By Kate McCorkle
The day Jason got orders for Iraq, I was teaching night school in Nashville, which meant leaving Clarksville around four-thirty. He wouldn’t muster until evening, so I left the house first. Framed by the doorway, he waved goodbye wearing his battle dress uniform, BDU’s—now khaki for the desert—as I got in the Pontiac and drove away. He had the empty house.
This should be more dramatic. The sensory details should lodge in my brain; our words to one another on this precipice should remain with me always. If this were a novel, we’d be on some windswept cliff and I’d have a bosom to heave. I’d at least carve his name into a window ledge. But the townhouse was the same windowless central unit it had always been. The door I walked through, that entry landing, was still too small for two people. There wasn’t room with the open door, the stairs behind us, and two bodies, one of them carrying a messenger bag crammed with papers, a travel coffee mug, a water bottle, and an armload of books. Jason was in his uniform and combat boots, ready to go. I was wearing something conservative and dorky, a twenty-six year-old kid playing the role of a teacher.
There were tears, but I don’t remember bawling. I don’t remember drama. I didn’t try to shoot his foot or lock him in the closet like I’d fantasized around 9/11. I didn’t drive the Pontiac into a tree minutes later.
I tried to commit his smell, his neck, just under his ear, to memory. I would miss that. It was funny, and maybe a gift, that I was the one leaving first. If he walked out the door humping his ruck and I was left in a quiet house, it might’ve been different. But I had a job and he had a job. And I’d see him on the other side.
Earlier that day, his colleague—our friend—Tom had called. I was ready to pass Jason the phone, but Tom said he called for me. Should anything happen to Jason in Iraq, he’d take care of me. I didn’t tell Tom I didn’t need him to take care of me (or any of the other responses that spring to mind). I chose to see it as a goodwill call. He was reaching out with the only language he had to express concern. So I said thank you in the same tone I’d have used if he called to offer me his refrigerator if mine broke down.
Now, at the end, I didn’t feel detached or numb. Just …everything had been said. There wasn’t any last minute anything because we’d exhausted all that in the days leading up to this. Maybe it’d be different if there were kids. If children were hanging off his neck or climbing on his back, or if I was looking at the kids, wondering how they’d weather this. If an infant would remember him. It would be different, too, if he were my son and not my husband.
But there was no point, as his wife, in saying anything more. The stairs behind him were the same ones I’d collapsed on, weeping, days after 9/11 when he suddenly left for God-knows-where. (Indiana.) Married less than two weeks, I stood at the front door he’d just walked out of, bitterly spitting out a profane Serenity Prayer. God, grant me the fucking serenity to accept the fucking things I fucking cannot change.
Now here he was, his head shaved so close it was called Bic’ed, named for the blade used to raze each strand of hair. His back was straight. Were his eyes watery? I don’t recall. He was prepared. He had his gear. He’d made the sperm deposit in Nashville in case chemical weapons or an IED complicated things later.
And I had my graded compare and contrast essays.
It was awkward at the door, with my bulging messenger bag in the way. It would’ve been awkward without the bag, too. How do you say goodbye for a year? How do you do that then go to work? The guys would be excited, I figured. They wouldn’t be quiet and weepy in the space where they mustered. They had their gear, all their new toys. But that’s not fair, either. Given the choice, Jason would pick me over a pair of Oakleys, right? And what choice did the guys have, but to be jostling, joking men full of bonhomie? A soldier isn’t going to show up crying that he already misses his kids.
Or maybe he would. Maybe that’s what you do when it’s going to be a year. In truth, neither Jason nor I had any idea what it was like to be on the cusp of leaving for war. It was easier to picture his company with their shaved heads as excited, ready, slightly cocky. It was easier to resent his imagined joy at leaving than to acknowledge this was hard for him as well.
We’d already said all this. The thoughts, now a shorthand, flickering behind our eyes. Multiple conversations packed into a glance as we stood by the door. Would this kiss be the last one? Or this one? Or this?
I was leaving first. I had to teach. Jason would lock up. He’d leave the key under the mat because he didn’t need to keep track of a house key for a year in Iraq. He was ready.
Was I, though? My bag pulled at my side. I wasn’t doubled over on those steps anymore. I wasn’t buckling under an enraged cry. I wasn’t going to venture to the couch and embed myself for days, dragged away only for meetings and the gym. That’s not who showed up now.
I don’t know what was different. Because on paper, deploying for a year to a war zone was infinitely worse than leaving for a mystery assignment. (At the time, a major’s wife spread the rumor it was Kuwait—she had me all worked up, imagining burning oil fields, and it turned out to be Indiana.) I was scared now, worried for Jason’s life, but I was standing. Even with the heft of an English course hanging off my shoulder, even with my baby of a husband with his Bic’ed head. It was a wonder to me that I was standing.
We embraced. Funny word, embrace, but hug isn’t what it was. Feeling the contour of his body under my arms, its integrity and wholeness, I prayed it would be so when he came back. Please keep him whole. Body, mind, and spirit. Without meaning to, my arms memorized his particular solidity. Maybe my embrace was a force field that could protect him. He would return and conform to its outlines again; if my frame was strong enough, he’d find a way to fit. How many other wives were having this moment with their husbands? Just come back. Just come back. And their love wouldn’t be enough to make him come home.
Because love couldn’t really do that. It wasn’t a magical talisman inoculating one from explosions or bullets or chemical weapons. Were Iraqi wives doing the same thing? Just come back. The Lysistrata popped into my head, then vanished. Satire wasn’t keeping me standing. It wouldn’t help me remember Jason’s body, his physical presence. It wouldn’t help my love form a shield around him like a force field that I knew wasn’t possibly real, yet I tried to create anyway.
And then I was out the door.
No hysterics. No threats. Just some sincere tears and promises to call and write as often as possible.
I wasn’t numb or in shock. Something else was keeping me upright. Something else let me show up for Jason and not have a sloppy, uncontrollable mess be the last thing he saw before leaving. I could lose my shit later. But not in front of him.
He would lock the door and leave me the key.
My students knew Jason deployed. I didn’t talk about it, but it was all over the local news, and they knew I’d come to this area because my husband was stationed at Fort Campbell. At the end of class, when everyone was usually poised to fly out the door, a woman named Dale spoke up and said they all wanted to pray for my husband and me, if that was okay. Making a small nod, I tried to keep the tears in check that were primed to flow. I bowed my head where I stood, ready for prayer, but they’d already formed a circle near their chairs with a space in it for me. I stepped over, my face hot, and Dale nodded before speaking.
For the past four hours, I’d stood in front of this group in boxy clothes that I hoped made me look older, explaining what made a strong thesis, what counted as evidence, and how to organize one’s argument on paper. I was being professional. I was doing my job even though my intestines felt like they’d been through a blender and my stress-induced reflux threatened to erupt when I opened my mouth. I thought I was doing a good job keeping it together.
My students, though, saw a woman in need of prayer, a gesture of deep compassion that jarred me out of my ambitious stoicism. They saw me. They knew. I’m playing dress up in these loafers. I’m not really a grown-up. I only got this job because the administration was desperate. I don’t know what I’m doing being married. I tethered myself to this boy in a uniform because I thought I could ignore the uniform and keep the boy underneath. But he’s changed and I’ve changed, and I constantly feel like I’m drowning. Even when things are calm, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the other plane to crash, waiting for the helicopters overhead that sound like bombs descending.
Now Dale was offering a prayer for Jason, asking God to protect him as he protected our country, to keep him from harm and allow him to walk though war without harming others. She asked God to help me be strong while he was gone. Then she prayed for all of us, asking that, in this difficult time for our country, we learn to trust and rely on God for our strength.
The hands holding mine were strong, like the class was channeling its energy and love and I got it through our closed circuit. I don’t know that everyone agreed with Dale’s religious or political views, but that was almost beside the point. The words she uttered were just symbols of the feeling underneath. I felt protected and cared for, like they’d created a force field around me the way I tried with Jason earlier in the entryway. Their prayer didn’t change any of the circumstances we were praying about. One hand-holding circle wasn’t going to magic/voodoo Jason into some type of safety bubble. It wasn’t going to arrest the machine that came to life on 9/11. But I was touched by their compassion and honesty, and just in being open to that, I cracked enough to let in room for something else. Strength isn’t it. This wasn’t about being strong, even though that’s what they prayed for, for me.
I didn’t need to be stronger. I needed to be open to the help and care being offered in whatever form it took, and I could only do that if I wasn’t cursing my vulnerability as shameful. In the past, I’d run on damaged bones because I saw my brokenness as weak, but that only made the pain worse. It took almost a year to accept the damage for what it was without attaching any shame to it. Then I could finally do the exercises that let me start to mend. At a gut level, and with a certainly that didn’t originate in me, I understood strength or willpower wouldn’t help now. Grace could only enter through the cracks.
At least, that’s what the circle of continuing education adults helped me begin to see as we held hands under the bright lights of a too-white room.
Jason had been gone three hours.
Copyright McCorkle 2023