I was 22 years old, and I thought I had already hit bottom and rebounded.
The Air Force was my way back up, and despite (or because of) the harrowing time I had in basic training, I had decided to make an honest effort to establish myself. No more romantic dreams - I would work hard, and do my best to make the Air Force work for me. Career first. I would focus on what was in front of me.
But then one of the first sights I focused on was the girl in front of me in our first Monday morning formation. They had mispronounced her name, and she was making wisecracks about it to everyone around her - including me. ("There's no 'F' in my name, but I heard them say an 'F'. Do you see an 'F' on my name tape?")
Later, when a mutual friend introduced us, I tried to be cool. I wasn't looking for a relationship. I wasn't looking for my soul mate - there would be time for that later. "Later" turned out to be about six weeks, give or take. First she asked me out, and then a short time later, I asked her to marry me. When your dreams come looking for you, you damn sure don't tell them to come back later.
I was 30 years old, and I was pretty sure I had hit bottom - it felt harder this time, because it wasn't just me.
The Air Force and I hadn't worked out so well. It was an amicable parting, and I got to keep the kids - and the wife. But being unemployed with a wife and kids just as the economy tanks isn't a very clever career path, either. She had to step up in ways that no equal partner should ever be asked to do, while I seemed to fail at everything I touched.
But there were opportunities, and we had to make some hard moves to grab them. 2,000 mile moves, into small, over-priced apartments. Long commutes, longer overtime hours; nothing ideal except for her and the kids. That was a long, hard uphill climb, and I got a little cocky about it before actually reaching the top of the hill.
I was 37 years old, and when the world lurched to the side, I could see all the way to the bottom.
We were better off after years of hard work, but there was a cost. We had put too much on her shoulders, and neither of us thought about her limits until it was almost too late. She made some choices, and I had to make some of my own. I chose her, and I had to convince her to choose me again. It wasn't a sure thing.
The next few years were a challenge for each of us - there were things that we had to face down and help each other through that don't belong in a blog, or a family history; things that you don't want to remember, but you have to. Things that you wouldn't choose or ask for, but that you deal with - and after you've survived intact, you see what your strengths really are.
I am 42 years old, and I know that I have never really "hit bottom."
There is always another sub-level, until there is nothing at all - and no one comes back from that. The fact that we're still here means we still have something to lose. And I have no interest in losing any time soon.
I've learned what I'm good at. I've learned that as bad as I am at making Grand Plans, I'm pretty good at sticking to the simple ones. I can be a rock, or an anchor; I can iron and clean the turtle tank. (Reminder - I need to clean the turtle tank.) I can share a laugh, and lift a burden; and I can follow orders and hustle - just don't ask me to sketch the blueprints or do any math.
And she is my General. There is still no 'F' in her name, but I share mine with her, anyway. I have to be on guard in these happy times, not to let my boring inner demons mess things up, but things are good. Our kids are good, and we're figuring out how to get the best of our surroundings.
While I don't take anything for granted, I look forward to the next twenty years. We don't have everything we want, yet, and that gives us something to shoot for. As far as I'm concerned, I have what I dreamed about - and she has me, for as long as she wants me.
Happy Anniversary, Kate. I love you.