COVID-style isolation is not new to military families

*Note: This essay was published in the Salt Lake City Tribune print edition on July 18, 2021. The text of the essay is included below.

My house is empty and I have Salt Lake City to blame for that. 

As a career military officer, stationed near Colorado Springs, you’d think I’d be used to my family being away. But with my wife — a Salt Lake native — and our two daughters there, gone to visit relatives, I can see I’ll never be fully onboard with these absences.

But really, what’s Salt Lake City got that I don’t?

Her family. Ok, I’ll concede that. After nearly two years since seeing her closest family and friends, I can see that.

Research out this week from Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers universities finds that the extended social isolation from the pandemic we’ve all lived with recently is something that will take time for many to heal from.

The pandemic’s great wall was higher and longer than the real Great Wall. And I guess I can’t compete with all the relatives the kids’ will see. Grammy, Auntie, uncles, a cousin and a mini-petting-zoo’s worth of animal friends around the house. There’s only one of me and a mob of them.

This isn’t my first go at alone, either. With the majority of my life now in uniform, years and years and years of it have been spent thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away from blood relatives. The social isolation so many Americans still face right now is common in military service. I still remember my first night in basic training. I’d like to say I was stoic. But I wasn’t. I cried. I’d never felt so alone.

Every time since isn’t all that far off. Now I know how to hold it together a bit better. Keep busy, keep working, keep running, until another sun goes down and another comes back up.

I’m not the only one. One of my heroes, president and general Ulysses S. Grant, spent years apart from his family as well. When away from his wife Julia and newborn son, he wrote, “you know dearest without you no place, or home, can be very pleasant to me.”

Grant’s letters to Julia somehow seem more relevant now in place and time. One from 1846 mentions “Salt Lakes” while his unit marched through Mexico. Another concerns a close brush with a bullet that struck down a man next to him, 175 years ago this week.

Five years ago I served in South Korea while my family lived near Salt Lake City. My wife did everything on her own, even emergency room visits, which naturally strained our relationship. How could it not? Even if I wanted to be, the fact remained, I wasn’t there. Not for birthdays, school days, Tuesdays, any days.

That’s why the pandemic, at times, seemed like a gift. Some make-up time, a chance to turn back the calendar. We homeschooled. I taught math and history to our older daughter (not well enough, but I tried, every day). I came home from a morning run to my younger daughter with her first lost-tooth in her hand, red liquid streaming down her fingers.

Sure, it wasn’t perfect. Maybe even a little ugly. But when my wife needed a break, I could actually be there for her. I felt like I fully lived up to my marriage vows, knowing that I hadn’t earlier, an acknowledgement that still stings.

Maybe I got a little too comfortable being Dad in a full house. Maybe I forgot what empty feels like.

I keep coming back to Grant. He often signed letters with his initials, something I’ve always done. And this past week I had to rush myself to the ER when my throat seemed like it couldn’t breathe or swallow.

“The difficulty of swallowing,” Grant wrote on a June day in 1885, “is increasing daily.” He’d been dying for some time, a terrible throat cancer, and was sure “under these circumstances” that “the end is not far off.” He was right. It was his last day, his last letter.

Our hearts’ need others as our bodies need oxygen. Social isolation is another form of asphyxiation, and the only real cure is the fresh air of family and friends.

So you can have them for now, Salt Lake City. But I need them back, and soon. I think you understand why.

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