7 August 2008
I took the blue star out of the front window. It had been there since April 2007. It was faded; the red gone to a faint red, not pink, the blue dimmed to blue-grey. The star is the same pattern that Betsy Ross used. I was going to join the Blue Star Mothers online and get a flag from them, thinking this would be a good thing. Thinking I might need to talk to them sometime during Seth’s deployment. But then there was the issue of the loyalty oath they wanted me to sign. A loyalty oath, to get into a group I had not desire to belong to anyhow? No. So I looked for a five-pointed star pattern online and found the one Betsy Ross used in first flag. I liked that, liked the continuity of it because while I didn’t believe for a moment my son was defending his country, I love my country and connecting back to our better selves felt good.
When I hung it, I didn’t think of the sun and the way it damages fabric. I thought a lot of the damage the sun in a place like Iraq can do and sent sunblock. Even though the Base Exchange carried it, he probably wouldn’t buy it. He said he didn’t need armor despite all the news stories. ‘We don’t wear most of it anyhow,” he said. So I sent sunblock, the only armor I could provide, unless you count love and prayers, a constant shield around him from roughly 6,000 miles. His friends and ours were praying, too. I fantasized that a mother’s prayers were special. But that was a fantasy. That was clear from the daily news.
He called from Ft. Lewis, back at last. He was safe. At last I turned off the cell phone, which had been on in class, in doctor’s offices, in places with clear signs ordering me to turn it off. The only place I lost that battle was in the Federal building in Syracuse. The security guards cared not a whit for my pleas. They took the phone and gave me a chit for it. The whole time we were in the Social Security office, I fidgeted, wanting to run downstairs and check. What if he had got hurt? No that would go to the home phone, but he might have just called. If I missed the call I couldn’t call back. For the entire deployment, I saved all the phone messages we had from before he left, in case I never heard his voice again. I especially loved the one about the free llama. He was driving back from a retreat in Canada and saw a sign. It was a typical message, laughing and light hearted, the way we would have wanted to remember him.
When his sister deployed to Qatar, I didn’t have a recording of her voice to save. But she sounds like me. In phrasing and vocabulary, in wry humor we all sound alike. And her daughter sounds so much like her I can no longer tell them apart on the phone. Amy and I couldn’t be more different in nature and temperament, but she is the self I might have been, a better me, who calls rarely, loves me from afar, and goes her own way. When she was two she walked off and left me in a mall and was non-plussed when I found her. Not even scared. A thing I envied, even as I scolded her for terrifying me.
We sent snack packages to both. I included lotion for her. The desert is dry. She laughs at me, in email; “As if we don’t have everything here.” True. The US works hard to make deployment like playing: AC, movies, a complete Base Exchange, phones, email. Over and over I wonder how those other women did it, during other wars when a letter might come occasionally or not at all. When a letter was an act of faith so great my heart quails to think of it. You wrote, “My dearest son,” walked to the post office, purchased the stamps, yielded the content of your heart, the prayers encoded in the minutiae of daily life that he wanted to hear, believing it would get to him, mostly to him, since women came late to the field of war. And then you waited, went on with life, ran the farm or business, tended the other children. During their deployments I often pictured myself perched on the mailbox, waiting. I had to wait there, to keep the mailman from pulling his black car into the driveway.
They come in a black car. Two soldiers. To bring the news of a loved one’s death. No impersonal telegrams with black borders, the ones my mother’s generation so feared. And further back there were lists from the newspaper or no news at all. One waited. We planned, as if it would help. I told his little sister what to do if they came and his father and I weren’t home. Let them in. Call us. make coffee for them. Wait. I planned in my head what I might do: lock the door, faint, wail and howl, serve them coffee in silence, run upstairs and hide in the room he sleeps in when he is here. But you never know and you can’t plan. His father never talked about it. He didn’t read the will his son left, a graceful, thoughtful document. We never even joked about the money we’d get, though I planned what to do with that: pay off the debts, set up funds (tiny ones-the ‘death benefit’ isn’t that much) for his sister’s kids or invest for our old age, maybe take one trip, mostly give it all to the Baha’i Faith in his name. When I explained to the mailman, he was more than happy to park on the street and lug things up the hundred-foot drive.
No letters came. He used email. But I wrote to him, long letters full of babblings about the garden, my classes, Da and the other sister still at home, what I was watching on TV. It was a grand gesture really, a way to feel kinship with women of other wars. And it was for the feel of writing, the fountain pen on paper. I wished for elegant stationery, but mostly wrote in the graph paper notebooks I favor. I tore out the pages and sent them with Star Wars stamps. Star Wars was a childhood obsession. He said he liked the stamps and the letters. Who knows? I imagine him reading them, grinning at my voice, so like his own, and perhaps keeping them. I hope he kept them.
Amy sent effusive emails of thanks for the snacks or as we call them snackies. Apparently we made quite a hit with the fighter pilots with whom she shared. Seth put his out in the day room or invited friends over for parties. Now that they are back, I cruise past the snack aisle in stores. I am not possessed by the urge to make cookies, nor do I search the King Arthur Cookie cookbook for recipes that will withstand the long journey to Iraq or Qatar,that will endure the heat. No chocolate they said between April and November. Savories were always welcome. For the Baha’i holidays in February we sent books and toys and goodies. Amy sent embroideries from Qatar and saffron. Seth sent things via the Internet, flowers for the little sister, books and music for us.
The rear battalion called to invite us to the welcome home celebration at Ft. Lewis. Nice. Also the first contact I had had from them in the entire fifteen months. Still, no news is good news. Seth had already called from the airport and then emailed. His sister emailed, but never called. So they were back. At first I walked around in an elated daze, grinning to myself and laughing and crying at odd moments. I prayed and thanked God repeatedly. No bargaining, no promising to be good forever because my children had returned safely, just praise and thanksgiving. And a remembrance of those who did not return safely and a prayer for their mothers who waited in vain. And then I took down the blue star and turned off the cell phone. And exhaled.