Every once in awhile one of my friends will post on social media about her son or his daughter entering the military.
Then the proud posts begin, but more often the posts are full of worry.
“I can’t talk to him for weeks. He gets one phone call in boot camp. One!” A friend will say playing poker. “Actually, they call it basic training now.”
The posts will have crying-face emojis.
The posts will talk about longing.
These Mainers, the MDI-residents work at town offices, repairing roofs. They are school secretaries and writers like me.
I can’t write every family’s story, but I can write mine. And let me add, that there are a lot of assumptions about Emily when I tell strangers that she’s a field artillery officer in the Army. I can see their faces shift. It doesn’t jive with what they think that my daughter should be doing. I apparently don’t look like an Army mom.
That’s sort of the point.
There’s no one way to look.
And when I tell them that Em went into the Army after getting a Classics degree at Harvard?
There face shifts again.
And that’s sort of the point, too.
There’s no one way to be a soldier. There’s no one demographic or psychographic. There shouldn’t be.
When Em Went In I Freaked Out
In one week in July, 2016, three soldiers died in training. All of them seemingly physically fit men. The first one was 2nd Lt. Michael Parros. He was 21. It was three days into Ranger School. He had abnormally low sodium levels. It happens to runners who overhydrate. But it happened to him. Another soldier collapsed at Fort Jackson, which is where Emily is going. The soldier collapsed after a two-mile run, which is a standard part of the physical fitness test. Emily had to run two-miles before she went to basic training as part of her qualifications to enter into the officer program.
Somehow, this does not make me feel any better.
The third death happened at Fort Carson in Colorado. He collapsed, too.
“We take every death seriously and look into the circumstances to determine what may be done to avoid them in the future,” Army Forces Command spokesman John Boyce told military.com
Somehow, this does not make me feel any better either and on this Tuesday morning as I sit in the military entrance processing station in Portland, Maine, all I can think about is death. I sit with a bunch of other family members in a plain white room with a tv mounted high on a wall.
Another family here waiting for grandpa. A young man is pacing. Grandpa is not here and not answering their phone calls or texts. The texting guy has black, snazzy shoes and red nike swish. He’s the recruit and he’s all boundless energy, the sort of guy people call tightly wound and he looks kind of like a young Emnnem. He has the swagger, too. Six of his relatives are taking up multiple couches. They are all wearing hoodies. A child paces back and forth, also in hoodie – army green – earning Cheetos.
A marine comes to the door, “Do I have a Condone in here?”
The pacer looks up. “Condon?”
That’s him. Condon, the pacer, leaves after finding out grandpa is just down the street. The rest of his family fiddles with their cell phones. Everyone is on their phones including me. I am typing out notes to use later in case I ever get brave enough to write about this.
Another family and then another come in. All sit awkwardly on couches and large chairs in overstuffed faux black leather. The walls are beige. Ceiling is drop. The tv is on ESPN. There are toys in cardboard boxes in the corner like a doctors office with no attention to detail.
I have two and a half hours before she leaves
It is not enough time
“Grandpa is here,” one of the hoodies says.
“Is he out of breath?” another one asks.
“They are scanning him.”
“They are going to have to scan him a couple time.”
“Are they still scanning grandpa?”
MEPS requires you to go through a metal detector, kind of like an airport. Apparently, Grampa has a lot of metal inside of him. Before he comes in a man’s voice commands from the intercom system, “All Airforce shippers to the front desk.”
Grandpa strolls in and promptly plops into the couch. He takes off his black trucker hat and wipes at his head.
“A new set of legs and a new set of lungs would make a big difference,” he laughs.
There is one woman alone sitting near me. She is older and thin with a working mom haircut and large jewelry tapestry ankle boots. Another woman in a green army style jacket high ponytail winter boots with salt stains over her jeans sits in front of the television, but is staring at her phone, frowning.
There are two women clustered around each other. One is a wife. One is a sister. One cracks her knuckles over and over again. The other wears chunky hipster glasses and has a side ponytail.
They are both chewing gum and sighing a lot.
They talk in whispers which is totally frustrating since I want to hear what they are saying
My stomach growls
You Are Special Inside My Heart
Condon is back in the room and slumped on the couch yawning and not covering his mouth which is like a big black pit. He is also sniffing.
A man in an Irish beret type hat and dark brown carhartts old boat shoes comes in and twiddled his thumbs. He pops right off and heads to the desk and he is back again. He brings in a ew of people including a man carrying a helmet. The room is now crowded with people sitting on other people. I can’t decide if I should get up
He holds the hand of the young man next to him and says, “I am glad I am here for you. Thank you for being so patient and understanding my situation and putting up with me. I love you a lot. I can honestly say I will miss tommy just like I miss you when you are at works you are in my heart. You have a place in my heart. He is holding the young guys hand. I have a wonderful family that will keep me warm, keep my heart open. I will miss you.”
“I will miss you too, Dad.” The guy, Tommy, has a voice rough with emotion. He talks about another MEPS where family isn’t allowed to mingle with the future soldiers.
His dad listens and then announces to the woman near them, the mom, “I am proud of him.”
“I am too,” she answers. She stands next to Tommy’s dad, holding his hand tightly.
“Do you want to sit down, honey?”
“No, I am fine.”
“I just worry about you because you are my inside you are my special heart.” He switches topics and says. “I am glad we came. I wish I had breakfast.” And then he goes back to his original thought and says again,” You have a special place in my heart.”
“You too,” Tommy says.
“It is in the left ventricle,” snarks Tommy’s sister’s boyfriend. Nobody laughs, but then Tommy smiles at him.
Tommy says to his dad, “Thank you for everything you taught me.”
“We will see you in two months.” Tommy’s dad doesn’t sound convinced. He sounds broken in his heart and it breaks me. My eyes start watering.
Tommy’s mom starts to worry because everything is running late. “I have to be back in NH by one o’clock at the latest because I have to change his bag.”
Tommy’s dad is not worried about this. He decides to stand up. “I am going to talk to that man and tell him who I am. Who I am. I am a survivor.”
I’m not sure what man he is talking about.
His wife distracts him. “Do you want me to clean your glasses so you can see?”
She looks for a tissue.
She asks, kindly. “You want to sit with Thomas?”
He sits again and starts reminiscing about riding his motorcycle through the streets of Randolph. He coughs. Thomas jumps up to look for water. The men at the control desk say someone can run down to CVS, but then they realize that Tommy’s dad is the man with the helmet, the man whose body is broken, the man whose heart is breaking right in front of them. They find Tommy a water bottle.
“Will I get to sit next to you because to be honest I miss your close contact,” Tommy’s dad asks his mom, voice hitching and slow.
She grabs his hand
“Oh! Your hand is warm again,” she says. “It was so cold before.”
She rubs his hand with hers. They hold onto each other and I have to close my eyes really hard to keep the emotion inside of me.
Tommy hands his dad a water bottle. He doesn’t drink from it. It doesn’t matter. The dad takes a picture of his son.
Tommy’s parents look too old to be his parents but I think that is because whatever happened to the dad has aged them both.
Thomas says to his dad who has now stood up, “You just need to relax a little bit.”
Tommy’s dad shows him all the stuff in his pocket. He wraps a wire around itself explaining how this means he’ll never lose it. Thomas watches with all this love and patience
We are waiting so long because the computer system went down and the army hasn’t gone through all the shippers papers to make sure everything is okay. The delay means that we all sit in here together until our kids and husbands and wives get sworn in.
On Sunday, before we left for Portland and MEPS, Em and I are sitting on the couch in the living room. The dogs are all on the couches, too. I look up from my work and the absolute realization that she is going hits me. It hits me pretty hard. Em notices my slightly crumpling face immediately and says, all deadpan, “Let me finish my post and then you can have your breakdown.”
“I’m not having a breakdown. Everything is fine.” It is. I have pressed the palms of my hands super hard into my eyes and swallowed the massive gulp of sadness that had made it all the way up from my gut to the back of my throat.
Emily finishes her post.
I start writing.
Writing is the only way I make it through things.
I have been looking at a Facebook group for Fort Jackson Basic Training. Moms and wives are all over it, talking about how they want so badly to hear from their soldiers. They run to the phone and then – it’s a sales call.
They run to the phone and all they hear is their husband say, “I’m here. I’m good. I love you.” Thirty seconds and he hangs up.
And I am so lucky because I have always been able to talk to Emily. I’ve always been able to know if she’s safe or good or sad or anything. And now? Now I can’t. Now, I’m going to be obsessed with my telephone, waiting to hear, begging to hear. And then I’m going to have to hope that she’s okay when I don’t hear. Hope for weeks.
Here’s the truth: I am not good at letting go.
Shaun and I broke up about 1,000 times before we ended up together for good. Each time, I thought, “This is going to happen. I am not letting go.”
But the thing is, life forces you to let go. You can’t control it. I can’t control anything, honestly, and that realization kills me and I start to lose it again.
“Bring it in,” Em says, leaning forward on the couch, motioning for me to hug her. I do.
The swearing in happens in a small wood-walled room. They line up in two rows of three in front of a man with an AIRBORN patch on his right shoulder. They raise their hands. The parents and girlfriends and wives pull out their cameras from their positions behind the officer. They practiced this once all together, and they say the words perfectly and in unison.
I do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Honestly, I am barely listening. I’m just trying to get a picture of Emily where her eyes are not closed or she doesn’t look like a Russian spy. Despite how beautiful she is, this turns out to be a difficult task. Panic starts to well up inside me. The palms of my hands tingle. I have become the sort of people who silently murmurs to herself, “It will be fine. It will be fine. It will be fine.”
But I haven’t yet become the kind of person who believes it.
Another mother of an officer candidate takes a picture of Emily and me standing in front of a whole bunch of flags.
“I hope one of the pictures turns out,” the other mom says.
“We don’t photograph well,” Em says to her. “It’s okay.”
And it is. All that matters is this moment. All that matters is every moment. All that matters is love and forward motion, but even as I write this, tears come up because is it all that matters?
What matters has always been supporting Emily, keeping her safe so that she could explore her own life, reach her best potential.
Where does that leave me?
It leaves me walking around Portland Maine’s downtown district for thirty minutes before she has to go back inside the MEPS building without me. They ran late, but the soldiers-in-training have time with their families to wander around. There are rules. They can’t go in a car. They have to come back. We have laminated emergency contact cards that they dispersed in case, as the marine in charge said, “They get hit by a bus or have a heart attack or a large anvil that says ACME across it falls down on their head. Then you call that number there on the card.”
Nothing falls on her head.
She does not get hit by a bus.
“I could gently push you in front of a slow moving car and you could break your leg,” I say.
“I could show you how to break my leg,” Em answers. “You just kick right here at the knee… and… “
“No! I can not break your leg.”
She smiles at me and I’m not sure if she’s kidding or not. We walk down the brick sidewalks, the concrete sidewalks, past little dress shops that we would normally go into. We pass a taco place. She checks the time. She checks the time again.
“Ten minutes,” she announces.
“That’s not enough,” I tell her.
“I know. It’s not.”
We have stashed her winter jacket in the back of the Subaru. I won’t take it out for a week. Her laptop is in there too. I put it in the night before.
As we walk back towards the front of the MEPS building, a kind-looking fortyish woman takes our photo.
“You just look so nice,” she says. “So perfect. I hope you don’t mind.”
We don’t mind.
I go inside the building with Emily. The first floor is a corridor. On one side is a Rite Aid. The other is store fronts and a bridal shop. You walk by all of this to the back wall. There is a long ramp to the right and an alcove. Once you enter the alcove, you talk to the elevator wall and say who you are. Then they let you up to the MEPS section of the building. The light for level three lights up without you pressing it.
But I don’t go into the alcove.
Em turns and opens her arms. I can tell she’s scared and trying to be brave by the way her mouth is set, by the way her eyes seem a little too bright. She grabs me and folds me into a hug and it reminds me of all the times I hugged my mom before she died, all the time, and she never wanted to let go. She was the longest hugger. Everyone always teased her about it, but I get that now because I don’t ever want to let go of Emily. I want to hug her forever.
But I can’t.
We never can.
“You are going to be amazing. You can do this. You are a warrior. And you are so strong and so smart and I love you so much,” I whisper into her new dark hair.
“I don’t know if I can,” she whispers back.
“I love you too.” She pulls away. She smiles a tiny bit and says goodbye.
She disappears into the alcove. She says something to the wall. Wiping my cheeks, I rush towards the ramp so that I can see her get into the elevator.
She’s already gone.
All my sorrow rushes up into my mouth, all my fear and worry and missing and loss, and I pivot hard and fast like a soldier, back towards the hallway. Other families are coming in. A teenage girl looks at me with sorrow in her own eyes. I wipe at my face again and try to smile reassuringly. I think I fail. Thomas’ family is stationed by the bridal shop. His dad is hugging him, arms wrapped around his back. I swear Thomas is holding his father’s weight, keeping him standing. They are both sobbing. I want to sob with them, but I keep walking, fast walking. I don’t remember going out the door. I don’t remember going down the sidewalk. I get to the car. There’s no parking ticket. I find my keys and slam myself in behind the steering wheel and it’s there, only there, that I let myself sob.
When people come to MDI or Bar Harbor, I’m not sure what they see when they see local residents like us. But here’s the thing. That person who just honked at you? He might have dropped his son off at the Marines yesterday. That lady who rang up your groceries? She might have a kid in special forces in Syria or Afghanistan. The guy drinking at the bar? He might be in the Coast Guard right now, stationed in Southwest Harbor. That lady running around Hannafords with a clipboard and a stylish haircut? She’s a veteran.
We are all stories here. We are all human. So are you.