The other night, I had a customer come into the store. It was quiet…I’d sent my closing associate on her break, so it was just me and this customer.
She shared that she was looking for things to wear on vacation, so I asked her where she was going, and she shared, “Oahu.” After letting her browse for a few moments, I chattily asked her, “How long will you be on Oahu?”
“Three and a half weeks.”
“Wow! That’s fabulous!”
She sort of made a noncommittal noise in her throat, and I let her be, figuring if she wanted to share whatever was going on in her life: she would.
(That’s that funny thing about my job. Sometimes people open up in the strangest ways–you’ll be helping them find a good fit in a pair of pants, and suddenly: they’re telling you all about how they’ve been diagnosed with cancer and they’re not sure they can go on, and you’re sharing this fitting room with a half naked stranger, and the only thing you know how to do is put your arms around them and let them cry it out.)
She cleared her throat, “My son is in the Marines. He’s stationed in Oahu, and he leaves in four weeks for Iraq.”
My hands stilled in their shirt folding, “I’m sorry. That’s got to be hard for you.”
“It is. I mean, it’s his choice–when he told us when he was eighteen that he was going to join the Marines, I was furious. I screamed at him. He asked me to have his recruiter over for dinner, and I told him I’d die before I’d let that man in our house. In my mind, that recruiter was the biggest schiester–stealing our babies to fight in a war I didn’t believe we should be in. But over time: I accepted his decision.”
“It can’t have been easy, and it can’t be easy now though. I’ve got two little ones, and I’m scared to death for the day to come that I have to support them in something that could take them away from me forever. I know it will come. And I’m not sure I’ll be strong enough.”
She shrugged, “It’s his life. And the military is a good life–we were Navy for fifteen years, and it was the best life we could have had. They will have a good life. But his wife is having their first baby, a month after he leaves. As a parent I can’t even imagine not holding your baby for the first time until it six or seven months old! It breaks my heart. And the other thing that breaks my heart is the people that tell me, ‘Oh, this war is horrible–it’s just another Vietnam, and we shouldn’t be in it and we need to get out, and if the soldiers would just stop fighting it would all be over.’ It’s his job! How can they ask him not to do his job! Do they not realize that perhaps the soldiers that are being sent over don’t support the war either–but they go because it’s what they do?”
She was getting pretty distraught, so I moved closer to her, “Of course he’s doing his job–he’s fulfilling his calling. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that.”
She nodded, sighed, straightened her shoulders and said, “You’re right. I wish more people understood that. We’ll go to Oahu, and have our time with him, and then we’ll let him go. We have to.”
I nodded in sympathy, “Tell him we say ‘thank you’ for me, will you?”
At this point, she started to cry, and sort of fell into my arms. “The only thing that makes this bearable is people like you, who understand how hard this is, and how none of us have any choice in it. We just have to do what we can to get through.”
Already sort of pushed to my emotional edge by this mother’s pain, her tears moved me to tears as well. So we stood there in the store, held each other, and cried for a moment. Then she stood up, thanked me, said, “Now I have to go over to Starbucks and get a drink. I’m sorry. I’m not usually like that.”
I told her not to apologize, that I didn’t mind a bit. She turned and left the store. I don’t know who she was. She wasn’t a “regular”. But just the fact that I got to have this moment with a stranger, who was a sister in motherhood, makes me fucking hate this war.
I hope her boy gets to hold his baby. And I hope that when the time comes, she finds the strength to send her baby to war with a smile and a wave. And I hope that when he’s out of sight: she has someone to hold her while she falls apart.