A Lucky One Comes Home

There are two kinds of calls you can get when you've got a close friend or family member in Iraq: the call that says he's dead and the call that says he's come home. Sometimes you don't know which one is coming, so you answer the phone crossing your fingers if you're superstitious and praying if you're religious. If you're neither, you either fervently hope, or you don't let yourself think about the message you're about to get.

But the call I got last night was the good kind -- the kind where my mother, the disseminator of all family news, called to say that my baby brother (not so much a baby anymore, being that he's 28 years old and has two babies of his own) is safe on the ground in Indiana. After a year in Iraq at Camp Liberty with the Ohio National Guard, he is back on American soil, for good.

As he is released from the service, the circle of people who love him are released from limbo. Unlike Cindy Sheehan and the thousands like her who have been permanently exiled to that place where mothers and sisters and lovers and children of war dead reside in eternal unease, we're among the lucky ones. My brother is home, in America, unscathed so far as we know but for the crushing yearlong boredom of the desert and the loss of one of his compatriots who died in a roadside bombing just a couple of months before the scheduled flight home.

This limbo place is a place that tempers a liberal's anti-war fire and can make even the most die-hard conservative pause to wonder if he really wants his kid to go back for a second tour. It's a place where you learn new things about the fleeting intangibility of time and the slow beat of eternity. It's a place where little things like the long line at the post office matter less and things like a letter postmarked Baghdad matter more.

Being in that limbo means so many different things to the different people who pass through it and find themselves hauled back from the edge or thrown over it. It means listening avidly to the news and holding your breath every one of the more than 2,000 times an American death was reported on the ground in Iraq. It means heaving a guilty sigh of relief when you learn that it's a Marine coming home in a body bag, because your soldier is in the Army. It means feeling relieved when you see the flag draped over that coffin is from your home state, because your cousin serves in the National Guard of the next state over. Sometimes it also means turning off the news for weeks, because you can't take the wait between the time the casualty numbers hit CNN's website and the time the names are released to the press.

It also means I have no choice in whether or not I support the troops. It means having war hawks demand to know how I can oppose the war when my baby brother is over there fighting it. It means watching the politely glazed-over look that comes into people's eyes in liberal circles when you mention the trials of having family serving in Iraq. And it means fielding the harsh judgment that these kids knew what they were getting into when they signed up -- even if they signed up before the specter of 9/11 changed the American landscape forever. It means having no political home anymore, being suspected of grand hypocrisies by both right and left, and yet being possessed by emotions too extreme for any kind of moderation.

It means fearing you're going to wake up one morning and see your soldier on the front page of the newspaper holding the leash of a naked man in a black hood, and then wonder for the rest of your life if the order came down from on high or if your kid and his buddies cooked up that bit of horror all on their own.

It means saving old voice mails because you're not sure if you'll ever hear his voice again.

It means understanding that someone out there hates your soldier for coming home because it pushes their sister or husband or son's name that much closer to the top of the list.

It means making little deals with your deities and devils, and sometimes making up new deities out of whole cloth just so you have someone to make deals with. It means getting the most fleeting glimpse of understanding of what life is like in the world's war zones: Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Chechnya, Israel and the occupied territories; too many to name them all.

Last night, when that call came ringing through, the weight of limbo lifted off my shoulders. Because of the timing of his deployment, it is unlikely that my little brother will serve active duty again before his National Guard contract expires, and only if his commitment is forcibly extended will he serve a second tour. For him and for the rest of us, it's back to the land of the living.

We count ourselves among the lucky ones. We line up quietly on the side of the fence where people go when their military service is a mere footnote to their lives, not the final curtain. On the other side, we can see Cindy Sheehan and the thousands of others left behind by every soldier who didn't make it home alive. Behind them are the thousands of Iraqi families who glare like ghosts at the armies of the living and the armies of the dead who occupy their country.

We can turn our backs on them and walk away, and no one could fault us for doing so, for ours is the territory of joyful reunion. Or we can remember them and use the energy to continue the battle for justice and peace for those who are no longer around to speak for themselves. A way to glean some final meaning from those long months in limbo.


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