A military husband and wife kissing behind an American flag
Stephen Morton/Getty

A moving moment during Tuesday’s State of the Union address came when a military wife and her two young children were reunited with their soldier, just home from war. The reunion was a surprise for the mother and her children, and for the audience. Members of Congress cheered for three minutes and eight seconds of pure, bipartisan joy. I was happy for the family, of course. But I also felt nervous.

I’ve been a military spouse for 17 years. I know reunions very well; they are a tangle of sometimes conflicting emotions. Can I tell you what a military reunion is like for the person at home?

You wait. For weeks, you wait. The reunion date shifts. It’s a moving target. You get your hopes up, and then flights get canceled. You pray that he will just get out of the war zone. You bargain. You want him home as soon as possible, but you don’t mind him getting stuck for a month in Germany, or Ireland, or Dubai, just so long as he’s not somewhere with rocket attacks and IEDs. You add an extra week, maybe two, to the calendar your kids use to count down the days, so they won’t get their minds stuck on a certain date.

And then the day comes. He texts you that he’s flying out of the war zone. You’re so relieved, but you don’t let yourself hope, not yet. Your breath still catches. The base could still get rocketed. The enemy could still attack. Nothing is really okay until he’s out of the airspace, and even then, he’s on a plane, and planes crash. You can’t afford to be optimistic. Not yet.

Then he texts you from Germany, or Ireland, or Dubai. Maybe he has to spend a week in Kyrgyzstan or Bahrain. You don’t care. You aren’t sure where Kyrgyzstan is, but you know he’s safer there than where he was. This is when the tears flow—when you lock yourself in the bathroom, let your knees hit the floor, and thank God for hearing your months of prayers, even as you wonder why God didn’t hear the prayers of some other families. But your soldier is in Kyrgyzstan or Ireland now—and no one is shooting at him there. You can exhale. You want to tell the kids but you do not tell the kids. They don’t understand war, and they don’t understand that Ireland is not war. They only understand home and gone, and he is still gone. He may not be home for weeks.

You start to worry that the kids won’t recognize him. He’s been gone for so long. Besides, he’s going to be wearing a uniform when they see him, and they aren’t used to that. And there will be so many other soldiers wearing uniforms, all blending into a giant camouflaged mass. You don’t even trust yourself to recognize him. So you use the empty moments in the coming days to show them photos of him on your phone, like flash cards. And then you print out a photo of him and you tape it to the fridge. Then you go crazy and tape photos around the house—on the inside of the back door, on the bathroom mirror, on the backs of the seats in the minivan so the kids will see him every day while you’re driving them to soccer practice, guitar lessons, the grocery store. You know you’re being obsessive. You hope no one looks in your van.

And then the day arrives. It’s really happening. Maybe you tell the kids, maybe you don’t. Things could still change. Maybe you dress them in the now slightly-too-small outfits they wore for Easter. Maybe you buy them something new. Maybe you send them to school like nothing is happening, and thrill at the look of surprise on their faces when they come home, drop their backpacks, and see Daddy sitting on the couch.

You buy yourself something new to wear. You shave your legs for the first time in months. You wear Saturday-night makeup, and watch a YouTube tutorial to get it right. You curl your hair. You change out of the granny panties you’ve been wearing and into sexy lingerie that you hope will get seen, but you aren’t sure. Maybe the night will go that way. You hope the evening will go that way. But maybe it won’t. He is, effectively, a stranger, and you are a stranger to him.

So much has happened since the last time you saw each other. Months have gone by, maybe even a year. You know what he experienced because you went to the memorials for the guys who aren’t coming home. You went to the hospital to visit the guys who lost their legs. You know. But you don’t really know, and you don’t want to know. And he doesn’t understand how you’ve changed or what you’ve gone through, because you didn’t tell him. You didn’t want to worry him, because you needed him to stay focused. So he would make it home.

Finally, you’re in a big room with other anxious families. Or in an airport by a baggage carousel. Or in a freezing parking lot late at night. Your kids fidget in their Easter outfits. They are bored and fussy, cranky and tired. The sugar high from all the “Welcome home” cookies and lemonade has worn off, and they’ve already colored all the coloring sheets some kind Army wife thought to bring.

You want, desperately, with every cell in your body, for this reunion to be a grand sweeping moment. You want it to be like your wedding day. You want to run into each other’s arms. But your new outfit is too tight. Your curls have fallen. Your thong is riding up and you can’t adjust it because you’re in a room full of people. You miss granny panties. Your freshly shaved legs are chafing. Your kids are misbehaving and they’ve smeared chocolate on their clothes.

The soldiers start appearing. You see your best friend, the woman who got you through these long, hard months, hugging her soldier, and you are so happy for her. But you still can’t find yours. Your daughter runs and grabs the wrong Daddy’s leg, and the encounter is awkward and sad and kind of pathetic for everyone. He gives you a loaded look, like he wishes, for her sake, that he could just be her dad. Your daughter is embarrassed. You shrug.

And then you see him. At least you think it’s him. It’s hard to say. You analyze how he shifts his weight from side to side. The length of his arms, the width of his shoulders. It takes you a moment, and then it’s like unexpectedly seeing an old friend. You doubt your eyes. But then he walks closer. And you recognize his walk. It’s him. What should happen? You’ve thought about this moment for so long, but when it comes, you don’t know, so you exchange a stiff, awkward kiss. And then an equally awkward hug. You turn to the kids and say, “Look! It’s Daddy!” You are emphatic. You need them to understand. And then they see him, really see him, and they come to life. They try to climb him. They want to absorb him. And you are grateful for this, because their affection for him lets you off the hook.

You need a moment. You need to process that the ordeal is over, really over, and he survived. For all these months, you didn’t dare to dream that he would be one of the lucky ones, who got to come home. You never let yourself dream this, and now it’s real, and now you need a moment. You need your living room, a good laugh, and a long conversation with this man you pledged your life to, this man you hardly know. You need to be you again. The two of you again. Together again.

You need no one watching.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.