She feels she’s been surrounded her whole life — stuffed animals, pets, siblings, friends, boyfriends, and now children. The problem with Vee is that she’s never alone. As she packs the children’s lunches before dawn, even the wind in the trees and the looming rainstorm seem to be reaching out to her with their demands — bring us umbrellas, don’t forget the jackets and rain boots. Everything is something for her to serve.
The Skype on the computer, always on, rings from the kitchen counter. She takes a quick look at the clock before answering and calculates more quickly than she ever did in school. 5:47 AM here, 12:47 PM there, which means that if she talks for more than thirteen minutes, she will be late in getting the kids up for school.
She clicks “Answer.”
“Vee.” His voice and image come up together in an echo of bubble sound.
“Good morning, Soldier,” she says, using her pet name for him. Not exactly romantic, friends thought, until she told them over margaritas about the way his gun stands straight at attention.
“Hi, honey,” he says. “How is everyone?”
Everyone means the kids. Everyone means his mother with high blood pressure and a smoking habit she refuses to discuss. Everyone only vaguely means Vee.
“Fine,” she says, looking halfway between the computer camera and the time clock. Twelve minutes.
She imagines him in a tent somewhere, shepherds guarding their flock in the hills. To her Iraq is a version of the land where Jesus grew up, hills and deserts and rivers and massacres and near-misses with people like Herod.
“Josh turn in his science project?”
Her attention snaps back to his face. “Yes. We haven’t gotten a grade yet,” she says, anticipating his next question. She knows he would have loved to have been here to help with the project on angles and their effects on flight distance. To share with the fathers at Science Fair Night that a bullet goes furthest at a 45-degree angle.
“I saw the most amazing thing today,” he says. Eleven minutes.
“We were coming around this hill at sunrise and the land was lit up all red and golden and for a second I saw a woman there, lying on the ground, naked, but I knew she wasn’t really there because her leg was as big as a tree, even though there are no trees, you know?”
She looks into the screen at him even though she knows this means that for him she is looking away from his face. She nods.
“Go on,” she says.
“That’s it,” he says, pulling back. “It was just an optical illusion, the sense that the sand on the hill had become a woman, and I thought back to the paintings you used to do, you know?”
“I was thinking I’d give anything to see you painting before dawn again. That’s the worst time here, you haven’t slept, you have a long day ahead of you, the sun’s not up yet.”
“I know,” she says, thinking it’s her worst time too, thinking she is selfish for thinking so.
Sound from the stairway. Slow. Teddy with his blanket. Step. Step. Swoosh. Step. Step. Swoosh. Three minutes.
“Teddy’s coming down,” she says.
He visibly straightens. Looks at the clock. “There’s time for me to talk to him, right?”
“Sure,” she says. “Let me go get him.” Carrying him will take 30 seconds. Letting him walk will use up all their time.
She places him on the stool in front of the counter. “Say hi to daddy.”
She steps back, watches as the minutes count down, thinks about what he said, about her painting. The last piece she’d been working on was of the world tree, the way its roots are in the dark and its branches are in the light, like this conversation, balanced across the tightrope of time. Was he saying he thought she should paint again? What was he saying?
“Sam?” she interrupts them talking about the flags they’d recently decorated at Teddy’s preschool to celebrate the birthday of a child from Denmark.
“They get flags instead of a cake,” Teddy was saying.
Sam’s eyes snap to her face on his screen, which doesn’t correspond to her face on her screen. It’s as if someone there suddenly grabbed his attention.
“It’s time,” she says.
“Of course. Kiss your Mama from me,” he says to Teddy, and Teddy does.
“Love you. Bye.” And then he is gone.
They used to fight about this, how his calls interrupted their schedule if he hung on too long, until he’d surrendered, and said she was right.
She picks Teddy up and he starts to cry. “I didn’t get to ask Daddy if he’d rather have a cake!”
She puts him down, a bit too roughly, with a bowl of cereal in front of him at the kitchen table, and says, “Of course he would. Daddy’s American, silly.”
She wishes those last three minutes could have been hers and Sam’s alone.
“Daddy’s American,” Teddy repeats, picking up his spoon as she looks at the three unmade lunches on the counter. She thinks about how often he has heard that as an explanation for why his daddy is in Iraq. She is glad it’s Friday. She thinks about her father, a minister, and how long she fought with him about her paintings. He’d finally given in, even displayed one in the church basement.
She heads upstairs to wake the other two for school. Where might her paints be, she wonders, and where on earth would she find the time?
I invite you to write either an essay or a short story that reflects upon the particular challenges of being a mother whose life is affected by war. Subjects might include being an enlisted mother, mothering while a partner is on duty, or caretaking children whose parent(s) are away or have been wounded or killed in combat. Please email your submission of 800-1000 words to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by April 25th. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 4” in the subject line, and place the text of your essay in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your piece, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication.