Sleep did not come easy. Even after all the primping around the house and baking and cooking, 5 o’clock in the morning (0’dark:30 as the Commander calls it) just didn’t want to get here. The 2-hour drive from home to the airport was filled with happy chatter at times, and then long periods of silence as we anticipated our son’s arrival. People congratulated us and asked us to thank our son as we made our way back from the airline check-in counter where we were given escort passes to meet our son at the gate. While there was a huge line at the security area, the TSA agents and those travelers waiting waved us through and also asked us to thank our son for them.
We waited on pins and needles for the plane to taxi to the gate, for the door to be opened and we peered anxiously down the long hallway to catch a glimpse of his face… THERE HE WAS! A cheer went up, and suddenly the last six months dropped away and I had my youngest son in my arms, in a bear hug, and the tears wouldn’t wait!! Six months of worry and anxiety and sleepless nights flowed into the muscles of my arms, the spread of my smile and the river of emotion that wrung out my eyes… His Dad wrapped us up and the aunt and uncle piled on as strangers clapped and smiles beamed all around!! The same heart wrenching emotion I had felt when I last held him filled me but in reverse. I may not have felt such overwhelming joy since I first held that tiny soul 20 years ago…
The drive home was filled with talk of whom he had seen in New York, what he had done, what he wanted to do during his visit with us. His best friend Mike had made the journey with him and we spent some of the drive pointing out cactus, damage from the wildfires… I spent some of the journey just listening to him talk and filling up that “child is present and safe” reservoir that all parents possess. It was the most at ease I have felt in many months.We spent the afternoon settling in all our guests, having a leisurely lunch and greeting our friends. After a lecture about how the SUV was not a HUMMVV and that he was not required to drive at breakneck speeds in an irregular pattern to avoid IEDs, the guys went out in the evening to meet up with some local girls that our son had met over his Christmas visit and with whom he had stayed in contact. After not having children in the house for a while now, it is always a little hard getting used to the increase in noise and energy that accompany visits – like going from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds!
We woke the "boys" for a lavish homemade breakfast on Independence Day and greeted friends before heading off to the rodeo. The soldiers from the local National Guard unit looked quizzically at us as we laughed when they asked if either of the younger guys were interested in taking a crack at a climbing wall erected inside the stadium and anyone interested in joining the service? After some good-natured ribbing, the old folks walked off to find our seats while the NG guys chatted with our son. While the rodeo did not acknowledge our son personally, they did offer a salute and a thank you to the active and veteran service members in the audience. As usual since our son deployed, my twin sis and I cried by the time we got to the end of the national anthem.
Over the next few days, they shopped for new sunglasses, got massages, visited gun stores trying to locate a particular brand of shooting glasses and shooting gloves to take back to Iraq, visited the spectacular red rocks of Sedona in the 105+ degree heat (while Mike was incredulous that it could be 30 degrees hotter in Iraq), spent a day jet skiing on Lake Havasu in the 120+ degree heat (his friend Mike remained totally overcome that not only could it be 20 degrees hotter anywhere on Earth but that soldiers had to be fully dressed in it!) In the evenings, the guys drank beer, rented pay-for-view movies on the big screen TV and stayed up into the wee hours being 20 year olds. We ate well, told lots stories and reminisced into the early hours of each day. Our son did not offer much information on his life in Iraq, but he honestly and willingly answered all our questions no matter how inane they may have been or seemed. No one here asked him whether he had shot or killed anyone. I don’t know if anyone else asked.
For the time he was here we laughed, talked, sang, laughed some more, took pictures... We talked, we planned, we asked questions. I spent a lot of time observing our son. His language was rougher, his voice much louder than before, and he had a quick temper but cooled off even quicker... I watched him a lot. I couldn't help but peer at him as he slept or to stand in the doorway just watching him watch television or talk on the phone or play with his dogs... I was soaking up every minute into memories I will always keep and treasure until he's home for good.
Early Thursday afternoon, after having once again picked through his clothing and belongings (which was no less emotional than the same exercise at his initial deployment), we began the journey to once again see him off. We stopped to visit his grandfather who had triple by-pass surgery since the grandson deployed. Although his grandfather asked the questions, our son’s well-screened descriptions of life on a FOB seemed to worry his grandfather and it’s unlikely that his efforts to reassure him met much success. He held his grandson for a very long time, looking frailer than ever… and he implored him to come home safe. After a wonderfully relaxed dinner, we waited patiently for the clock to tick off those last few minutes before they had to head down that hallway to the waiting plane. Of course, I cried. (I think our son is getting used to it.) Although he is back in New York for two days before he makes the long trip back, it was still very emotional for me. I urgently wanted him not to go…
I wasn't sure whether saying goodbye this time would be easier than the first time, but I discovered it was just as hard this time to unwrap myself from that last embrace and to not collapse when he said, “I sure love you momma. Don’t worry, I'll be OK.” It was all the more difficult because we learned that just as he departed Iraq, his unit relocated to an area of extreme activity and high casualties. Living conditions at the new place will apparently be pretty austere – even by the Army’s standards. He does not know what the communications capabilities are at the new camp (it doesn’t even rate a base name… just a camp), but he has already been informed that there are only limited kitchen facilities and most meals are MRE – and shower facilities are even more limited (back to bottled water showers!)… there is no PX or even regular access to one.
The only good news is that he has decided not to re-enlist (at least for this week) as he would like to start his college studies – already lamenting that his friends will be graduating just as he is getting started although he does take pride that he will have accomplished things his friends will never understand… Quite a few of our conversations over these past five days revolved around what he wanted to study, where he wanted to live… what his future holds. We told him we didn’t care what he wanted to do when he got back or where he wanted to do it – as long as it was in the good old US of A!
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