Monday, April 20, 2009

Life Lessons

While the economy is top of mind in the media internationally, nationally, and locally, here in North Carolina the two wars we are waging still make the top headlines. North Carolina's fallen make daily headlines around here. There are two major bases close enough to my home that their stories make our local news. Fort Bragg is home of the elite 82nd Airborne and Special Ops. Camp Lejeune is the largest marine base on the East coast. Soldiers from the esteemed bases of Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune continue to depart to war zones, some never return, some return broken, none returns the same.

Recent estimates count over 4200 U.S. military deaths since the war's start in March over six years ago. Those fallen 4200 were someone's son, daughter, first born, namesake, middle child, only child, flesh and blood, heartbeat. The data is comprised of people; we choose to dehumanize it to make the news more palatable. Let's not forget that each soldier killed, injured, missing, or scarred is someone's child. That soldier's heart beat inside a woman's womb for nine months, and his head sleepily rested upon his father's chest for what seemed a lifetime ago. I know North Carolinians don't forget that.

The Iraq War began in March 2003, before I became a mother.

Motherhood has given me perspective. With every staid military portrait of a young man in uniform flashed on the 6:00 news B-roll, I see a cooing infant expressing pure love, a babbling baby learning to crawl, a curious toddler peeking beneath the tablecloth, a deliriously happy and innocent preschooler collecting rocks in his pockets, a restless kindergartener squirming in his chair. And then the slideshow stops because I have not yet ventured past kindergarten with my oldest son. I am still making memories.

It was an unremarkable morning when I was taking my Bird to school. As we approached the car pool line we were both flummoxed by the stream of soldiers in dress uniform walking silently by. I was struck by their exceedingly perfect posture and shiny patent shoes. Bird was fascinated with their hats and trappings of decorated men in uniform. Soldiers are glamorous and glorified to a boy of five. I followed the path of those soldiers with my eyes and realized they were walking to a funeral home. How could I have been coming to this school all year and not even noticed the funeral home across the street? The subtle signage and beige brick faded into their elements, almost camoflouged within the backdrop of the neighborhood. Suddenly the sight of an elementary school, where children come to grow, and its neighbor, a funeral home, where people come in their passing, was hauntingly ironic. I gulped and tried my damndest to keep an even tone when Bird asked me what all the soldiers were doing.

Because it was a rare moment we had alone, without my three-year old son in the car, I told my little Bird the truth. I explained that a soldier died and his friends and family were coming to celebrate his life and their love for him. I told him that America is waging war in two different countries and that war is scary, dangerous, and scarring. I told him that the soldiers sacrifice an awful lot to help keep America safe. Sometimes they sacrifice their own lives. I struggled with what I had just done. Will this be a moment my son recalls in his adulthood as the time his mother punted him into reality? Will he have nightmares? My Bird, my oldest son, simply looked more sad than bewildered. He told me he didn't think he wanted to be a fighter pilot anymore, and I was secretly relieved. Granted, he will choose 734 different professions before he's 16. He'll engage his imagination and ask questions and keenly observe the world around him. I won't stop his flirting with the military at this tender age but I won't encourage it either. He will eventually make these choices on his own, and I will support him.

Bird has seen death and what it does to a family. He understands why his daddy cries on Father's Day. We still talk about Grandpa and Capote and Casey. He understands that we'll never see his grandfather or our family cats again. And so he stated, in an innocent, heartfelt manner, "Well, I hope the soldier can see Grandpa and pet Capote and Casey in heaven."

I exhaled. And brushed the welling tears from my eyes as I thought about that soldier's mother.

Cross posted at Deep South Moms.

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Jen L. said...

Your honesty is so refreshing and inspiring.

Anonymous said...

What an awesome story, and whether we agree or disagree with the wars. The men and women who choose to serve in our military will always be hero's for the sacrifice they make for all of us!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this moment between you and Bird with the blog world!

colby said...

I too share the thoughts of losing family with my son, we talk about Grandma Beth many times.

Magpie said...

My child is beginning to ask questions about photos on the front page of the Times. Yesterday, there were some guys in Afghanistan in a war zone; today there was a flag-draped coffin coming off a plane. So hard to explain war to a five year old. "Did we win?", she asked...

Anonymous said...

What a poignant moment for both of you. I bet he never forgets what you said to him.

Ilina said...

Thanks for your comments. I hate that these war torn times will be a part of our children's memories. Tough concepts to tackle.

San Diego Momma said...

I think often that soldiers are someone's babies.

What a poignant story and a great reminder to not lump these casualties together into a "number," but that they were individuals and special to their friends and loved ones.