Wednesday, September 10, 2014

We All Have a 9/11 Story

Tomorrow is September 11th again. It's been 13 years, and, as many Americans, I am still able to recall where I was when I heard the shocking news of the terrorist attacks. Many of our children, including my own, weren't even born when 9/11 happened. To them, it's something in a history book, like Pearl Harbor, World War II, and Vietnam were for me. 13 years is how long I've been married. 13 years is one year younger than my oldest nephew. 13 years is a decade and then some. 13 years is a long time. 13 years feels like yesterday. 

I'd been married for a month and half when 9/11 happened. I was a 20-year-old college student, and I was terrified my husband  - who was 23 and a solider in the U.S. Army - would be sent to war. I wasn't like my grandmother, who endured four straight years alone when my grandfather served in the army in World War II. There was none of her courage in my veins. I wasn't even like my mother, whose boyfriend was shot down in a helicopter in Vietnam. Her strength had somehow eluded my DNA. You see, Shawn couldn't go to war. I couldn't be alone. We were just kids, playing house, going to college, figuring out how to live together. War wasn't real. War was in stories, and I was never a character in them. 

Two years passed, and we thought we'd escaped the inevitable. But then, 2003 came, and soldiers all over the country were being deployed to Iraq. We were lucky, though. We escaped the first wave of deployments. Others I knew weren't so lucky. Shawn's brother. My friend's husband. People we knew and cared about. There were times I felt incredibly guilty that my husband was still here, while his brother and my friend were gone. We knew it was coming, though, creeping toward us like a slow-moving freight train. When the phone call came, the night before Thanksgiving, I saw my husband cry for the second time since we had been together. I have never enjoyed the holidays less, never felt such an ache or fear, but also never felt such pride that my best friend was serving his country. 

He left in January 2004, and returned in March 2005. For 14 months, we lived two different lives. We both endured terrors of different natures that we still don't like to talk about. We have never been the same since, and I suppose that's good, because if we were the same kids, we wouldn't have had the strength to face the other things that came, and that are certain to still come, in our marriage. In some ways, I'm grateful for that time, because I found my own courage, my own strength, and the love of family and friends who never stopped supporting us.

My mom, who let her married kid come back and live with her because she was scared of being alone. My sister, who has always loved me the most, and who took me to dinner on Valentine's Day so I wouldn't have to be alone. My dad, whose faith that Shawn would return never wavered. My sister-in-law, who called faithfully each Sunday to make sure I was okay. My friends who encircled me with their love and support - Andrea, Diana, and Sandi. My God, who sometimes had to shake me by the roots of my hair to wake me up from my nightmares.

Tomorrow I will take a moment and remember 9/11/01, and the victims, heroes, soldiers, and families who have endured the horrors, and yet who have prevailed in their own ways. 

I wrote the piece below, entitled "Endurance," when Shawn was gone. It was published in a small magazine in 2004, and I've posted it here with only minor corrections from its original version.

When I look at this picture of you, I am far from believing that you are really under that bullet proof vest, or behind those night vision goggles, or carrying that M16. I’ve seen you in uniform (oh, yes, I’ve had you in uniform), but with the background in this picture, I still do not comprehend the reality of a world where baby girls are burned for misbehaving and women burn themselves to try to be rid of the limited existence they live.

The only thing I recognize in the picture is your hands: tanned, thick-veined, with a small gold band around your finger. It seems so strange that those mountains behind you could be the Wasatch Range, that the sand you stand on could be the Bonneville Flats, that you’re only training. The only certainty I have that this is not training is that every night, for months, and months to go, I wake up and slide my hand towards you, but you’re not there. I think you’re in the bathroom and that you’ve fallen asleep in there (because you did that a lot), so I smile, turn to go back to sleep, and my heart stops. I fall out of bed and stumble into the bathroom, but no, you’re not there. I even reach out to make sure I haven’t gone blind.

That’s when I collapse. I curl up on the bathmat and not just cry, but die. It’s not just that I miss you. It’s that I, and you, our family, our friends, this country, have sent you there for justice. And liberty. And as I’ve said before, I have no liberty to stand against it, or to insist on your return home, back to me where you belong.

“Veteran of war” is a name I used for my grandpa. World War II was reality. It was honorable, or so I have been taught to believe. “Veteran” is a term we used for your father, who endured the terrors of Vietnam and Desert Storm. It’s not a word I would have ever imagined for you. These are the thoughts I contemplated as I would lie on the cold tile bathroom floor. But I always said I have to get up and keep living. So I would crawl off the bathmat and go back to our bed, back to the side you once slept on.

I think maybe we have it better than in past wars, though. I hear your voice, usually, but not always, twice a day, though a muffled, tunneled, telephone line. I hear your voice, so I know you’re alive. But even when you tell me, and even when I hear it, I don’t realize the sounds of a missile, a rocket, the shots of the M16, or the blades of the Apache helicopter as it takes off and lands before and after its stalk for the Taliban.

All I know at this moment is that you’re coming home, and so this picture can’t be my husband. I mean, my husband wears T-shirts and Dave Matthews Band hats, not body armor. I put it away, because I’m standing at the airport, and you’re coming. You don’t know that these last ten minutes waiting for you to come through that corridor is so much longer than the last ten months since you’ve been gone. I don’t hold an American flag, and I didn’t make a welcome home sign, because this isn’t home for good. It’s two weeks, but I hold your dog tag that I’ve worn and clung to and put your wedding band over my shaking fingers, knowing that for two weeks, I’ll have you, instead of these pieces.

And there you are. A little less hair, a lot more color, but the same smile. You are in uniform, and I am so proud. You are so beautiful. As I run to you and hold onto you, though, I feel the difference in you, and you—I know you—you feel it in me. We are both older, colder, and realize the nightmare was real. But you’re here for two weeks, and I know it’s not one of my dreams, because I can’t get enough of the smell of your skin or the feel of your hands on me.

But I also can’t stop the tears of terror of knowing that you’ve been in a world I will never know, and I have been here alone in a world you have missed. You know the loneliness and the ache, but you don’t know the sincere compliments of appreciation for our sacrifice that I despise. You are brave. We are not noble. If we had a choice, we would not be doing this. But most of all, I will never know the horror I see in you when you tell me of the boy whose skull has been crushed but he’s still alive, or the little girl who is scared of having her picture taken because she has been told that it will take away her soul. You confess that they have put you there for the primary reason of information—not to save. They want you to tell them where those children’s fathers are. But your heart is in the lives of those babies. I suppose that’s what makes this endurable, because I have to have a reason to endure. I have to know that you’re there because of your innocent heart, and so you touch the lives of those children who may never again know this compassion from a man. I have to know you’re over there for them, and not for the lust and the greed, and the blood and the oil of the government.

Still, I don’t see how a life we share is split—you walk around with a gun and have no trust in anyone, because you can’t trust anyone. Not even the soldiers you work with, eat with, fight with. Even the ones that you’ve seen die.

I see the mark of war in you.

And you, you see the anguish of the woman you had to leave behind in the way I love you now.