Out of necessity, military spouses have devised creative ways to mark the time — paper chains, journals, jars of M&Ms — but last year, while Dustin was deployed overseas for 13 months, I knew I couldn’t do this time-honored ritual of counting down the days to his homecoming. I did the countdown thing during Dustin’s first deployments, and it made me feel like a prisoner etching out the days and weeks on a concrete wall.
It was as if my life was in a holding pattern, just waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting) for my husband to return. But this time, as Dustin boarded an airplane in November 2011, leaving me with three young boys (then ages 10, 8 and 4), I didn’t have time to wait.
Dustin would miss nine family birthdays, two Thanksgivings, one Christmas and our anniversary. Life had to go on without him.
This is when and how Dinner with the Smileys came about. For the boys, the most concrete evidence of life going on without their father was seeing his empty chair at the dinner table. So I said, “Let’s fill it,” even though, at that time, I wasn’t sure what I meant by it. The concept evolved and took shape as we went along.
We invited a new guest to “fill” Dustin’s place at the dinner table for each week that he was gone. The act was both metaphorical and ironic: We were, in fact, counting the weeks — something I said I wouldn’t do — but at the same time, we were filling up Dustin’s chair and our lives. We weren’t in a holding pattern.
Very quickly — as in by, basically, Dinner Number One with Sen. Susan Collins — it became clear to me that we weren’t just “passing the time.” Rather, the boys and I were making memories.
What I couldn’t see yet, however, was that we were also building a community. Each week, a new role model for the boys sat in their father’s chair and shared stories about their lives and their work. The guests weren’t replacing Dustin. No one could do that. But they were filling the gaps until he returned, and many of them were becoming significant parts of our lives.
Then, about five months into the deployment, something happened which made me realize that the lessons the boys and I were learning were bigger than our family and broader than our community here in Maine.
Our 17th dinner was supposed to be with our elderly neighbor who had moved to an assisted living facility after Dustin left. I rescheduled the dinner multiple times because other guests with fast-paced lives seemed to take priority. My neighbor, I figured, wasn’t going anywhere. She didn’t have a work or travel schedule to maneuver. Dinner with her could be at our convenience.
I was wrong.
A turning point
Something happened two weeks before our dinner that would change everything, and Dinner Seventeen became a turning point. Dustin likes to tell me there are no coincidences, and I’ve always tried to understand what he means. Then, this one dinner and the events that followed made me a believer. In fact, it’s when I knew I had to write the book, “Dinner with the Smileys,” which will be released by Hyperion this week.
We never got to have dinner with our neighbor, and the sadness of that caused my boys to ask if we could spend the afternoon with our other neighbor, then 93 years old.
It would be the last time we saw him as well.
Because of Dinner Seventeen, we also met a beautiful couple, Frank and Anita, who would teach us about love, marriage and the many different ways in which someone can be lonely.
And (here’s where I might start to sound crazy) it’s fitting that all of this happened at a dinner numbered and named “seventeen,” because Dustin and I were married on July 17, and we like to claim the number as “ours.”
Silly? Maybe. Until I you read the story about Dustin’s lost wedding band — frozen underwater at Mount Katahdin for 13 months — and Dinner Number 44.
Sometimes I feel like I want back the years my husband was gone during his first deployments. This time, I can honestly say I wouldn’t trade the 52 weeks for anything. The things we learned, the experiences the boys and I shared will carry with us for a lifetime.
This week, I hope you will have the opportunity to read “Dinner with the Smileys” and feel similarly blessed.
Sarah Smiley is a Navy spouse and the author of “Shore Leave,” a nationally syndicated column.