Last month’s prompt invited readers 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. In this essay Cassie Niemann takes us into the vulnerable heart of a mother whose husband has been deployed.
By Cassie Niemann
At the airport, we watch the sun rise over the mountains; Albuquerque is cloaked in bright, spiky winter. People rush to make their flights as we huddle together, close and quiet, in a rhythm all our own.
My daughter, six years old and missing her front tooth, snuggles on her daddy’s lap, donning her “I Love Daddy” shirt. My son, four and a half, slumps against my shoulder, uncharacteristically subdued. We don’t speak much, all of us waiting for and dreading the moment when my husband Parker’s flight gets called. He’s heading to Washington for military training and then deploying to Afghanistan. I hold one slippery thought tightly, desperate to keep it contained. I don’t know if I can do this.
I had been afraid of crying at the airport. Standing with Parker before he leaves, I can’t understand that now. What’s so bad about crying at the airport? I fight against the urge to do this perfectly. When we hug goodbye, his cheek is warm against my own.
My tears start immediately as we weave our way toward the exit. I hold my kids’ hands, keeping them close. Our feet push slowly and softly against the brown tile floor as we wind around people and their luggage click-clacking down the terminal. Everyone is going somewhere; so are we, but we’re in no hurry. It feels strange, like wearing someone else’s shoes.
We are alone here in the desert. Alone with the fierce wind and pelting sun, the cacti and our neighbors who never bothered to introduce themselves. Days pass slowly, weekends even slower. One Saturday at the zoo, my daughter watches a father tease his kids. She’s frozen in place and staring at them laughing, at the way the father’s arm hangs on the back of the bench, occasionally touching his daughter’s shoulder. She’s locked in, like she’s trying to remember the words to a song she heard once. I reach for her hand and steer us toward the koalas, ignoring the heavy ache in my heart.
During the first month, Parker calls home every night, even if only for a couple minutes. I struggle to listen closely enough, to keep the names and hometowns of his new friends straight. It’s harder than you’d think; he alternates between last names and first names and sometimes only nicknames. Everyone has at least three names. This seems more complicated than it should be.
I barely have any friends here. We are still new and finding our way. I have one good friend, thank God, and her name is simple, only two letters. If I have a story to tell at the end of the day it involves her or her kids or our kids. My husband always knows who I’m talking about. I feel burnished down and bored with myself.
Two months into deployment when I go to retrieve my son from preschool, a teacher tells me he’s having issues. He’s more whiney than usual, she said. He’s just not himself.
No kidding, I think. Aloud, I hear myself explaining that it’s been hard for us, his dad’s deployment. I try to get a picture of exactly what she’s talking about. I want examples, want to understand the extent of the problem.
She backtracks a little, unwilling or unable to give specifics. Don’t worry, she tells me, we still love him. Still love him? I should think so. He’s been a student at this school for over a year; they know him well. Why wouldn’t they love him? Anger jumps up through my chest and comes out, like everything else these days, in hot tears.
Instead of support or suggestions, I receive the clear message that I need to get my son not only to behave but to be the same kid he was before he hugged his daddy goodbye at the airport. This strikes me as slightly ridiculous. His life has been turned upside down. He’s too young for email, is only moderately adequate at carrying on a phone conversation and is completely confused as to why the mail takes so long to get to Daddy.
I am afraid I will lose him. Both of them. I am afraid my husband is never going to come home, a fear that never leaves me. I am afraid my kids will be forever changed from this experience, that they’ll become cynical or jaded. That they’ll have needs I can’t meet. That they’ll never return to innocence.
We’ve been at war so long there are books about it. They cite studies about stress and families, PTSD, and divorce. I drop my son back off at preschool hoping he’ll behave, and settle in at a cold wooden table at the library with a stack of books.
In After the War Zone by Laurie B. Slone and Matthew J. Friedman, I find this:
It’s important to point out that, in general, separation has more impact on boys, who often have behavioral adjustment issues, disciplinary problems and troubles at school. If you have a son (or sons), we suggest you and your partner keep a close eye on him so you can deal with any problematic reactions to your deployment sooner rather than later.
I feel encouraged at this. I am not alone. Here, in a book, I am going to get helpful suggestions and specific strategies to connect with my son and bring him back to his old self. I turn the page . . . nothing but the next topic.
I turn back to where I was and re-read the paragraph; maybe I missed something. I have a son who seems to be withdrawing a little. He’s not as cheery and happy-go-lucky as he used to be. He struggles to handle even the tiniest disappointment. What is the authors’ advice? Keep a close eye on him? Check. Deal with any problematic reactions . . . but how?
It’s not like he’s displaying behavior serious enough to warrant help from a mental health professional. It’s just that it seems like he’s slipping away. I hug him and love him, maintain our rules and routines at home. Still, I feel helpless against a force I don’t understand.
Most mornings I sit on our back porch with a cup of tea and listen to Yim Yames’ remake of the old George Harrison song, “All Things Must Pass.” The steam rises from my mug toward the mountains. This is where I am. The red rock walls that separate me from my neighbors. The unrelenting cheeriness of every sunny morning. The way we’re all going somewhere, even when we don’t realize it.
Cassie Niemann lives in Albuquerque, NM with her two children and her husband, all of whom made it through Parker’s 2009 deployment. She and her family are busy preparing for two exciting changes: the arrival of a new baby (due any day now) and the family’s upcoming move to Ohio.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
Interestingly, Cassie Niemann’s essay was the only submission I received for this call for readers’ responses, apart from an essay already published in book form. The reason why is clear — these wars have been traumatic for so many, and as I know from my research on traumatic memory, it is almost impossible to bear witness to a trauma when it is still ongoing.
“Daddy’s American,” the short story that was last month’s column, is the first chapter of a novel that I’m in the middle of writing. One of the things I have been learning as I do research for this book is how very little has been written about these wars from the perspective of mothers whose lives have been affected.
So I applaud Cassie Niemann for her courage — and I want to point out some aspects of her essay that may help our Literary Mama readers becoming writers see more clearly exactly why this essay is so effective as a form of witnessing:
1. Present tense. When writing about painful histories, it is often helpful to keep the action in the present tense. This is not only because it makes the scenes more vivid for the readers but because we record and remember traumatic events differently — not as “the past” but as something still happening and affecting us in the present.
2. Sensory details. The details of the children’s clothing, the different names of the husband’s friends, the father’s touch at the zoo, the tea in the morning — these are all essential to writing that is healing. Traumatic memories are not stored as narratives but as sensory flashbacks that are stored in the body, so using the senses in writing can help us recover the story when there is no story.
3. Strong but nuanced voice. The way the voice of the story stays firmly within the mind of the narrator is a crucial aspect of the essay’s effectiveness. It may seem obvious that writing about such painful episodes would be in the first person, but actually this is a very difficult thing to do without a kind of “black or white” thinking; i.e., either “It was terrible” or “We got through it all right.” To be able to write in a clear, strong voice that admits of mixed feelings, ambiguity, and uncertainty is not only very difficult but the essence of what makes this writing both emotionally moving and healing for both the writer and her readers.
I encourage you now to begin to write your own stories — and essays and poetry — that will bring us all to a place of greater peace and healing. And feel free to begin by adding your comments below.