"Don't answer right away," my husband instructs, his voice breaking up over the miles, through a borrowed cell phone. "But there's a lot more work to be done and I need to know if it's OK with you for me to be gone another two weeks."
My answer cannot wait.
Earlier in the day, I'd finally understood what "longing" is about. The feeling had eluded me when I heard the main character in the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, distraught by her lover's unexpected death, tell a friend that she longed for him to return.
After two anxious days with no phone call, and too many hours of television reports about medics being fired upon as they tried to help victims stranded by the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, I longed to hear his voice, to have him home.
Once I teased him that his answering machine message of "Hey, this is John, and thanks for calling" sent chills through my body. Sometimes I'd call simply to hear his voice and enjoy the surge that followed. But when I'd tried that technique several times over the last couple of days, it had not soothed me.
"Can you get home if there's an emergency?" I ask.
The emergency I have in mind is his mother, hospitalized for the last month and seemingly losing the desire to get better. If she doesn't start eating more, her doctors say, she won't have the strength to regain her ability to walk. And if she can't walk, she can't go home.
"Yes," he says. "I'll call you later tonight."
But he does not have to call me back.
Long before I entered his life, John was a caretaker of others. A volunteer firefighter and paramedic before being paid for both loves, he never didn't respond when an alarm sounded. Many a meal had been left untouched at a restaurant; many a family event had been held in his absence.
"Where's Uncle John?" my 3-year-old nephew always asks when he sees me. Usually I reply that he's at the fire station or working on the ambulance.
"I wish he didn't have to work all the time," Joseph laments.
"Me, too," I say, knowing I could never ask him not to, though once I told him if I'd wanted to spend my life alone, I'd have married someone in the military.
My mother did just that, marrying my dad after they graduated from college. He had a Navy commission for four years; she had a journalism degree and a reporting job. But under a bridge in Washington, D.C., where their shadows--backlit by a streetlight--fell across the road, she supported his decision to make the commission a career. He was gone for months at a time when on sea duty--I was born while he was in France, and only a castor oil and tomato juice cocktail that induced the birth of my youngest sister allowed his ship to sail without him.
Through those long months when he was in either "the Med" or the Middle East, my mother raised seven of us, took care of the house, paid the bills, was a Cub Scout and Girl Scout leader, a PTA volunteer, a trusted neighbor, a jack-of-all-trades. It mattered not how many postcards came in the mail, hers was a lonely marriage. And her promising career as a journalist was reduced to the stories she made up, such as "Ellie-belle" and "Suzy-belle," the fairies who set out my sister's and my clothes on the foot of our beds each night while we were sleeping. We never squabbled over what to wear to school!
For a few years, my mother seemed to live vicariously through me and my two youngest brothers--one a paramedic and the other a volunteer firefighter--with the scanner they bought her one year for Christmas. Whether at home and ever mindful of the location of rescue and fire calls, or at the high school where she listened and watched while a substitute teacher, she supplied hundreds of "hot tips" to our small-town newspaper where I was a reporter.
So here I am, a wife and a mother, a teacher and a writer, a trusted colleague and ardent volunteer, and a sister and an aunt and a daughter with an abundance of life around me, being asked if it's OK for him to help those in need a bit longer than we'd anticipated.
I long for him to return. I long to reach for the kitchen towel to dry my hands and find it slung over his shoulder. I long to push him out of bed with one foot after his alarm has awakened me, not him. I long to hear him say he's ready to go, then discover he still has to make his ever-present container of iced tea. I long to find a note on the coffee pot in the morning that says, "Just turn it on, my love," and to feel his arms around me as he whispers those simple yet satisfying words, "I'm in love with you."
I long for his return.
"You stay," I say.