Close to Home:
Sitting in the corner, I unleash these unearned tears. Despite my lack of Swedish blood, my “in-law” status, and my need to imagine the faces and places in memories preceding my entrance into this family that are now being shared, I allow emotion to overflow onto cheeks and down my neck like I was a mother, a brother, or a father of this hero. Everyone offers gifts suitable for the occasion: batteries, granola bars, powdered drink mixes, an iPod case from grandma. “Thank you,” he says, with genuineness before the weight of why we have gathered starts to press upon us like an elephant sucking oxygen from the room. Words begin to form on tongues now loosed by the gravity of the situation, words too rare and precious to pull out on just any old day but that here, among empty gift bags and pounds of trail mix, are more than appropriate with their unfiltered sentiments of affection, appreciation, and pride.
“I am terrified,” someone finally admits because not saying it is like trying to write a sentence without a verb, or attempting to paint a picture without a canvas. The entertaining of possibilities, as haunting as they are, remains integral to the process of handing over a loved one in faith. The fear of loss gives context from which emanate the long embraces, and the stabs of anxiety piercing hearts all linked by this one soldier, sibling, nephew, cousin, and son. When his parents begin to speak, I am mesmerized. Their conviction that no place or circumstance is outside the hand of God radiates from faces moistened but not anguished, from spirits fragile but not broken, from wishes hopeful but realistic for a future no more certain than an unmapped road leading who knows where from here. Their belief that a soul can float through open spaces within the tightly clenched fists of evil, to freedom, to goodness, to light, is infectious with that hopefulness and determination. The same determination that lines the eyes of this boy turned man who’s stepped up and grabbed his chance to serve our country.
This battle has crossed an ocean, and landed in the kitchen of an old and creaky house in Indiana. The abstract troops enduring heat, death, hatred, and loneliness have separated into individuals with friends, wives, and children, straddling two diverse existences while trying not to rip from the tension between the opportunities and the sense of foreboding in each new day. Updates in my morning paper soak through me like a sponge instead of sliding down distracted thoughts more concerned about the weather than the fate of lives so far from their reality. The prayers once forced become outright reflexive when a face, a name, a voice that you recognize is thrown into the danger that is war. “Does he have to go?” whispered my five-year-old daughter, alarmed by adults who had let down their guards to claim a fleeting moment of significance, who wept openly while clinging to one of their own. “Yes,” I answered. “But he is brave and ready. We will miss him, and it is good to let him see how much we care.”
“Of course, it would be easier,” said the Elder Anthony of Optina, “to get to paradise with a full stomach, all snuggled up in a soft feather bed, but what is required is to carry one’s cross along the way, for the kingdom of God is not attained by enduring one or two troubles, but many!” It seems altogether backwards to garner strength from disappointment, a diagnosis, an encounter with violence, or from saying good-bye. It is excruciatingly difficult to think beyond the grave. But if earthly comfort is like cotton balls stuffed into ears, than trials are the megaphone grabbing our attention by force. For this family, my family, life has been clarified by deployment. One member’s departure is like an ice cold shower, waking us from a spiritual stupor and invigorating our senses with an awareness of heaven. For this family, and for every family who loves, who worries, and who wants more than anything to rest in the promises of Christ, trials are the glue that unites us one to another, and to our original calling so easily muffled by coziness and satiety. “Lord,” we call out, like the father of the suffering child desperate for the intervention of Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief!”
And to all of the men and women, sacrificing much more than I can even comprehend, may the Lord God bless you, and keep you in His perfect peace. May we all wake up more aware of your presence, more in awe of your courage, and more inclined to intercede on your behalf. May those you have left behind be granted serenity that defies explanation, and may the crosses that you carry, hazy, sweltering, and grueling as they are, keep foremost in your thoughts the unconquerable Resurrection. “For I am convinced,” says Paul in Romans, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
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