She excelled in medical school (“She’s the only person I know who can read a medical textbook like a pleasure novel,” Hugh says), and discovered a passion for anesthesia. “I thrive in these intense, crisis-based situations,” she says. “I’d be able to make people feel really comfortable when they were terribly upset and nervous about their surgeries.” She followed up an internship in internal medicine and a residency in anesthesia with a fellowship in pediatric anesthesia at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Her ease with children becomes apparent as we continue to film in the playroom. I suggest we use the girls’ blue and yellow play tent so she can “pop out” for each of her monthly messages. She starts with September. “Hi, guys!” she says as she unzips the tent and climbs out with a big grin. “You know by now that I’ve already left for my big special meeting in Afghanistan.” Kneeling, she pulls out an atlas and points to Afghanistan. “I’m gonna take care of sick kids and also some people who hurt themselves. While I’m gone, I want you to help Daddy around the house.” She demonstrates with a tiny toy broom, dustpan and vacuum that she has bought them. Then it’s: “I’ll see you next time! Bye!”
We go through each month, her enthusiasm never wavering as she dons a blue wig for Halloween, a Santa hat for Christmas, a party hat for New Year’s. It’s as if she has channeled Dora the Explorer, pausing so the girls have time to answer the questions she poses. When she comes to January, she looks around for a few seconds. “Is it snowing where you guys are?” And then, with exaggerated surprise as Tom tosses cotton balls for our snow effect, she exclaims, “It’s snowing where Mommy is!”
We film a “good morning” message in the kitchen upstairs, and separate “good night” messages in each girl’s bedroom. Then it’s time for the most difficult part of our day. We set out photos of the girls as babies and of Hugh and Rupa as a young married couple as a backdrop for the “just in case” video.
“Just a minute,” Rupa says, covering her face and running up the stairs. A few minutes later she returns, only to excuse herself a second time. I normally bury my emotions and save them for the privacy of my editing room. But when Rupa returns, we’re both teary. I ask her, “Would you not say these same things to your kids right now?” She nods. “Then just say them like they were sitting here.”
She takes a deep breath and starts. “I wanted to have a chance to talk to you, Phoebe and Rory, about where I went and why I went…”
She explains her reasons for going into a war zone. Then she tells the story of how she met their father (“Mommy’s version”), gives them tips on what to do when they’re feeling down and tells them she will always love them. She says they should always do what they want to do, not what they think she would want them to do.
Later she tells me, “If I don’t come back, I have to address that in 10 or 15 years, they might look back and say, ‘Why did my mother do this to us?’ They have to understand that this work is important work. If I really get to do the trauma anesthesia that I think I’ll get to do, it’s like the most [intense] crisis situation. You really get an opportunity to save lives—honest to goodness—like on TV saving lives.”
Hugh is less sanguine. “This is a different kind of warfare,” he says. “It’s not like the Korean War, like we watched M*A*S*H on TV. There are no front lines like that anymore.” He knows Rupa will do her job well, but “as good as she is, there are things beyond her control.”
I ask if she could have gotten out of the deployment. “A lot of people do whine and cry about it, they make waves, they do things to get medically disqualified,” she says. “I just couldn’t respect myself if I acted like that. It’s just not who I am. I committed to this job and I love this job, and I committed to the kids and I love my kids, and I think this is the first time in my life where I have two ‘mildly’ opposing forces.
“Would I do it again if I knew for a fact I wasn’t coming home?” Rupa pauses for a long moment. “I don’t know. I don’t think anyone would go if they knew for a fact they weren’t coming home. I think we all kind of think we’re coming home.”
A few weeks after Rupa’s departure, I’m enjoying dinner with my family and appreciating my boys in all their silliness. I wonder how Hugh and the girls are doing and how the DVD has gone over so far. So I call him one night in early November.
He tells me the deployment has been more stressful on him and Rupa in some ways than on the girls. “It’s been a real challenge for me to get things done,” he says, “and continue to do all the fun things we used to do on the weekends when both of us were here.” The girls have had more play time at home, with Hugh taking on the “girly stuff that Rupa used to handle, like painting toenails and fingernails.” When the girls stub a toe or get hurt, he does what he can—“but it’s clear they prefer to have their mama.”
The girls have been able to talk by phone with Rupa from time to time. But when they haven’t heard from her in a while, he says, they want to put in the DVD. After we say goodbye, I imagine them watching Rupa read Mama Always Comes Home. I pray that she keeps her promise.
Debbie Brodsky is a personal documentarian and freelance writer living in Bethesda.