On her first Christmas back home from Iraq, I helped my mother roll out dough for piecrusts. She was showing me how to roll it out nice and even when my stepdad popped the cork off a champagne bottle. She froze like a small deer: tense with wide terrified eyes. She dropped the pin and put her hands to her face like an embarrassed child. I put my arms up in a panic to comfort her. So quick I didn’t have time to process it, she yanked me into the pantry and shut the door.
I pulled the dangling string and lit up the tiny food closet. Surrounded by oatmeal boxes and cooking oil, and every kind of canned vegetable imaginable, my mother stood crying.
She looked up at me meekly, her face flushed wet, as she said, "Is my make-up okay?"
I took a napkin from its bulk box container and patted away her smeared mascara.
"Good as new," I said, touching her cheek with my palm, starting to choke up a little myself.
“I could stand to feel this way as long as I didn’t have to do it in front of everybody. It’s so embarrassing.” She muttered as she leaned forward into my shoulder. I held her and stroked her hair the way she used to hold me when I was I child.
"We can stay in here as long as you need to momma.” My voice broke at the end and I looked around for something to distract myself with as I kept stoking her hair.
“I mean, look at all this food! We could camp in here for weeks if you wanted… Crap, we forgot to bring a can opener though. You think anyone would notice if I reached out and got one out of the drawer?"
She rumbled a little, chuckling into my shoulder. She leaned back and used her apron to wipe the last tears away.
“We’d better go out there before anyone notices,” she said as he smoothed her hair.
“No one expects this to be easy for you,” because no one knew what to expect at all.
My mother is a small woman, with quick eyes and delicate wrists. Only the faintest ring of her southern accent remains in her small soft voice. She likes show her military ID to people and giggle when their mouths drop open in disbelief. I wonder with them. How did this little soft spoken woman, one who never used to raise her voice or swear, how did she end up a Lt. Colonel in the Army? How did she end up a medic in the middle of a war?
She’s defensive if I ask her outright. She says, “I knew what I was getting into, I knew there was a possibility things would end up like this. I went in with my eyes open, I want you to know that.” I do, I know she made a choice, that she knew there were risks. But I still can’t piece together what combination of events and sentiments brought us both here.
Her first real love and fiancée died in Vietnam. She only speaks of it in her faraway voice as if he were a dream. “He was dark and tall. I loved him and he died.” She carried it with her, through two subsequent marriages as a waitress and a single mother of two boys. She struggled, scraped up enough to put herself through nursing school. Met married and divorced my much older father. And at the end found herself in her forties with three children, and no security --nothing to steady herself with.
She wanted to finish college, but couldn’t find a way to pay for it. She lived in a rented house she couldn’t afford, and let my brothers grow a crop of weed in the garage to help make ends meet. I was eleven, and I could tell my mother was falling to pieces inch by inch. In this moment chance and need and predisposition collided when she joined the army as a nurse, and an officer. She said she dreamed of saving the lives of other people's loved ones so that they might be spared her pain, so that they might not have their futures ripped from them.
Now, having been through war, my mother has dreams of a burning woman she can't put out. She wakes up sobbing, and buries her face in the soft sheets of her queen-sized bed in her king-sized track home in the middle of quiet California farmland. The woman she dreams of was a real woman, a patient burned in a bombing, who though full of morphine screamed for hours until she died. A woman she could not save, whose pain she could not lessen.
Sometimes she wakes up at night to her own screams. Other times she can’t sleep at all because of the burning tingling that shoots up her legs and arms from her last series of anti anthrax shots. The VA doctors think it will get a little better over time, but the neuropathy caused by the drugs will probably be with her all her life. Sometimes she’ll wake up sleep walking looking for her rifle that was by her bedside in Iraq. She says she has this sense in her dream that if she finds it she’ll feel safe again, that only then she can really sleep.
When she first came back it was hard to talk politics with her. She was quick to jump to defending the war, to insist that it would be too much if all these people were dying for nothing. When she's feeling defensive you can almost hear the war drums rise in her voice. Borrowed words, and sweeping sentiments used as armor. It was too much then to even consider that everything she had witnessed had been for nothing, had been a big sprawling mistake.
When she first came back she was also prone to hilarious angry outbursts. We were in the mall trying to find some shoes she felt comfortable wearing after a year in boots. There was a woman ahead of us in line berating the sales clerk and pitching a fit that they didn’t have the color sandals she wanted. My mother turned a bright crimson before she yelled, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Be glad they have shoes here! Fuck, some people don’t even have feet!” I gently pulled her backward out of the store as the pale shocked faces of the customers stared at us. The offending woman said, “I’ll take the red ones” in a very small voice and I burst out laughing.
She also took to saying really grumbling old man things like: “war is fucking hell. All these people don’t know how fucked up the world really is. They get to stay here and shop and pretend nobody is dying. Fucking assholes.” Sometimes I can’t believe how much more alike we are now. We can relate in ways I never thought we would. We both hate war and warmongers. We both can’t stand the self-entitled decadence that is life in the US. We both despair that we can’t see a way out, and that these wars rage on. She used to be so optimistic, so cheerful, full of hallmark sayings, and faith in the world. Now that most of that is gone, I miss who my mother was, but enjoy the closeness our mutual despair has brought us. It might be the only pinprick of light in all of this.
After a months and months of painful adjustment, she has come into a little bit of peace. She works for a VA Hospital doing outreach to homeless vets. She says it helps her as much as them to have someone to relate to.
She has come to believe that the wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan are unjustified, and the people that have died, did in fact die for nothing. But this has only strengthened her conviction that she has a duty to go and help as many people as she can make it through.
She was deployed again last week, first to a base here in the states, then, back again to Iraq or Afghanistan. Back to sewing young men and women back together again. And I’m preparing to help pull her back together again when she gets home.