I wake up at 4:33 a.m. and my panic is spherical, nebulous, I cannot see through the brackish shell but I know its contents are vast and viscous. Yes, he -- he should have been picked up at 4, on his way to the airport, and I cast about for clues -- no shower running, no phone ringing, no news network on TV. I disengage Monroe and, he cries, I say in my calmest desperation, "just a minute, just a minute," I check living room, kitchen, driveway. The door is unlocked; the Army duffel is gone; the Facebook status is mute. Gone.
This is how it will be, then? I think to myself, wondering if he left sad or just rushed, wondering if he woke the boys, wondering if this would be the thing we'd all later say, if only. When a soldier leaves for war, there should be a banner sign and kazoos buzzing and smiles and tears and kisses all 'round. But here we all were, sleeping, the house, sprawled and half-blanketed, snoring quietly to itself into the rainy grey morning as he off-headed to ... where?
This is, what it is, not the clean plot of most military stories, the reservist's life. No governor would speak on a loudspeaker to ceremony his departure; we did not even know to which country he'd be flying in seven more days. Iraq had been our certainty until Wednesday, when an early-morning phone call from a First Sergeant with a southern accent gave us a list, Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Dubai. Or something. Somewhere...
And here I'd gone, sticking a fork in the tangled spaghetti of the plot and not even waking up for that tearful goodbye kiss, yes we'd had an evening that was -- not miserable -- a soft lamentative dance of long errands, packing, dishes cleaning, a late and valiant dinner of sirloin tips stirfried with snow peas, sesame seeds, chicken broth. And white jasmine rice. It was a dish that, I told myself, was a symbiosis between the things he wanted and the places I wouldn't compromise. Local, grass-fed beef I'd ordered from the buying club, organic snow peas just-bought from the farmer's market, garlic from my garden, chicken broth I'd frozen.
The boys ate, each in his own way, little piles of just-meat or just-rice or everything, hungrily, and Jonathan barely could. All that afternoon and late into the night and all through this day, in airports and on airplanes and in a hotel bathroom, he was throwing up, food poisoning or fear, both, fear-poisoning, stomach-lurching, emptying him of all but his shaky reminders, "when I come back it's going to be great."
I had done all I could, I thought, we sank into bed at 11:30 and it was his last night and he was throwing up as I fell into my sleep in which panic spurted quietly, at regular intervals, a lesser geyser whose eruption no one ever greets with cheers, laughter, snapshots. And now, he was headed to war without a word.
As the sun moved its way toward our horizon behind the clouds, I washed the dishes, slowly, putting things away with care and deliberation, as I washed jaunting into projects I'd thought I would do once he was gone and some I'd long delayed, rolling saved coffee bean bags into neat snail-shell packages, putting the seasonings only he used into a box, pouring bits of foods I'd never eat into the compost. I filled a garbage bag; I contemplated buying a new toaster; I put away his socks.
I'd given him my phone, but it stayed off all day and all I could do was watch his flight's status on Delta's web site, maddeningly murky and long-delayed. As the boys awoke, one by one, and I began the normal morning machinations on this day everything changed, the status indicator switched to yellow, "in flight," and I had nothing to do but move through this changed world as before.
But different. We were late for school and I was not rehearsing the reasons in my mind, it's ok, of course, I said to myself and that was all. As nine turned to ten a.m., the little ones and I shopped, I saw myself in the third person, there she attempts the escalator with one potentially autistic child and one headstrong one, see how her anxiety is, there!, comical, see how she buys a $169.99 gift for her soldier husband and but three dollars on cars for her boys. I said they could only get one Hot Wheels vehicle each; Monroe insisted on two, two of the same, Truman bought a tank with four guns. It could defeat anyone. Monroe spilled hot chocolate everywhere, across the floor, down, and up the escalator again, in the bathroom, all over his raincoat. It's ok, no big deal.
It is nearly two o'clock, time to pick up Everett from school, when he calls, in Huntington, Alabama, not where he should be. The airport in Atlanta had closed-due-to-thunderstorm, and he had circled, circled, circled, until the airplane ran out of fuel and he had been diverted. "Why didn't you wake me?" I asked. "You looked tired," he said.
We wind through our day, I bike with the boys past exhaustion, past chill, past sense and reason. He will not get to Ft. Benning until Saturday, noon; we will spend Saturday cleaning through the rainstorms; he will learn that he is bound toward Kuwait. This knowledge will be a comfort; he will be better, more solid, eating meal after meal at "chow" as we make toast with butter and raw Portland honey. We will fall into our beds at night, still wet from the rain and exhausted from the riding, we will sleep through the quiet shower-fall, car-wheels-on-pavement, as he awakes each sweltering, sticky morning for body armor fittings and small pox vaccines and regular sessions of shouting through which he will stand at attention with remarkable equanimity. And the next Friday, he will go around the globe as we sleep, rain-wet, muscle-tired, sad in ways we can't explain.