Wednesday, January 2, 2013

War and Hope

This is a short story I wrote during Mr. Amazing Dude's deployment to Iraq in 2008. May it be a reminder in this new year to continue to keep in prayer the families of troops serving overseas, as well as those who live after loss.

WAR & HOPE

 
If her fragile smile wasn’t enough to nearly give her away, then the APO address confirmed my suspicions.  She was young.  But I had been younger than that when I wore the same smile.  When my heart earned the same scar.
 
Mrs. Kondrake’s bleary eyes were not as astute.

“My, that’s an interesting package. Decorated real pretty.”  My former Sunday school teacher craned her wrinkly head over the girl’s shoulder, eyeing the brightly colored stickers and marker drawings.  Pink and purple hearts hugged the corners of the address label while Harvey Ball’s iconic yellow smiley faces blanketed the tape lines on all sides of the box.  I wondered absently if she knew about the appropriateness of her selection. Mr. Ball had been a WW2 veteran.  I had one of his commemorative stamps the office had issued back in 1999, the year I first started as a postal clerk.

The girl darted another brief smile at Mrs. Kondrake.  Maybe it was her age or maybe Mrs. Kondrake truly had no understanding of body language, but I suspect she flat out ignored the girl’s defensive stance shifting away from her bent 90 year-old frame.

“You must have put a lot of work into coloring those hearts.  Who’s the lucky man?”

I briefly debated trying to deflect the questions away from the girl by engaging Mrs. Kondrake in a conversation about her husband’s recent hip surgery, but my current customer was a phone call about passport photos.  My office didn’t handle passport photos.  Unfortunately, my fellow clerk, Mary was out on a late lunch, so I needed to juggle both the phone and the counter.

I missed the girl’s reply, trying to direct the customer to the Baroda office.  They handled passports.  Hanging up, I straightened my powder blue collar which had flattened during the phone call, and beckoned the girl towards me.

“Oh—I only need to buy a book of stamps, and Herbert needs me to give him his next dose of pain medicine.  Do you mind?” Mrs. Kondrake’s plea almost sounded like a whine.  Almost.

I raised my eyebrows, looking at the girl, who stepped back, motioning the older lady forward.  The stranger looked rather relieved to comply with the request.  I didn’t blame her. 

“Miss Mildred,” I greeted her as patiently as I could. “How are you this fine afternoon?” Funny how even though I thought of her differently than I did when I was a fourth grader in her class at church, I never got out of the habit of calling her “Miss Mildred” to her face.

“Just fine, Joan. Just fine.  Although, Herbert needs me to give him his medicine,” She repeated, all the while eyeing me seriously, as though the grown man couldn’t open a bottle of pills himself.

I acted like this was news to me.  I was more than happy to hurry her out of the office.  “Well, don’t let me keep you.  What stamp do you want?”

“Oh, well, those new ones with the young lady on them look nice.” She pointed at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings stamps.  Thankfully, she paid quickly and hobbled out, leaving no conversation trails behind her.  That was a small miracle.

The girl gave me her package, waiting passively.

“Sorry about that,” I nodded toward the exiting figure.  “She used to be the sweetest lady around, but in the last couple of years…well…” I trailed off, feeling slightly perverse for even thinking of gossiping about a former Sunday school teacher with a perfect stranger.  Everyone was certain Miss Mildred had dementia, but of course, no one ever talked about it.

I picked up the package.  Not quite heavy enough to justify spending $8.60 for a flat rate box.  Especially, since she had decorated this one so nicely.  The address was some base in Iraq, so the normal domestic rates applied.

“For your husband?” I asked brightly while weighing the package to be sure my estimate was correct.  Sapphires guarded the diamond glittering on her hand as she tucked a strand of nutmeg hair behind her ear and nodded at me.

“How long has he been gone?” As I began to ramble through the usual litany of questions, I could almost detect that familiar mixture of resentment and gratitude in her quiet grey eyes.  Resentment over the invasion of her privacy, yet gratitude for someone recognizing her pain. 

“Eight months.”  The matter of fact reply was accompanied by a quick, half-smile—the same one she’d pasted on upon entering into the post office.  A vartiation on a theme to the one she’d flashed to Mrs. Kondrake.

Early afternoons on Tuesdays tended to see a light flow of customers in my rural post.  In fact, having a phone call and Mrs. Kondrake at the same time was a bit strange.  Then again, the area had seen a weekend long bout of snow.  The Lake Effect tended to cause the bizarre to occur.  I figured I might have about ten minutes until anyone else would join us.  Today was the first time I’d seen this young woman and I couldn’t place her in any of the local families I’d come to know so well.

“Is anything in here liquid, perishable, fragile, or potentially hazardous material?” I rattled off trying to discern what the best approach to crack her open was.  Would she even respond to me?  I felt something deep inside urge me to at least try.  Maybe it was my maternal instinct. Or maybe my rushed lunch earlier.  Age was akin to the Lake Effect.  It did strange things to one’s digestive track.

She shook her head, probably annoyed at the question.  After all, the package contents were neatly printed in straight, precise pen strokes on the customs declaration.  Standard practice for combat zones.  I glanced over the form—a bottle of vitamin C, a bag of trail mix, three pairs of men’s socks, two issues of Astronomy and Progressive Farmer, a Max Lucado book on CD, and the ever necessary chocolate chip cookies.  Homemade no doubt.

“Do you want delivery confirmation?”

Another shake to the negative.

“Insurance?”

“No.”

“Do you need any stamps with today’s purchase?”

“No.”

“Do you want to cry?”

A startled, blank stare.

“If you do, it’s fine by me.  You’ve got maybe eight minutes before the next customer meanders through,” I offered, slapping USPS tape across the box, trying to avoid covering up her artwork, yet still secure the customs form.  “It’s hard when your private pain is public property.” 

A short, tense silence exploded into: “That’s the first real thing any stranger has said to me since my husband deployed.”

I dared to meet her eyes—bravely holding back tears—and decided to wait to see if she would “spill her guts” as my grandkids called it.  Thirty seconds passed before I realized she was waiting on me.  To explain.  To confirm that I knew how she felt.  Had walked in her shoes.

Resting my hands lightly on her package, I jumped into my story, “I was twenty when my Luke went to Vietnam.  I cried all the time, sometimes on the outside, sometimes on the inside, until he got back.  But I had to learn it was ok to cry on the outside.  It was a lot easier to push it away and pretend I wasn’t hurting.”

Her eyes watered even more and her nose reddened a moment before she regained control.  “My husband is a Luke, too.”

I couldn’t help but grin and marvel at the Lord’s mysterious ways.  “Isn’t that something?” She laughed softly in agreement.

“I bet you’re ready to scream from all the questions and good wishes you get.”

                She paused, seeming to deliberate whether or not to open up to me.  “Yeah, I am.” Then she hastened to add, “But it’s kind of them.  I mean, everybody means well.  I really do appreciate the kind thoughts and prayers.”

“But…” I prodded.

A bashful grin slid across her face and she ducked her head.  “But, yeah. I get tired of the same questions.  And I have my menu of ready answers to select from depending on the situation and my mood.”

I nodded, understandingly, but wishing to warn her that this was nothing compared to the intrusions I endured during my four pregnancies.  I opted not to.  Instead, I ventured, “It’s a fine line to walk between the real pain and falling into a pity party.”

Guilt washed over her face.  “Yeah.” Another pause, followed by a deep breath.  “Sometimes I feel rotten because I get all this attention about my situation.  And I really don’t want the attention.  Usually.  Partly because everyone has problems.  I don’t feel like I should be singled out when my ‘problem’ is only there for a year and other people face the same difficulty for their entire lifetime.”

“Their problems do not minimize the effect of your problem on you,” I challenged her quietly.  “If anything, it can give you the strength to encourage someone else.”

She chewed on her bottom lip for a second, thinking.  That was probably enough moralizing for now.  I wondered what branch her Luke was a part of—there weren’t any bases nearby.  Just the Coast Guard station in Saint Joe and the local National Guard armory in Dowagiac.

“What branch is he in?”

“Army National Guard.  His enlistment term was just about up, but well, he got caught in the stop-loss once the mission started,” she sighed.  “It’s actually his second tour.  He was in Afghanistan for a year and a half in 2004.  I didn’t know him back then.  I’m really proud of him, but honestly I’ll be happy when he gets home and is done with soldiering for good.”

“You’re not from around here, then,” I stated.  Our local guard unit had just left for training last month before eventually heading to Iraq.  My nephew was in that unit.

The girl let out a little giggle.  “Did my accent give me away?”  She did have a soft slur when she spoke.

“Well, no, not really.  We’ve got a number of transplants up here for Whirlpool and the nuclear plant, so a southern accent isn’t that much of an oddity anymore.”

“I’m from North Carolina.  Just staying up here with my parents during the deployment.”

                “Do you have a job to go back to when he returns?”

                There was frustration hidden in her next words.  “No.  And Luke doesn’t either, actually.  He was in the middle of his last year of school when they left for training.  Thankfully, his unit let him join the company a few days late in order for him to finish up his final exams.”

                “Well, that was kind of them.  And what about you?  Are you in college?  Are you working up here?”  I hoped I didn’t sound like Mrs. Kondrake. 

                She shook her head.  “No.  I graduated last year.  Luke encouraged me to just take a year off and do whatever I wanted.”

“Sounds like a good man.”

A shy grin accompanied by a blush crept up her cheeks.  “Yeah, he is.”

“Well, home is always a good place to be.  I can’t imagine having lived on my own away from my family while my Luke was gone.  Granted, I did live in my own home, but it was only a couple blocks away from my parents.”  I remembered all the lonely nights, the half-empty queen size bed reflecting the condition of my heart.

She broke me out of my reverie by leaning forward on the counter.  Setting her purse aside, she whispered conspiratorially, “I don’t actually care about the war.”

If she was trying to provoke a shocked reply, she had failed miserably.  I wasn’t about to lecture her on the geo-political ramifications of our presence in the Middle East, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Living with my husband fulfilled that need.  Besides, she didn’t need a political lesson.  She needed a listening ear.  Sensing my acceptance of her words, she continued.

“There are times I do feel unpatriotic for thinking that way, but it is how I feel.  I’m not really into politics or anything like that.  I don’t really care.  But it’s really funny since everyone I meet is compelled to tell me their opinion of the war once they hear about my situation.  Anti-war.  Pro-war.  Pro-US action.  Anti-acts of aggression.  And they ALL assume that I share their position.  They never ask, they just assume.”

“Kind of like the need of some people to pat a pregnant mother’s stomach.  They don’t ask, they just pat—so mesmerized by the baby they forget there is a mom behind that big belly,” I murmured.

The girl-woman laughed, her eyes alive now.  “I’m not a mom yet, but I can imagine you’re right.  I’ll have to remember that analogy.  And I’ll remember to never pat a baby bump without asking first.”  Then something akin to guilt snuck into her expression.  “Everyone, regardless of their opinion of the war, has been supportive of Luke as a person.  I mean no one has been nasty to my face about him being a soldier.”

This, unfortunately, had not been my experience.  For a moment, I faced the memories of scorn, derision, hate, and arrogance.  And my own internal confusion over the question of a “cold” war gone “hot.” I was grateful that, whatever the rightness or wrongness of Afghanistan and Iraq, at least the spouses, families, and friends of today’s military did not have to deal with the shame of a country turning its back on its own soldiers in the same way it had during Vietnam.  Those wounds hadn’t ever fully healed in my heart.  But the words of this girl, her experience of encouragement somehow lessened the burn of my past.  I opted not to share this part with her, though.  She did not need extra burdens in her time of need.  I did find it ironic though, how someone who could care less about the war could end up being such a unifying figure in the debate. 

“How long you been married?” I hoped to steer her toward a more pleasant topic.

From her glimmer of joy, I guessed she was still a newly wed.  “It’ll be a year next month.  Not a long time, I know.”  She then laughed at herself.  It was a sad laugh.  “You know, if this was all a movie I was watching, I’d be thinking it was soooo romantic.  Sorta like those old black and white World War Two movies where the couple gets engaged and then he’s draft and shipped off to war.  Only, they get married the night before he leaves, and so she pines away for him until he returns a couple years later.”

A modern day war bride.  “I hope you don’t waste away while you pine.”

“Nope.  And I’m not darning any socks either.” She pointed at her package containing among other things, three pairs of socks.  “Wal-Mart did that for me.”

Now it was my turn to grin.  “Luke and I were married a whole year before he left.  He was gone 2 years.” As I spoke, my grin faded and the emotions of those wretched years coursed through me.  The intense sorrow, immobilizing depression, near giddiness at receiving a letter....all of it numbing into the nothingness, the apathy that distance brings when the heart is too tired to keep processing everything.

I wondered if my face had betrayed my past.  But it didn’t have to.  The girl understood.  “I can’t imagine what two years would be like.  Luke comes back in just another three months, and even that seems like forever.” She hesitated a moment, obviously wanting to ask something, and then plunged forward. “Was it hard when your Luke returned?  I mean, was he ok?  Did you have a hard time readjusting?”

I sighed, out of relief.  Just like I had the first time I hugged Luke to welcome him home.  He was safe.  And I had never wanted to let him go again.  Ever.  “Yes, he was fine.  Physically.  And for that I’m forever grateful to God.  But there was a lot of adjusting and re-adjusting. Getting to know each other again.” My gaze fixated on the back wall, near the door, where a number of different posters hung advertising everything from swing dance lessons at the local VWF post to a recent litter of German shepherd puppies for sale at a farm near Berrien Springs.  As my thoughts congealed into something I could express to the girl, I slowly returned my focus back to her.  “I had become quite independent while Luke was gone, so it was a challenge to become a team again.  And he struggled with some PSTD issues.  Only it wasn’t called that back then.  Wasn’t really talked about much.  After a really rocky first year back together, we managed by the grace of God to stick it out.  It got easier over time.  We’ve definitely had our bad years, but none like that first year after his return.  We actually just celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary.” I tried to keep the measure of pride in my voice to a minimum.  I was very proud of my marriage with Luke.  We’d fought to make it happen.  I fished for the right words, wanting to encourage the girl.  “While it will be an adjustment, it isn’t that rocky for everyone.  Maybe it will be easier for you, since the deployment isn’t but a year.  There is always hope.”

 “Yes,” she agreed.  “There is always hope.”  She suppressed a quirky grin.  “Thank you for sharing that.  It’s been a while since I talked to another military wife.  Well, former military wife.  And it’s good to hear about a marriage making it.  Luke told me that a couple of the guys in his unit are planning on divorcing their wives when they get back and another guy is expecting to be served papers.  It’s so sad.”  Then she stared at me resolutely.  “We will get through this though.”

With that attitude, I didn’t doubt her.  “You should plan something special for when he gets back.  A second honeymoon.”

This elicited a very happy, dreamy response.  “Oh, we are.  I’m keeping myself busy planning a trip to Italy.  There’s a military base in Aviano that we can fly into on Space A—you know, like flying standby, only on a military plane.  Probably not really comfortable, but it’ll make the trip affordable for us.  I want to ride on a gondola down the canals of Venice.”

I wanted the conversation to continue, but the front door jingled, slammed, and then jingled again.  Two customers. 

Deciding our time was up, the girl grabbed a ten out of her purse and paid me.  As I handed back her change, I said, “Well, I’ll repeat what everyone else tells you.  And I mean it just as much as they do.  I’ll be praying for you and Luke.  And you know where I work if you ever are feeling down and need to chat.”  I eyed her purposefully.  But something told me this was to be our only meeting.

Her face was finally fully open.  Genuine.  “Thank you.  I know you mean it.”  As she left, I hollered out, “So I can pray properly, what’s your name?”

The quirky grin of before returned. “Hope.”

 2008. All Rights Reserved. Abigail Matthews. Please do not repost or use any of the above material without my express permission. Thanks!

2 comments:

  1. So, did you really have a conversation with a postal clerk? (PS fantastic profile picture!)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not that conversation. :-) But I did get to know a couple of my postal clerks because I was in there so much. One of them was the inspiration behind the narrator in the short story.

    ReplyDelete

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