Normal, at least for the next few years of my life (if not for the next few decades), means having a son in the army. It means seeing him come home, enjoying the time he is with us, and sending him back. It means learning how to function today, including the crippling fear that comes and goes at times, and then learning how to function again tomorrow.
Elie left early this morning to go to the long delayed northern training. He was to have gone there – but for the incessant rocket attacks that caused the recent war here. Now, several weeks later (and a whole, wonderful, 10 days at home!!!!!), he was once again on his way up north.
I agreed to drop him at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem – once again one of so many parents dropping their sons (and daughters) off. There was nothing different today from other days – just a regular day, a quick drop-off, and on to yet another week (or weeks) with your son away. Elie took a box of brownies and another of cookies that I’d made with him.
He let me make him a sandwich for the ride as well. I know that people like my cookies; that Elie likes them too and yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether he took so much because he knew that I needed him to, or because he wanted them. So much thought about two containers of homemade food, but it seemed important to me that he take it, important to him that he have it. Much of his time at home was like that – maybe my imagination, maybe reality – but he seemed more at home than usual; more tolerant of my needing to be near him and to talk to him.
He did the weekly shopping on Thursday and then called me at work to tell me that he had put the Shabbat chicken in the oven and the soup on the stove. Friday he was around, shopping in the morning, making a dish of fried onions, cabbage and frankfurters. He was more helpful than usual, more protective in some ways. He was as assertive as always with the younger children, but even with them, he seemed to be slower to anger or impatience at times.
As always, he tossed his little sister in the air, twirled her, hugged her. She was his to command, and he was hers. She gave him a hug Saturday night, knowing he would be gone by the time she awakened.
He carried a heavy backpack and a large, full duffel bag. He needs warm winter clothes for the next few weeks and because he’s going to a new base assignment, he had a lot to carry with him. He almost never lets me make him a sandwich; always saying he’ll get something on the way. I offered, expecting him to say no – happy that he let me do this.
A thought crossed my mind as I gave him a kiss at the Central Bus Station and sent him on his way. Did I know last time that he was going to go to war when I said goodbye? I don’t remember. So much has happened. I don’t think so. Israel was being hit by daily rocket fire, but I don’t think I really expected the government to do anything about it. I think it’s going to take a while before I can ever send him off again without that thought crossing my mind.
He’s got a great couple of weeks scheduled for him and his unit. They will prepare themselves up north for a while, then have a cultural week and a week of physical training (with a pool, no less). Then they’ll be given yet another week off before returning up north for training. It’s a different terrain, a different enemy, and thus different training than what they experienced in the south. But they are different than they were a month ago – they have confronted battle, confronted those who would have killed them. They were melded even more into a unit; tested for hours and hours at a time. They worked past the point of exhaustion, knowing that their actions protected our ground forces.
I find myself looking at Elie, wanting him to tell me how he is different now that he has experienced this and yet, all he wants is to be the same. He is not haunted by the experience. He’s proud of what he did and feels no shame.
He headed up north, whole in body and soul. Today, more than a dozen rockets and mortars were fired at Israel. There is still the threat of another round. And, in the north, where Elie now is, Hizbollah is making threatening noises. It is almost exactly a year since Imad Mugniyah was killed in a “mysterious” blast in Damascus. Lest you feel sorry for the arch-terrorist, Mugniyah proudly acknowledged himself as the mastermind behind attacks against the Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994 and the US military barracks in Beirut in 1983 which killed over 200 Americans. There are other acts of terror to his credit and there is no doubt the world is a slightly better place now that he is not in it.
Nonetheless, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s General Secretary has been promising revenge and, as Elie pointed out during our discussions, Nasrallah is many things – cruel, inhumane, barbaric, etc. – but he is also someone who will attempt to deliver on his treats. So – as the north heats up…or at least threatens to, Elie goes there for the next phase in his army service.
What this means is that if the next war is Round Two against Hamas, Elie will likely sit it out and remain on the northern border while another unit takes over near Gaza. But, if the next war is in the north…that puts Elie right up there. On the one hand, that makes life…back to normal. Israelis seem to spend most of our lives anticipating the next round of violence that will be started against us – Intifada from the Palestinians within our borders, suicide bombing attacks, Gaza rockets and mortars, Hizbollah in the north – life is certainly interesting in our little country.
So, as I struggle to go back to normal (at least before the next time I am not)…someone wrote me a note about a post that had touched them. I read it again and realized this, at least has not changed:
What I want…is to go collect my little boy and bring him home. I want to lock him in a room and tell Israel that no, you can’t have him. I’ve changed my mind. No, I’m sorry. He’s not allowed to play with guns and big things that go boom. No, I’m his mother. I gave birth to him and no, you simply can’t take him…
And what I’ll do, is tell my heart to settle. I’ll tell my eyes to take a moment and look at the next beautiful wave of clouds rolling in over Jerusalem. I’ll sign the papers I need to sign; type the words I need to type.
What I’ll do is answer the phone if Elie calls and I’ll talk to him calmly. I’ll listen if he tells me he’s staying where he is. I’ll listen if he tells me they are moving him up north. I’ll listen if he tells me they are moving him down south near Gaza. I’ll listen, I’ll tell him to be careful, and call me when he can. I won’t for a single moment, tell him that I’m scared, that I have no real experience with this war thing and that I don’t really want him to have any experience with it either.
The world may forget that it was Hamas and Islamic Jihad who chose rockets and mortars and missiles with which to attack us; they may fail to recognize that we use our air force, our tanks, our ground forces and our artillery to protect. For once, Israelis are united in one simple reality. We cannot afford to bend to the world’s will, if that means our children live under rocket fire, if that means people are forced to run for shelter with mere seconds to alert them.
May God protect the soldiers of Israel and watch over them as they do what they must. They cannot be defeated because where they go, they will not be alone. They have with them the Defender of Israel.