"Hi, baby," Alexis Miller said as she walked into the classroom in her United States Navy uniform.
"Mommy!" cried 7-year-old Machiah Miller, who hadn't seen his mother since last year.
Machiah ran into his mother's arms and hugged her. Alexis picked Machiah up, his face buried into her shoulder.
"Now I'm breaking down," Alexis said. "At first, I tried to play it cool, but as soon as I saw him, of course I just melted."
"Boys and girls, we have a special visitor," Linda Vertal told her second-graders at Scioto Darby Elementary School just as the school day of May 26 drew to a close before the Memorial Day weekend. "Machiah's mom has returned from overseas in serving our country. Let's give her a hand for all the hard work she's done for us."
The children burst into applause, and one boy persistently asked Alexis, "Did you help kill Osama (bin Laden)?"
"How about some cupcakes?" the Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class replied.
Machiah's godparents, Hilliard residents KaTanya and Eugene Ingram, passed out vanilla and chocolate cupcakes topped with plastic Spiderman rings to the students, but only after they had washed their hands. They also passed out small American flags.
"This is going to be Machiah's last day," KaTanya told the class. "He's been away from his mom all of second grade and half of first grade. So we're gonna let him go back to be with his mom. Thank you for being nice to him."
"Wait a minute, you still have four days of school," principal Kayla Pinnick jokingly said. "He's been fantastic," Pinnick said of Machiah. "He's adjusted well. He has a lot to offer."
"He has grown a lot in height," Alexis said of Machiah, indicating a head taller with her hand. "He's going to be my height next year. And his vocabulary has gone through the roof since I saw him last. But inside, he's still my crazy Machiah. I love him to death."
Machiah, smiling ear to ear, showed his mom his Reebok Spiderman sneakers. "I told you I'd see you by June 1, and I'm a couple days early," Alexis Miller told her son.
Machiah knew his mom was in the United States, debriefing from her deployment, and he'd call her at least three or four times a day. "God forbid if I don't answer that phone," Alexis said. "If he could text, he would text me."
While she was helping protect the health of Marines in Pakistan (in flood- relief efforts), Spain, Italy, Seychelles and Djibouti, Alexis would email her son and call him at 1:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on weekends. Machiah would write letters, which KaTanya sent to Alexis as electronic PDF files, to help bridge the distance between them.
Machiah would pass the time away from his mom by playing video games, watching TV, playing soccer, and hanging out with Eugene and KaTanya Ingram's two sons. "It's just like having a little brother. He livens things up," Eugene said of Machiah.
The Ingrams met Alexis Miller in church at the Naval Station Great Lakes near North Chicago, Illi., while Eugene was also in the Navy. Miller was pregnant with Machiah at the time, about to become a single mother.
"I remember I sat next to KaTanya in church," Alexis said. "I didn't even know her, and she said do you need anything? I said I need a lot, and she wrote a whole list of stuff down. She's been an overwhelming amount of help since the day I met her. Without them and of course, my parents, I probably wouldn't be a (military) lifer."
KaTanya was there when Machiah was born, and for the last 15 months, cared for him just as Alexis would.
"It was bittersweet when she said she was coming back," KaTanya said of Alexis. "My first selfish reaction was, are you sure? He could stay the summer, you know. But I understand her excitement as well."
Alexis and Machiah Miller will be stationed at Camp Lejeune, in Alexis' home state of North Carolina, for the next 18 months. If she gets deployed again, Machiah could be returning to Hilliard.
Mother and son have reconnected by making dinners together and watching movies, especially the ones with action heroes from the comic books. The first film the Millers were going to see was "Thor." But that's not the only hero Machiah looks up to.
"I'm proud of her," Machiah said of his mom. "She's my No. 1 hero."