For most of her 13 years, Kacey Mathieson has missed her father's presence for months at a time.
There were some birthdays he couldn't make, holidays when he was far away. And until Friday evening, she didn't know if the man she calls "my bestest buddy" would be home this Christmas.
But when Kacey went to dinner with her mother and grandmother at Duke's in Huntington Beach, the "waiter" who approached the table was none other than her dad, an Air Force reservist who was granted a five-day leave and made it home in time to surprise his daughter.
Kacey's father is Gary Mathieson, a popular middle-school physical education teacher at Corona del Mar High School. I've written previously about Gary, who signed up for the Air Force Reserves in the wake of 9/11 because, as he says, "I love my country," ("Apodaca: Afghanistan, Newport share unique bridge," Oct. 23).
Since beginning his current deployment in November, Gary has been stationed at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where he is receiving additional training on the C-17 Globemaster III, a massive long-haul aircraft used for moving equipment as big as tanks and helicopters, as well as supplies and troops.
Gary works as a loadmaster, a position that requires him to calculate the weight and distribution of everything carried on the aircraft. His current training regimen involves refining and upgrading his knowledge of computer systems and methods of computation, as well as loading techniques and safety protocols.
"The list goes on and on and on," Gary wrote to me in a recent email. "I have not had a day off since Nov. 25. There is so much to learn."
After he completes this round of training, he will serve on missions flying in and out of Afghanistan and other locations around the world. He's due to return home in June.
But Gary would be the first to acknowledge that his selfless service hasn't been his sacrifice alone. Like many thousands of other military families, Gary's wife and daughter have had to endure the emotional, financial and logistical strain of long separations; constant worrying over the safety of their loved one; and the daily reminders of his absence.
For those military families whose son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father will never return, I can only imagine that the pain must weigh even more heavily during the holidays.
Even the lucky ones — if it's appropriate to call them that — find the joy of reunions tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that their time together is always achingly too brief.
Last week I spoke with Gary's wife, Suzy Mathieson, who teaches physical education and coaches the girl's volleyball team at Edison High School in Huntington Beach. She said they kept the news of Gary's impending arrival secret from Kacey because they didn't want to subject her to crushing disappointment if her dad's leave was canceled at the last minute — always a possibility for military personnel.
"With the military, nothing is ever for certain," Suzy said. "I've learned that if it happens, it happens."
A decade ago, when Gary was deployed for more than two years in one stretch, "It was a real roller coaster ride," Suzy said.
At the time, she was teaching full-time, coaching, working on a master's degree, and caring for Kacey — then just a toddler — on her own.
"At first, I didn't ask for help, and it nearly did me in," she said.
But she learned along the way to adjust and cope, and to enlist the support of friends and family.
She said she is "blessed" by all the assistance offered to her. "I'm in a different place now."
Having Gary home for Christmas is "huge," Suzy said.
When we spoke, she was looking forward to gathering with family members, and being able to attend church services together.
"Having Gary be there is awesome," she said.
When I exchanged emails with Gary last week, he wrote that he was "very excited" about coming home for Christmas, but that he was "wishing all of our service men and women could do the same."
He added that he's been particularly impressed with the new enlistees he's encountered.
There are "so many young people stepping up and volunteering in a time of war to serve this great country of ours," he wrote. "They don't have to do it, but they do."
He recalled working with three student pilots, two young women and one man, who "looked like they could have just graduated from CdM. Sooo young-looking."
Let's all take a moment to give thanks to the men and women who serve — or have served — in the armed forces, and to all of their families, who rightfully deserve credit for their unsparing commitment and support.
On this day of all days, we should remember those who have given the rest of us the greatest gift of all — themselves — and honor their devotion and sacrifice.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.