Elie is on the “21” day plan now. That means that he was home last weekend and won’t be home for another 21 days. This is standard with some units, less common with others. The army dictates how often the soldiers come home and there are few surprises. Up until now, he has been home roughly every other weekend (the 14 day plan). It’s another “smart” move by the army because it has helped ease us into the separation.
He’s still calling often, though not every day. This week was particularly tough as he and his unit were put through the final hard days of training that mark the end of basic training. The pampering ends, if it had ever been there. Less sleep, interrupted, harsher conditions, cold food. This is as close to battle conditions as they can take these new recruits. After a few days of being out of communication and out in the field, Elie had a chance to call last night.
There are times I hear some loneliness in his voice and my heart aches. If it were any other situation, I’d jump in the car and go get him. This is what it was like when, at Elie’s age, I was off at college. There were times when I would call home and there must have been something in my voice that told my mother I needed her, that I needed the familiar, that I needed home. She would, almost miraculously, offer to come get me for some silly reason. I didn’t know then what I know now – that a mother can hear what a child’s voice never verbalizes. There’s that tiny change in the voice that tugs at a mother’s heart.
“Is everything ok there?”
“Yes, great,” Elie said and though I think he meant it, there was a part of him that may not have been as certain.
“What’s new?” I ask. Silly question – the army is as old as…well, not as old as time, but certainly a lot older than Elie. Every day is much the same as the last, with an addition here, a change here. They’ll train here, run a few extra kilometers there. They’ll go shoot today, as they did last week and spend endless hours beginning to learn the intricacies of the complex equipment that makes modern warfare so very much more serious than ever before. But at the basic training level, days are about schedule and routine.
He tells me about his training. It was very hot yesterday. So hot that they didn’t do any training. “We just stayed in the tents and did nothing all day.”
“Did you send the cookies?” he asks. On Sunday morning when he left to return to the army, he forgot to take the cookies that I’d made the night before. I told him I would mail them to him via the post office’s special army service.
We discussed how long it would take, what I should mail to him. “Can you send me a backgammon set?” he asked. I told him that his younger brother had made him a present – a telephone holder on a thick string.
It isn’t practical. Elie can’t wear it with the uniform and doesn’t need it for the 60 minutes of free time when he could wear it. Don’t worry, I told Elie, if it is anything like the one that Davidi made me, as soon as you do wear it, the phone falls out to the floor. It was good to hear him laugh and I almost asked him again if something was wrong.
Instead, I just listened. It was a longer call than usual and I could feel that he didn’t want to finish the conversation so I searched for something I could tell him, something I could ask about. I told him how the car he typically drives was running. That took a few seconds. I told him his father fixed the mirror, that the new radio player was working very nicely. I told him I couldn’t find a particular button and so he told me all about the radio. It was silly conversation because I didn’t hear him wanting to end the call.
Things are fine and he does sound good. I think he just needed the connection and the tiny part in him that remains the teenager, even at the age of 20, couldn’t admit this. He told me more about what he is doing on a daily basis. Yesterday he had kitchen duty and so had the chance to choose between the dairy dinner made for all the base or the one made for a unit that had been out training for the last few days and so was treated to a meat meal (yes, he took the meat).
He might be given the opportunity to learn to drive the massive equipment on which he is training. He’s going to ask. It’s about the size of a tank. More details than I probably need to know or remember. The soldiers in his unit are all trained to do all tasks, unlike some of the other units. If there are too many soldiers against the number of tasks, they have “bench.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It means that one job is to sit on the bench,” Elie said, and again he laughed a little.
He told me he went to the doctor. My heart stopped for a second, but I kept my voice conversational (or at least I like to pretend I did) as I asked him why. He explained that with the heat, his skin is acting up again and so he wanted to get the special soap that helps balance and protect acne. He also asked for permission to wear sunglasses – something allowed as soon as you suggest you need it. The doctor agreed that with his light blue eyes, they are more vulnerable to sunlight.
Anything else? We talked about the soldiers in the unit. It is very common for a unit to have one or more “lone” soldiers. These are young men and women who have moved to Israel, leaving parents abroad. They come from all over, South America, the US, Europe and the former Soviet Union. Elie has one in his unit and I asked him if he wanted to bring the soldier home for a weekend some time. Elie laughed again. The boy has more family in Israel than Elie does. Technically, he is classified as a lone soldier because his parents live abroad, but all his sisters and brothers and uncles and aunts live here so he has plenty of relatives.
Elie told me about how he was going to do guard duty during the night and we discussed that for a few minutes. He would go to sleep and then be awakened to patrol for a number of hours, then sleep, get up for breakfast, and then have a chance to sleep a little more.
At 20 years old, Elie has not yet learned the need to say, “I love you” to his parents. It was something he said automatically as a child and something that slipped away as he entered his teenage-boy years when love isn’t nearly as cool as cars and computers. It is something that comes with age, perhaps. But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need to hear it. “Good night, sweets,” I told him just before we hung up, “I love you.”
Usually I get an “ok” or “I’ll call soon” or some silly response and last night was no exception, but he did sound a little brighter by the end of the conversation, the little catch in his voice that maybe I imagined seemed to be gone. Was it there in the first place? Was it my missing him coming back at me? Or can a few minutes talking to home on the phone reach through the ears of the man to the heart of the boy and warm him inside?
A few minutes after we got off the phone I got a text message telling me, “they changed the guard duty roster so I won’t be guarding tonight. Good night.” I wrote him back quickly that I wished him a good night and after I hit the send button, I thought about the months and years to come. A few minutes here and there, a quick message back and forth. This will be much of our communication for the next few years. And through each conversation, my heart sends a message of love…and with each laugh over something silly that I’ve said, I know that his heart has heard my message.
I’ll say it again tonight if he calls, or Friday afternoon when he calls to wish me a peaceful Sabbath…even though he won’t be here. I’ll say it in every conversation and a thousand times in my head and trust that he hears it deep in the place we all have that needs such words.
I love you, Elie.