Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

In the Army Now 
by Heather Claussen

My son's father left for basic training two weeks ago. I'm not sure why Jerry decided to enlist in the Army Reserves at this wildly uncertain time, but he did. We are separated, but I am indelibly connected to him by our son, Gavan. Jerry's safety -- and presence -- are important to me because they are essential for Gavan.

When Jerry told us that he'd signed and submitted his paperwork, my emotions were mixed. It had been difficult to establish our new boundaries, difficult to determine how to remain parents together while not remaining in a "relationship," and so I thought a forced period of physical separation could serve as a good way to illustrate, for all of us, the "before" and the "after."

While in theory the concept was not a bad one, in reality Jerry's absence is much more than a signal of our new roles. He is not just off camping or away on business. He is training -- "learning how to be a soldier" is what Gavan says. And when I see images on the television of all that is happening to our soldiers in this terrifying and lengthening conflict in Iraq , I am frightened. There is a very real possibility -- more near a certainty -- that upon completion of his training Jerry will be sent overseas. Then his absence will be indefinite, not the nine or so weeks we'd first thought.

This realization brings, along with fear, a bit of anger and a good dose of self-pity. I don't want to tie a yellow ribbon around the trees in my front yard. I don't want to participate in the company listserv created by the wife of the commanding sergeant of Jerry's unit. I have no desire to be a military wife -- especially when I'm not married to the private first class in question.

But I feel obligated to "keep up appearances" for lack of a better phrase -- for Gavan's sake, for the sake of Jerry's parents and even for Jerry. I feel obligated to participate in the rituals of a soldier's family. I realize these rituals -- the groups, programs and systems of support -- serve as comfort for many families left behind. But they do not for me.

Jerry has a friend in Tennessee. They've known each other since high school and are very close. Even though she's a busy lawyer with three kids, she's already sending cards and care packages to Jerry while he's at Basic. She enjoys doing these things. She's good at it.

I had trouble remembering to bring a card to my mom's birthday dinner and am hard-pressed to remember other less significant dates like anniversaries or cousin's kid's birthdays, so the prospect of having to gird up and organize myself is disheartening, particularly when my heart isn't in it. Couple that with the fact that my heart is otherwise engaged watching images of young soldiers in enemy hands, and I'm undone.

I try to remember all of the ways I'm supposed to remind Gavan that his dad loves him and all of the ways I'm supposed to remain in contact with Jerry's parents -- Gavan's nana and papa -- as Jerry is not here to see that it's done himself. I take photographs, and we draw pictures. I document as best I can, write letters and make phone calls. Gavan dresses in camouflage pants and shirts and stares wide-eyed at every man or woman in uniform. I encourage this because it helps him feel connected to his daddy. "There's a soldier, just like daddy."

I didn't ask for this. I don't want to watch the news and relate to the families of those soldiers. I don't want to be the one shushing people when the somber anchorwoman announces the names of those who aren't coming home. I don't want to have to listen to the hype from Washington and try to believe what they say, because believing the alternative is unthinkable.

I don't want to, but I will, because my son's father joined the Army. He left for basic training two weeks ago.
Heather Claussen writes and lives in Iowa City, Iowa with her son Gavan and their boxer, Lily. She is currently at work on her first book, entitled Birth Stories: Joining the Motherhood Club.