By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 23, 2013 1:46 PM
Staff Sgt. Antoinette Gibson kisses her 1-year-old twin daughter Makayla, right, while holding her other twin, Makenzie, after a service at Church on the Rock Sunday. Staff Sgt. Gibson returned home a few weeks early to surprise her family during church. Her daughters were only 6 months old and were just learning to crawl when she was deployed to Africa. They can now walk and are starting to talk.
Staff Sgt. Gibson embraces her crying mother, Rhonda Posey, who was also part of the Christmas surprise.
Inside a room hidden from the rest of the Church on the Rock congregation, Antoinette Gibson spends several moments in quiet reflection -- repeating the prayer that has consumed her for the past several weeks.
"Lord, please just let my kids remember me," she said.
She was absent the day they said their first words -- when they transitioned from crawl to walk and celebrated their first birthdays.
She wasn't there to console them when tears fell -- when their mouths began filling with teeth and they gave up the bottle for table food.
So Antoinette waits -- clinging to a hope that her twin 1-year-old girls will light up when they see a familiar woman in an Air Force uniform walking toward them.
Rhonda Posey takes her seat inside the church with her granddaughters in tow.
It has been six months since she watched her daughter board a plane bound for Africa -- since she took on all the responsibilities that come with raising two infants.
And it has been several days since the last time she saw Antoinette's face on an iPad screen.
So with no guarantee that she would get to speak with her before the holidays, she, too, has something to pray for.
"I hadn't heard from her the last several days, and it was really bothering me," Rhonda said. "I didn't want her to miss out on their first real Christmas. I was feeling bad for her."
Rhonda breaks down when the lights dim and a video Christmas card starts playing on a large movie screen.
Antoinette, it seemed, had made sure her presence was felt at the church's last service before the holiday.
But the setting of the video -- and the uniform her daughter was donning in it -- were also reminders that in a few days, she would be missing another milestone.
"So when I saw her up there, I just lost it," Rhonda said.
She had no idea that the video was just the beginning -- that moments later, there wouldn't be a dry eye from the pulpit to the back row.
Her face buried in her hands, Rhonda doesn't seem to notice that something else is playing over the speakers -- that once the video had concluded, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" began.
Just seeing her daughter's face -- Antoinette had told her mother that she was going on her last mission and might not be able to contact her until after the holidays -- seemed like a miracle, she said.
So when, moments after that song started playing, her little girl stepped through a doorway and walked toward her, tears fell harder.
And then, they embraced.
"I was like, 'No way.' At that point, I was done," Rhonda said. "I just grabbed a hold of her and didn't want to let her go. She's actually here."
A mother reconnects with her daughters as the youngest members of her congregation put on a play about the birth the Christ.
She holds Makenzie and Makayla in her arms and sways to the music -- her face resting softly on theirs.
"It was awesome. I was nervous. I was anxious. I was scared," Antoinette said about the reunion. "I thought, 'I might have to walk out there with my iPad so my kids know that this is Mommy.' I was afraid how they would react when they saw me -- if they would remember who I was."
In that moment, the six months she had spent serving her country were secondary to the feeling that overcame her when she, at last, got to make a memory with the most important people in her life.
It made the two days she had been hiding out in a Goldsboro hotel worth it.
"I said, 'Man. I'm only five minutes away. I could just go to the house right now and surprise (my mom) and see my kids. It was very hard. I was so close, but so far away. I was counting the hours and the minutes," Antoinette said. "But I just wanted to do something special for my mom. You know, my kids don't understand. They don't really get it. It hurt me more than it hurt them -- to leave and then come back. But my mom, she has done so much. As soon as she found out I was deploying, she said, 'Don't worry. I'll take them. We'll figure it out.'"
And as much as it pained her to see her daughter board that plane -- as hard as it was to play 'Mommy' for infants for the first time in nearly 20 years -- Rhonda said she would, without a second thought, do it all over again.
"By me doing this, it was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it allowed her to be OK while she was gone. She might have missed them, but she knew her children were being taken care of," she said. " And I would do it all over again -- in a heartbeat. Hopefully, I'll never have to ... but if the situation came up, if she had to deploy again, I would be right there."
But for now, only one thing matters.
Antoinette is home.
And that, Rhonda said, is a Christmas blessing that can't be measured in how many gifts find their way under the tree before Wednesday morning.
"I just can't believe it," she said. "I really can't believe it."
"When she hugged me, the first thing she said was, 'Oh my gosh, I love you,'" Antoinette said. "And then she said, 'Thank you, Jesus.'"