The son who returned home from Iraq was, in many ways, a stranger. Always a man of few words, Greg had seen and done things he wouldn’t talk about. But he also discovered people. He came home connected to friends all over the country. It seemed to start early on in his army career, maybe after eating at the General’s Table.
“Mom, they made us march 16 miles today. 3 more days until we do simulated attack. I won 10 rounds of hand-to-hand combat. I passed bayonet training,” he wrote home, all during boot camp. Except for the drill sergeant doling out disciplinary actions, Greg never mentioned other people. Then, several weeks into basic training, the drill sergeant directed some of the privates in the platoon to do an extra detail. Tired, hungry and sore, the soldiers were taken to the general’s house to collect the furniture and clean up from a party held that day. When they got there, they found leftover prime ribs, shrimp, eggrolls, sandwiches, and cakes. They were given an hour to clear the place and get rid of it all.
“Any way you can,” the drill sergeant barked before he disappeared.
“Yeah. So I ate at the General’s Table today,” Greg told us with glee over the base phone he’d waited on a long line to use. After that, in addition to filling us in on his own achievements, his letters and calls were rich with stories about his fellow soldiers. His communications came alive with the adventures of Stapp and Williams, and the trips they took to steak houses and shopping malls, and to New Orleans to see Mardi Gras. They wrote to each other’s sisters, and Greg’s social side began to blossom. The shy, lone warrior played golf, fished, cooked meals, and went out with friends. And good shared times continued with Marika when he came home on leave.
My returning warrior picked up some questionable new behaviors in the army. He now slept only on the couch, with the television blasting, the computer and lights on, and everything he held dear within arms’ reach. His bedroom became a storage closet for his collection of knives and guns. He chewed tobacco. He drank. He took extreme pride in his precision barbecuing.
“Mom, you gotta try some of this,” he offered when I came home shortly after him one Friday evening, while Marika was away at college.
“No thanks. It looks like the squirrel you shot in the driveway last week.”
“No, it’s barbecued rabbit steak. Fresh today. Marinated in good Irish whiskey,” he said. “With Rufus Teague Pork Rub.”
To this day, my son skillfully manages the searing and flipping on the grill. He scrapes the iron grates afterwards. He takes care of the grill, his guns, and his people. His friends and those he works with mean the world to him and he will drop everything, lose sleep, lose money, and defy death and danger to take care of them. Most amazing to me, my soldier keeps in touch. And it surprises me that he always comes home, though the length of his time here grows shorter and shorter as he hones in, ever closer, to the what and where of his future. I watch with bittersweet pride as he becomes a veritable citizen of the greater world, no longer an incidental by-product of small town Ithaca.
I know soldiers. They don’t fuss over their misfortunes. They keep busy with other things. When his gut ached, Greg would find the Tums and a friend to play golf with. When his Achilles tendon got torn in a boating accident, he threw away the crutches, changed his own dressings, and went out shopping at the mall. When stung by a girlfriend, he’d go out drinking with the guys.
Home from the base early one week, he strode into the kitchen with three huge racks of ribs, two jars of barbecue sauce and a twenty-four ounce can of beer. He mixed it all together in my largest broiler pan and set it in the fridge. For days he nursed it, turning the racks and redistributing the sauce.
“Who’s gonna eat all this?” I asked, thinking I would arrive home to a party any time. On the third day, grinning, he put the whole thing in the oven on medium-low for three hours. Then he put it on the grill while he mixed up a batch of barbecue-type beans. A new girlfriend showed up, dressed and made up like they were going out. The next thing I knew, the three of us were eating dinner around the kitchen counter. We polished off most of it.
But one night in December, he came home from the base long after I’d gone to bed. He noisily climbed up the staircase, and before I could fall back to sleep, I heard a loud thud overhead. I ran upstairs. He’d fallen from the couch. I could not wake or move him.
“Mom, I’m okay,” he murmured, not opening his eyes.
“Are you sure you’re okay? You’re gonna sleep on the floor?”
“I’m okay,” he said again, and started to drift away into sleep. “Oh yeah, I’m going to Afghanistan in three weeks.” And then my heart fell through the floorboards.
Every life is precious to someone. Each warrior has a mother, a sister, or someone somewhere to whom he is a hero. The warrior who lives under my roof is a seasoned soldier whose respect for life is vastly different from my own. Marika and I were proud of him; we were scared for him. Whenever he deployed, we wore duplicates of his dog tags he’d made for us. When he was sent to Afghanistan in the winter of 2009, Marika steeled herself for her brother’s demise. She soldiered on at Clark University while I kept the computer on late nights waiting for the familiar chirping sound of his Instant Messaging.
Over the phone, Marika sounded strong. On maintenance chemotherapy to stay in remission, she was taking ATRA in pill form. ATRA, the drug that gave her seizures and nearly killed her months before was now her main weapon against leukemia. It gave her nausea and headaches the weeks she was on it. But the last bone marrow biopsy showed her to be totally clear of leukemia cells. If she could just stay on ATRA for two years, cancer could become history. She called from her dorm room on a Saturday night.
“Mom, I’m taking a Red Cross class so I can be a lifeguard at camp this summer.” One of my soldiers was becoming a lifeguard? For a second I smiled inside myself, thinking maybe she would learn how it feels to watch over lives that could wash away in a blink, maybe she’d experience adrenaline pulsing through her, overriding all fear and allowing her to venture into dangerous waters to save a life. But I didn’t let this distract me.
“Great,” I said. “Are you taking your ATRA?”
“Mom. I’ve got it under control. Mom, Jake got sick again. He’s got my type of leukemia now. He had to leave school early,” she said. My children always said “Mom” before they said what they had to say. It’s like they had to awaken me, make sure they grabbed my attention. But my attention was already captured by this news of her friend getting sick again. Jake would occupy a good chunk of my thoughts over the next months as I regularly sent out silent prayers for him and his family. After all, you send your kid off to college after cancer and you think you’ve accomplished something. You think you’ve finally won the war. You don’t expect to be taken prisoner by cancer all over again.
“I’m transferring to Ithaca College for next fall,” Marika added quickly.
“Uh, are you sure you want to do that?” She had caught me off guard. Part of me was excited that she might be back in Ithaca; but I was torn because I wanted her to be a normal healthy kid loving being away. Isn’t that what she craved? To be free of me and home? I thought that was what all my soldiers needed.