Homecoming videos provide a source of encouragement and revitalization during long deployment nights. You watch the videos of kids being surprised by their dad at their graduation, or mothers having a surprise visit at their cubicles. These videos remind us of what is to come: A happy ending, a reunion and most importantly an end to the deployment.

Recently, I had the privilege to take part in my brother-in-law’s surprise homecoming for my niece and nephew. I snuck my brother-in-law in behind the stage curtain, while my sister and I sat, awaiting my niece and nephew, who were being brought up from their class. It was nerve-wracking– even though I have been through numerous homecomings myself — but this was different. This time, I saw the homecoming from the outside.

I saw my sister fumbling with her phone; her nerves were visible. My brother-in-law nervously laughed from his hiding spot. It felt like forever we were sitting there. Finally, the gymnasium door opened and in came my niece and nephew with their backpacks, homework and lunch boxes. An overwhelming sense of joy flooded over me. They didn’t know it yet, but their deployment was over.

I sat silently thinking about the past six months. Christmas was filled with activities in hopes that we could keep them busy enough that just maybe the empty chair at the table would be slightly less noticeable. Award ceremonies at school included neighbors and other friends, to make up for the missing cheers from their father. They didn’t know it yet, but these painful memories were behind them.

My niece and nephew sat down facing my sister and me. While we asked them what they did today, and why they thought we would be called down to the school, my brother-in-law snuck up behind them. With perfect timing, he spoke up, and the shock and recognition of his voice took hold. My niece ran around her chair throwing herself at her father. My nephew jumped over his chair as if he couldn’t wait for even a second longer. The three clung to each other, as the tears cascaded down their cheeks.

I turned to watch my sister, who sat back to take pictures and videos. My sister’s smile was so intense you would assume she had never frowned a day in her life. You would never assume this was the same woman who had to spend six months filling the role of two parents. You would never assume she was the entrepreneur running her business while cuddling her two kids, who missed their dad tremendously. You would never assume that this was the same woman who had to cry alone, to ensure she didn’t add to her children’s already-heavy burden.

Sometimes, it’s not about what you see. The emotion that hits home when watching homecoming videos often lies below the surface. It’s the invisible sigh of relief, as your family is whole again. It’s in the authenticity of the smile. It’s in the slight difference between tears of sadness and tears of joy.