Marci Seither helped her son stay positive while his brother was deployed on a dangerous mission.
Posted in , May 17, 2014
Trouble with Jack was the last thing I needed right now, but I knew something was wrong the moment my son’s teacher tapped me on the shoulder.
It was the last day of school before winter break. I was in Jack’s first-grade classroom. Kids excitedly gathered up their things for the holiday. Jack was a good student, well behaved and outgoing. But Mrs. Zorichak looked concerned.
“Can you step out into the hall with me, Marci?” she asked. My stomach knotted. I was barely keeping it together.
In just a few weeks our oldest son, Nathan, would deploy on a dangerous mission with the Marines, conducting anti-terrorism patrols on a ship somewhere near the Philippines. My husband, John, had served in the Marines and it had seemed natural when Nathan talked about enlisting.
Now that he was about to be in harm’s way, though, I wasn’t handling it well. The house was too quiet with him away with his unit and his brothers and sisters at school all day.
All I wanted to do was retreat into the bedroom closet and cry into a pillow. But I couldn’t do that. I had to keep up a brave face for the kids. I hoped whatever was going on with Jack wasn’t serious.
Mrs. Zorichak led me into the hall. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she began. Now that we were away from the students she let her worry show. “Jack came into this class knowing how to read. But over the past few weeks he seems to have forgotten everything he knew.
"I’ve never seen a child go backward like that. He can’t even sound out words. He’s the sweetest boy but academically he’s struggling. Is everything okay at home?”
“Well,” I managed to say, “Nathan is about to ship out on a particularly dangerous mission.”
Nathan, like our other five kids, had gone to this Christian school in our small mountain town. Everyone there knew he was in the Marines. But of course they didn’t know the details of his deployment. And, as I was quickly coming to realize, it’s hard to understand what families of servicemen and women go through unless you’ve experienced it yourself.
Mrs. Zorichak seemed at a loss. “Maybe you can pray about it over the holidays,” she suggested. “I’ll do whatever I can to help, but it will be tough if Jack continues to fall so far behind.”
Once more I fumbled for a reply. I’d never dealt with anything like this before. I’d homeschooled each of my kids until first or second grade and they’d all done fine in school. I knew Jack could read. I’d watched him learn at home. A wave of guilt washed over me. How could I have failed to notice him struggling?
Jack idolized his big brother Nathan, who was 14 years older. And now that I thought about it, Jack had seemed extra clingy with John and me after Nathan left. But I had no idea he was so troubled. How could someone simply stop knowing how to read? I said the first thing that popped into my head.
“How about I keep Jack at home for the rest of the school year? We’ll work on the reading and keep up with his other subjects. Then he can start second grade like normal.”
Mrs. Zorichak seemed relieved. “You’re sure?” she asked.
I saw in a flash the huge responsibility I’d taken on, especially now. But Jack needed me. “Yes, I’m sure,” I said.
Jack gave me a funny look when I began taking books and papers out of his desk. I knelt so I was face to face with him. Jack’s our youngest and it was a big deal for him getting to go to school like his older siblings. What would he say when I told him I was pulling him out?
“Sweetheart,” I said, trying to keep my voice light, “I think it would be best if we finish out this school year at home. We’ll take your books and work on them together. Just you and me. Remember, like before? How does that sound?”
To my surprise, Jack brightened. He stuffed his colored pencils, erasers and lunchbox into his backpack and ran off to say goodbye to his friends and Mrs. Zorichak. I gathered up his books—history, language, science, spelling. They felt heavy in my arms. We picked up Scott and Amy, Jack’s older brother and sister, from their classrooms and headed to the car.
The holidays passed in a blur. I tried to put aside my worries and throw myself into cooking and baking and playing in the snow with the kids. Emma, our second oldest, was in between semesters at her junior college and Mark, who was in high school, had a break from his activities.
We were all together—as together as we could be without Nathan. John and I talked over Jack’s troubles and John agreed it was right to keep him home. In the few quiet moments I prayed. I prayed for Nathan’s protection, for a solution to Jack’s difficulties, and to be delivered from my own worry.
Then the new year arrived and suddenly it was time for everyone to go back to school. Jack had to ride with Scott and Amy and me—John left early for work at the sawmill.
I wondered, Would Jack beg to go to school too? But he only asked Scott and Amy to say hi to his friends for him and waved goodbye. Driving home, I glanced in the mirror at Jack in the backseat. He looked content, almost excited. Well, that made one of us.
We walked in the door and the house was silent for the first time in weeks. The silence unnerved me. It sounded too much like Nathan’s absence. Jack didn’t seem to notice. He hopped onto the living room couch where we’d done lessons before. Bright winter sun shone through the windows.
I got out a supply of reading books, including The Blue Back Speller, an old-fashioned spelling book I’d used with all my kids. I’d let Jack put a sticker on a book each time he read it. Some of the books had 20 stickers. Had he really forgotten all of that?
I handed him the speller and looked at him closely. What was going on in his head? Well, I knew what was going on in mine. There’s nothing like sending your own child into danger to make you realize how little control you have over life. I hoped I’d be able to focus enough to teach.
“Let’s start with some easy words,” I said.
Soon we were deep in the speller, sounding out words and trying a few simple sentences. Jack acted as if our lessons were the most natural thing in the world. He snuggled close and put his little hand in mine. We worked all morning then made lunch together.
“You’re not missing school?” I asked as we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“Unh-uh,” he said. “What are we going to do this afternoon?”
I looked out the window. Still sunny. “How about a walk?” I said. “Then we’ll go pick up Amy and Scott.”
“Okay,” said Jack.
We settled into a routine. Reading first, followed by science then history. We graduated from the speller to phonics books—Elk Yelps, Stuck Duck, Ape Date. The titles were silly but the contrasting sounds are an excellent way to teach kids to recognize how letters form words.
Soon we were onto Dr. Seuss, then the Little Golden Books and the Junie B. Jones series about an intrepid kindergartner.
More stickers went on book covers and our stack of completed books grew taller than our stack of books still to be mastered. In the afternoons we baked together or took walks in the woods.
One day at the end of spring Jack turned to me on the couch. “Mom,” he asked, “is it okay to worry about Nathan? Because I worry about him all the time but you never seem to.”
“Never worry?!” I exclaimed.
Then I realized—of course Jack didn’t know how much I worried. I did everything I could to hide my fears from the kids. I stammered around for a moment before finally saying, “Gosh, Jack, yes, it’s okay to worry. And, buddy, I do worry. I worry every day. And you know what’s helped me? Being here with you.”
Jack’s eyes widened. “Me too,” he said. “I’m glad I get to be home.”
Before my teared-up eyes could make Jack worry all over again, he said, “Let’s keep reading.” He went back to his Dr. Seuss book, confidently sounding out the words. I looked around the quiet living room. How could I ever have found this house unnerving? It seemed so reassuring now.
We can never control the big things in life—love, loss, death, heartbreak. All of that is in God’s hands. It helps to focus on smaller things. And somehow God meets us there. I’d been so caught up in trying to cover up my fear, I’d forgotten that. The same way I’d forgotten that admitting what troubles us actually helps us cope with it.
I waited for Jack to finish the page then I told him, “I’m glad you’re home too. Let’s say a prayer for Nathan. Then we can talk about what it will be like for you starting school again in the fall. Summer’s almost here, you know. You think you’ll be ready?”
I put my arm around him. “I think so too. I think we both are.”
Get some tips on how to stay positive when your loved ones are deployed!