Tanya Campbell does not like surprises, and her husband Christopher knows this.
But he couldn’t help himself, not this time.
On Thursday night at McKale Center during an early timeout as the Arizona basketball team hosted Southern University, Tanya takes to the court with her two children, Alexander and Amelia, to receive a special message from Christopher, an Air Force master sergeant deployed to Iraq.
They show a video from Christopher on the big screen, and the crowd stands and cheers, and Tanya is in tears, which may ruin the Arizona decal she has on her cheek. The announcer says they have a surprise, and Tanya is excited for her children, thinking the kids are getting some nice gifts.
They all are.
In walks Christopher from behind, and the arena roars. Amelia sprints into her father’s arms. Alexander wipes tears from his eyes. They hug as a family. It’s been six months.
It’s a magical holiday moment, months in the making. Christopher has known about it for six weeks and resisted telling any family members or friends, “just in case they threw it on Facebook.”
He’s thrown them a curveball.
“When I come home, I will make it up to you,” Campbell said on the video, from Iraq. “People come and thank me for the sacrifices I make all the time, but without the sacrifices you make, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”
Walking to their seats up in the McKale Center, Campbell is stopped several times by men who want to shake his hand, by fans police officers and security guards, one who tells him, “Thanks for all you do, except for making me cry.”
Both were active duty Air Force when they started dating in 1996, though Tanya would soon switch to the reserves. They married the day before Valentine’s Day 1997, because, she said, “that was the only day we could get leave.” She said they both figured they’d end up being in for life. She was unable to avoid a tour overseas when Alexander was 2. Christopher headed to Korea, she to Turkey.
“I sent my son to my mom and that worked out well,” she said.
So when Christopher is approached by a stranger with an outstretched hand and a firm handshake, Tanya gets it.
“We both had the same ideals,” Tanya said. “I understand why he chooses to do it. He chooses to do it to protect all of us, to protect what you do, freedom of speech.”
Sitting in their seats, Alexander up at the kiosk getting food and drink with an Arizona official, Amelia propped up on Christopher’s lap wearing a tie-dyed Arizona shirt, Tanya strokes the back of his neck, gently rubs his shoulders. It’s been a while.
“It’s not a choice,” Tanya said. “It happens. When they tell them they have to go, they have to go. He came home one Friday and had to go on Monday, and I was seven months pregnant with my daughter.”
It’s getting more difficult, tour after tour, Christopher concedes. This was No. “6 or 7,” and you understand how he can lose count.
His kids are growing up, and he’s missing soccer games. This will be his first Christmas home in, well, who knows?
“Honestly, it gets harder and harder,” he said. “They get older, you get more attached to them —not saying I wasn’t when they were little kids — but with the age, you see how much you’re missing.”
It’s harder on Tanya for another reason. There was a recent helicopter crash in Afghanistan, she said through a lump in her throat the size of Nebraska, and the news didn’t say what service it was.
“It’s always in the back of your mind going, is that mine?” she said. “You don’t hear from them for a couple days and…”
Her eyes begin to well.
These are happy tears, though, because Christopher is back.
They thought he wasn’t going to be home until well after Christmas, after they’d blown kisses to each other over Skype, the modern mistletoe, and pretended that they were together again. The kids would open presents without their father, and they’d need one fewer chair for the dinner table.
Not this time, though. Not this year. Not this Christmas.
The presents may not have all been shipped yet, and the ones that are at the house aren’t even wrapped. Some she’s hidden, and doesn’t remember where.
Tanya said she has been so busy with the kids, she hasn’t had time to decorate yet. There’s a fake Christmas tree, 18 inches tall — “a little Christmas bush,” she said — and it’s not even plugged in. The house is a mess, which bothers her, because she wants it to be perfect when he returns.
She doesn’t get it, though.
It already is.
“I started to cry right along with them,” Christopher said. “I’m very elated, a joyous moment being able to see they weren’t expecting me. To see the excitement in their eyes...”
He pauses and smiles.
“That was very special.”