"No," I shook my head sadly, "they said after the ceremony."
She smiled. "He's standing right behind you."
He was standing at ease with two other award-winning recruits next to their division sign, and I walked right past him without even realizing it.
Even an award-winning sailor couldn't keep intact the 1,000-yard-stare feature of his military bearing when he saw the look of shock and surprise and excitement when I turned to see him standing there.
* * *
I knew that the award for Military Excellence was a big deal, but I didn't realize how big. Families of award winners and honor graduates were given a special pre-graduation presentation then escorted to reserved seating. Award winner families were given slightly more attention than honor graduates, and I was given more attention than all the other award winner families.
The ceremony was filled with impressive military displays—including an awesome drum corps—and when Noah was recognized as "the finest sailor" of all 269 graduates, that he was the one who best exemplified and excelled at the Navy core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment, that every aspect of his time at RTC Great Lakes was marked by excellence—well, all I could do was look back at my mom and beam.
While the others were escorted to a hallway to await their reunions with their sailors, I and our family were taken down a separate hallway, where Noah appeared minutes later. I'd like to say I was overwhelmed with emotion, but I was really just overwhelmed. The emotion came later.
Our family alone was brought into a room filled with a whole lot of Navy brass. Noah introduced us to each one, then we witnessed a private presentation of a wristwatch, two commemorative coins from two different officers, and then, another award. The captain presenting the award called it a "flag letter of commendation," which sounded great, but the Rear Admiral present took a moment to explain that this letter is special because it's signed by a flag officer—a very, very high-ranking navy official—and that in 30 years she'd only seen about 20 of these given out. Um, WHAT?!
I don't know if she meant she'd only seen 20 given out ever, or 20 given out to military excellence award winners (of which there are about 50 a year, so that would be only 20 given out of 1,500), or maybe she'd only seen about 20 given out to brand-new sailors, but whatever it was she meant, that Rear Admiral wanted us to know that Noah was being recognized in a very meaningful way.
* * *
When Noah was granted liberty after the graduation, his discomfort was obvious. After following scrupulous rules for 9 weeks about everything from how to walk to how to talk, meandering down the sidewalk and chatting was awkward and even nerve-wracking for him. This, after all, is a guy who for the past 60+ days has eaten all his meals in 12 minutes or less, a guy who has stood in line naked with over dozens of other naked guys waiting to take a 5-minute cold shower, a guy who irons and folds his underwear and stresses over the orientation of his bed pillow.
I, on the other hand, am now a lady who has been a single parent, has kept a household relatively clean and functioning alone, who has been up to her shoulder in a storm drain, who has fostered friendships as an individual instead of as one-half of a couple.
We'd both dreamed of our reunion for weeks, but when it actually happened, we didn't quite know what to do, how to talk to each other. For the first several hours, the most comfortable Noah appeared to be was when he was demonstrating proper t-shirt folding technique.
* * *
We spent the evening relaxing together, asking questions and sharing stories and laughing.
My favorite story of the day: Before we were escorted to the post-graduation reception, Noah and the aforementioned Rear Admiral together, hand over hand, cut the celebratory cake with a ceremonial sword. Let me put it another way: Noah and a high-ranking Navy official used a cutlass to slice a party cake, wedding-style.
I don't know what to do with that information, other than to let it stand alone.
By the end of the day we were exhausted, but happy.
I drove him back to the base around 7, to the drop-off point in the chapel parking lot, where I met two of his shipmates, who were courteous and happy and complimentary. As the three walked away together, Noah paused to come running back and kiss me one last time.
It was the best day.