After spending about 10 days in Houston, seeing where my wife grew up and meeting her family, we headed to San Diego, California by way of Los Angeles where an aunt of mine stayed. We spent about a week with my aunt, who did a lot to help us get started; she invested time, money and even helped us buy our first car. At the end of the week, it was time to hit the road and head out on our own.
Erica and I drove down from LA to San Diego into the unknown.
Both of us were so young and naïve. Neither of us had ever been in a serious relationship, before meeting each other; both of us saw nothing but dysfunction from our parents, and we knew absolutely no one in our new home city of San Diego, California. We were scared, inexperienced and alone.
A few weeks after arriving in San Diego, we moved into our first apartment together. We were both a couple of junior enlistees, so neither of us had any money to spare. All our furniture and even things like pots and pans had to be bought on credit.
My wife was assigned to a ship, and I was assigned to shore duty. Our work schedules almost never coincided; she was working long hours aboard the ship, sometimes leaving for a few days on training, and I was working a rotating shift schedule at the fleet communications station.
It was hard. Both of us desperately wanted to grow together and build a family, but our duties and responsibilities as junior Sailors afforded very little time for any of that.
One day, maybe sometime in late June or early July of ’99, we got some beautiful and breath-taking news: Erica was pregnant! We were going to be parents.
I’ll never forget when she showed me the pregnancy test. As I was staring in disbelief and awe, my vision got blurry, my breathing became shallow, my knees weakened and the room started to spin…I nearly fainted. Fortunately, my back was facing the wall so as my knees buckled, I was able to lean against it for support. I was in shock. I was going to be a daddy!
I was scared, excited and happy all at once.
Throughout Erica’s pregnancy, I went to as many appointments as possible. I wanted to be immersed in the entire experience and wanted to be by my wife’s side every step of the way.
I remember hearing the baby’s heartbeat for the first time. We were so anxious and excited that we decided not to wait for the official ultra-sound at the military hospital; instead, we saved what little money we had and paid for one to be conducted at a civilian clinic.
The ultrasound technician got the machine all connected and started to scan Erica’s belly. The little screen showed nothing but a black and white blur. Suddenly, a little tiny peanut shaped figure appeared, which was instantly followed by a rapid ‘WHOOSH-WHOOSH-WHOOSH-WHOOSH’ sound.
“That’s the baby’s heartbeat guys”, explained the ultrasound technician. Erica and I stared in wonder at the little arms and legs moving on the screen, while listening in awe to the heartbeat of our unborn child. We had created a life together; another human being was going to be brought into this world…someone who was part of Erica and part of me.
“Do you guys want to know what you’re having?”, the technician asked.
“Of course…absolutely!”, Erica excitedly exclaimed.
A few seconds went by, as the technician adjusted the ultrasound sensor on Erica’s pregnant belly. Our little baby was very active and wiggly. At first, it seemed like we may not get the chance to find out…then for a brief moment, our little baby stopped moving and stayed still just long enough for the ultrasound technician to get a clear look.
Suddenly the technician said, “Well guys…it’s a girl; congratulations to you both.”
My jaw dropped, and my mind raced…“A girl…we are going to have a girl. I’m going to be a daddy to a daughter. Wow…now I’m really scared!”
Erica looked back at me and was so excited. She was going to get the chance to buy all kinds of girly stuff for our new baby girl, who was going to be in our world within a few more months.
We had a lot of work cut out for us. There was a ton of preparations to do…and shopping. Oh-my-goodness, the shopping. I didn’t know baby stuff was so expensive!
As the months went by, and we continued to go to all the prenatal appointments, the reality of having a new little life…a little girl…in our home was becoming more and more real.
About halfway through the pregnancy, Erica and I moved out of the apartment we were staying in and moved into a larger two-bedroom apartment, which had been sub-contracted by the Navy to be used as military-family housing.
At this point, the due date was right around the corner. Our new baby girl was going to be born the first week of February, and we still had a bunch of last-minute stuff to do.
More importantly, we had to make a major life decision for the good of our family. Both of us were in the Navy, what the military calls a ‘Dual-military couple’. Towards the latter half of Erica’s pregnancy, per the military’s policy regarding pregnant service members, she was temporarily assigned off the ship and to light duty ashore, for the remainder of her pregnancy. She would continue to be attached at the temporary shore assignment for about 45 days after our baby was born, at which time she would have to be cleared by the doctor to return to sea duty.
This meant Erica would have to report back to the ship, which was on deployment in harm’s way, and I would be responsible for raising our new baby girl until Erica returned.
The right decision was evident to both of us…Erica would apply for a discharge, and I would request to stay active duty.
That summer and fall seemed to fly by and the holidays were just a blur. 1999 was drawing to a close, and the year 2000 was right around the corner. While the rest of the world buzzed with excitement and anticipation about what the new century would have in store for mankind, Erica and I were eagerly awaiting the arrival of our new baby girl, who would be born a few short weeks into the new millennium.
February 9th…shortly after midnight.
“Matthew, get up…we gotta go…NOW!”
My eyes painfully squinting against the bright light coming from the lamp on the nightstand.
“What’s the matter, Erica?”, I asked.
“My water broke…the baby’s coming…you got to get me to the hospital right now!”
Everything after that seemed like it was on autopilot. Next thing I know, we’re walking into the maternity ward at Balboa Naval Hospital.
We checked in, set-up in one of the delivery rooms and then waited…and waited…and waited. The hospital was short staffed, and there were several other women in the maternity ward, all having babies at or about the same time. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the birthing process was actually moving along…the baby was coming!
One of the nurses looked at me, “Sir, we’re gonna need your help…hold your wife’s feet and tell her to push!”
I thought, “Oh boy…I didn’t want front row seats to this event”, but since the maternity ward only had a limited number of nurses, I had to step in.
Erica’s face winced in pain as another wave of contractions came over her…“C’mon Erica…PUSH!!!”
February 9th, 5:33pm.
Into this world, a new life was born. A head full of brown hair, followed by the tiniest little cry I had ever heard; our little girl, who we had been waiting nine long months to meet, was finally here.
“Sir, would you like to come and cut the cord?” Through my shaking hands and tear-misted eyes, I severed the tie which had connected mother and child for nine long months.
“Congratulations mom and dad…you have a healthy baby girl…what’s her name?”
Trembling and choked up, I cleared my throat and answered…“Her name is Elizabeth…Elizabeth Ann Mattera”
The nurses took some final readings, checked our little baby girl’s vitals, wrote all the information down, wrapped her up in a blanket and handed the precious little bundle over to me.
Holding this new life close, I walked over to Erica. As my wife and I looked at our little princess, I quietly whispered in her tiny ear, “Welcome to the world Elizabeth…mommy and daddy love you so much, sweetie.”
Monologue: The days and months which followed flew by.
Shortly after Elizabeth was born, Erica was honorably discharged from the Navy; focusing her time and attention on being a new mommy and supporting me in my Naval Career.
Meanwhile, I continued to serve on active duty; gaining experience, climbing the ranks and growing as a Sailor. I had grown accustomed and even excelled in the military environment. In many ways, the rules, structure, traditions and even the institution itself had become like a surrogate father-figure. The dad-shaped hole in my life caused me to gravitate towards seniors whom I respected; I sought their mentorship at every opportunity. The pursuit of my career and all things Navy had, become a near obsession.
We were a young and very busy Navy family, putting a lot of miles under our feet within a short amount of time.
Within a short seven-year period we would move around the Pacific to my various assignments: from San Diego to Guam and then from Guam to Japan.
Our little family had grown accustomed to the Navy life of travel, new places, new friends, new experiences and new adventures.
Then, in 2004, while we were stationed in Japan, I was met with two losses back-to-back. The first loss was a devastating blow to my already fragile faith and neglected walk with God; the second loss just added, to what I thought at the time was, insult-to-injury…