Life has a funny way of teaching you hard lessons no matter how prepared you think you are. Having faced deployment before as a military family, we assumed our playbook was thorough and we knew what to expect.
In 2009, my husband was going to Iraq in September or October; the kids and I would stay at Fort Stewart, Georgia and wait for his return. When we were together as a family, we would head to Germany.
But days after the deployment announcement, we had another surprise announcement; I was pregnant with our third child. We were excited and nervous. I was always a high-risk and many unknowns seemed to accompany every pregnancy. My husband decided he wanted us to move near family in North Carolina. I hadn’t lived near them in a few years, so the idea made me happy.
The summer months flew by as we started planning for our move. One day, we received a call from my mother-in-law; she told my husband he would need to come home if he wanted to see his sister alive before he deployed. His sister’s cancer had spread. I went to the doctors and had a check-up to make sure it was okay for me to travel. We knew saying goodbye wasn’t going to be easy. My husband said he’d rather see her alive than be called home to bury her. I agreed.
We spent two weeks with family. Sharing stories and spending time together. My husband said goodbye to his sister for what would be the last time. As we drove the 18 hours home from Michigan to Georgia, I began feeling sick and in a lot of pain. I knew I was going into labor early. We called 911 and they directed us to the closest hospital.
Our son was born at almost 29 weeks. The hospital fought to keep my baby breathing. At first, we thought he would be okay but shortly after he was born we learned he had an infection. Even though he was kept breathing, he would eventually succumb to the infection. Our son was handed to us. We watched him fight to breathe until he could breathe no more.
After we left the hospital, we took his body to the funeral home. We said goodbye to our baby boy. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Grief and loss were never in our playbook. We wanted to stop and scream. We wanted the world to stop and grieve with us. We took our other two children to my family in North Carolina and drove to Georgia alone. I remember walking up to the door, cards and flowers were all over our front porch. I stood there, looking and wanting to run away. I didn’t want to walk into the house without my baby.
The next morning we woke up, the house quiet and lifeless. We laid in bed; William holding me in silence. Then his phone rang and it was his unit checking on him. The voice on the phone asked, “Can you come in, today?” I just looked at him. How could they even ask that? Why would they ask him to do that? I turned over in the bed and closed my eyes, hoping the tears would stop. He left. I put the blankets over my head. Hours passed and William finally came back home. He sat on the bed and asked, “Are you going to get out of the bed, today?” “No!” I said.
“I am hurting too. But we have a lot to do. We have to pack the house, our lease is up this month. I have to move you and the kids to North Carolina. I have to process our son into and out of DEERS. You have to go back to the doctors. Honey, we have a lot to do. I need your help,” he said.
I looked at him and replied, “I don’t give a damn what I have to do. I don’t want to do anything but hold my baby.” The tears just flowed like a raging river. Angry seeped out of every pore of my body. I knew my husband was feeling it too. The military wouldn’t let him stop and hide from the world. But I wasn’t in the military.
He grabbed me and held on tight. We cried wrapped in each other’s arms. Then he said, “Okay, this is the five minute rule. No matter what we are doing, where we are at or who is around us, if you or I need a moment we will look at each other and say “five.” It will be our code word. When one of us says it, the other will stop, drop everything, and we will hold each other. Together, we will cry for five minutes. Then after five minutes, we go back to getting things done. Deal?”
I thought about it for a moment and agreed. Life wasn’t going to allow me to lay in bed forever. That day, the five minute rule started. Little did I know just how amazing it was. We went on base and everyone in the unit wanted to say something to console us. It was overwhelming. As we walked out, I looked at my husband, tears filled my eyes and I said, “five.” He dropped all his papers and held me. We stood in front of the building, crying together, and people walking around us. Neither of us caring. A few minutes went by and we let go and left.
Throughout the next month, we both went back and forth, “five” here and “five” there. When he left for Iraq, I decided to continue the “five minute rule.” I gave myself permission to stop and cry alone or be angry. Whatever I needed to feel in those five minutes, I did. Afterward, I got up and continued the day. The five minute rule was my survival for the day. As time went on, ten years now, I need fewer five minutes. I learned we all need permission to feel whatever it is we are dealing with in that moment. Don’t ignore, deny, or push your feelings away. Take five minutes and process them. Then get up move through them. Don’t get stuck in them. Do you need five? Take it.
By Chandee Ulch, Army Spouse and Producer of Moving with The Military