I woke that morning at five-thirty to the sound of our alarm ringing through the fog of sleep. When after a few minutes it stopped, I thought you had turned it off. I rolled over and reached for you, only to find your side of the bed empty, as it has been every day for months now. For a minute I was confused and as I puzzled, the alarm was catching its breath, and as I remembered, the alarm resumed its tolling. As I reached across the space you have left, my thoughts went out to you across the ocean and again I wished you were home, as I have every morning since you shipped out.
It was chilly in the room, so I buried the pain of missing you and got up to adjust the thermostat. I looked out the window, at the dark sky. It was already past noon where you were, and you were surely sweating in the midday desert sun. I hoped you were drinking enough water. I shivered and went to start the shower running. Soon it would be time to wake up the kids and get them ready for school.
After the bus pulled away, I went inside to do the breakfast dishes. Then I put on the cardigan you got me for my birthday, you remember the sky blue one? You always used to comment on how it brought out my freckles. I would laugh and say, “Don’t you mean my eyes?”
“No,” you’d reply, “your beautiful eyes couldn’t be any more striking. “ Then you would try to pull me in for a kiss, and maybe I’d let you, or maybe I’d laugh and dodge away, and you’d have to chase me, but I always let you catch me in the end. Oh, I miss you still so much…..Anyway, I pulled on the cardigan and went for my morning walk.
The woods seemed more dense than usual, but it was probably just the air. The sun was up now, but hidden behind a heavy, low layer of clouds. You could see it sometimes through the trees as a slightly lighter patch of back-lit clouds. It barely shone through, turning a circle of clouds from grey to an elusive silver. I was walking through the grove of pines behind the hill when I felt a wrenching in my chest. You remember when we drove out to the beach that weekend last summer and we went to that salt water taffy shop? They were making it right there in the shop. There were machines for stretching it and folding it, and you remember that one that twisted it as it stretched in two opposite directions? It felt like my heart was that piece of taffy, like it was being twisted and twisted and stretched all the way from the mountains of Virginia to the dusty streets of Bagdad. It hurt more than anything, as bad as our son’s birth, and you know that baby was eleven pounds. My head swam and I fell to my knees and I searched the sky for the silvery sun, but I couldn’t find it and I called your name, baby, but you weren’t there, you were gone, you were gone.
Soon the pain faded and was able to stand, but I was suddenly so tired that I had to cut my walk short and go back home. I lay down in our bed, and though the pain was gone, I was still left with a vague sense of dread, but not fear, just a sort of sadness, but not grief either, r it was just a feeling of…of heaviness, of a great weight. I told myself it was just the weather, and anyone could see there was a storm coming. I tried reading, but the emptiness of our bed grew too much for me to bear, so I had to move out to the couch in the living room. Even then I couldn’t seem to concentrate. Finally I gave in to my inexplicable weariness, and went to sleep. I ended up sleeping all that day and through the night. Our children, bless them must have found me like that when they came home from school, but they let me sleep. Sometimes I think they’re stronger than I am. We are all helping each other get through this. They just ordered pizza that night and watched the thunderstorm rage outside. They’re so brave, just like their father. They love thunderstorms, you remember how you would take them out on the porch to watch the lightening those stormy summer nights? Not me, storms scared me. I was always inside with the radio or the TV turned all the way up, but I could see you through the window, all three of you laughing and howling and giggling, ooing and aahing as each new flash lit the churning sky. You’d all tramp back in when it was over with soaked clothes and shining eyes. We’d put the kids to bed quickly then, and then you’d carry be to our bedroom and we’d lock the door. You were always excited after a storm. When I remember the energy in you touch and the lightening in your eyes, thunderstorms don’t bother me so much anymore. But I slept through that one, and the kids watched it on their own and put themselves to bed. But I wasn’t just sleeping. I was dreaming.
I dreamt that I heard gunfire and the air was hot and filled with dust and the scent of gunpowder mingled with blood. I dreamt that I saw you on the dirt floor of an old stone building. You were sitting against a wall for support and shooting out one of the windows on the opposite side. There was blood on you uniform and your face was drawn with pain. A man at another window kept telling you to “Hold on!” between bursts of deafening gunfire. Suddenly there was this roaring and then an explosion from somewhere. You were blow sideways and I rushed to your side as everything turned white. All the sounds of fighting faded away. I knelt down beside you and I took off your helmet and I wiped the dirt and blood from your face with a warm washcloth. Slowly your glazed eyes refocused. You looked up at me and smiled. “Hey gorgeous,” you said, “It’s so good to see you.” I nodded my agreement and kissed you softly and you said “How are you holding up?” and I told you not to worry and that the kids were fine and doing well in school. “It’s going to rain tonight,” I said, and you said “Ooo! A storm?” And when I nodded you grinned. “Don’t be afraid, baby,” you told me, “I’ll protect you.” I lay down with you and rested my head on your chest. You put your arm around me and I closed my eyes as you repeated “I’ll keep you safe. I’ll always keep you safe.” We lay together like that for I don’t know how long, but eventually you got up and told me it was time to go. I wanted to ask you not to go, I wanted to beg and plead and cry on my knees like I wanted to the day you joined up, like wanted to the day you shipped out, but again I knew it was something you had to do and I didn’t want to make you feel bad, so I tried to smile and said tightly “Off you go then, my big brave man.” You hugged me and kissed the top of my head and whispered “You’re the brave one. I’m so proud of you baby, I love you so much.” I held you close one last time and I could feel the rough cloth of your shirt and I could feel your heartbeat. Then you lay down and you’re the building came back and you were hurting, you were dying, I could see the pain in your eyes and I cried for you and I told you to go then, I begged you and pleaded with you. “It’s ok, baby,” I sobbed, “Go, please go. You don’t have to fight anymore, you don’t have to hurt anymore. It’s ok, I love you, I’ll find you, please forget the pain and just go, go on, go!” Finally I saw your breathing slow, then stop, and your eyes, they just faded and you were trapped for a moment in a still body and then, I knew you were gone.
The next day there was a knock on my door, and outside stood a man in uniform. He respectfully removed his cap and with a solemn face began “I’m sorry to tell you ma’am, I have some bad news….” But I just nodded once and closed the door in his face. It may have been rude, but I’m sure he was relieved. Heavy news is hard to deliver, and I already knew what he was going to say.