I wanted to write about Elie coming home with his gun for the first time this week. About how careful he was to place it high, out of reach of his younger siblings. I wanted to write about how he carefully explained to his 11-year-old brother that this isn’t a toy and isn’t to be touched, about how he carefully showed his gun to his 17-year-old brother. About how he asked his father to fix the lock on his bedroom door because the army requires that any gun left unattended be behind not just one, but two locks.
There were other things I wanted to write about, but they will have to wait because, as often happens, life has a way of intruding and throwing something else at you. And so that will be the topic of this post.
Elie and his unit had a “culture” day today. These are days in which the army takes its soldiers to various historical sites and shows them what might be to some, an unfamiliar part of the country they are serving.
Last time, they took the soldiers to memorial monuments and special sites in Binyamina and Zichron Yaakov. These are the “heart” of the artillery division, the place where they remember the fallen artillery soldiers. Each soldier is remembered there and new soldiers of the division are taken there during basic training and again for the ceremonies that mark the completion of each segment of training. This is fitting because it teaches each soldier that we remember and honor those who came before them, that much of what they learn now, is based on knowledge gained by others who have fought in the past.
This coming Sunday, the army will take the unit to the Holocaust Memorial. This too is fitting because Israel stands between the Jewish people and the next despot who might imagine that he can attempt another Holocaust. It is our soldiers who prevent this, who say to the world that the Jew has changed and will defend his land, his life, his people and his nation.
Today’s cultural day was more upbeat than the past or upcoming destinations. Today, they took the soldiers to the Old City in Jerusalem. They met at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Holy Temple that was destroyed approximately 2000 years ago by the Romans. Afterwards, they visited the ruins of our Ir David, the remnants of Jerusalem from the time of King David. Because I had a meeting in the general direction, I drove Elie to meet his unit and agreed to pick him up on my way home.
Later, we did some quick shopping, picked up his sister and his new brother-in-law, and headed home. At this point, I should explain that we live in Maaleh Adumim, a beautiful city just to the east of Jerusalem. There are two roads that lead out of Jerusalem toward Maaleh Adumim. One is a bypass road that was built after the first intifada, when Arabs were throwing stones and rioting in Abu Dis. During that second intifada, the original road that wound its way through several Arab neighborhoods was sealed off to Jewish traffic and we all exit Maaleh Adumim and take a much longer route to avoid trouble.
The second road was opened a few years ago and includes a tunnel that goes below Hebrew University. This road is the more traveled road because during that last intifada, the Arabs began throwing stones (and all sorts of other objects – like a set of couches last week, a washing machine, tires, empty jugs, etc.) down off the cliffs that border the edge of the bypass road. All around, most people prefer the modern, new road, to the older road.
The old road isn’t well maintained and takes longer and for no logical reason other than being tired and not wanting to travel inside Jerusalem to pick up the newer road, I drove straight through the French Hill intersection and picked up the old road. Within the first two minutes, I saw we were in trouble and I’d made a bad choice. The road is one lane for most of the distance, with a metal divider and no place to turn around. There was a long line of cars slowly creeping along and I had no choice but to join this slow-moving traffic. This isn’t normal on this road and we knew something was happening.
Minutes later, an ambulance passed us and I could see Elie was anxious to get out and help. Understand that we are on a dark road, with a high cliff to our right. On the cliff, several meters above us, are many Arab homes and there were Arabs leaning out and looking at the road to see what was happening.
Rocks have been thrown down from these cliffs, fire bombs as well. At some points, the cliff comes within a few feet of the road…and this was where we almost came to a full stop. From that point on, it was even slower going. Elie decided he should get out and see what was happening ahead and if the ambulance needed any help. I told him to wait so that we could get closer and see if there was even anything he could do. There are often traffic jams when a suspicious object is found on the road…but of course that didn’t make sense because they don’t call an ambulance for a suspicious object, they call the bomb squad.
As we approached a bend in the road, it was clear that the ambulance was close because we could see the flashing lights. Elie said he was going to go, took his gun, and went jogging off in the direction of whatever was happening. I can’t quite describe the feelings I had watching him run off into the distance and go out of my line of vision.
Slowly, so very slowly, I was able to approach and finally arrive and see that what had happened was indeed a car accident, a lone driver probably going too fast crashed his car. Elie later told me that he didn’t like the way the ambulance volunteers were securing the accident victim so he got a pair of safety gloves from the ambulance and secured the driver to the board himself. He helped load him into the ambulance shortly after I pulled behind it. Initially, I couldn’t see where Elie was, but I also knew that I didn’t want to leave him behind. That meant pulling to the side somewhere so cars could get past me on this narrow road.
Behind me, an army vehicle pulled up, so I got out and explained that my son was an ambulance volunteer and had gone to help. The soldiers were prepared to let me stay there and wait, but a policeman came over, yelling that I should move the car. I tried to explain to him as well but he believed my car was in a bad place (it wasn’t, and cars were already easily bypassing it), but the policeman wanted the car moved, so I got in, just as Elie came over pulling off the gloves. He got in the car and explained what had happened as we drove past the crashed car and quickly arrived home. On a scale of things that Elie is likely to do in the next few years, tonight’s event wasn’t spectacular or particularly dangerous.
Earlier, before driving home, he told me about how the soldiers in his unit all had their guns strapped on today during their visit to the Old City. Because these are essentially untried soldiers walking around with loads of ammunition in crowded city streets, they were ordered to make sure there were no bullets in the guns and that the magazines weren’t even attached.
Only one commanding officer, as far as Elie could tell, actually had bullets in his gun. When I asked Elie if that wasn’t dangerous, given that they were approximately 100 unarmed soldiers and a natural target for a knife-wielding Arab (never mind someone more heavily armed). This has happened numerous times in the Old City and is a real concern.
What good will the gun do if it isn’t loaded, I asked him, and he quickly showed me, pivoting the gun to be used as a weapon to first knock the opponent down. This gives the soldier time to load his weapon, “and boom,” Elie finished unnecessarily. I could already see what the army had taught my son.
It’s a good thing, that he can defend himself, that he is receiving training to handle each threat he might encounter. It’s the way it must be, that he can move quickly and be one with the gun. Everywhere we went, to buy him shoes, to shop for groceries, and then at the site of the car accident, Elie is aware of where his gun is. In base, he is taught to sleep with his body connected to the gun. Officers are known to sometimes sneak into the tents and try to “steal” a soldier’s gun (and punish them severely if they succeed).
Watching Elie run off into the darkness was a frightening thing for me and made me once again aware of an interesting change in our relationship. In the normal course of events, when you have a baby, you are incredibly connected to that infant. Over time, as the child grows, he gains his independence, and so, in some ways does the mother. The love matures and the child is trusted to stand on his own feet, to feed himself, to learn to ride a bicycle, to go to friends, to sleep over, to spend the weekend away. He grows and gains and the circle of his knowledge becomes separate from his parents. Especially, now – as Elie serves in the army, every day experiencing things beyond all my knowledge, I see the changes.
Tonight, he helped an accident victim, as he has so often in the past when serving on the ambulance squad. He did it, in full uniform, with a gun attached to his back. Coincidentally, he had already arranged to be on call tonight in Maaleh Adumim, having finally gotten permission from the army to continue to volunteer when he is home.
I was more upset about tonight’s accident than I should have been. “Do you know how many police were there?” Elie reasoned logically.
I tried to explain to Elie that it was scary for me to watch him run into the darkness and disappear around the bend carrying his M16. He would have done the same thing even if he didn’t have the gun, even if he wasn’t in uniform, he told me. Not much help, I tried to explain.
He believes that I should find comfort in the fact that he had protection with him. The larger issue, for me, is the way in which I now relate to Elie. The answer is different than before. Perhaps it is because he is out of reach for 23 hours a day (at least). Perhaps it is that I know he is experiencing the new and the unknown.
Whatever the reason, he is constantly in my thoughts in a way that he hasn’t been since he was a small boy. I believe all my children are in my heart, all of the time. But I know that while they are in school and I am at work, my brain can focus on whatever tasks I need to accomplish. Now, with Elie in the army, it is as if one part of my brain refuses to disengage, to separate even for a few minutes. This connection was strong tonight, as it has been for the last few months. It isn’t something a mother can explain.
Our conversation ended with Elie smiling and asking, “Don’t you trust me?”
How do I explain that a mother can fear and trust at the same time? A mother’s heart can experience sheer terror at the same time she knows that it is not rational. Elie is one of the most level-headed, thinking, aware people I have ever known. He has much growing to do, but he’s on the right path to becoming so much of what I want him to be. He thinks, he contemplates, he acts. Ok, not always – I have the broken vases and windows to prove that sometimes the boy acts before the man can think – but Elie understands that his country trusts him with a weapon, with training it gives to him and ultimately with huge weapons of war that can shell an enemy position dozens of kilometers away. He takes that trust and honors it.
They have trusted him with hours of emergency medical training to handle life and death situations and he handles them with patience and a calm sense of dedication and determination. He is taught to act to help others, without first putting his life in danger. This is, essentially, what he did tonight.
“Don’t you trust me?” was his question and the answer is that, of course, I do. I trust him to see to others in need. I trust that he will put safety first, as the ambulance squad taught him. Because a hurt volunteer doesn’t help anyone and adds to the burden of the whole, he’s explained to me in the past.
But I also trust that fear is not rational; that a mother cannot calmly watch her son run into a situation that might mean danger and that the mother is wrong to do anything that would make him hesitate or make him unsure. I was wrong tonight to give Elie the impression that I doubted him for even a second…and I’ll likely be wrong the next time as well. My only consolation is that Elie knows that I am wrong not out of any lack of trust, but because of a deep need to see him safe and a deeper sense of love.