Sunday, November 8, 2009

On such sweet sorrow...

Another 30 day leave is coming to an end, and I'm feeling like I usually do when I watch my son, my soldier, pack his bags for another tour of duty in some far away land. Gut-punched. Raw. Morose. And just a little bit envious.

You see, in his military career, my son has traveled the globe. He's been to Mass at Vatican City and seen the tomb of Pope John Paul II and the Sistine Chapel. He's scarfed real German beer and bratwurst at Oktoberfest and retraced the length of the Berlin Wall. He's snowboarded the Swiss Alps and glutted on chocolate. He's gazed, awestruck, at Buckingham Palace and waved to the Queen somewhere inside. He's intoxicated himself on champagne, the Mona Lisa, and other treasures of le Louvre in Paris. He hopped a flight to Brazil, rode the cable cars in Rio up Sugarloaf Mountain, and went day-tripping through Uruguay. He's stood on the edge of the Sahara in Egypt and touched the Great Pyramid at Giza. He almost got arrested for that, but he reached out his hand, and he touched history. He's seen as much of the world as he could on 4-day passes and weeks off.

Now he's packing for his next overseas tour - three years in Okinawa where he intends to complete his goal. Just Asia and Australia left to visit before he can say that he's set foot on every continent of the globe, except Antarctica. Of course, should he decide to re-enlist (again), he could go there, too. And knowing my eccentric goofball of a son, he'd muster his best Hawkeye Pierce, reporting for duty wearing a loud, Hawaiian shirt under his Army-issued parka, and cobbling a bunk-side, Rube Goldberg gin still.

It hasn't been all fun and games for him, though. The fun junkets have come at an awful price. My soldier has survived three tours of duty in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. Along with the beauty and awe and wonder that this world has to offer, he bears witness to the ugliness and pain and brutality of its human inhabitants. These stories he doesn't tell me because, as Jack Nicholson's character in "A Few Good Men" says, " can't handle the truth."

The truth is my son is a hero. The quiet, unsung type that moves obsequiously among us, unacclaimed, but effective. His dress uniform is covered in ribbons. He has disarmed IED's and faced down AK-47's. He has patched up his comrades and carried them to safety through fire fights. He has provided medical care to prisoners of war and to injured civilians - at least those civilians he was allowed to touch. He has watched his buddies bleed to death, or get blown to bits, or swallow a bullet. I ask him how he feels about all the things he's experienced. He says he doesn't really think about it, he just does what he's been trained to do. I ask him if he talks to many people about it. He says the typical American will never understand the sacrifice he and his fellow soldiers make for the freedoms we so rudely, so glibly, so blindly take for granted. I ask him if he's cried. He says not where anyone else could see.

We don't always think what it must be like for our wide-eyed nineteen-year-old boys and girls in the wastelands of the world fighting the old men's wars. We instill in them a sense of duty and country and patriotism, and tell them that they are preserving our freedom when, in fact, they are merely pawns on the chessboard - jockeyed for position, expendable. The politicos battle over land or oil rights or what name to call God, or some other nonsense, while the best and brightest of their country's future huddle filthy and cold in sleeping bags on desert mountain sides with a line of rocks blocking an untimely, mid-sleep downward roll . We "adults," we leaders of our country and commerce, don't always think what we do or how our short-term gain will affect long-term growth. He's right. We can't handle the truth.

The truth - the real truth - is that, like others of his generation, my son has the power to change the future for his offspring. A power that those of us in my generation (and my mother's generation, and her mother's, and so on) attempted, but failed miserably to accomplish. He can call upon the memory of his past experiences as a soldier, and fight for what is best and brightest for mankind's future. IF, unlike his forbears, he remembers all he has seen and done and experienced, both the good and the bad, perhaps he will select a different path than the one our nation, our planet, is on. It's an old path. A path that has been gilded and ravaged and gilded again, and again, and again over time, throughout human history.

I'll probably spend the evening crying into a glass of wine instead of working on the papers I have due for classes this week. It's a good thing I decided to go back to college. The curriculum keeps me from dwelling and worrying - a long-cultivated characteristic of my matriarchal lineage. I know the wine will only dull the heartbreak temporarily. My son is a man now. He has an excellent sense of self-preservation, and a lust for life which, I flatter myself he inherited from me. He's spent too long in harm's way, but he's also grabbed for every brass ring offered. He’s even caught a few. He has no regrets. I wish I could say the same.

The sound of zippers and closing drawers reminds me that we have only one hour left together before I drive him to the airport. I will hug him and kiss him and weep. He'll say, "Don't cry, pretty lady. I'll be back soon to make your life a living hell and drain your wallet and you'll want to get rid of me again." And then he will smile. He will hug me, kiss my forehead and say, "I love you, mommy," and before I can return the sentiment, he will disappear into a crowd of other travelers chugging through security checkpoints. I'll stand gazing after a white-capped head bobbing over that sea of mouse ears and goofy hats until he's lost on the horizon. It's nothing new, saying good-bye to my hero. I've done this before.