GAITHERSBURG -- The final straw -- after the interrupting, after the whining, after the punching -- came when the Frank children imperiled the glass coffee table in the living room by dropping something on it that sounded heavy and metallic and VTC as though it had been dropped from a great height -- say, the ceiling.
With that, Navy Cmdr. Joel Frank leaped to his feet, raced to the living room and summoned a voice he might have found useful with lollygagging sailors. "That's it," he said authoritatively. "Downstairs, this moment. I don't care what you do -- play Nintendo, read a book, color, but don't let me hear a peep from you."
Seven-year-old Evan and 5-year-old Lauren, impervious to their father's displeasure, merrily scampered down to the playroom, and Commander Frank returned to the round dining room table covered with construction paper, crayons, alphabet books and photographs of his wife.
"This week, I've been a lot more upset with them," he said as he sat down wearily. "I think it's cyclical. I went eight days during one stretch without yelling at them once, and that's amazing even when my wife's here, but this week, I don't know whether it's the relief or the stress, but I've really been on edge with them."
Now, finally, he can begin to look forward to the homecoming of his wife, Lt. Cmdr. Melanie Frank, and the end of single parenthood, which began for him Sept. 9.
On that day, Melanie Frank, a nurse, boarded a plane for Spain, where she hooked up with the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship then steaming toward the Persian Gulf.
As of Thursday, he hadn't heard his wife's voice since before the shooting started.
On Wednesday night, Joel Frank, whose work at the Pentagon in medical services kept him at home, exulted upon hearing President Bush's speech announcing the end to the fighting.
"I was expecting it any day, but when I saw it, I was just thrilled."
The children, while less demonstrative, also understand what the end of the war means.
"It means," said Evan as he labored over a coloring book, "that my Mommy is coming home soon."
The children, who are cared for by a nanny during the day, have borne up well throughout the crisis, Joel Frank said.
"I have to say I'm so proud of these kids. They're so well-adjusted. I haven't noticed any psychological problems at all.
"It's funny: Everybody asks, 'How are the kids?' I say, 'Great.' 'Well, how's the father?' 'Definitely not as well as the kids.' "
Although he said he never worked harder to make sure that the children were content, lately he has detected his own strength slipping away as the war neared its conclusion.
"My motivation is low. Things that should be fixed, I just let sit. Clothes that should be mended, I leave for another time. If there are bills to pay, I wait until the last minute or beyond.
"I'm physically drained, and just to be able to do any of the extras is beyond me."
Now comes the waiting for Melanie Frank to come home, which Joel Frank is hoping will be within a month.
When she returns, she will find that Lauren is now wearing glasses and Evan is in braces.
And she will also find one-half of the child-care burden to pick up.
"We've always said it would be tougher on the person left behind," said Joel Frank.
"I've found out how true that is."