by S.C. Rood
Witness the internal struggles of a new mother as she sends her husband off to war.
| “It’s my last time driving the truck,” he remarks with a smirk and clicks the seatbelt across his chest. “For a while, anyways.”
Our three week old baby is asleep in the backseat and we pull out of the driveway. I watch my husband’s head turn as he scans the neighborhood. The camcorder is focused on the man driving and I ask basic questions so that the moments will never escape us.
“Where are we going?” I say flatly.
“Well, we are going to drop off my bags, grab some chow and then I’m going to Kuwait for a short little while,” he answers as though he were talking to a reporter. “Then I have to work for a little bit in a place called Iraq. I hear the people are pretty nice over there.”
“What are you doing to do?” My voice now sounds hollow and restrained and I don’t want to hear the answer.
“Take care of some bad people,” is the first thing that comes out of his mouth. A few more statements follow about training border patrol agents and foreign army leaders. “And miss you and the little guy and Chewy,” he adds, throwing a glimpse my way and we pull out onto the main road.
The camcorder slips in my hands as I attempt to dry my face. My lips feel sore. I haven’t been able to stop crying all morning.
“Mommy’s just so happy I’m leaving,” he jests with a forced smile. I can’t see his eyes but behind his sunglasses I know that they’re just as red as mine. He throws the question back my way, “and what are you gonna do?”
I can barely choke out the answer.
“Try and raise a baby.”
“Try!?” he exclaims with his eyes on the road.
“I don’t know how,” I say in defense.
“Well, you’ve been doing just fine so far.” He’s not looking at me. “You’ve put up with me for eight years, I think 12 months with a little baby you’ll be fine. They do exactly what you want them to.”
I hitch a slight smile. Rich green pine needles fly past the window and the sunlight flickers across his face. I want the truck to turn around and head back to our home.
He doesn’t know that I’ve turned the camera back on but I’m watching him through the viewfinder. He’s standing at the back of the truck tightening a black strap on a huge camouflaged bag. After a few minutes I move around to the tailgate and ask him what’s inside.
“Oh, you know,” he says without looking at me. “The usual. Body armor, helmet, extra uniforms.”
The bag is so big he’s cranking a ratchet attached to the front. “All this stuff,” I say aloud as I film the bed. “Not the stroller through.” The stroller stays with me.
Two large white semis are parked in the middle of the asphalt lot next to the gas station. There’s a Subway on the corner and Soldiers with backpacks are waiting around in small groups. A few people in colorful clothes break up the scene and reveal that the preparations aren’t for a training exercise. Through the window, I capture my husband who is now twice his size as he walks towards the semi. “So strong,” I comment figuring that he’s carrying at least his own body weight. He gracefully slips underneath a white string and adjusts a green duffel bag. It’s riding atop the gigantic one on his back. “I want you to remember how your daddy is right now,” I say to the lump in the backseat.
A group of men wearing camouflaged pants and tan shirts are loading gear into the back of one of the semis. Half of the men are in the truck catching and tossing identical bags towards the front. It’s amazing that they can tell them apart. Past the trucks I see a set of stairs on the far side of the parking lot. I zoom in on it and capture a pregnant woman resting and running her hands in circles over her stomach. We’re the lucky ones.
He’s standing in his office, hovering over his oak desk and shoving more things into yet another bag. Various files are spread in front of him along with other camouflaged things and a thick book of crossword puzzles. The room needs to be cleaned out because he’ll be changing positions overseas and right now we have two hours to kill. His tattooed forearm crosses over his head and he wipes his sweaty hands over and over again on the front of his tan shirt.
“There’s just so much crap,” he says as he puts a smaller camouflaged bag into the larger one. I tell him I’ll turn off the video in a second but first I want to see his tattoos. I don’t know why I say this but suddenly I want to see all of him in the flesh and I realize that his son may never know what his father looks like without his shirt on. He holds out the word “Patriot” on his forearm and then lifts his sleeves, turning each deltoid to the camera. His chest appears and proudly displays a few military symbols and a heart with my initials. He lowers his shirt, grabs an air freshener off the top of a locker and hands it to me.
“You’re gonna need this.”
The parking lot is grey in the moonlight and soldiers with rifles congregate under fluorescent lampposts. Packed white trucks will soon be replaced by six empty busses. Cones now separate the loading area from the gas station and the parked cars make it impossible to fill up even if you wanted to. I know that three different units are heading out on this deployment and most of our friends left earlier in the week. I don’t recognize any of the families around and stand by myself with the stroller underneath a lamppost. My husband walks up the sidewalk and into the frame.
“Show me your gun,” I say and he holds it up with a smile that belongs on a little boy. We stand there for a few minutes and neither of us says anything.
“What are you doing?” he finally asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply. I don’t want to stop recording. He grabs the camera and flips it around and more than my voice is now a part of the eternal moment. My conscience fights between being glad to be in it and the embarrassment of bearing extra weight. Feeling the need to justify my appearance, I pull the sleeping newborn from the stroller and hold it up to the camera while little arms stretch out in sleepy refusal.
My husband sits down on the ground holds the sleeping lump on his lap. He tells his son to be good. To laugh and to smile every day or he’s going to get it when Daddy gets back. Big fingers tickle the small tummy as though they’re softly kneading dough.
“Any advice for him?” I ask.
“Just take care of your mom,” he says without looking at me. “Always respect her and always love her. “ He raises his head and looks out. “Always be good to everybody you meet.”
The Soldiers are paged to the middle of the parking lot. They collectively move like a swarm of bees and assemble in a formation to wait for the busses. A sea of grey is created and I have no idea which bee is mine. Sniffling and whimpering is all around me and the people in colorful clothes are fighting to cherish these final moments. I’ve gone through my stash of tissues and have resorted to using my sleeve.
The bees stop moving and stand in straight lines while someone counts them. My eyes comb the rows with desperation for a final glance at the other part of my soul. I know that they’ll be released for one final goodbye but how will he find me? I weave through crying bystanders and push the stroller up towards the top of the hill for a better look. Nestling the child into my shoulder, I press into the crowd and make it to the railing that overlooks the procession.
My eyes frantically dart up and down the ranks, looking for a Soldier of smaller stature who stands with confidence. It’s useless. They’re all standing like that right now. My concentration breaks as a young woman to my right tries to strike up a conversation.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without him for a whole year,” she pines.
I ignore her and continue my search.
“He’s just everything to me, you know?” her unsolicited remarks continue. I politely turn my head and nod at the brunette. Her fresh eyes are wide and tearless. My child’s inch of hair is soft under my palm and I can feel him wiggling into the warmth of my chest.
“I’m going to be so lonely,” she says and I think I spot my Soldier. “We’ve been dating for almost four months and now I’ll be all alone.”
My body tenses and I clutch the child protectively in my arms. Is she serious? Fury starts to boil in my stomach and my back teeth grind together. My eyes are burning a path to the shortest figure in the third row and I memorize which section of the formation he is in. I back out of the crowd, grab my stroller in one hand and hightail it down the hill.
They’re not even married, I think as my tired wrist attempts to navigate the clumsy wheels around a curb. She has no right to stand there and sulk. I have spent the past eight years building a home. It took me two years but I can finally cook eggs they way he likes. I know not to pick a fight before bed because he’ll just close his eyes and ignore me. We created a child together and now I have to take care of it, all by myself, and I don’t even know how. How dare she infiltrate my world? She will be young and beautiful over the next 12 months and I will be covered in poop.
“Two minutes,” I hear a man say across the crowd as I make it to the bottom. The bees disperse and waves of grey hit the barricades. I have lost sight of my husband and all around me the quiet sobbing has erupted into torturous cries as loved ones find each other for a final goodbye. With savage need I push my way to the front. What if he can’t find me? I should have stayed where I was. We should have agreed on a spot, I didn’t think this would be so chaotic. For the past three weeks I haven’t really been thinking at all and now I’m going to miss my last kiss, my last embrace and his father will be gone without a final goodbye.
“Babe!” I hear him cry out above the noise. Oh, thank God, he found me! He closes the gap in two quick steps and his hands are on mine.
“I didn’t think I would get to say goodbye,” I choke out as the panic leaves my face.
“I found you,” he says calmly and past his smile I can see a hint of panic draining away. “I’ll always find you.”
Our lips are together. Hands are moving up and down, shoulders and arms wrapping around each other and squeezing tight as three souls search for a connection that has to outlast this test. We press our foreheads together and all I can think is, “this is love.” Right here. This moment. This devotion to duty and commitment to each other.
“I love you,” he says with purpose as tears roll down his cheeks.
“I love you, too,” I whisper. “Please come home to us.”
The quick blast of an air horn rings out. The busses jump to life and a deep rumble courses through the crowd. Forced smiles are on both of our faces and we nod to each other as if agreeing to an unspoken pact. He takes two steps backwards and then signs “I love you”. I repeat the motions with one arm and soothe our now crying baby with the other. We watch him turn away and then he disappears into the swarm of grey.
In the comfort of the nursery I watch my newborn baby coo sweetly through the viewfinder. I say nothing but capture him suckling on a bottle. I want his Daddy to see that his boy is okay without him, at least for the first night.