Memories are not always unkind

Irish Poet John O’Donohue

This was today’s Facebook “memory.”

2009. Iraq deployment. He was stationed in Texas. I could not kiss him “See you soon.” Tiffany and the girls were there with him, and she took this photo.

I remember the day he texted me, saying that this was going to happen. It was a few months before it actually did. I was at work, at the front desk of the car dealership where I worked. When I read the message, I threw the phone across the desk, as if it were hot. I pistoned my legs reflexively, and my chair hit the wall behind me. I stood up abruptly, not sure what to do. I was not prepared, even though I had braced for it since the day he and his brother had both enlisted. Boots on the ground in Texas, the other set of boots going underway for months at a time on a massive, nuclear submarine. I didn’t sleep well in those days.

As I stood there, locked in a momentary panic, my boss walked out of his office, where I sat sentry to the right. Our eyes locked and something on my face seemed to alarm him and his eyebrows shot up. I turned and walked quickly toward the side door and outside, not willing to trust my voice or my composure. I couldn’t explain this. I couldn’t allow myself to think.

My boss was not the warm, fuzzy kind of guy you could relate to. Most of the dealership – okay, all of the dealership – feared him. He would arrive in his truck every morning, well after everyone else, and a couple of sale staff would scurry out: one to carry his briefcase and the other to leash and walk his bulldog, who almost always made the two-hour commute from Erie with him, where they lived. He’d stride in, a stocky, brooding figure in a fedora and leather jacket, a pipe or a cigar clamped between his lips. He exuded an air of wealth and privilege, holding court in the General Manager’s office, where the orders he had issued by phone on the way in were confirmed.

Then, he would settle into his day in a dark, richly-paneled office, surrounded by large pieces of leather furniture, his face lit by the glow of the massive Mac screen on his desk. State-of-the-art exercise equipment gathered dust in a corner, his paunchy figure defying their existence. I liked the days when he smoked a pipe; it was fragrant. The cigar days were not. Soft, classical music would drift out to my ears as I did my work, and occasionally, I would be called in to do some task. I’d pet Buster softly and call him “Baby.” My boss would growl, not unkindly, “Don’t spoil him.” As if.

His temper was legendary and he unleashed it often and without prejudice. When he wished to “have a pep talk” with the sales staff, he would first send me upstairs, where we would shelter in place while he tore them all new assholes. One time, I made my way downstairs, nature’s call unable to wait. He had been shouting for nearly 30 minutes and I needed the loo. As I gingerly opened the door, he finished a sentence that included “…..you’re all lazy, fucking cocksuckers,” and turned to look at me. “What, Lori?” he asked quietly, positive that there must have been some earth-shattering knowledge that I needed to impart to him because why would I interrupt his “constructive sales meeting?”

“Sorry, but I have to pee,” I said, walking toward the one restroom we had for both employees and customers. We’d had two when I started, but the building had undergone a massive renovation after a flood and he had decided we only needed one unisex restroom. He was rich, but he was a tightwad when it came to certain things not for himself, too.

“You came down to pee?” he asked, exasperation tinting his query.

“Uh, yeah?” I retorted, “You’ve been yelling for a half an hour now. How many more ‘motherfuckers’ have you got in you? We womenfolk need to pee occasionally.” I entered the bathroom as silence enveloped the cavernous showroom. When I emerged, it was to furtive grins and a much more composed, quiet boss. Thank you,” I said to him, heading back upstairs. “Yeah, yeah,” he waved me away. Things were much quieter after that. Less than give minutes later, he opened the door and called up the stairs, “Lori? I’m done.”

“Finally,” I shouted.

I wasn’t afraid of him, like everyone else. I respected him as my boss, and I respected him when he was worthy of it. Sometimes, he was not. He would receive my intractable resting bitch face when he was a dick, but I was not going to cower in fear at the feet of a guy who – last time I checked – was no better a person than anyone else. I think he knew it; he would rant and shout at nearly everyone else when his ire was up, making the women cry and the men shake, but he never, ever did that to me. One time early in my employment, a salesperson attempted to throw me under the bus for an administrative error that he, himself had made. As we stood in front of the boss’s desk, this ferret-faced little worm attempted to shift blame onto me. I threw it back in his face, enumerating the ways in which he had made the mistake, and finished with “Don’t stand here in front of Mr. T and lie. I’m not going to go along with your bullshit. And don’t ever cross me again.” I think that established a basic fault line that our boss respected.

This day, though, the day of the text.

I deserted my desk and didn’t forward the phones and it wasn’t the protocol but I didn’t trust myself to remain composed in that moment. When your child tells you, “I need you to be calm. I’ve received my deployment orders,” and it immediately registers with you that he doesn’t mean Germany or Alaska or even South Korea, but that hot, sandy place where people are getting killed every day, something chemical happens in your brain. Adrenaline rushes to all nerve endings and yet, you’re numb. You’re numb and you’re terrified and you think, “Who can I call to complain to?” and you realize with bleak finality that this isn’t grade school and there is no principal with which to lodge your complaint on your child’s behalf. Nope, you’re an Army Mom. Suck. It. Up.

So I went outside, and leaned against the building, taking gigantic, gulping breaths. These were pre-Xanax and antidepressant days, when I (didn’t) manage my mental illness much, if at all. I knew I had to get it together; work was not the place to break down, and breaking down, in any event, was not constructive. I wondered, fleetingly if all the other mothers who had received that message from their child throughout history felt like they were free-falling and that the ground rushing toward them would be a merciful fate, shutting down the panic?

As I was working through this thought, my boss walked outside and stood in front of me. “What is it?” he asked quietly, concern lacing his words. I could not speak. That unease in his voice undid me, and my throat began to constrict. I didn’t know, at that moment, whether I was going to cry or vomit on his shoes. I grunted and tried to walk away, but he blocked my path. “Tell me what’s going on,” he commanded softly, and it all came out in a rush:

My-son-got-his-orders-and-he-is-going-to-Iraq-and-I-wasn’t-ready-and-I’m-scared

And then fat tears snaked down my face.

Big arms enfolded me into an embrace and a hand softly held my head against his chest. I could smell his cologne and the soft pungency of pipe tobacco on his flannel shirt. Mr. T softly crooned to me, “It’s okay,” as I sobbed. As cars drove by on the busy street and people entered and exited the building, no doubt wondering “What in the actual fuck?” he comforted me. It seemed like forever but it was only a few minutes.

Finally, I pulled away, embarrassed and aghast. “I’m so sorry,” I said, and he wiped my eyes, saying, “Shit, I just wiped mascara all over your face.” I hiccuped and said, “But I got snot all over your shirt.” He chuckled. I shied away from him and he asked, “Tell me what I can do for you?” We talked a while longer, and his kindness nearly undid me; but it also made me strong. I was allowed this moment to be scared and the universe gave me exactly who I needed in that moment to come undone and to lace myself back up again. When he knew I was calmer, he told me, “Take whatever time you need. Call him. Call your husband. Hell, you wanna go to him? Go to Texas? Do it. Do whatever you need to.” He went back inside and barked at everyone to answer the phones for me and I made my calls and calmed down and then finished the day in a blur of numbness and resolve. My boy would never have to see or hear my fear because that guy took it upon himself. That was a different kind of service.

Many more times, I would feel that wave of panic until the day of this photo dawned. My son and I spoke on the phone and he texted me just before he boarded the plane. One of my coworkers offered me a valium. I refused. This was something I needed to feel fully: fear, intense pride, and calm resolve to send waves of my mother love to him. It would envelope him, like a force field, and keep him safe.

He survived that deployment, and another, to Afghanistan. He came home, and he eventually got out, and now he has five kids and knows all those feelings parents feel about their kids. I hope he will never have to send a son, or sons, off to war, but if he does, I want to be the one he can turn to in that momentary panic. He will be more prepared for the realities than I was. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.

This Memorial Day, I am grateful to those who served, and those who serve. I am grateful to those who support and respect and revere our military. Today is a day in which our country – our world – has become intimately aware of sadness and very slight sacrifices. While we may be engaged in a different sort of war, we need to remind ourselves that this is small potatoes compared to what those soldiers of past wars and the ones who came home experienced. Today, we remember, and we say, “Thank you for your service.”

Thank you, my two sons, and thank you, my son-in-law, for your service. Thank you.

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