When he stood on yellow footprints after filing off a bus hundreds of miles away from home. When drill instructors got in his face, and tossed everyone’s personal belongings in a heap in the middle of the floor.
I wasn’t there.
I didn’t drill with him.
I didn’t crawl through muck and filth on my belly and feel my clothes catch on barbed wire.
I didn’t do the push up’s with him. The runs. The PT.
I wasn’t with him when they placed the globe and anchor in his hand no larger than a fifty cent piece, but large with the weight of the spirits from thousands of men who went before him, and the divine plight of those of us who are sheepdogs called to protect.
I wasn’t there when he was deployed. When he worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When he stood watch in the cold under an Iraqi sky, and practically melted in the 120 degree heat.
When he carried his weapon with him everywhere, and his brain never ceased with the thought that any moment, he might be woken to find hell unfolding, and this could be the day he doesn’t come back.
I’ve never had to wonder what I might do in the case of all possible eventualities, and whether or not every important person in my life knows how much I love them in case I never get the chance to tell them again.
I wasn’t there to see he and his comrades form a bond that goes beyond friendships and brotherly bonds. When he was sharing tight quarters with men who snored and stank, and made him laugh and pissed him off because they were all beyond bone tired, and missed home and the taste of mom’s apple pie. Only he’d have readily died for any of them without hesitation even if they did occasionally fuck up and grated each others nerves.
I wasn’t there for the close call. The phone calls home after where he couldn’t talk about it. The bullets that whipped by his head. The anguish of trying to discern a civilian from the enemy, and for every caution ringing in his head like alarm bells.
I came into view when he was mostly through his four years of serving.
And we’ve since left that time in the rear view mirror of our Chevy blazer as we pulled out of our California driveway, and there was so much my young heart didn’t know then. I didn’t know how to help someone adjust from living that kind of high octane life back into living the life of an every day American who had never had to worry about such things.
I didn’t know how to quell the heart that didn’t know what it was to relax anymore. I didn’t realize the privilege I had in feeling safe in nearly every place I went. Where I could trust the stranger to the left of me in standing in line at the movie theater. I’ve never had to relearn how to drive a car without feeling like I wanted to pull my skin off for fear that the vehicle or pile of highway debris next to my car might explode.
I can’t fathom the depths of his ache for the faces that didn’t come home. I can’t walk in his shoes every day as he builds his life knowing that there were others who never got that chance to do the same. I can’t imagine sledging ahead forward, trying to leave those things behind in a race that feels like it’s run in circles.
I see the uniforms tucked in the back recesses of the closet, and try to never ask questions unless he seems ripe for my curiosity. I remind myself I couldn’t never understand in the way no man could ever understand what it’s like to see a yowling infant pulled from you and placed across your chest, and feeling the brevity of the universe cascade into one crescendo moment where you were suddenly sure that was all you were born to do.
And there he was, practically fresh from being out of high school, signing away eight years of his life and I wasn’t with him to see the pen in his hand flick across the line.
And still, it aches inside of me. Because I want the world to know. To see him. To understand what it’s cost him and taken away from him and done to him and molded it into. I want all of the thanks and gratitude for what my husband has endured, even though it would never be enough.
I’ve learned to be the casual observer and I see the way he gets quiet after watching certain movies or the news. I know what when fall encroaches at the end of summer and the leaves begin to change, something recedes inside of him. I have tried to imprint that on me, his silent struggle. I have tried to prepare myself to catch him should he need it.
And time marches on, and he knows I’m here. But what could he ever say? And what could I do to understand? When it seems like just yesterday I was washing uniforms and we were driving through the gates on base to get home. My role here is so small.
I try to understand what it would be like if the biggest parts of me, the stuff that makes me who I am, became a date on the calendar. If they hung in the back of the closet. A constant reminder that I don’t need to think that way anymore. Act that way anymore. If the world expected me to carry on and act accordingly. If I was the only one that knew those things hung like drapes in the back of the closet.
It’s something that never turns off.
The best I can do is tell him how proud I am of him. That it means something that he has never wasted a moment he was given since he came home that wasn’t given to someone else. He has lived a hundred sunshine, cloud filled and bracing lifetimes for those who never could.
In awe of those who never will.
And I have held his hand. Not knowing what I could ever do but stand beside him.
And told him that was enough.