Army Capt. Ray Abordo had spent much of his year in Afghanistan
thinking about seeing his family again, and when the moment came,
he carefully planned how he would step into each of his children's
classrooms and surprise them. First up would be 14-year-old
Caitland while she ate lunch at Marlowe Middle School in Lake in
the Hills, then he would head on to the two schools where his other
children waited, unaware that their long wait was finally over.
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Ray had actually flown in to O'Hare Airport Friday night and was
greeted by his wife Maria and infant son Tristan Nicholas,
born while Ray was in Afghanistan. The three older kids, Caitland,
Alex, 10, and Isabella, 5, had been shipped off to relatives for
the weekend and Ray, Maria and the baby holed up in a nearby hotel
waiting for Monday morning.
Ray walked into the office at Caitland's school at 11:15 a.m.
Monday, Jan. 10. Caitland wouldn't eat lunch for another half-hour.
After a quick consultation, Maria asked the office staff, "Where is
Caitland now? He can't wait any more to see her."
"This is more nerve-wracking than it was to go into theatre
(Afghanistan)," Ray said as he waited to see Caitland. As so began
a morning filled with reunions and children's reactions that ranged
from shock to tears.
Before Ray left for Afghanistan, he and his family
talked to Chicago Parent about the year ahead and how tough
when a parent goes to war and leaves his family behind. Now Ray and
Maria agreed to let Chicago Parent share their family's
"Daddy, you said Wednesday," Caitland sobbed as she clung to her
dad when he came into her classroom. "You gave me a heart attack.
"I'll hold onto you," Ray said as they clung together.
For Alex, the initial excitement was tempered by the fact that
he was in front of his 5th grade classmates. Alex had
reached into his dad's arms and Ray picked him up off the ground in
a bear hug.
"Dad, you don't have to lift me up," Alex said, slightly
embarrassed as his class watched.
And for kindergartner Isabella, who sat eating her lunch as her
dad, mom and siblings came into the cafeteria, the reaction was one
Ray spent a year missing these precious moments with his
children and he is determined to cherish each moment going
"The hardest part was missing a lot of the milestones," Ray
says. "I know for my youngest son it was the small steps, the first
time he crawled, the first time he said 'mama' or 'dad.' Now he's
starting to stand up. But at least I'm here for his first walking
For his older children, Ray missed being a part of their
day-to-day lives. "It's the daily living stuff, afterschool
activities, my not being there to help support them. That was
While he was in Afghanistan, Ray was able to Skype with the
children and on March 8, he watched as Maria gave birth via a
C-section that brought baby Tristan into the world. But nothing was
the same as actually being there.
When Ray stepped off the Alaska Airways flight that brought him
to Chicago Jan. 7, his wife and son were first in line to greet the
"People kept pushing me and saying, 'Oh, he hasn't even seen his
son. You need to get up there,'" Maria says. "And then he was the
first one off the plane. Oh my God, I thought I was going to throw
up. I was crying and shaking and we were just holding our son
"I was like, oh, he looks kinda like me. I think my mother has a
baby picture of me and it is pretty close," Ray says with a
Now that Ray's home, he knows it will take time to reintegrate
into the fabric of his children's lives. So much has changed in a
year for them, and for Ray. He spent a year "working 24/7. On call
24/7. And there's always a heightened sense of awareness because
helicopters are coming in and incoming fire and stuff like that,"
he says. "Now it's trying to get back to normal."
Ray wants to hear every detail of what he's missed with his
children, but he won't share every detail of his life the past year
"I can tell them a lot as far as what our job was and what we
did," Ray says. "As far as the details, probably not so much. I'm
sure later on, when they're a little more mature, I can tell them
about it, but I don't think they need to know right now."
Because for today, it's about being back with family. And about
the answer to Isabella's wish the morning her father surprised
"She told me this morning before school her daddy was coming
home today and I said, 'Why would you think that? He's not
coming home yet,'" Maria says. "But she just said, 'He'll come home
because I want him to be home.'"
And so he did.
Liz DeCarlo is the former senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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