On the day Alyssa Kreinschroeder's father told her he was being deployed to the Persian Gulf, he said he could be gone for a year. A year is a long time for a girl of 11 to imagine being away from her father, so Alyssa asked him: Was there any chance he'd come home sooner?
Alyssa, the oldest of four kids, has always known she could ask her dad anything, and he'd tell her the truth. He'd been honest when her twin brothers were born prematurely, when doctors discovered her grandmother's heart problems, and when her mother, who is 30, was diagnosed last summer with a fast-moving cervical cancer that spread to her pelvis, her spine, her lungs and her brain.
After so much uncertainty, Alyssa thought she was ready for whatever her dad had to say.
Until he said no.
Claus Kreinschroeder, who is 31, is not Alyssa's biological father, but he's the dad she has known since she was 3. Her mother, Kris, says God meant for Claus and Alyssa to be together. Six months into Kris and Claus' courtship, Alyssa was calling him daddy - to his delight and Kris' worry it would scare him away.
It didn't. And they married when he finished basic training.
Last month, when Claus said he'd be away for at least 12 months, Alyssa didn't cry. She didn't want to make her dad feel bad, so she simply said, OK.
He had talked to her weeks earlier about the possibility of war. She knew the difference between a dictator and a president, and she'd asked for her dad's opinion: Did he think American soldiers should go to Iraq?
He told her his opinion didn't matter. He said being a soldier in the Army - in the 327th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division - was his job. President George W. Bush was his boss, and if President Bush said they were going to war, he'd leave their home in Clarksville, Tenn., and go.
Alyssa's dad didn't tell her that he would miss her cheerleading competitions or that he would not be in the back yard to spot her backward handsprings - at least, not for a long time. And she didn't ask if he'd be expected to kill people - or worse, if there was a strong chance he could be killed.
Back when Alyssa was a toddler, her dad used to throw her into the air. He tossed her so high her mom would make nervous jokes. Alyssa never cried the way the twins do when he throws them, or the way her 5-year-old sister, Madeline, screams when he tosses her. Alyssa always had faith that her dad would be there to catch her.
On the night the twins were born, Alyssa's dad called her from the hospital at Fort Carson, Colo. Only 25 weeks into her pregnancy, Alyssa's mom had gone into labor. The doctors had stopped the labor for seven weeks. Yet the twins still arrived eight weeks early. They each weighed just 4 1/2 pounds.
Hayden, Alyssa's dad told her, was born first and appeared to be doing fine. But Mathias had stopped breathing three times. Alyssa's dad warned her that her baby brothers might not come home.
Alyssa was 8 then. She never believed the twins would die. The way she saw it, "God would not put them on this Earth and just take them away. I just didn't think that would happen."
When her dad brought her to the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, Alyssa did not gasp the way adult visitors did at the sight of the two small boys and the tangle of tubes and machines. She didn't hesitate to touch them, either. She walked to the incubator that held her brothers and sang a lullaby as she stroked their tiny backs.
Three years later, she helps care for the twins while their father is away. Hayden swings from the refrigerator door one day, pretending he's Spider-Man. Another day, he is sitting inside the washing machine with the lid closed. Hayden is the one who took GI Joe swimming in the toilet and clogged the commode, and Mathias is the one who ran around the gym during cheerleading practice, peeling up tape from the mats. When they get to be too much - so much that Alyssa's mom locks herself in the bathroom - Alyssa knows it's time to take charge. She baby-sits so her mom can go to the bookstore alone.
On March 1, the day their dad left, Alyssa did not go to the ceremony at Fort Campbell to say goodbye. Growing up a child of the Army, she has developed methods for dealing with uncertainty. In eight years, she has moved five times. She has lived in Wisconsin, Colorado, Georgia and Tennessee. She has cried when leaving old friends, and cried at the thought of having to make new ones.
The day her dad left for Iraq, she did not want to see him get on an airplane. She thought it would be easier to imagine him coming home if she only watched him leave their brick ranch house. As if he were backing out of the driveway like any other day. As if he were going to work and would come home soon.
In the kitchen is a map of the world from Soldiers magazine that Alyssa's dad laminated for the kids before he left. He stuck a pin in the town where they live, and another in Kuwait, where he said he'd be for a while. He told Alyssa to move the pin as the war progressed and the 101st advanced into Iraq.
Alyssa and her dad talked about terrorists after Sept. 11, and her sixth-grade social studies teacher said some people stockpiled food and water and hoped duct tape around the windows would keep them safe. The way Alyssa understands the war, "Saddam Hussein wasn't disarming, and President Bush didn't want us to get bombed."
She knows her dad is a first lieutenant, and he used to drive tanks. When he came home from training last year to take care of her mom, he became a liaison to the 1st Brigade, and Alyssa is not quite sure what all that means. She knows he has a gun. She knows he might have to use it. Last week, she was reminded that her dad could get shot.
Alyssa was at cheerleading practice when someone threw grenades and fired a gun into the tents where Alyssa's dad worked in Kuwait. Three hours later they learned that her dad was safe, but when they first turned on the TV news, Alyssa's mom was so scared she dropped to her knees.
Across from the map in the kitchen is a wall-hanging that Alyssa's aunt sent last year, when her mom's cancer kept spreading. "Faith," the wall-hanging reminds Alyssa, "is the assurance of things hoped for, the belief in things not yet seen."
Alyssa's dad was training cadets at West Point when the results of a biopsy revealed "high-grade cancer cells" in her mom's cervix. He came home after the cancer spread, after every MRI discovered a new tumor.
He cooked, cleaned and watched her and Madeline and the twins while he also cared for their mom. When Kris was sickest, in bed most of the day or gone to see a doctor, Alyssa's dad told her the truth.
The doctors didn't exactly say her mom had only six months to live. What they said was something drastic had to happen - soon - or she would die.
The tumors, Alyssa's dad said, were not going away.
Three weeks of chemotherapy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, 45 miles south in Nashville, ended when doctors found that Kris - who had been healthy up until then - had a kidney disease. The entire family went to Minnesota last autumn for Kris' gene therapy treatments at the Mayo Clinic. Alyssa asked a girlfriend on the cheerleading team, whose parents are preachers, to pray.
The first time the Clarksville Cheer Extreme team, the Panther All-Stars, went out of state for a competition, Alyssa's mom drove. They stopped every 30 miles on the road to Louisville, Ky., because her mom kept getting sick, but they made it. The doctors eventually declared the cancer in remission and Alyssa's mom - at least for now - OK.
On the day he left for Iraq, Alyssa's dad asked her to help her mom while he is away.
The next day, Alyssa was at Kenwood Middle School when she overheard a circle of girls talking about the war. One said she was against it. The others agreed. They stopped talking when they saw Alyssa. They knew her dad was overseas.
As one of the kids elected to the student government, Alyssa knew of plans to honor all the dads serving overseas by posting their pictures on the "Honor Board" in the cafeteria. Alyssa couldn't decide which picture to take. She didn't want one in which her dad is wearing a helmet because she wanted the other kids to see his handsome face. He doesn't smile when he's wearing a uniform, so none of those would do.
Alyssa was home from school another day and watching the TV when protests in Nashville caught her attention. What the protesters said seemed aimed not at President Bush but at soldiers like her dad.
When Alyssa told her mom what she'd seen, Kris talked about freedom of speech and the Constitution. Those, she said, are the rights your dad is fighting for in Iraq.
Alyssa decided she was going to do her part. She came up with the idea of staging a rally. Doing something in school, she thought, would be more effective than sitting in her front yard waving a sign.
Her mom said she'd need speakers, so Alyssa thinks about asking one of her girlfriends - Eva, Bridgett or Cassandra - to speak because they also have fathers in Iraq. Alyssa thinks she will invite the wife of her dad's lieutenant colonel, too, because she always seems to know what to say. Last year, she gave Alyssa's mom a candle that says "Hope" on the side.
Alyssa thinks of her dad when she passes his picture on the table by the door or opens her mom's closet to borrow a pair of shoes and sees his. The map in the kitchen shows her where he is, and the television in the den reminds her of what could happen.
The rally, Alyssa thinks, will show the world the faith she has in her dad.
She will make signs that say "Support Our Troops" and "God Bless America," and color them red, white and blue. The only part of the rally she hasn't figured out is how to ask the principal for permission.