Monday, January 16, 2012

The Love Letter Campaign: This Modern Love

There is something about airports, of course the film “Love Actually,” sort of butchered the airport analysis, as well as Homeland Security.  But the one thing this war on terror has given me the most –for all it has taken—is the airport.  There is absolutely nothing comparable to seeing the person you love in army fatigues after months of writing letters.

Whatever has been broken along that journey, the lies, isolation, the complete limitations of military life and a naive college girl, completely vanished in the airport.
Freshman year of college, two undergrads madly in love after dating for two months; he signed his life away for the next four years, and she was completely unaware of the five years of disease she would battle while he was away.

This isn’t a happily-ever-after story, but it is a love story.  Whenever the bitter cynical part of me denies that, I go and read one of the eighty-some pages of letters I got from him while he was away.  One letter is all it takes to make me blush, and understand that beneath all the pain and schisms that we’ve experienced, there was love, deep love.

His notes talk about the first time we kissed, next to a broken furnace in the basement of the rugby house (right after I had looked for the bathroom and found two Amazonian women throwing knives upstairs).  To class it up even more, it was a 'hick party,' and he was wearing a winter vest with no shirt on.  His letters tell how we spent the majority of the last two months of school meeting on campus staircases by the river, park benches, or any other sketchy homeless hangouts, because our roommates couldn’t take our constant public displays of affection; or how our first date was abruptly ended by his roommate busting the dorm door down and finding us making-out on his bed.

It may be through his writing that I blush, but it is also through my own writing that I understand the power of it all.  For every letter Ryan wrote, there was a letter or a story that I too wrote to meet you halfway.  Three years ago:

“I was in a guy’s dorm room eating some weird white chunk out of an eight-pound bag of trail mix his friend gave him; we sat there joking about what a weird gift it was.  I’ll never forget laying there with him, the first man I ever fell asleep next to.  It was about ninety degrees in the dorms; we were sweating and it was a little awkward.  He turned on his fan and looked over at me; I tried to make a joke to break the nonexistent ice, “fan of a fan?” I said, cringing at how dorky it was.

“Why yes, I am quite a fan of a fan, I love fans, I once had a fan…” he trailed on for about five minutes.

Wow, he outdid me there, I thought, pretty dorky.  We laughed all night that night, the billowy laughter.

In the morning, I left his dorm room in a basketball t-shirt and baseball boxers that were two different colors on each leg.  It was pouring rain and we decided to venture through it.  As the rain pelted us like buckets of water and my hair parted itself like an eight-year-old in the bath, I went with my childish intuition. I picked up a huge mound of mud and threw it at him.  Of course, I missed by a couple feet, and he immediately prepared for retaliation; it hit me right in the ‘baby maker’ as he said.  I went for the ultimate rebuttal: the dirt and ash in the cigarette-butt holder.  I picked it up in my hand and cackled as I saw his face turn pale. 

“Go ahead, hit me,” he said, crossing his arms, frozen in the middle of the pelting rain. 

“O-okay, I’ll do it,” I said, knowing he knew I wouldn’t.

I dropped the ash in defeat, and he came at me, jumping in the gargantuan puddle next to my feet; I was officially drenched.  We couldn’t stop laughing at our ridiculousness, we were in the middle of campus in front of the hospital sopped in dirt, mud, and eighties boxers. 

“Fine,” I said coyly, “You win, I’m completely drenched, I can’t move without dropping a gallon of water.  Nothing could make this worse.” I looked directly at him and he knew I was going to trip him up.  “I mean, I could even sit in this puddle and it would be the same.”

“Lindsay, Lindsay, come on, don’t…”  He reached out, but it was too late.  Every gaze was in our direction; I was sitting in a two-foot deep puddle on the side of the street. 

“Do you realize what is in that water?!” he said trying not to smile.

“Well, kinda, cuz it’s all over me… I think I felt an inchworm.. no, must be something else,”  I smiled at him. 

He picked me up and wiped the dirt off my face, I squeezed some of the water off his shirt.  He held me, right there, that rainy Sunday, and we kissed.  Time literally froze in that moment, nothing mattered, it didn’t matter how absurd we looked, it was just us being completely stupid.

And there it is, that nostalgic smile slowly building up on my face again; I can almost feel the wrinkles forming.  It was only a year ago, but life was so much simpler then, at least we thought.  We met at a hick party with pig-tails, flat-brimmed hats and cut-off jean shorts (not worn by me).  On our second date he told me he enlisted in the army; I nodded my head, walked up to get my drink and tripped over my speakers cord, twice.  That’s just the kind of relationship we had, take it day by day and live it up, let’s just have fun and go from there.”

The unconventional nature of those memories makes me smile, but beyond that, I live for the notion that there was a person who intrigued me enough to erase my surroundings completely.  A snooty upper-class honors undergrad dissolved in the arms of a Nebraskan military boy.

Circumstance, life, differences chipped and eroded at our young love.  He is out of the army now and I am close to recovering from my five year battle with Lyme disease.  He has a girlfriend and I’m dating a bunch of mediocre people who won’t upset the sick and vulnerable equilibrium my life has become.  I’ve done what I can to move on, to get through the past several years without him, to pray for his survival during tours, to do the platonic “how are you?” phone calls when both of our lives were probably crashing down on us.

I know that I don’t know him anymore, that’s we’ve changed and moved on and that we see the world very differently now.  But I find solace in the words he wrote four years ago, words that turn pining into smiling at a good memory and calling it a day.  Before he left college for the army he said, “Those memories are not lost; they will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

  I know that somewhere out there, there is a man who may smile when he sees two people kissing on a park bench or hears "Omaha," on the radio.  No war, ocean, military, or time can change what we felt for each other back then.  Those memories are not lost; they will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

I remember holding him at Christmas when he saw his family for the first time since enlisting.  His niece, Casey, was about five and his nephew, Connor, was several years older and quite the smart-aleck.  Ryan had laughed at me while I was playing with them, because my ‘fashionable’ skinny jeans were riding a little too low, in front of his entire family.  It was a mortifying moment for me, but sadly, Ryan seemed to love how easily embarrassed I was; he would smile like my tripping down the stairs or unintentionally showing my butt-crack was what he loved about me.  He once said that he thought my clumsiness was a scheme to get guys, a comment that still makes me laugh and roll my eyes.

Casey looked at him after we put our jackets on and began to head out the door.  She wouldn’t say goodbye to him.  She wouldn’t say goodbye, because he was leaving her again and she was too sad; she said she felt like he’d forgot her.  Finally, she surrendered after he crouched down and looked at her with his big caring blue eyes; she wrapped her arms around him and said, “I love you, Ryan.” 

That was the first time Ryan ever cried in my arms; a man twice my size, a clean-shaven close-buzzed army ranger let me in to the humanity he kept locked up in training.  Casey was just one of many people he had to say goodbye to that night.  Ryan was just one of the many soldiers who’ve said and will say goodbye to the people they love, and some will never explain to the Caseys why they never came back.

And there I was, an aspiring journalist and ignorant commentator on the Iraqi conflict, confronted with the reality of what war really meant.  I was now the girl throwing her arms around the shoulders of a man in fatigues wondering when I would see him again and pity no longer felt like the right emotion to conjure up.

Before that Christmas, I knew as soon as he spoke over the phone what had happened.  The bustle of a six-girl house on campus echoed in the background.  I’m sure it didn’t feel too good to be in a barracks on the other end listening to the life he’d left behind.

“I kissed someone else,” he said.

I leaned against my white dresser, shutting the door hard enough to let my girlfriends know that all the giddy energy had flown from my lungs.  Two weeks before his first leave.  Two weeks before he saw me for the first time in seven months and he kissed someone else.  I coughed a small laugh out of shock and hysteria.

“It didn’t mean anything, she’s just a girl here,” he said.
I laughed a little more; you cheated on me with a chick in the army?!?  I didn’t say it out loud, but I sure as hell was thinking about it.

“I have to go,” I said.  I could hear the fear on his breath.  I had to think.  I was sacrificing a family holiday for him; I was sacrificing a college experience for a long distance relationship that seemed to have just slapped hard cold reality.

I remember how it felt being put in that limbo, how bipolar the pain was, interrupted by complete love and oblivion.

My clammy hands shakily texted him five short words that night: “Just come home to me.” 

I didn’t know what to expect that Christmas, but I knew that if I didn’t see him, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

Dawn was beginning to come up, but it was a dark dawn, it was winter in Minnesota.  I stared up at the white walls on my bedroom ceiling rubbing my sore body, aches I attributed to working out.  Unbeknownst to me, I was entering the first debilitating stages of Lyme disease.  I hadn’t slept the whole night.  Normally a complete collegiate slob, I had vacuumed the entirety of my room, even laying out the clothes I would wear to pick him up, clothes I had begged my sister to let me borrow for weeks.

I zipped up my leather boots and fastened my retro powder-blue knee-length jacket (for those of you who are picturing something ugly, it was very Jackie-O).  My fingers shook completely uncertain about the moment I had replayed over and over in my head.  I adjusted my new bra, excited yet self-conscious about seeing the man I’d spent way more time apart from than with.  I took a deep breath and cringed at the fact that I had three more hours before I even had to leave for the airport.

I forced all preconceived notions of our reunion out of my head on the bus, and the light-rail, all-in-all an excruciating 45 minute commute.  Just come home to me, I thought as I adjusted my dress, Just come home to me, Ryan.

We hadn’t talked much since he confessed his infidelity over the phone.  He knew I was mad at him, and I had to be a little, in order to make a point that it wasn’t okay.  I approached carousel number three turning up my ipod trying to drown out the feelings of love and hate.  It was -30 degrees outside and the sliding doors kept opening and closing with a bustle of people.

My eyes immediately caught the East staircase: a sea of military fatigues.  My stomach dropped and of all times, my ipod stopped working.  My mind immediately raced between the crowds of faces around me.  Do I look okay?  Should I go to the bathroom again?  Will he rec…  I was poking and prodding at the ipod, occasionally looking up at the army faces when the whole world completely stopped.

There. He. Was.  

His deep big blue eyes were under a green beret staring right into me.  The man I could only remember through pictures for over half a year was standing five feet in front of me.  He walked closer, slowing his pace while all his emotions intensified in his face.  His strong hands moved onto my coat and I felt a feeling I left behind months ago.  I grabbed his tough camouflage uniform bunching the material into my fist until I knew that he was real, that this moment, out of the thousands we had imagined, this was the real one.  Two months of dating, seven months apart of letter writing and sporadic phone calls and the love seemed to still rush over us.  It is in that moment that I experienced what it was like to be thinking and feeling the same exact thing as someone else, for someone else on a level you never really knew was possible.

Maybe I am only left with the letters, the stories, the memories, but I am grateful for it all.  I am grateful for the pain of a military relationship, of a military break-up and a broken heart.  As I put it so effortlessly over three years ago:

“So, this leads me with so many unopened answers for what ‘this modern love’ consists of for me.  Love isn’t the struggle, it isn’t the dramatic circumstances or the Casablanca-esque air-sucking kisses, love is the moment when life’s preoccupations dwindle, when your deepest fears, insecurities wilt under that moment.  Love is overcoming obstacles, but overcoming them with what you have in front of you.  I could sit here and cry because my boyfriend is in the army, or I could face the fact that without him I wouldn’t have danced in the rain covered in cigarette ash.  I wouldn’t have made love for the first time and gotten a bladder infection right before leaving for our flight into the city (okay, maybe I could take that back).  Life is about those moments, however miniscule, offensive or morbid they may be; these are the moments that crinkle into a nostalgic smile, they are the moments that make you belt out in laughter a year later, the moments that literally freeze time, because you shared them deeply and directly with someone else.

This modern love is enraptured with emotions and feelings that directly collide with our changing selves.

Even though he is gone from my life, his memories remind me of who I am.  His humble chicken-scratch writing inspires me to write again after being pelted over and over by disease and neurological decline.  Writing doesn’t have to be ostentatious, pedantic or even dramatic, sometimes writing can simply be a confirmation that the vaguest most beautiful moments in your life did at some point happen.  Writing can tell you who you were, how strong you were and how much passion you’ve had for life in moments that may have been glossed over by redundancy, studying and excessive drinking.  Ryan’s writing taught me that there was someone else out there who saw the moments we shared the same way I did, and his writing preserves that elation, making it impenetrable to my insecurities and doubt.  Writing can drudge up a vision hanging by a thread ready to be erased; it can color the black and white and help you wholly see the life you continue to pass.

Today I am scared.  I am scared that I will never love again, that I will never get better even if most days I convince myself that I will.  But it is okay.  Because even if Ryan isn’t here and even if that healthy girl he knew isn’t here, they are in our writing, I am in this writing and absolutely no one can take that away.  Even in my death, even in this present life, what is written can’t be unwritten, what is lived can’t be unlived, the pages are too strong not to endure, I am too strong not to endure.

“This modern love is enraptured with emotions and feelings that directly collide with our changing selves.”

I smile, because I wrote that about three years ago, not even completely aware of how much truth it would hold on the wiser more-weathered girl reading it right now.

A Girl who Found Love

This blog post is part of The Love Letter Campaign... a project started by to encourage those who love a hero to write a letter sharing their story (where they started, what they've faced together, and why their love endures). It's not just for spouses, but also for parents, siblings, caregivers, and friends. It's about telling the "rest" of our stories... stories that continue despite PTSD, TBI, and the challenges of life after combat. To share your love letter or find out more about the campaign, visit

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