I had to go outside for a while, to clear my head. It's the first truly cold day so far; the air has that thickened, damp feel that precedes snow, the chill settles deep into the bones. Trees along the street have dramatically burst into color as though someone flipped a switch, and voila- ocher yellow! burnt umber! magenta! The colors glow like neon against the deep, falling blue of twilight.
It has been hard for me to let go of summer. After all, I do not know who Keith is in the winter; my memories began in the late spring and ended in the blaze of Indian summer. I don't know what he looks like in a sweater. Sometimes I must look for proof that I actually knew this man whose pictures are everywhere in this house, but who doesn't live here anymore.
Only perhaps two weeks into deployment I went through the inevitable; the hearing of news and the consequent disruption of inner peace and quiet. It was the helicopter crash that killed seven soldiers on their way from Kuwait to South Baghdad. This would have caused sorrow and disquiet under any conditions, but it happened that almost twenty four hours earlier, I had gotten an e-mail from Keith saying they were on their way and would reach their destination-South Baghdad-sooner or later. The next morning, I heard of the crash.
Of course, putting Keith and the crash together was like spontaneous combustion; it simply and inevitably happened. Suddenly, the world around me was slightly off center. I tried to pretend it wasn't, I knew I should not give in to it. I knew that there were thousands and thousands of soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, moving back and forth between bases. But the timing!
Then for three days I did not hear from him. By the third day, I composed this message and sent it to my close friends:
-Still no word. Still the names are not released. I never anticipated this amount of reality when considering deployment. This is how altered my world is; I cannot write on hotmail because it is desolate and I can't use it. I can't write to Keith. I used to write to him all the time, keep a running dialogue of my day, he told me more than once that he loved hearing it. I can't do it.
I was working this morning and in the middle of the kitchen, before lunch, I suddenly had to swallow back tears. They just came up. It made me feel frantic. I washed the dishes, it made me want to weep. Every small thing I do, that hints at or reminds me of him causes me pain. It caused me pain at first too, after he left, until my mind had felt that pain over and over again and the wound healed over and I formed a comfort out of those things. I was even able to deviate some from them. Now they are laid over with a deeper, sharper pain.
The phone rang, it rang in the middle of lunch. I stood stock still, not even, for a moment, recognizing my own ring tone. Hope and apprehension washed over my face like a sheet of water, I had to take one deep breath, I closed my eyes; I begged God that it be him. It was a wrong number. I saw the number and I knew it couldn't be him because it began with an area code, from the city. But simply because it was unknown I couldn't give up hope until I heard a elderly woman's voice at the other end.
And I feel so ridiculous to be feeling this, most of me feels certain that he must be ok, that he must have passed into Kuwait days before the crash and that he will call me soon, tonight or the next night. But that part of me doesn't matter and is slipping. It's the panicked minority that holds sway, the minority that compels.
I heard a truck go down the street and I thought, I will never again hear his truck come home, and I almost believed myself. I have to have the windows open, I feel I will suffocate with them closed. I wake every night between 2:30 and 3:30am, because that is when he called before, but only two nights. Because of two nights, two random, not even consecutive calls I now have changed my entire sleeping pattern.
The neighbor Larry asked me if I had heard from him, as I was outside on the deck with a bowl of salad and a book, this afternoon after work. I told him no, I told him about the crash, he nodded, he had heard of it too.
"Don't worry," he said. "Keith's a canny guy. He can manage all sorts of things."
And it only made me angry! I thought, what does it matter, you stupid fool, if he is dead already? What does it matter, if he has physical strength, courage, a sense of duty, a bloody stubborn mind that won't give up until he's worked something out with his own hands, in his own way, none of that matters if he's already dead.
Because if he is, than he died in a pointless helicopter crash because of a mechanical error, a "hard landing" I heard it described. He died slamming into the earth, and no part of who he is and what he's capable of would be able to stop it from going down.
And all I can think of, is that he's scared of heights. He hates to fly. I count the hours forward, eight hours forward, as I always do, and try to picture him, but it gets harder and harder to picture what he could be doing that would keep him from calling or contacting me. Instead, I see pieces of the wreck.
When, the next morning I received a short, matter of fact e-mail from him, my world lurched again, but not back to the way it had been. It never did go back to the way it had been. When they finally released the names of the soldiers who had given their lives, I had to write their full names out; I still think of their families and the journey, indescribably difficult, that they are passing through right now.
On my walk, I passed by the white birch tree that stands in our front yard. Early last week I finally put a yellow ribbon around it. It took me a full month to tie a simple bow, and it was due solely to the perverse power of superstition. Every time I thought about putting it up there, I thought, "What if he does not come home?" It was the unspeakable irony of it.
Ridiculously, each step of putting the ribbon up required incredible amounts of courage. Simply to buy the damn roll was hard. I kept the roll of ribbon inside on the coffee table for another week or so before I took the wrapping off, holding it gingerly in my two hands.
I used to take so many things for granted. I was living in blissful ignorance of an entire world of sacrifice. But now I have stepped over the threshold and I cannot go back again; I cannot get back the innocence of not knowing.
The lopsided, hand tied yellow bow outside our house is the symbol of this new knowledge. More than that, it stands for my choice to keep faith; that despite everything it is possible to lose, I am choosing hope over dread. I will choose to believe that Keith will come home next fall and that I will finally get to see him in a sweater.
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