"Mama Always Comes Home"

For a filmmaker, an Afghanistan-bound mother’s recordings to her children hit close to home.

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The message popped up on my Facebook page one day last summer. “I will be leaving for Afghanistan in September. I just found out about 45 minutes ago, and I am sick to my stomach. I am worried about the girls and Hugh.”

I had met Rupa Dainer at my children’s day care center, but knew her only casually. I had seen her husband in a khaki naval uniform, but it wasn’t until she mentioned deployment one day that I realized she was in the Navy, too. I had been telling her about my video business when she said, “I may need you one day.” 

Deployment videos aren’t exactly my specialty. I started DMB Pictures four years ago to capture people’s life stories on DVD. I like to say the resulting films are akin to a Ken Burns documentary of your life. My typical subjects are aging individuals preserving their memories for future generations, but I have also worked with a few terminally ill clients. As heartbreaking as those films were to make, my subjects seemed at peace with their fate. Working with Rupa would be different. I would be filming a mother going off to war, a mother whose two girls—Phoebe, 4, and Rory, 2—were about the same ages as my two boys.

It’s early August when I drive up the tree-lined street of Rupa’s Bannockburn neighborhood in Bethesda for our first meeting. This is the same street where she grew up, the daughter of Indian immigrants who were adamant she “be American.” In the affluent district of Walt Whitman High School, it was assumed you would become some sort of professional. Joining the military was the farthest thing from Rupa’s mind as a student there.  

We sit down at her dining room table, crowded with chairs and two booster seats, to discuss what she wants to say in the video. She knows she wants to record herself reading stories, and grabs the five books she has already picked out. Not one princess book is among them, which is ironic given that a princess fantasy got her here.

Rupa had wanted to wear beautiful ball gowns and dance since childhood. One night at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where she was studying French horn and biology, a friend offered to take her ballroom dancing to lift her spirits. She was instantly hooked, and eventually convinced Nick Short of Du-Shor Dance Studios in Bethesda to teach her to be a dance instructor.

While teaching one Friday night, she began dancing with Hugh Dainer, and within five minutes she knew he was “the one.” She called him all weekend, not realizing that he was an early user of Caller ID. When he showed up the next Monday night, he asked, “So now that I’m taking lessons with you, are you going to stop calling me?” They were engaged eight months later. 

Eight months—that’s how long she will be away from her family. We decide she should record a special message for each month based on a holiday or family tradition, and we discuss props. Then we talk about an extra DVD, “just in case” something happens.

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 to the “just in case” video.

A week later, I arrive at Rupa’s house with my videographer, Susana Travieso, and my intern, Tom Heijne. It’s only 9 a.m., but Rupa has already been to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for several hours, working as a pediatric anesthesiologist.

She laughs as we walk past clutter—magazines, toys and more books than I’ve ever seen in one home. “I think Hugh’s actually a little excited for me to be leaving so he can keep things neat,” she says.

A United States Naval Academy graduate and the son of a military doctor, Hugh was already in his third year of medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda when he met Rupa. By this time, she had decided to go to medical school, as well, and when she realized she could get free tuition at USU and remain close to Hugh, she applied. During her interview, she was asked, “What would you do if you were deployed and had children?” She recalls replying glibly, “I would handle it.”

Eleven years later, and two weeks after completing her fellowship in pediatric anesthesiology, she received a call telling her she was being deployed to Afghanistan. “All I could think was: Oh, my God, I have to leave my kids? For eight months?

“Before I had my kids, I totally believed … you join the military, this is your duty, you support the soldiers and the sailors,” she says. “I didn’t see why anything would ever get in the way of that.”  

Now she had Phoebe and Rory to think about. “All my friends at work said, ‘Your kids will be fine, just tape yourself reading stories,’ and I just thought to myself: That just does not address what’s going on here. In no way does me reading them stories make up for me not being here. They need to have an experience of Mommy.”  

We walk downstairs and decide to film in the playroom. We clear a path of toys and set up a big, black easy chair for her to sit in and read stories, which we’ve decided will be at least a part of what she leaves for her children.

Phoebe, Hugh and Rory Dainer watch the DVD Rupa made them before deploying to Afghanistan. With the lighting and microphone in place, I give a quiet, “Action.” Rupa picks up a book, holds it to one side, looks straight at the camera and announces the title: Mama Always Comes Home.

Does she? I think to myself. 

A few weeks later, when I ask her about the book, she says, “We started with a bad one. The first three words into it I was choking it back. I feel like I’m promising something that may not be true, because Mama may not come home. But I’m hoping that’s a pretty remote possibility.”

Remote possibility. It’s kind of a theme for Rupa. During her first six weeks of training camp “it seemed like a game,” she says. “It felt like I was at summer camp, except I had to wear a uniform.”

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