Sleep comes and goes. The feather pillows are too soft; the sprinkling rain is too loud. There is a Golden Retriever barking in the backyard next door, probably at a measly squirrel. Tonight, Katherine’s dark bedroom is just too cold without him. She takes a second dose of Zzz-quil because the first tablespoon isn’t working.
Nothing has changed in the last year. There are still fourteen cookie-cutter-molded homes on her street in Portland, Oregon. Her black Honda Civic is still parked in the front driveway. She did buy new Christmas wreath for the front door, but it didn’t really improve the look of the house. Plus, the snow fell a month early this year, and it accumulated in ugly muddy piles on the edges of the front porch.
There was so much of the white-brown fluff that it was hard to put up the Christmas lights, so they didn’t look nearly as neat and organized as when her husband, John, put them up last year. Katherine’s next-door neighbor told her yesterday that it looked like she had slapped some white sparkling spaghetti on the roof. She had wanted to boil a pot of noodles and pour it on his front door just to show him what she thought of that. It was too hard to put the tangled light strands up without John; it was never supposed to have been her job.
Everything else is still the same as when he left. Tonight shouldn’t feel this different. John is still deployed overseas to Afghanistan, but each night brings the date closer and closer and closer. The doctor tells her that the anxiety will subside with time, but no, tonight she is more than just anxious. She can’t even sleep for a second, despite her almost double dose of Zzz-quil. Is that much even healthy? December 26th is only two days away. Sure, it will no longer be Christmas when her husband returns, but that’s okay. The whole family can celebrate when he finally comes home safe and sound.
But will John return home? She pushes the thought from her mind. She hates to think like there is even the slightest possibility her only love wouldn’t come back. Even if the thoughts unexpectedly come, there is no room in her bed for that tonight. Between the empty package of Oreos and a half devoured can of Nutella, she looks like a broken-hearted teenage girl with a diabetes-induced death wish.
More tossing and turning heightens her inability to sleep even more. It’s late: almost 2:30 AM. She would sleep, if only it was that easy. The last time she was up this late, the baby wasn’t sleeping. He had a 100-degree fever and a temper that matched the flushing color of his face. It didn’t matter that she was just as sick. As his mother, she would do it all over again and again. It was for love. It always was for love.
Like when John asked her to marry him over dinner in her tiny one bedroom apartment near campus. They were both seniors at Oregon State. Those perfect words were in John’s smile as he went down on bended knee outside her kitchen door. She had only dated two other guys seriously before him, but they would never compare to the handsome man kneeling in front of her now. His six-foot-two stature, outlined in sculpted tone and a handsome ROTC uniform, made her knees weak. She was much smaller than he, and in the unusual moment that she was actually taller than he was, she looked down into his golden brown eyes, and felt her heart beat faster than she thought humanly possible. His laugh made her stomach jump into her throat as he recounted every last memory of their time together. From first dates to first fights, he knew every moment in which they had learned to love. She didn’t hesitate to say yes when he asked what she was doing for the rest of her life. Even as he spilt his glass of wine out of excitement onto her white dress, she knew she’d always love him. Later that evening, after a dessert of two glasses of milk and many cookies, there was more than just a smooth chocolaty sweetness in the air. The aroma of bliss and desire was breathtaking, and it always would be.
Milk, that’s what she needs. Then she will sleep for the rest of the night and look decent for John’s family. His family will be here tomorrow to help prepare for the holidays. Thankfully, she’ll take all the help she can get. It isn’t going to be so much of a welcome home party as it would be an entire family reunion. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins were all ready to welcome the proudest member of their family home. A full house means little time to spend with her handsome soldier while she played hostess. They will fawn over his war stories and swoon as he recounts the struggles he faced, but as soon as everyone leaves, it will just be the three of them again; John, Katherine, and their sweet baby boy will take a trip beyond the hustle and bustle of pain the war brought.
Katherine tries to stand up to walk to the kitchen, but the Zzz-quil is taking its toll. Her head is spinning beyond recognition and when she lies back down, she feels the sleep overwhelm her. As her head hits the pillow, she thinks back to that wonderful night in her apartment. After John and Katherine had shared dessert between kisses, they had lay in bed and talked about their future together. It was a beautiful memory and even now, she still feels the warm hands of her husband on her face.
“Kat? Katherine! Oh, baby, don’t cry! Did you expect this?” he says. “I tried so hard to keep it a secret. I wanted you to be surprised.”
She wipes the ever-flowing tears from her eyes as she turns into her pillow. It hurts to picture his face when she misses him this much.
“You’re right, I didn’t expect this at all! How long have you been planning this? You sure know how to keep me guessing, John.”
“So long, and I couldn’t wait to pull it off! Uh, it is so good to see you! I promise I won’t ever leave you again, baby. It was so hard to be away for so long. I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“What on earth are you talking about? Leaving? I hope you never leave. Wait. Hold that thought. I still want some more milk.”
“Milk? At a time like this? You have the funniest ways of handling things.” She tries to get up from bed only to feebly fall backwards again. How much Zzz-quil did she take? John laughs, and Katherine feels her heart burn without him. “Katherine, baby, no let me get it. You can hardly stand! How much do you want?”
“John, I want to get it! I can’t be entirely helpless for our whole married life.”
“You’re one of the most stubborn girls I have ever met, but I love you. Would you just wait? I’ve waited this long to tell you about everything I’ve been keeping in this last year and now all you want is a glass of milk!”
Katherine sits up in bed and reaches for her cell phone to check the time, but everything is hazy. As she tries to stand up again, her hand misses the side of the bed. Just before John reaches to catch her, she slips and hits her cheek on the side of the end table. Katherine laughs uncontrollably at herself, but she can still feel the warm blood dripping down her cheek.
“Katherine, you can’t even walk! And look, now you’re hurt! Please get back in bed. You can have some milk in the morning!”
She doesn’t have the strength to argue anymore. As he embraces her, they fall backwards onto her bed. The last thing she remembers is hearing the sweet words of “I love you” crossing his tender lips.
Katherine wakes up to the sun hitting her face. The rain must have stopped, she thinks. Her head is spinning from the dream of John. Each moment is bittersweet and she just wants him home. As she rises from her sheets, she hears the baby laughing from his bedroom. She almost walks past the kitchen door to his room, but notices a light on above the stove as an overwhelming smell of bacon hits her nose. There he stands, six-foot-two of solid hope and strength, holding a plate of pancakes and wearing the same smile she always knows.
“Did you sleep well, baby? I know that Zzz-quil must have hit you hard. I saw it on the end table when I walked into the bedroom last night. I was worried you were never going to wake you up! Oh, I fed the baby. He’s playing in his room. It feels so good to be home! Here, I promised you a glass of milk.”
Instead of reaching for the glass, her hand immediately goes to her cheek. The sting of the cut makes her wince but the pain subsides before she knows it. As she runs into his arms, Katherine can still hear the Golden Retriever barking next-door.