The fluorescents seemed brighter than usual, and still silence filled her head in the noisy terminal. Time slowed, as the pacing of her heart echoed in her head.
“I’ve never seen my youngest, Evan, hug him quite like that,” she said, as her cracked voice revealed her tear-stained cheeks, as she remembered their solemn goodbyes. “I’m sorry, it’s hard to look back on it all and not get emotional.”
Carla Ahern, mother of Evan, 2, and Ella, 3, remembered the day Rob “Caveman” Ahern, her F-18 Marine Corps pilot husband, left for their first deployment like it was yesterday. As she thought back on that moment she had to say goodbye, her tough exterior melted into tears of bittersweetness. After as many cuddles as they could squeeze into those bedtime hours, morning reluctantly came. The time to say goodbye was just hours away.
“I woke up like every other normal morning,” she recalled. “And put on my make-up, got the kids together, and we left for the terminal.” The kids knew what was coming, though they had never experienced it before. Carla and Rob explained to them that “Daddy would be gone away for awhile and they would not be able to see him or play with him.” In that moment, the emotional weight of the months ahead sat heavy on her heart.
“We walked as far in as we could,” again her voice broke. “They would not let us go all the way in with him.” Rob sat down in the passenger terminal and pulled them both into his lap. “He sat there crying trying his hardest to read them one last story,” she struggled for words. “And he told them goodbye.” She remembered Evan holding on to him and refusing to let go. Ella was more of a quiet sad.
The sun was still low in the sky and the early morning dew saturated the surroundings. Carla loaded the kids back in the car to make the hour drive back home. Determined to clear her head, she drove straight to the gym.
“It was kind of ridiculous now that I think about it,” she giggled. “I went to the gym with a full face of make up on and worked out super hard.” That’s how deployment began. Carla was determined to make their time apart a time of joy.
“I snuck a note in his back pack about how I was going to be a better mom while he was gone… stop yelling…twirl the kids more, since I can’t throw them high like he does,” she said. “I listed things that I would take on for him and how I’d sing the kids the “Marine Corps Hymn” every night before bed, mention him at least five times a day, and take videos of the kids to send him all the time.” Carla snuck over 30 Post-It notes in random places in Rob’s bag that he discovered periodically as he settled into his life away from home.
“I sent him care packages and cards because he’s a words guy,” she said.
The six months of deployment started slow for the Ahern family, but sped up toward the end. They filled their time with lots of grandparent video-chats, out-of-town guests, zoo trips and evenings at the playground.
Before they knew it, they were in the final weeks before homecoming.
“I couldn’t wait to show him how much the kids had grown,” she said, beaming. “I knew he was concerned about feeling disconnected from the kids, so I made sure to send detailed emails about what was new with them every few days.” Homecoming day was upon them and emotions were high. Carla planned out a full day of preparing for Rob’s return.
“I wanted to bake him a cake because it’s our tradition,” she said. “Anytime something big happens, we bake him a cake — promotions, birthdays, commissioning, patching, stuff like that.” Ella and Evan enjoyed eating the frosting as much as baking the cake. Afterward, the kids glittered a welcome home poster for Dad; with more glitter on the table and ground than on the poster, it was a true success.
“Just before he arrived, I wrote him a letter,” she smiled. “He’s a words guy.”
All ready, we made our way to his landing terminal as the minutes seemed like hours…until finally that ear-splitting sound of the jet engine roared overhead and we saw Marines step out one by one. Dutifully, Rob stood there shaking each Marines hand until all were off board.
And with much pep in his step, he beamed from ear to ear as he made his way across the runway into the arms of his beloved, at last.