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 reunion.
"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'm shaking."
"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 word: "Daddy!"
Ray spent a year missing these precious moments with his children and he is determined to cherish each moment going forward.
"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 steps."
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 pretty hard."
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 troops.
"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 together."
"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 laugh.
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 with them.
"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 her.
"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 senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.