Sometimes life is clumsy with us, and completely artless.
Two weekends ago, I bought a pack of cigarettes. I was in Georgia to have eight stingy hours with Samuel, to try and avoid words like ‘combat’ and ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘deployment’ while doing so. It’s weird, yeah, hearing me talk about avoidance? It’s weird to me, anyway.
:: turning blue ::
We had the eight hours after the Turning Blue ceremony where Samuel’s father pinned an infantry cord on the newest member of our family to become active duty military. It was an especially poignant ceremony because it happened at the very place where Sam’s father had gone to basic, jump school and part of Ranger school. Couple this with the fact that it also fell on Veteran’s Day, well….of course the patriotic Southerin belle in me was all a-swoon and falling over. Certain things about me are grossly predictable and sappy; I’m okay with that.
:: sam’s father pins his infantry cord ::
Sam is a smoker now, and a dipper. This is despite my protestations, despite my reminders of how hard he nudged me toward quitting (what I saw as) my paltry four-stick-a-day habit. One time, five years ago and in an attempt to entice me toward quitting, Maxim said to me, “You’re going to feel like a supreme jackass when one of the kids starts smoking.” Maxim’s always been a quiet prophet, and wise. He is scary on the rare occasions when he admonishes me, because he does it with gentle love or wry humor. What is a person with a warrior bent supposed to do with that?
I do indeed feel like a jackass. Maxim was absolutely right, as always. How can I be annoyed with his loving rightness?
Cue us riding down the road, Sam and Mathias in the back seat, headed back to our chalet for the remainder of the eight hours after a trip to IHOP. The boy spent his entire time in bootcamp fantasizing about pancakes, bacon, french fries; he had asked for IHOP in October on the weekend of his thirty-six hour pass, too. At a grocery store stop he bought a pack of cigarettes and a large can of snuff despite my warnings that the outcome might not be a great one. Besides, you’ve been without all this time, why start back now? Of course he assured me, this new man-person who is now six-three or thereabouts, it’s fine, Mother, I’ve got this. Oh for all the lost nickels that could be paid out on each time I have reassured people around me after this same fashion.
(It’s hard to navigate where to be a mother and where to be a woman who respects the fact that her son is grown and should be left to his decisions without a degree of unsolicited cautionary language (um, nagging?). My mouth and my brain, they pull at one another, while another part of me entirely stands aside to observe and thinks, ‘Myyyy, what a queer state of affairs this one is.’)
Okay, yes, riding down the road: We had begun to slow for a red light when suddenly the rear driver’s-side door swung open and Sam vomited explosively all over the pavement. Maxim quickly but easily navigated to the nearest parking lot –it belonged to a mechanic’s shop– where Sam finished hurling. I ordered Mathias out of our car and over to Nana’s, which had been following behind us. I could predict what lay in store for us if he smelled or saw or heard puking for thirty more seconds.
Sam mostly missed the car. What got on the door was on the molded vinyl portion of it and not the upholstered section that would have held stubbornly to the stench. His arm was extended out the door, fingers still laced in the door’s latch, and was covered in ick. “Don’t move!” I ordered.
“Don’t worry.” he offered back weakly. Too much nicotine too fast and Jack was a sick manboy: None of us had seen Sam put in a huge dip before leaving the grocery store parking lot. The grocery store where, as fate would have it, we’d bought paper towels and a case of water. I pulled some of both out of the trunk and went to work washing the kid and the car as best I could, with him apologizing the whole time.
All I could think about as I was matter-of-factly correcting the situation was this time when he was three and sick, so sick, that I spent a seemingly endless four days and nights cleaning him up, patting and comforting him and singing to him and wishing it off of him and onto myself. He is grown and he has spent the last sixteen weeks learning part of what he needs to be a man and I am still his mother and he still needs me and oh Universe, you with your fucked-up little sense of humor in showing us what we need to be shown when we need to be shown it…. In trying not to laugh, I looked down at the pavement and promptly grimaced. There were undigested french fries there, nearly whole, because Sam had not yet learned to eat slowly and enjoy his food again.
When I got Mathias back into the car and settled, I climbed into the front, where Maxim and I snuck sideways glances at one another and foolgrinned, laughing silently with the unspoken ‘I told you so!’ hanging quietly in the air between us. It was enough that we both acknowledged it; it didn’t beg to be said.
::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::
I had already spent much of that weekend in Georgia waiting, tracing the roof of my mouth with the tip of my seized tongue and wondering where to put all these emotions inside of me, unsure of what to vent or how to catalog those that went unreleased in some fashion. Fucking was out of the question, as the walls and floors of the chalet carried every little nuance of sound, so I’d bought that pack of cigarettes.
We sneaked outside, me and Samuel and my sister, to smoke together and talk. Sam was so full of stories. They just poured out of him one on top of the other and most were hilarious but some plucked at the taut strings of worry and dread and panic I could feel humming inside of me. My face, for once, did not betray me. Then we were at an Italian restaurant that night, laughing, sharing off one another’s plates, watching the time carefully so as to have Sam back at the ordered hour to prepare for the next day’s graduation. There were an even dozen of us around the table, oblivious to our surroundings, when this really gorgeous woman stopped on her way out. She looked to be in her sixties, and was one of those effortlessly elegant creatures that you might track across the room with your eyes, wondering where she got that magic and if she might share it with you.
She inquired after any Veterans that might be at the table and then thanked the four of us that were. Then she extended her hand toward Sam, thanking him and telling him she appreciated him. He rose, taking her hand, thanking in return and ma’aming and she just kept expressing appreciation and my napkin is big but holy Christ there is so much happening in me and oh shit can I please get to the restroom before I burst into this high maddening wail in front of hell and half of Georgia?
And so I excused myself to go collect myself; I patted my face daintily with a paper towel soaked in cold water just like my mother showed me when she was endeavoring to teach me the combined arts of being a Genteel Southerin Laydeh and a Proper Military Wife and Mother.
Then we found ourselves leaving –just Maxim and Sam and me– the polite little city of Columbus to take Sam back to post for the evening. We dropped him off and he acted skittish, seeming unsure for the first time since all this leaving us began; Sam fiddled with his belongings, moving from Maxim to me and back again (twice. thrice!) for hugs and murmurs of support, surrounded by dozens of other young men doing something similar with their loved ones. We broke from one another and Samuel walked back toward the Company area, a lone figure moving hastily between other young men walking, relaxed, in pairs and teams of three or four. I thought then how, when I looked up the meaning of Sam’s name after he was born, that I was filled with chagrin at finding the words ‘wandering cub’. I got back into the car and for the first time in sixteen weeks I lost my shit good and proper, the kind of shit-losing where there are sounds coming out of you that you don’t recognize because you don’t (or haven’t really ever) employed them in your life. I wailed the entire thirty minutes back to Uchee Creek, and upon discovering the rest of the family was still out for ice cream, I asked Maxim to go inside and gave myself the liberty of fifteen minutes more of it.
Nobody tells you about this sort of moment when you become a mother because there are no words for it and maybe, just maybe, it would be a deal-breaker.
:: soldier ::
::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::
On graduation day, we navigated the back roads and back gates of Fort Benning, throwing the post into a drastically different light. All we had seen to date was Sand Hill, (“Where men are made!”) which is dusty and brown and utilitarian for the most part. On main post I saw the vibrant military community I was accustomed to. I pointed out features of it to Mathias, who has no working history with the military whatsoever, having been born long after his grandfathers retired and his father and I had served.
About halfway to the National Infantry Museum, where graduation ceremonies were to be held, there was what can be best described as a lurch in my abdomen and then all hell kind of started breaking loose down there.
“You have to get me to a bathroom FAST, Maxim.” Cue mayhem and shenanigans. The road that the GPS wanted us to turn down was obstructed with a concrete barrier, which tacked an additional ten or so minutes onto our journey. Of course when we got to our destination the parking lot proved to be massive and slap full. Hell, the walk from the lot to the museum’s entrance alone was nearly the length of a football field. There were a couple of ‘events’ between the time we entered the parking lot and the time I got to the bathroom; they were epic enough that upon my emergence twenty minutes later, Maxim stood waiting for me, grim-faced.
“Did you happen to bring a bottle of water?”
“I wasn’t really concerned with anyone’s hydration,” I hissed, “I was focusing all my energy on not shitting myself.”
“I’m not asking for me, jackass.” With that he extended his closed fist toward me, turned it palm upward, then unfurled his fingers. There sitting in his palm was his emergency Xanax, glowing with the light of Heaven itself. In fact, I’m certain that tiny little angels were dancing all around it, singing angelic blessing over the hand that was so giving in the moment of a suffering woman’s need.
It was then that I realized that I must be scaring the piss out of my husband what with my keening snotfest and my uproarious bowels, because he does not come off with the Xanax EVER. The reason for this is twofold. One is because he has horrible panic attacks in the neighborhood of once a year and never knows when one might hit, so he keeps one lone Xanax on his person in reserve for that instance. Two is because his wife is a non-practicing junkie who would likely eat someone’s liver for its pharmaceutical content if she were strung out far enough, so why take unnecessary chances with the wagon hitting a rut and her taking a bad bounce off of it?
I scooped up that little coral-colored football quick-smart and dry swallowed it. Within thirty minutes, around the time the ceremony started, I had shaken hands with my mellow and promised it a pitcher of margaritas later if it would hang around long enough for me to get some good shots of the ceremonies.
:: the men of bravo company ::
They were, of course, stirring and beautiful.
::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::
I was standing in the kitchen later that night, whipping up some supper. The kids were headed to a football game later, but right then Sam was hovering around the edges of my activities, talking. Sam was looking forward to this brief time at home a great deal; he had a mess of support and love showered on him via the post while he was in basic training. He would endeavor to see as many of these people as he could for the two days he was here.
“Mom, I want to tell you something, and I don’t want you to get your feelings hurt.”
I turned toward him. “Okay, shoot.”
“Well, when I was gone, I missed Scout most of all. I was SO stoked to get her letters.” I immediately thought of when they were small and how Sam, just a baby himself, was so excited to have a baby in the house. His first expectation every morning, even before he’d eaten, was to settle in on the sofa and ‘hold’ a tiny, birdlike Scout while she took a bottle. I was still breastfeeding then, but expressed milk just for this purpose, because he looked so forward to being near his sister and taking part in her care.
:: sibs ::
“That doesn’t hurt my feelings, Samuel. That’s one of the best things you could ever tell me. I won’t be around forever and I’ve always wanted the three of you to be close so that you’ll be involved in one another’s lives and look out for each other when I’m gone.” He folded me into his arms then, kissing the top of my head the way he has ever since he shot up past six feet tall.
Sam then headed off to the other side of the house in search of Maxim and I turned back to the stove, finishing up the chicken enchiladas he’d requested as his first home-cooked meal in four months. I dropped my head and said quietly, half prayer and half admonition, “Just come home safe to us, Samuel. Go have your adventures and come home intact, inside and out.”