During my break between embeds, I was chatting on Facebook with an Army wife. She said: Sometimes I don’t know if it is harder to be the one leaving or the one left behind.

I told her that I had done both; and, for me, being the one left behind is way harder.

As a photographer, I left behind friends, family and my beloved. I hated that they would worry about me. I knew I couldn’t change it though.

Most of the time, I was fine. I might be on a rooftop drinking beer and watching tracer fire. I might be watching a beautiful sunset or taking a shower in the jungle with nothing but a bucket of water and a coke can. Most of the time I was doing my job and loving it while my friends and family were watching the news and worrying about my safety and well being.

As a child, I watched the nightly news. And looked for my dad.

As a child, I was the one watching my father leave. It’s a sorrow that’s carved on my heart. Sure, I was “daddy’s big girl.” When there were two children left with mom. The next tour, three. The last tour, four. I was brave. I knelt by my bed every night and prayed for God to watch over my dad and all the soldiers and bring them home safely.

I waited for him to come home. He always did. Each and every time. I did not like being left behind. I learned early I had no choice in the matter.

As a grown woman, I asked him once why he did it. Why he left us behind so many times. It was my duty, Cheryl. I gave my word to serve and defend my country.

As a grown woman, I watched my beloved leave–not a soldier–a photographer heading to a nasty civil work in West Africa. I went to the airport. I did my best to be brave, as I had once done as a little girl. I told myself: No tears, Cheryl. Smile, let him go. I couldn’t let him go. I held onto him in the airport and wept. And then I let him go without telling him I loved him.

I thought to myself: you’re a coward, Cheryl. You love this man. You should have told him.

I went home. I sprayed my perfume–a perfume he adored–on a scrap of paper, stuck it in a DHL envelope and sent it to his hotel, praying it would find him before he left. I knew I would never forgive myself if anything  happened to him and I hadn’t told him how I felt.

My note found him. I got a telex message with nothing but line after line after line of “I love you” on it. He carried that piece of paper with my single “I love you” in his wallet always. And he came home. That time and every time after it.

Yes, it’s hard to leave. It’s harder still, I think, to be left behind.

The worst thing though, for me, is to leave the important things unsaid.

Whether you’re the one leaving or the one left behind.

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