It was just another harried Wednesday afternoon trip to the commissary.
My husband was off teaching young men to fly. My daughters were going about their daily activities knowing I would return to them at the appointed time bearing, among other things, their favorite fruit snacks, frozen pizza, and all the little extras that never had to be written down on a grocery list.
My grocery list, by the way, was in my 16-month-old daughter’s mouth, and I was lamenting the fact that the next four aisles of needed items would have to come from memory.
I was turning on to the hygiene and baby aisle while extracting the last of my list from my daughter’s mouth when I nearly ran over an old man.
This man clearly had no appreciation for the fact that I had 45 minutes left to finish the grocery shopping, pick up my 4-year-old from tumbling class, and get to school where my 12-year-old and her carpool mates would be waiting. I knew men didn’t belong in a commissary, and this old guy was no exception.
He stood in front of the soap selections staring blankly, as if he’d never had to choose a bar of soap in his life. I was ready to bark and order at him when I realized there was a tear on his face. Instantly, this grocery aisle roadblock was transformed into a human.
“Can I help you find something?” I asked.
He hesitated, and then told me he was looking for soap. “Any one in particular?” I continued.
“Well, I’m trying to find my wife’s brand of soap.”
I started to hand him my cell phone to call her when he said, “She died a year ago, and I just want to smell her again.”
Chills ran down my spine. I didn’t think the 22,000-pound Mother of all Bombs could have had the same impact. As tears welled up in my eyes, my half-eaten grocery list didn’t seem so important. Neither did fruit snacks or frozen pizza.
I spent the remainder of my time in the commissary that day listening to a man tell the story of how important his wife was to him — how she took care of their children while he served our country.
A retired, decorated World War II pilot who flew missions to protect Americans still needed the protection of a woman who served him at home.
My life was forever changed that day. Every time my husband works late or leaves before the crack of dawn, I try to remember the sense of importance I felt that day in the commissary. Sometimes the monotony of laundry, housecleaning, grocery shopping and taxi driving leaves military wives feeling empty — the kind of emptiness that is rarely fulfilled when our husbands come home and don’t want to or can’t talk about work.
We need to be reminded of the important role we fill for our family and for our country.
(Paige Swiney’s husband, Jeff, is T-1 instructor pilot at Columbus Air Force Base in Columbus, Miss.)