Sending a Son off to War: a Mother's Anguish

For 23 years as a mother, I have assumed that my job description included sweeping whatever detritus lay in my daughter's path threatening to stub her toes or trip her up. Some might argue that at 23 she is no longer a child and that attempts to protect her are no longer my responsibility. My role has become, what? Emeritus?

But I have noticed that parents talk about such boundaries with a lot less clarity and conviction than other people.

This January, my daughter ended up in the hospital for reasons that finally proved not to be life-threatening, but for the first two weeks of her stay I was not at all sure that was going to be the case. I slept in the bed with her or on blankets on the floor of her room because touch was really my only comfort. That fragile membrane of false security was all there was between me and the terrible half-finished sentences, the what ifs that menaced.

Those two weeks were an eternity. I still have flashbacks to moments of horror, moments when she had to endure some unspeakably painful procedure, or when the doctors suddenly and obviously went into emergency mode and snatched her away to be seen to by others who knew more, could offer more, than I, only her mother.

I could see the Hudson from her window. I'm a New Yorker. At different times, in different lights, the Hudson is part of the landscape of home, safe, comforting, enduring. But for those bleak days, I couldn't see the river for the inexorable flow of its waters. I wanted only to stop the clocks, to keep her safe for a few more moments. And then a few more.

Frances Richey's book of poems, The Warrior (Viking, 2008), was written before, during and after her only son's deployments to Iraq, in 2004 and then again in 2005. She writes about archetypically terrific moments:

The vertigo started in March
when he told me
he would be deployed.
I sat down on the sidewalk
at the corner of Forty-Third
and Broadway, waited
for the spinning to stop.

And about archetypical fears. Richey, who teaches and practices yoga, writes:

It was easy to think of warrior
As a yoga posture, until my son
Became a Green Beret. Green:
Color of the fourth chakra,
Anahata; it means unstruck-
The heart center;
The color of his fatigues.

When Arjuna rode into battle,
the disguised Krishna by his side,
he looked out from his chariot
over the field of familiar faces,
cried out,
I cannot do this!
Krishna said,
You must fight!

Where is the solace in my warrior
if my son is lost?
If he returns another man?

That is perhaps the most terrible question for a parent -- how will I survive the wait and the not-knowing, and will I survive at all if my worst fears are realized?

Distance is a central issue in these poems. Before the war, Richey measured distance between herself and her son by positions taken in debate. She was liberal; he, conservative. She was against this war; he was a soldier, "honorable and disciplined, who wanted to serve his country," she recently explained to me. But then his deployment to Iraq became imminent. It became clear that distance would soon be measured in real miles and real time. "When his life was on the line, I suddenly realized that politics was not important to me. My son was important to me."

So she helps him pack, trying to familiarize herself with the specific items he must carry, his helmet, his gun, grenade pouches, body armor, detailing a process by which she hopes to transform those things formerly associated with injury and loss into the stuff of protection and agency. To his helmet:

(H)ow many have died
because you weren't enough?
Because you couldn't be everywhere?
I wanted to put you on,
but you weren't mine, your only
country that remnant of the fontanel I felt once
while he slept
before the bones closed over it.

Or his gun:

It wasn't about blood
or necessity, it wasn't
about love-or
maybe it was
all of these that drove
my desire to see
how he carried it,
if he cradled it,
how it fit against his
body, to see
the side he hides
from me, the dark

Richey's efforts to bridge those distances paid off. When the book was about to be released, her publisher asked for pictures. Ben sent her a photograph of himself with a gun holstered across his chest. "I had never seen him with a gun in his hand. I'd never seen him in the same room with a gun ... I realized at that moment that he understood my confusion, my search to understand, and that he trusted me to accept all of him, my son, the boy, the man, and the soldier. And that meant the world to me."

Still, it is often viscerally clear how steep the learning curve is for her. Standing in front of an El Greco in the Guggenheim Museum, Richey congratulates herself for having overcome her childhood squeamishness about blood, only to acknowledge several poems later how gravely the ante has been upped:

The trainer showed him
how to rock the rabbit

like a baby in his arms,
faster and faster,

until every sinew surrendered
and he smashed its head into a tree.

"You said you wanted to know," he reminds her. It is a line that recurs, and always to put in high relief those moments in which common ground must have felt most illusive and challenging -- for a mother who wants desperately to keep her son close, for a soldier hoping he will be welcomed home, and for a country that has chosen not to share the burden of knowing.

Increasingly so. In the first nine months of 2007, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism which tracks reporting in the major media, Iraq accounted for 18 percent of prominent news coverage. In the following three months, however, that fell to 9 percent, and so far this year, it has been only 3 percent. Implicit in that increasing dearth of information is a tragic abandonment of our soldiers and their families.

We are a country at war, but the costs are being disproportionately borne by a very few. This little book of poems offers a corrective in that it reminds us that war is always and exquisitely personal for those whose lives are intimately touched.

I have become convinced that only empathy, and the passion and activism it motivates, will rescue our politics from the Orwellian distortions, lapel pins, bumper stickers and self-righteous posturing that drown out the voices of those who would speak from personal experience and with intimate authority.

The Warrior is one mother's journey through the fear and loss and grief of sending a child off to war. It is a journey that parents across America are searching for ways to survive, and they are dishonored when the burden sacrifice is not shared. Those of us who know how terrible it is to be unable to protect a child also know what it is to be left only with hope and prayer for comfort. Richey asks:

Isn't that your job?
To whisper in the ear of
any god who'll listen:
protect him.

Isn't that your job?

I, for one, believe that the best answer to her prayer would be to bring all of our children home immediately so we can begin what will surely be the long and difficult process of caring for whatever wounds they have suffered, physical or spiritual. I do not believe that a rationale has been offered that begins to justify the cost of this war to parents and children and communities, both our own and those we have labeled enemy. But I think Richey is right. It is for all of us to be invested.

Isn't that your job?


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