Happy Veteran’s Day, now go grab the cans
When noisy trash collection, not jets, signifies the sound of freedom
I am standing at the kitchen sink, washing out the lid of a sippie cup and looking over a pile of dishes underneath. There is a bowl of cereal — with milk already poured — waiting on the table for my 6-year-old son who is still sleeping. My 3-year-old daughter is in my room also passed out, sprawled like a starfish across the queen-sized bed and tangled in the sheets and quilt. Out in front of the house I hear the sound of a garbage truck rumbling closer, then a low whine and hiss of the brakes as it pulls up. When I hear that noise, I remember there is a Veteran’s Day celebration at my son’s school right after I drop him off.
For a brief moment after I hear the truck, I panic, worried I forgot, until I remember that my husband took the garbage cans out last night to the curb. He came home from work and did it while still wearing his black combat boots and green camouflage Navy uniform. He was gone again before the sun came up this morning.
Last year, Veteran’s Day was tracked like many other holidays, falling in between garbage pick ups, marked by empty milk cartons and bags of dirty diapers. There were also candy wrappers from Halloween, Thanksgiving leftovers thrown in after the fridge was cleaned, wrapping paper from birthday and Christmas gifts, discarded Valentine’s and loose strands of plastic grass from Easter baskets. I covered can duty on trash days for the window between October through April, while my husband was deployed in the Middle East with a Marine Corps infantry battalion.
While he was away, I settled on how to best navigate the two cans, one at a time, over the loose landscaping gravel at the side of the house and over the lawn, then down the slope of the driveway. I learned the hard way that shins are soft, and pulling a can toward you with a flipped open lid will result in reciting a lengthy slur of curse words while hopping on one leg, remembering neighbors might be watching, then sulking back indoors.
Some weeks, I calmly collected the garbage and recycling, deposited it in the cans and pulled them into their place the evening before pick up. Those evenings often coincided with cooking a nice dinner for me and the kids, folding laundry, and tidying the house.
Other weeks, at the sound of the garbage truck around the corner, I ran out of the house like it was on fire, hoodie thrown on over pajamas to cover up my lack of a bra. Those mornings I nearly flung the cans clear over our small lawn to the curb, then performed a sad, panicked relay race as I stuffed soiled diapers on the top of the kitchen garbage, clattered together loose cereal boxes and bottles on the counter for recycling and sprinted them outside to the waiting cans. Unsurprisingly, those mornings usually included more take out containers in the trash than I might want to admit.
My countdown to my husband’s return became inextricably linked to garbage days. One week down, then 10 weeks, 15, 20. Each trip to the curb offered a barometer of my personal resolve. Some weeks I dragged the cans particularly slowly, grumbling the entire trip down the driveway about how hard it was to manage the house and the kids alone, losing site of the fact that I even had a house to put the cans next to, and enough crap to add a bag each week. And I wasn’t walking the length of a marathon each day to collect fresh water for my family, I was guiding two wheeled cans down a ten-foot long driveway. I was fortunate if this perspective sunk in before I made it back to the front door.
Some evenings taking out the trash even held the promise of a brief escape, as I left two hyperactive squabbling kids inside for a moment and stepped out underneath a deep pink desert sunset, closed the door behind me, then took a few deep breaths.
I began to notice over the course of a few months that a series of certain small tasks created a solid sense of accomplishment for me. I made the bed everyday, put dirty laundry in the hamper each night, vacuumed the house a couple times a week and I took out the trash. Over halted video connections set up inside some semi-permanent military shelters in the remote desert on the other side of the planet, my husband listened patiently as I bragged about the garbage. Triumphantly I discussed my record with him each week.
This report was in lieu of other news, often times complaints, or updates I began to share, then realized weren’t really relevant to what he needed to know. Garbage came to represent little victories, not all the frustration I felt being alone with the kids, or the self-doubt that crept in while my partner was gone.
On the 27th garbage week, the same night my husband came home, I parked the cans and then victoriously threw my arms up in the air in celebration. I was standing alone on the curb. It was just me and the cans, having our own homecoming party.
Back at the sink full of dishes, I clean through a portion of them while my son eats. After he has finished his cereal, he hears another garbage truck rumble up the street and excitedly runs to the window of his room to watch it pass. Many mornings while his Dad was away he ran out to the curb to watch the trucks pick up the cans. Remembering this, I say a little prayer for those dragging their cans to the curb alone this week. It’s a prayer of patience, persistence, and recognizing personal strength within the depths of loneliness.
Meanwhile, my daughter wakes up, walks into the kitchen and asks, like she does most mornings, “Where is Daddy?”
I remind her, “Daddy’s at work sweetie, we will see him later.”
I kiss her on the head. I’ll ask him to pull the cans off the curb when he gets home.