MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama National Guard Master Sgt. Catina Hyatt has been deployed in Afghanistan for months, but she got back this week just in time.
Hyatt arrived stateside Sunday and spent the night at a friend's house so she could show up to surprise her daughter, Erykah Hyatt, at school Monday, Erykah's ninth birthday.
"I wanted to see her so bad," Hyatt said.
With the help of Hyatt's husband, Eric Hyatt, Dannelly Elementary School officials worked to coordinate an event that surprised Erykah and her mom. The school delayed its Constitution Day Parade until Monday so Hyatt could take part.
The school's third grade, including Erykah, watched as Jeff Davis High School's Marine Corps ROTC color guard led a long line of first-graders, who carried red, white and blue flags, streamers, wind socks and pin wheels, along the side of the school and up its front walkway. At the end of the line of students marched Hyatt.
Standing by her teacher, Erykah caught sight of her mother and pointed in what looked like disbelief before she raised her hand to her mouth and started crying. She started walking fast toward her mother before breaking into a run and falling into a hug that lasted minutes.
"I didn't know they would do this today," said a still bemused Erykah after the parade. She knew her mother would be home soon, but wasn't sure when.
She said she even thought maybe her mother was at school earlier that day, but it turned out simply to be her father with a birthday surprise.
"I was thinking that my mom, I thought she was in the office this morning," Erykah said explaining she was called to the office Monday morning, but it was because her father had dropped off cookies and balloons for her as a special birthday treat.
Erykah said she was definitely surprised to see her mother walking at the end of the parade carrying a "Happy Birthday Erykah" banner. Her mother confessed the parade caught her off guard, too.
Catina Hyatt said she thought her arrival would be a small affair, just inside her daughter's classroom. She had no idea it would be a fully coordinated spectacle with American flags, streamers and the national anthem.
"I was nervous," she said, later adding, "I didn't know it was this big of an event."
Dannelly Principal Emily Little said they had the idea to plan the surprise after pulling off a similar event two years ago when another student's father came home from a deployment.
Little said it's certainly important to honor those who serve, but events like Monday also remind students about the importance of what military men and woman do.
"This just shows them exactly what the military do for us," she said.
Erykah's third-grade teacher, Wendy Williams, stood beside Erykah during the parade.
"We're glad to see Erykah and her mom reunited," she said, adding it really reminded her of how she felt when her sister was deployed. "I had goose bumps for the past two weeks. I would just get chills."
Williams said for weeks now Erykah has anticipated her mother's homecoming and she's so pleased the school could help make that day special.
Erykah's father, Eric Hyatt, helped Dannelly staffers coordinate Monday's parade, even as his wife was unaware of the details.
He said it's been difficult for his family while his wife has been away.
"It's hard being a single parent," he said, adding he doesn't know how others do it.
Eric said he constantly found himself trying to console his daughter and provide her with information about her mother and when she would be home.
Now that she is home and in time to celebrate Erykah's ninth birthday, the Hyatts said they likely will celebrate with a quiet family night.
"Whatever Erykah wants to do," Catina Hyatt said.
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com