The school bus for my youngest son waits in front of our house. Holding his six year old hand in mine, I walk out into the early morning half light very much aware this will be the last time I will perform this ritual for a year. Half way down the front steps I scoop him up into my arms, which causes him to reward me with a smile and a laugh I’ll not forget. The total joy in his face tells me that in his world all is right. Mildly autistic, he still is not aware that I’ll not be putting him on the bus again for some time to come. Or that I won’t even be home for dinner that night, or the next, or the next.
The bus driver and matron, seeing me in my ACUs, Army Combat Uniform, pick up right away that’s there’s something different about this morning. I put my son on the bus and tell them I’m going away. The driver asks, “yeah, but your not going over, are you?”
I shake my head and give them my one word answer, “Afghanistan.”
Not knowing what to say, they sigh and give me a look of sympathy as I place my son on the steps of the bus. I hug him, kiss him on the head, and tell him I love him and will miss him very much. Grinning, he takes his seat as the driver pulls the bus away slowly so this moment will last longer. He laughs and waves at me as I wave back and try not to choke up as he disappears down the Brooklyn street.
The oldest, the nine year old, is a different story. This isn’t the first time I’ve gone away for a long time. The GWOT over the past few years has taken me to other Army posts where I’ve worked with other soldiers either going to war or coming back. He grasps that I’ll be away for some time, and he’s aware that there is a war going on. The difference is that this time I’ll soon be in it. The previous few weeks he asks me repeatedly about what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be. I constantly assure him that I’ll be with many other soldiers, that I’ll be safe and very well protected, and that I’ll be home before he knows it. He doesn’t completely believe it. I don’t either.
But I walk him to his school, my arm around his shoulder, reassuring him the best that I can that all will be okay. At the entrance to the school, I hug him, kiss him on the head and tell him also how I love him and will miss him. He hugs me back, gives me a brave half smile, then, head down, shoulders slack, trudges through the doorway of his school. I walk the two blocks back home, again trying not to well up into tears, at least until I can get home.
My wife greets me at the doorway, coat on, car keys in hand, ready to take me to my armory in Manhattan where I’ll continue my journey. Earlier in the week we went back and forth about taking the boys out of school for the day so they could see me off from my armory, or the “castle” as my youngest calls it. Ultimately, we decide against it as there will be enough disruption in their young lives, and that the best thing we can do is try to keep them to as normal a routine as is possible. Normal, such as normal is anymore.
Holding each’s other hand, she drives me northward towards Manhattan as I take in the scene of lower NY harbor, the Verrazano Bridge, Staten Island across the narrows, upper NY harbor, and then the Manhattan skyline on the other side. Two things I notice as I always do. First is the Statue of Liberty, which looks so tiny and lonely on the other side of the harbor, symbol of hope, and aspiration of the promise that is our nation. The second is the Manhattan skyline. Or more accurately, what is missing from it. Anyone who has lived in NYC in the last quarter century knows exactly what I’m talking about. We remember what once was and it hurts. It’s a pain very much like that of an amputee’s phantom limb.
We cross through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and get on the FDR drive on the east side of Manhattan. I’m silently grateful not to have to go up the West Side, past the Pit, the reason why all this has come into our lives. But I am also very much aware of the friends we both lost there that horrible morning. I say my goodbyes to them in my thoughts as my wife and I make small talk while driving north along the East River. We finally arrive at my armory in mid-town Manhattan where the inevitable has to happen. We have one long last kiss goodbye, and then it’s time. I pull my gear out of the car and wave to her as she drives off into the city traffic. She rounds the corner onto 23rd street and is gone. For a year. I pray to God that we both have the strength to get through whatever the next year has to offer.