As the morning light crept across the floor I noticed black, wavy hair had already collected under the dining table. I took the Swiffer from the broom closet and wiped the floor from the front room carpet to the back door – again. As I tossed the sheet, fluffy with dog hair into the waste basket Hopi, our black, Golden-Aussie dog trotted into the room and stopped. She sensed my anxiety and studied me closely.
I clicked my tongue and extended my hand toward her. She came near and sat beside me, leaning on me. I stroked her head as if doing so comforted her more than me. Hopi somehow knew what we all felt – something was not right. Nobody wanted to think about it. But we all felt it.
It was Tuesday, April 14, 2003. My second son deployed for Iraq on His grandpa’s birthday the end of February. By the second week of March, Nathan was able to send short emails every day or so. He phoned a couple of times, briefly reporting that he and his men were all good. But it had been almost two weeks since anyone heard from him.
Now, looking through the doorway to the computer monitor across the room, I saw the screensaver still undisturbed – no new email. Unable to sleep I’d gotten up and busied myself by cleaning the house hours before. Exhausted, but restless, I still needed to do something. I reluctantly said, “Walk?” Hopi stood, tail sweeping high and wide as she trotted across the room to take her leash in her mouth from the doorknob, carried it back to me and stood expectantly. Her eyes fixed on me, watching closely.
“Good morning.” Kerry called from the far side of the office.
“Hey, good morning.” I called back.
The phone rang, startling us all. I spun on my heel, reaching for the handset on the table next to me, sucked in a deep breath and pressed the button. Hopi sat when she saw my shoulders droop slightly. Instead of the static-laced, overseas connection I’d hoped for, the recorded telemarketer squawked for a moment before I hung up. I heard Kerry sigh loudly as he hung up the handset in the office at the same time. Something had to give.
I took the leash from Hopi and she trotted before me a few feet toward the front door. As I passed the office doorway, Kerry leaned around his computer monitor, smiling at me – my sunshine. I paused hoping to not see any trace of concern which would increase mine. “Telemarketer” I reported already forgetting we’d both answered our handsets at the same time. We each considered something pleasant to say, but settled for silent smiles.
“We’re going to get some fresh air. You want to take a break?” I asked him.
“I tossed the ball for her when I got back from the depot. I want to try to finish this by eleven.” nodding to his screen while studying my face. He’d taken my fourth son Quinn to the train so I could stay by the phone. I nodded. Work was good and a healthy distraction. I had surrendered working on my manuscript for the more immediate gratification I get from cleaning.
“I need to walk” I reiterated.
He agreed, “It’ll do you good, Honey” still watching the doorway. We both sighed, waiting. I wondered if he too could practically see the apprehension in the air. With another sigh I started toward the door. Walking down the hall I lifted my coat from the hook, pulling it on. The newspaper clipping with the names of the troops already k.i.a., taped to the wall fluttered as we passed. The moments seemed longer, each step taking greater effort. At the door I pushed one hand through the sleeve, turned the doorknob with the other and then zipped the coat closed.
Stepping outside, Hopi right behind me, I stretched my arms up and then bent down to touch my shoes, amazed at the effort it took. Hopi sat waiting for me to click her leash onto her harness. It’s strange how I didn’t notice the harsh Chicago weather for the last week – it simply didn’t matter to me. Instead I imagined my son and his company finding relief from the average 80 degrees in Baghdad. Closing the door behind us, Hopi and I crossed the street to the park.
As we walked the length of the block I envisioned Nathan and the company playing volleyball in the Iraqi sand, blowing off some steam. Then I realized they would be doing so in combat boots and battle dress uniforms. Scratch that thought. We were almost back where we’d started. I envied Hopi walking calmly, happily alongside me, her breathing slowing steadily.
“Hey!” I called, as though Kerry hadn’t heard us banging the storm door coming in. Anticipating I’d ask if there was any news, (like he wouldn’t have found me had there been), he called out, “Hi Babe.” And then, “Nothing yet.”
As if someone pulled my plug, my energy drained, exhaustion set in. The fact is, I hadn’t really slept other than brief cat naps for days. Before sunup I’d poured a cup of coffee, realized I’d already finished two, and then I poured it back into the pot. Feeling lost, I mechanically wiped the counters with a towel and then went to the table before I realized I had done that before sweeping. I reflected upon how the bursts of phone calls from friends at church and the rest of my family in other states kept me going like they hadn’t in years.
I sat down at the table. A moment later I rose, and stepped to my computer in the office again. Checking my email gave me no relief. I began to key whatever words came to mind: worry, fear, trepidation, war, danger, Nathan, please call or write. After a few more sentences that made no sense I took the keyboard from my lap and set it back on the desk. I stood, announcing more to the air than to Kerry that I was going downstairs. Kerry silently followed me with his eyes. He could see what I felt. There was nothing more to say. He nodded and went back to keying.
I started the washer and then realized there was nothing for me to put into it. I turned it off again and began washing the lid and the surfaces. While I wanted to think about times past, wiping grass and dirt from the top of the machine during little league seasons, I shook it off to keep my head in the present. This should not be so hard after raising four sons. But this was different from all his previous tours, even Bosnia-Herzegovina. Everything changed on September 11, 2001.
I walked back up the stairs, instantly recognizing the pronounced difference in the atmosphere. Kerry had stopped and stood in the doorway on his way out of the office. “She is right here” he said into the phone. Locking his eyes with mine, assuring me he was not moving, he handed the phone to me. Confused that I hadn’t heard it ring, something else struck a very flat, discomforting chord in me. I thought I felt a shock race from my hand to my feet and back as I raised the phone to my ear.
“Hey Mom.” It is Nathan’s weary, reserved voice. But he doesn’t say Ma’am, as he has for some 15 years. The suppressed dread that had been stagnating for days, exploded.
I struggle to speak, “Oh, Nate…”
“Listen Mom. I’m okay…” time slows. I recognize his voice is controlled – eerily, too controlled. I feel it – I know what is coming.
“Uh… I took a hit, Mom…” Again, not Ma’am.
I gasp, but no air flowed in. I glance up to see Kerry hiding his face behind his hands, his chest wretches. I must keep my focus on Nathan. I manage a quick breath.
“You are going to be alright, Natty…” I instinctively use the pet name I called him as a toddler that comforted him when he was sick or sad.
“I am, Mom.” The last time I heard fear in that voice was long ago, but louder than his voice, it screamed at me, mocked me now. I feel like someone shoved a wide blade in my diaphragm. I do not imagine fear in my son’s voice. Talking to his mom, it is real. The gravity sinks in, pushing that blade deeper. I pull myself tight, every muscle hard. Deep inside I find words,
“I’m right here Natty. I’m not going anywhere. You can tell me. It’s okay.” I want to breathe, but I can’t risk drowning out his voice. He sounds strangely apologetic,
“I’m gonna be okay, but I’m pretty messed up right now.”
He stammered slightly, “I – uh, Ma’am, my leg’s in a few pieces, an’ my boots are tore up…”
This is not his usual precise speech, his carefully chosen words. This casual, slurred language coming from my uber-disciplined soldier son is dispersing my last shred of hope. This nightmare is real. I silently bare down again and shove,
“It’s okay, Natty. You’re going to be just fine. I know it. God’s not done with you yet.”
“Uh, roger that, Ma’am,” his familiar tone returns. He continues, “I was in full body armor, so I was pretty much covered, I’m not sure about my junk…” I heard someone very close to his head say, “The family is secure, Sarge. There are a couple of pieces of shrapnel in your glutes. Repeat, Sarge, the family is secure.”
I hear Nathan acknowledge the corpsman, and goes on telling me,
“…but shrapnel tore through my other hand. This awesome corpsman offered me his phone so I called you. Uh. I’m gonna be okay Ma’am.”
“I know you are, Son. Where are you now?”
I am not surprised to hear him reply immediately, “Ma’am, I’m in a field hospital not far from Baghdad on Highway 8. They’re going to transport me to Landstuhl pretty quick here. And hey Ma’am…”
I can hear a corpsman assuring him. I feel Kerry’s hands gently rest on my shoulders, now aware he is praying.
“Nate, good men have you now and I won’t stop praying until I can kiss your face.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. I know you will and I appreciate… Hey Mom, I’m real good an’ uh, I love you Mom.”
“I love you Natty. I always will.” I could hear him breathe calmly, deeply. I said softly, “I will see you real soon.”
He quietly agreed, “Oh, yes Ma’am.”
And now I hear nothing.
My instincts had been spot-on again. I stand frozen. Silent. Time stops. I do not feel. I do not think. I can not allow myself to feel.