witness any of it face to face. However, even in the depth of all these past painful experiences, I have never felt such a deep anguish like I did when my baby boy left for Boot Camp.
Returning home after we left him at the hotel for that dark thirty departure that excluded the family; walking past his empty room, tossing the dirty laundry he left for me in the washer and smelling his scent. Yes, this is the same scent I use to gag over…. the same laundry I use to complain and dread over having to wash. I was missing everything, his voice, his smile, his jokes, and especially that annoying smirk he gave when I said something he didn’t like or agree with. It was all so much. I just couldn’t stop my mind. It was like a downhill spiral of misery..
Suck it up buttercup…it’s only 8 weeks before you are reunited… are just some of the affirmations running through my head. Doing everything I can to focus on the joyous celebrations we had the weeks prior, playing miniature golf, eating all our favorite meals, and simply being present with one another. Something I wish we would always remember to do; only life has a funny way of fooling us by making us think there’s always tomorrow…only what if tomorrow doesn’t come.
Then, just when I thought I was finally catching my breath, low and behold, another song comes on that resonates with every ounce of my being. Occasionally someone would ask how he was doing, or those times I would have to drive by his old high school, or a spot that reminded me of his Track and Cross Country days. How about when I would stop at Subway to get him his snack cause Lord knows he can’t go more than 15 minutes without food….oh no, another song that reminds me; will it ever end.
Consequently, it didn’t take long before my old friends, Shame & Guilt, came alongside to personally escort me to that dreaded place of self pity.
You see, the reason my son made this career path was mainly due to the result from the financial hardship our family has faced due to my past mistakes and incarceration. Being the old man soul that he is, Zak found it more practical for him to join the Navy in order to save us the expense of paying for college.
However, even in my deepest sorrow, somehow, through the beautiful Grace of God, I was finally able to fall asleep that fall night. I’m sure the bottle of wine helped.
Just shortly after midnight, the phone rang. No! Not that scripted call I had heard so much about…could it be my heart stopped? You know, like the stories of people dying and then coming back?! The pain paralyzed me as I attempted to walk downstairs to share the update with my husband, who was also experiencing the same grief of having to say goodbye to his favorite “buddy.” But instead, my body froze and I became silent. In place of, I laid on the hallway floor sobbing. Hello, this is Sailor Recruit Zackary Garcia. This call is to inform you I have arrived safely for Boot Camp. You will be receiving a form letter from me in the next few weeks with more information. First a pause, followed by a shaky whisper-like tone, I hear the words, “I love you, mom.” Click.
Goodbye, Zak. Be safe and always remember, no matter how alone you may feel, we are always right beside you, I whispered to the skies above.
One of the last things I shared with Zak before we said goodbye was how I used to look at the sun rise each morning while in prison and take comfort in knowing that we were all under the same sky, in hopes that he would remember this during his times of being homesick.
The tears continued until they couldn’t, then I prayed. For him, me, my husband, his siblings, and of course his loving girlfriend, Andrea. Oh no, how is this young love ever going to survive a long distance relationship?! Who’s going to be there for him if she breaks up with him?!
Eventually, I was able to transform that pain for purpose. I invested several hours into researching and reading every article I could about his new life as a Sailor, and Boot Camp experience. Before long I was fortunate enough to find a group of Navy moms who were walking through the same experience. BINGO! Community to the rescue. This is a comfort I know well!
Community. There’s something powerful about being surrounded by like minded people that remind you that you’re not alone, and that there is life after heartache. Then shortly after, I found a group solely dedicated to his division, where I met moms and dad in the exact place I was! Then another that taught me the ins and outs on his upcoming graduation. What hotel to stay out, where to pick up my tickets, how to dress, and all the celebrated decorations I had to make and prepare. Yes, I have to do all this; you know because that’s what shame and guilt have you to believe. Followed by the hard to find Navy mom shoes, shirts, and car stickers. Oh! Don’t forget the collection of anchors! Before long the family is teasing me about the shrine I built. And may, or may not, still have.
But then! The best group of all! My Mafia Hookers! Ahhhh, comfort for the heart. Like an old trusted friend. More effective than wine, and almost as good as a shot of tequila.
I know…what kind of Navy Mom group refers to themselves as Hookers?! My kind of group, that’s who! Remember, I’m not like the other moms since mom’s who love their children should think about their kids before committing their crime…thanks, shame and guilt, I needed that reminder…NOT!
Within just a few short days the ladies in this cult taught me so much about what was ahead. They shared their experience and hope with me. Before too much time passed, long I realized how incredible this journey was going to be. Not just for him, or me, but for our entire family. Without even knowing it our family instantly grew by millions. We are now part of a bigger purpose. We are THE United States Navy Family! I am about to be a fully certified Proud Navy Mom. AKA Hooker! In this group, I learned more about the Navy and his future as a Nuclear Power Tech then he even knew! There were times he would ask me for the information he needed. The resources were lifesaving, and the friendships remain priceless treasures.
These amazing ladies embraed me. Even after they learned of my past. Instead of asking how similar Orange Is The New Black to real life prison, they simply smiled and said “so-who cares!” I will forever be inspired by the lessons I learned from my Sea Sisters, and how they helped me carry my grief. Sometimes their suggestions were to head for the bar, other times it would be a bath or book, but nevertheless, they were always there to root me on and encourage me to not give up. However, the best part, they took off their boots and shoved ‘em up ol Shame and Guilt’s butt! Don’t mess with a Navy Mom; especially the Navy Mom Mafia!
Everyday I would write to Zak; weird how that time in prison taught me the power of a letter and how I would later turn that into a blessing for my own son. I would write to him about all the things I wanted to hear and the things I missed while being away; the weather, the everyday activities, the dogs, what we had for dinner, and how ridiculous I was in my sorrow of missing him. -And every day I would pray for a return letter. Only they weren’t arriving as quickly as I desired. For 2 weeks straight I would go to the mailbox, and for 2 weeks straight it was empty. Then my Hookers told me to sign up for daily mail notifications with the US Post Office. What?! They have such a thing?! They sure the heck do! And with a few simple clicks on my phone, I can now see an image of each and every piece of mail coming my way! It didn’t speed up the mail, or even stop the tears, but it did something to stir excitement. Additionally, they told me when to expect the calls and the time of day they came, they validated my frustration with the drill sergeant that wouldn’t look to keenly on me shipping a birthday cake to him, and even shared how to schedule my flight out so I wouldn’t miss that famous, “I’m a Sailor” call. I wonder if Zak even knows how his exhaustion prevented that call from being as impactful as it should have been…
Before long I had a few more trinkets of happiness; I found “Lil Zak” who is a Beanie Baby like stuffed person in uniform. He was only about 5 inches tall and fit perfectly in my hands. I carried him everywhere, would stuff him in my purse, sit him on my desk while drinking the Starbucks coffee he hated that I wasted money on, held him close to my heart when I cried, threw him a few times after not receiving a phone call or letter, and even threatened to make him into a vudu doll and stick needles in him. Haha, I really am certified crazy, aren’t I?!!?
Lil Zak quickly became a legend. Well in my mind at least. He went to family dinners, a Rams game, and to CIW, a women’s prison in Corona that I revisit as a volunteer. He ate at Wahlburgers, and joined me and my friends for Happy Hour at the restaurant his sister worked at. One of the coolest things he joined in was meeting Van, my best friend’s baby, when he was born. Eventually before long, Lil Zak helped replace Shame and Guilt with Laughter and Purpose. Just like he does in real life, my “stand in son” was there to remind me I still have value and a purpose, that I am more than my past and that being a previously incarcerated mother doesn’t define me. And why I think this was such a crippling time for me…you see, Zak has always had a unique way of making me feel loved, accepted, and forgiven. We connect differently. I can see his emotions in his body language, I can tell you when he is in pain just by looking at him.
That’s right, get on out the door you crippling emotions. I don’t need you anymore. I’m now Navy Mom Strong! Pack your belongings and get out of my way – I got business to handle!
The following 8 weeks continued on to be some of the most intense days of my life. I found pain I never knew, but I also found a much desired and welcomed strength in my pride for him.
My son is Sailor. My Sailor is my Hero. While we all have Heroes; I raised mine! He does something other kids his age don’t do. He chooses to serve his Country and flight for Freedom, while others are choosing which classes to take or what concert to attend.
Finally, at last, Pass In Review came. It was November 19th, 2019, in Great Lakes, Illinois. Cold as hell, and far from Sunny California, but worth every minute. I can still feel the thunder of emotions I felt sitting on those stadium benches listening to those bay doors roll up and feeling the vibrations from the marching feet as they entered the room…only they all look the same…which one is him…didn’t he get the letter that told him I’d be on the right side, and to make sure he waved as he marched by…just kidding, well about the wave, that is.
Shortly after, we were all reunited again over a big platter of BBQ food. Mom, dad, older sister, Lil Zak, and my United States Sailor. Serving together, like Military Families do. He now has as many Mommas, as I have Sons.
The night ended way too soon and before long he was returning back to his new Chief of Command. Ready or not to say goodbye, I no longer had a say in his coming and goings. Someone else dictates that. But fear not, there’s a Mafia of Navy Moms on standby, just in case they need to be reminded who the real boss is. Meanwhile, we let them think they are in charge. After all, it’s good for the man’s ego.
In the end, as I sit and reminisce on one of the most celebrated occasions in the life of a Navy family, the words that echo aren’t those of the scripted call, instead they are, “HEAR THIS HEAR THIS! LIBERTY CALL, LIBERTY CALL!!!!!”