It wasn't until my husband held our son Aaron for the first time that I realized I'd been holding my breath — for months.
In August, Judah had hugged me, 20-something-weeks' pregnant, and our 3-year-old goodbye before leaving for a tour in Afghanistan.
Nearly five months later, he'd watched via Skype from the district center in Musa Qal'eh as Aaron was born, four days past his Christmas Day due date — at 1:58 p.m. by my watch, 2328 by Judah's.
Since that day, I'd been staring at the baby, who wears my husband's face in miniature, and marveling at their similarities — the long eyelashes, the expression in sleep, the chin, the smirk — but refusing to fully acknowledge the fear that I'd never see those two versions of the same face together.
This was the first deployment for Judah, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves, serving with the 4th Civil Affairs Group out of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington.
It was a challenge we didn't take lightly. When he re-enlisted in the Marines in 2010, we knew he'd almost certainly be mobilized, so we made lists of questions, did research and talked endlessly before he signed the papers.
We were expecting to each face numerous tests during the deployment, and ones we'd have to take on as individuals rather than the finely honed team we'd become after nearly 12 years of marriage.
What we weren't expecting was to discover, shortly before his mobilization last April, that I was pregnant.
To call it a shock is an understatement. Our son Isaac was born in 2008 thanks to in-vitro fertilization, and in 2010 an ectopic pregnancy left my chances of getting pregnant naturally at slightly higher than slim to none.
But there we were, mere weeks before his pre-deployment training was to begin, learning that I was expecting. It didn't take long for the nerves to start in.
I was already worried about how I was going to get through the months of parenting rambunctious 3-year-old Isaac without my partner. I'd need to keep us fed without too many trips to the drive-through (full disclosure: this food editor does much more reading on the subject of cooking than actual cooking) since the kitchen is mainly Judah's realm. And I was hoping I could learn some of his bedtime-ninja skills before he left: He could nearly always get Isaac to sleep with a minimum of drama, but come his Reserve-duty weekends, I'd be tearing my hair out at the witching hour.
Now I had to worry how I'd get through labor and the first few weeks with a newborn without him, while he started to deal with the fact that he wouldn't be present for the birth of our second child.
And, of course, I could barely stand to contemplate the dangers he'd see in a war zone. His job wouldn't put him in as much peril as some other Marines — as a civil affairs Marine, he was to represent the Marines to the local populace and be the locals' advocate in meetings with the Marines — but it wouldn't keep him out of harm's way.
In August, Judah started the long journey from D.C. to North Carolina to Kyrgyzstan and, finally, to Afghanistan. At that point, my fears became more palpable. It felt like a dripping faucet — there in the background, constantly calling for attention, but easier to ignore in the tumult of the day's tasks. When those fears threatened to come to the forefront as the deployment went on, I'd throw myself harder into whatever I was doing at work, or come up with a new game to play with Isaac, or call one of my parents — whatever it took to keep that drip from becoming a torrent.
A few weeks after Judah's arrival in Afghanistan, we had a talk: How much detail did I want about the dangers he was facing? I stopped and considered. "I don't want you to ever feel like there's anything you can't talk to me about," I told him. But we agreed that he would wait a bit, until the immediate danger was past. We figured that a minute-by-minute accounting might magnify the stress for both of us.
As it turned out, he had something to tell me: A couple of weeks earlier, he'd been in the lead vehicle of a convoy, and it had hit an improvised explosive device.
Don't worry, he told me. All the protective technology — the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle he was in, the mine roller attached to the front — had worked exactly as it was supposed to, and the worst thing anyone had experienced was a little ringing in the ears.
We each tried not to dwell on things, and luckily we were able to connect via email most days, sharing photos and trading anecdotes. Mine were usually about something funny Isaac had said; his often were about something funny a translator or one of the local children had said.
At home, I put one foot in front of the other, getting through each shift at work, each day-care drop-off and pickup, each doctor's appointment, and trying to pack the weekends with the activities Isaac would be doing if both his parents were around. I was hardly a bedtime ninja, but some rough nights were mitigated by listening to the books Judah recorded before he left or, later, watching the video of him reading "Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb" and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" sent to us via the USO.
Before we knew it, the days had piled into weeks and the weeks into months, and the baby's Christmas due date was fast approaching.
I'd made preparations for the baby's arrival: two doulas (trained birth coaches) were poised to be by my side, and my mother flew out from Oregon.
In Afghanistan, Judah had prepared, too. The British civilians his team worked with volunteered their more reliable Internet connection and a private room in their compound so he could video chat during the delivery, and his chain of command was prepared to give him time off when I went into labor.
But the baby, a stubborn Kelber from the start, kept sending mixed signals. For nearly two weeks, I emailed Judah in the middle of the night: "I'm not sure, but something might be happening. Be ready just in case." And then: nothing.
Around 10 a.m. Dec. 29, after trying to convince myself all night long that it was still false labor, I got up and realized that labor was indeed afoot. I emailed Judah and told him he should get to his room for Skype.
My mom drove me to the hospital around noon, and we were sent to a triage room to wait. While contractions were coming faster, delivery didn't seem particularly imminent.
About 1 p.m., we moved into a labor and delivery room. Between contractions, the doulas and I fumbled with the laptop, trying to get on the hospital's wireless network so we could connect with Judah, to no avail.
"He could fix this if he were here," I remember thinking. "But if he were here, we wouldn't need Skype."
At 1:32 p.m., I emailed: "Doula is taking laptop to meet IT. No epi[dural] yet."
At 1:33 p.m., he replied: "How are you doing?"
I never responded.
One doula, Emily, was helping me to the bathroom when another contraction hit, and I suddenly realized I needed to push. Panic set in. I couldn't possibly be having this baby now, not without an epidural, not without my husband. Certainly not before we got the computer working.
The formerly almost empty delivery room was suddenly awash in controlled chaos. Emily was helping me back to the bed when my other doula, Lesley, returned with the laptop, now connected to Judah in Afghanistan. He looked on in confusion as, less than 10 minutes since my last email, the midwife declared that the baby was coming now. Right now.
We barely had a second to say hello when it was go time, and the team I'd gathered to support me — some close by, one far-flung — did just that. At 1:58 p.m., faster than any of us had anticipated, Aaron David Kelber was in my arms.
"Look what we did!" I exclaimed to Judah. He was crying, I was crying, the baby was crying — probably everyone else in the room was, too, but I only had eyes for those two.
We stayed online for a couple of hours, chatting as I snuggled with the baby. I barely remember anything besides looking back and forth between Judah's face on the screen and that of our most unlikely child, born under these most unlikely circumstances.
Eventually, Aaron had to go to the nursery for a checkup, and everyone cleared out, leaving me and Judah with a few minutes to ourselves, even 7,000 miles apart. It wasn't until this point, when I looked at the time stamps on our video call and earlier emails as we talked, that we realized how close we'd come to not being connected during the birth. We laughed that Aaron had waited just long enough for us to get online before making his arrival.
After we said our goodbyes, I moved to the recovery room and braced for the experience of solo-parenting not just one but two sons for the next couple of months.
Much of that time is a blur. I had help from family the first couple of weeks, allowing me to keep my head above water caring for a newborn and a 3-year-old who missed his dad and was getting used to being a big brother. There was so much to do that I didn't have much time to dwell on Judah's absence.
Except during those seemingly endless middle-of-the-night feedings. In those quiet moments, that familiar trickle of fear tried to push its way to the forefront, and sometimes it succeeded.
At long last, the first week of March, the detachment was due back in the States. They were to fly into North Carolina and spend several days at Camp Lejeune before returning to base in D.C. and then home.
I couldn't wait. So on a Monday, I jumped in the car with a 3-year-old, a newborn and a ridiculous amount of gear and headed south. Judah emailed that they were about to leave Kyrgyzstan, and I reported that we'd hit a freak snowstorm in Virginia but had made it to North Carolina.
The next morning, March 6, I learned that the detachment's flight had been delayed, making that day the longest of the entire deployment. Or so it seemed to me, even though I wasn't the one who had crossed so many time zones that it had actually been a 35-hour day.
Waiting, I took the boys to the base exchange to eat and shop. Isaac, surrounded by Marines in uniform, revealed himself as a reservist's kid, asking constantly, "Is that my Daddy? Is that my Daddy?" about each Marine he saw. "No, not yet," I told him again and again. But the time was inching closer.
"Just landed!" Judah emailed me from Cherry Point, N.C., a while later, after we'd gathered with other families from the detachment. Still, their gear had to be retrieved and accounted for, their weapons checked in at the armory.
Time might as well have been standing still. Isaac played with other kids while I endeavored to keep Aaron from spitting up on his onesie, made for the occasion, which said, "I've been waiting my whole life to meet you."
Finally, the bus rolled up, and the Marines started pouring off.
"Is that my Daddy?" Isaac asked again. This time, I could say yes, pointing Judah out among the camouflage-wearing crowd. He sprinted up to his dad and they hugged — Isaac now 100 percent kid and 0 percent baby, but with the same look of adoration for his father he'd worn at their goodbye in the summertime.
"I missed you so much, Daddy!" Isaac said.
"I missed you so much, too," Judah replied, hugging him even tighter.
"Am I so much taller?" Isaac asked.
Judah laughed, eyeballed him, and agreed that yes, he was.
Judah and I locked eyes, and I said something silly like, "I have someone I'd like you to meet."
He took Aaron in his arms, and I looked at them looking at each other. Aaron, nearly 10 weeks old, gazed at his dad, then burst into tears; the bus had arrived at mealtime. I passed over a bottle, and Judah took over feeding duties for a few minutes until Aaron relaxed. Judah didn't want to let him go. And besides, it was his turn.
That night, in our room at the Lejeune Inn, Judah read Isaac a bedtime story while I fed Aaron, and soon enough, all three of them were passed out, all in a row.
Things were as they should be.
And I finally exhaled.
Editor's note: Sarah, Judah, Isaac and Aaron live in Columbia.