When you meet someone they put out their hand and say their name. And you say yours making sure you say it loud enough. Well, that particular time was different. I met his mom first. She talked about her son being deployed and her calm was impressive.
He was in Afghanistan searching for IEDs or improvised explosive devices, she explained. Bombs that don’t really look like bombs, you know, and can blow up anytime. I did not know any army acronyms back then. There’s a lot of them.
I remember walking home that day along the back alley and looking at my feet. They were there, walking on solid ground. No bombs to snap them off. I thought of the soldier whose name I did not know. I thought of him walking on sand sowed with explosive devices; breathing dust and restlessness the way I was breathing my calm morning crispness here. A bubble of perfect life colliding in midair with realities most people could not care less about, realities that were far away yet somehow became more than shadows through the virtue of learning about someone so immersed in them. Someone I could forget about just like we forget about so many people we’re told about… But now I knew of him and could not get that out of my head.
I walked home thinking that he might never make it home, praying that he will. For he was someone’s son. That was reason enough. I have sons of my own, and one day they could choose to go to a faraway place where being alive is not a given and not taken for granted. I would fear and pray for them, I’d try to be calm as I would tell people about them and perhaps they’ll pray for their safe return.
He made it home alive and in one piece.
A few weeks after that, he sat and talked. We talked about guns and tanks and all that dust that entered his lungs. He could no longer run longer distances for the first few weeks after he got to Afghanistan, he said. Running up those dusty hills was almost impossible. Frustrating. It took a while to get used to it; dust there is so different, everything is, he said. Light brown walls, so thick you couldn’t take them down no matter what. More pictures. He was proud to share stories and I felt honored to be the one listening.
Children there are so happy, they laugh a lot, he said. And they are wearing beautiful colorful outfits. That’s where he started really noticing kids for the first time, he said. There were groups of them, the older ones taking care of the young ones. Kids playing house for real.
He told me of the special bond he has with people who have been there once or several times. It’s like they speak a language only they know and share a special space others cannot understand. True as it can be. He told me how all returning soldiers hope they’ll be spared the prying question that no one has the right to ask them “Have you killed someone?”
A few months later on Remembrance Day I looked at all the white crosses laid for the fallen soldiers. I thought of all those times when I was in school and we took wreaths to the cemetery where all the soldiers rested. Most of them had “unknown soldier” engraved on their tombstone.
Now I had a face for all the unknown soldiers. I thought of all the soldiers people like me have heard about and who never made it back home. I thought of what I would say to them.
Nothing more than thank you. To all who came back, to all who didn’t, to the soldier who taught me how to say it without asking prying uncomfortable questions.