I wrote this for Memorial Day last year. There have now been 4000 American military people killed in Iraq (along with tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis). I guess I will republish it every year until the madness stops.
He was a surprise, actually, or "unplanned," as they call such things, but in the coming years, no one ever really remembered that part.
She read Doctor Spock, just to get ready, to wile away the passing months. She monitored her eating habits, wondering if she was ingesting the right blend of proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals...the monstrously huge prenatal vitamins that made her nauseated, but she held them down, for his sake; spinach, which was necessary because of spina bifida; no caffeine or, at the very least, less than usual. For months, her mouth tasted strangely metallic, which wasn’t in any of the books, and she was tired, so very tired, as if her body had taken on some mysterious, otherworldly work without her and there was little energy left for herself. He grew until it seemed he would explode her skin, until she worried how he would ever emerge, whether he could ever emerge. Meanwhile, he kicked and spun as if starring in his own unseen circus.
And, finally, finally, he came, pink and squirmy and utterly miraculous. Over time, the horrifying pain, the white-masked medical people, all of that stuff faded into faraway memories, the big birth day captured on photographs as if that part had happened to someone else. Those things were not what mattered. What mattered was his smell, sweet when he nursed, from the milk and from the sweat formed in the fuzz on the top of his head where it nestled in the crook of her arm; the soft, bleating cry, becoming louder and more insistent as the months passed and the lungs grew; the ten tiny fingers and ten perfect toes; the blue eyes, so clear, so different from hers, a contribution from his father’s side, no doubt.
And just as he’d come into the world a little whirlwind, so he remained, eager to walk, to explore his world. For him, everything was new. Empty boxes were the parts of the yearly Christmas bounty most worth exploring. The Easter Bunny was real, the melted chocolate leavings equally useful for decorating both the bathroom tile and the hallway wallpaper. Flowers and dirt proved equally palatable, his mother nonetheless doling out healthy human fare as carefully as she had for herself back when he was still on his way to becoming.
It’s amazing, really, how quickly a child grows, how only a parent knows the speed with which two full decades can fly. And so, the tricycle gave way to a scooter, the kiddie pool swimsuit to a team uniform, the unruly playground shouts to the strains of a saxophone. The "behavior reports," thank God, stopped being sent sometime around junior high. Around the same time, as the volume on the stereo in his room seemed permanently set to the ear-piercing level, he grew to a size she had never actually imagined, back when he was small and...hers. Now, he wasn’t anybody’s really, although he was legally still a child. Oh, sometimes he still acted like a child, certainly, but he had a man’s body now, one a foot longer than her own, one that often swept her up easily in huge, teasing bear hugs. As when he’d been a newborn, she often found herself wondering who this person was, where he had come from, this strange yet familiar source of endless joy.
His career decision was a shock. She’d been prepared for anything, or so she’d thought: doctor, fireman, baker, banker. True, they didn’t have money to pay for college, but there were loans – and such promise, such endless choices ahead. Why this, why? He was equally determined, for reasons she never fully understood. The only answers she could remember, later, years later, had to do with "money for college," "job training," and variants on "Mom, I just have to do this."
And so he did. Long past were the days when a motherly "no" could have stopped him, his stubborn pursuit of what he wanted. No phone calls were allowed, those first months. And when he came home on leave, he was different, although it was hard to say precisely how – an adult, more focused maybe, more self-assured. After that week, that all too short week, he left again, leaving on the end table a framed 8 X 10 photo of a uniformed and unsmiling young soldier. It was strange, really, how the eyes, so blue, so clear, were familiar while nothing else about the photo was.
Iraq. Something about how "they hate us for our freedoms." Something about how "we have to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here." Something about "weapons of mass destruction," about not "waiting for a mushroom cloud." Some far-off place she hardly knew anything about, actually. A desert. Moslems. "Mom," he would say on those rare calls home, "Don’t worry. We look out for each other." She never told him about the sleepless nights, the Zoloft for day and the Xanax for sleep, about the nightsweats and the bad dreams. And in turn, he never told her about the things he’d seen, how at nineteen, he too had turned insomniac, had seen people he thought he was there to help drive car bombs past checkpoints, how he had carried a baby out of a shelled home, the still, silent body wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket. These things were better left unsaid, better left unheard. So, during these calls they chatted casually about family and old friends. And both counted down the months.
It would have been impossible to tell anyone, later, how she’d heard the news, even if she could have remembered. This, too, was one of those things best left unsaid, best left unheard. Much like the day he was born, the worst of the pain and the faces of the people in uniform faded from memory and the things left to her were snapshots. Shots, yes, shots, 21...a 21 gun salute, American flag neatly folded, bullet casings tucked inside. Something about "on the half of a grateful nation" (which made no sense - and for a horrifying moment, she thought she might laugh and then, that if she did, she might never stop), but she hadn’t moved to take the triangle of fabric from him – what was she supposed to do here, what did he want from her - so he’d gently placed it on her lap before stepping back to execute a crisp salute. There was no way her son was in that box. That box was so still, so unlike him to stay still, and it would get cold. He was always so warm, would sweat against her when she nursed him, would make her too hot to sleep on those nights when thunder drove him to her big bed.
All of that promise – that he could be something, anything, that he would bring her joy always, that his parents would die first because that’s the natural order of things....
For Memorial Day – for those who have served, for the family members and friends of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and for Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son and birthed a peace movement.