7th June 2016
When I woke, I knew. There was no mind fog, no dream dawdling into day. Reality hit me before consciousness did. That today was deployment day. That by the time the sun melted into the sea, Kyal would be on a ship, chasing it across the Indian Ocean.
The bed squeaked as we stirred and shuffled closer to each other. I lifted my back. He extended his left arm. Our morning embraces were like clockwork, and while our brains knew our routine would be disrupted, our bodies denied reality.
Eventually we rose out of bed and stumbled through his tiny room on HMAS Stirling. It wasn’t much. We’d crammed in a queen bed, squeezed the television on the desk and snuck the mini-fridge under the “pantry” shelves. But seeing as no one would inhabit this room for six months, we didn’t need a lot.
We hardly uttered a word as we got dressed. It seemed pointless to start a conversation that would inevitably end by midday. Besides, what’s left to say except Please don’t go?
Squished in between the bed and the wardrobe, I dabbed foundation and swept powder across my face. My limbs were moving out of habit, but internally, my mind was numb.
Like most important occasions, there’s always last minute running around. Kyal had to move his car, pop by the uniform shop and carry his letter filled care package to his mess. In that hour of running around, all I wanted to do was steal his attention, to have one last adventure before we’d be on a forced hiatus.
The rest of the morning was incomprehensible. No matter how many times I’ve replayed it in my head, I’m still baffled by the bizarre energies that circulated the dock. Sailors took close friends and families on a tour through the ship. Questions were thrown left, right and centre, partially out of curiousity, partially to distract and keep the emotions at bay.
When we were called for the final farewell speeches, the atmosphere made a sudden shift. We were inhaling sorrow, exhaling dismissal. The sadness that consumed me wasn’t the type I’d been anticipating. After months of erratic emotional bursts, I was expecting to be a blubbering mess. Full on chest shudder, sniffles that turn into snorts and sobbing so rapid, you begin to hyperventilate. Instead, the tears simply rolled down my cheek, my head accepting the present while my heart resisted. This can’t be it. These can’t be our final moments. I’m not ready yet.
As we made our way closer to HMAS Perth, Kyal pulled me in for our last embrace. I’d tried to envision that moment for months, trying to prepare myself. While I was savouring our final minute, Kyal buried his face deeper into my hair. It wasn’t until we broke apart that I noticed his red eyes, tears collecting.
Watching him on the bow while I was stuck on the dock was the hardest part of the morning. I wanted to look at him and admire his every move as he helped pull in the rope. But I was crumbling. A glance too long would transform me into the blubbering mess I was expecting to be. To feel so close, but to be so far away, was torment. From here on out, I would have absolutely no clue what he’d be thinking, feeling or experiencing. Not that I could read minds, but weaving your day with someone else’s makes a hell of a difference. The most I could do now was send an email, mail a care package and be there whenever the phone rang.
I was beyond lucky that the phone rang as often as it did. Before long, we had set up a routine. I’d finish work at 9pm, come home, scoff down dinner and wait for his call at 10pm. If half an hour had passed in silence, I’d begrudgingly accept that tonight was not our night and would look forward to tomorrow. Despite our regime, there were a few times I’d leave my phone unattended, only to find a missed call when I returned. Another time my phone was drastically low on battery. Naturally, just as I was in reach of a recharger, it died mid-call. On these occasions, I’d convulse and wail and beg my phone to “Call me back.”
Not every phone call was a glorious reunion. Both exhausted, sometimes silence suited us better than words. In retrospect, I know I wasted a lot of our calls. Despite waiting impatiently all day, I’d allow the littlest thing to bother me and send me into emotional paralysis.
What made my deployment experience more complicated were the two main pillars in my life: studying and work. They consumed every spare second of my day, sapping all my confidence, my motivation and energy. Balancing full-time study and (borderline) full-time work was no easy feat. It took an immeasurable toll on our relationship, as well as my personal happiness. But that’s another story in itself.
Even after a year has passed, it’s difficult to express the layers of emotions. The best way I can illustrate it, is that it’s knitted with threads of excitement, worry, desolation, confusion, optimism, relief, hope and anxiety. But even that doesn’t seem to do it justice. I’m not the only one who struggles with defining the experience. Even Kyal describes it as “indescribable”. But knowing how far we’ve come, and knowing the odds and obstacles we’ve defeated, it’s comforting to know I wasn’t the only one feeling unsettled.
So much has happened between then and now, but one thing that hasn’t changed: the tears I shed. They flow just as easily. I cry for myself, and I cry for Kyal – to think that we had to endure the long-distance in the first place. I cry for everyone else who’s had to endure it. I cry for those who are experiencing it now, and for those who’ll encounter it soon.
But despite the ups and downs — the moments I want to hold on forever and the ones I’d rather forget — I always tried to keep this Julie Andrews quote in mind: No matter what the situation, we are very lucky. We might’ve been yearning for each other on other sides of the world but we were (we still are) incredibly lucky to have found one another in the first place.