Holly Jackson's valentine arrived many weeks early and in very 21st-century fashion: On Facebook. Checking her husband's status, as she did every morning, she found a peculiar update:
"I just finished page 300 of my book!"
"300?" Holly wondered. "Book?"
Holly knew that her husband, Terrance Jackson, stationed in Iraq with the National Guard, was a fine writer. All the way back in 10th grade, his English teacher told him he had the gift. But he worried that writing didn't seem "masculine," so he headed to San Jose State University on a football scholarship.
Holly also knew the emotional toll the separation was taking on her. She cried every day, stopping only because she had to hold it together for the couple's two children.
But she didn't know how much Terrance was struggling too, until she asked him about the posting. Terrance was, in fact, writing a book. A book about his love for Holly. He titled it "Her."
"Oh, for the love of ... " Holly said when he told her over the phone. "I was just bawling."
This is just a see-you-later. Not a good-bye, because when you say good-bye, it usually means that you won't be seeing that person forever. That is what I kept telling myself when the days were getting close to my departure."
Terrance, 33, grew up Mississippi and California, moving to Minnesota for better job opportunities about 12 years ago. Holly grew up in Orono. They met at a picnic and, independently, told friends and family soon after that they had found the person they would marry, which they did in 2002. Terrance adopted Holly's son, Dylan, now 16, and together they adopted Destiny, now 5, in 2006.
Terrance worried as his work in sales slowed to a crawl around 2007. He started thinking more about the Guard, "and that nice enlistment bonus. I can do a lot with that," he thought. He brought the idea to Holly, a wedding planner. She was cool to the idea but could see that he was pretty sold on it, having done extensive research. "OK, she said, "But you'd better not go to Iraq."
So, here I am trying to convince my wife and children that I am going to be OK when, in actuality, I haven't the slightest clue that I am going to be all right. Unforeseeable things happen all the time. But can I really say that? So the charade continues. She cries and I comfort her the best I can.
Departure day was Feb. 12, 2009.
Destiny was in her car seat, sleeping. Dylan was looking out the window, quiet. If you know my son, you know you don't come by that too often. I reached over and held Holly's hand, rubbed it against my cheek. I looked into her beautiful eyes and didn't say anything. I looked at my family and said to myself, "Be strong."
The couple briefly joked about bolting for Canada or Mexico. "In a perfect world, we could hop in a car and drive away, but that's not how the real world operates," said Terrance, sitting close to his wife on the couch of their airy living room in Shakopee last week. "We have obligations."
He fulfilled those obligations every day in Iraq. But every night, from 8 to 11 p.m., Terrance wrote. The book, "was therapy for me," he said. "I would feel better each time I'd write."
He laughs at his high school self, running from writing because it wasn't macho enough. "You always go back to what you tended to do," he said.
I remember smelling her hair, taking in the scent of the shampoo she uses. I would spray her perfume to remember the scent, stuff like that, because I knew that one day I would probably use that to pull me out of some dark hole.
Word got around. The ribbing among fellow Guardsmen was intense.
"'Jack' -- they call me Jack -- 'Oh, Jack, why are you doing that crap? You need to get your head right.' I'd say, 'But I am getting my head right.' They always picked fun. You know, guy stuff -- 'Jackson's talking about his woman again.'
"I was a wreck, the way I longed for Holly," he said, "and how I wanted to be home."
The couple is candid that his longing nearly pushed his wife away. Hearing about infidelity within the ranks, he wondered why he shouldn't worry about the same thing.
"It was crazy stuff," Holly said, "like, asking me, 'Why did that guy poke you on Facebook?'" Still unaware of the book, she told him that she was devoted and loyal and that he'd better let up or she might not be around when he got back.
He let up.
The longest year of their lives ended a few weeks ago. Destiny, Terrance said, "grew by leaps and bounds. I beat myself up over missing her first day of school."
He feels worse about Dylan. "It was the time he needed me most, and I wasn't there. It just tears me up to have left him to figure out this thing called life. He's grown up a lot. He's more accountable."
Terrance has an agent who is shopping "Her" around. He hopes that his work will be published to let military families know that their fears, and longings, are normal.
"No one talks about it. You always have to be stoic, but I didn't want to keep things bottled up, to come home with PTSD," Terrance said. "Yeah, you get called a wuss, and that's fine.
"Life is too short. We lost people during that deployment. I'd rather say what I feel now, because you never know."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org