There are things a mother doesn’t need to know, doesn’t want to know. And yet, as Elie describes things to me, I know that perhaps he needs to say them. I wonder sometimes if Elie is trying to make sure that I know as much as other Israeli mothers, or if perhaps they don’t know these things either until their son starts explaining.
I know that he is happy in the army. That sounds strange to someone who focuses on what “army” and “soldier” stands for in this world, but day to day, Elie’s life has nothing to do with war and bloodshed. For him, it has to do with reaching a new level of maturity, of trust, of development.
He is, perhaps for the first time in his life, testing his body and finding it strong and adaptable. He is learning how far he can push his body, how much he can run, how far he can walk, how much he can carry, how carefully he can coordinate his eyes, his brains, and his arms to see a target, to calculate the distance, and to aim and shoot.
He is demanding that his body perform with less sleep than he would sometimes like, on a schedule not his own. He is stronger, a little thinner, and more confident than ever. The army teaches him and tests him, and he excels.
The army has chosen wisely for my son. I don’t know about how well others are matched to their intended tasks; I only know that Elie is where he belongs and he is shining through each experience. Today he called to say he was being given another short course – this one to be in charge of the other soldiers in the vehicle when his commanding officer is needed to direct the armored vehicle.
It is a natural part of our relationship, that Elie would share his experiences with me. Elie knows that he can talk to me, that I will try to listen. This is a new side to our relationship; one that I cherish and believe I need as much as he apparently does. He calls when he has time and I am honored by each call, humbled that he reaches out.
I remember when I first started having children that I noticed that there were some mothers who didn’t seem to grow with their children. This was true of some mothers who still had babies as their older children reached their teen years. Some were so focused on the little ones that they didn’t realize that the needs of the older kids were so very different. The needs of a teenager have little to do with giving them food or physically taking them into shelter. You no longer tell them when they need to rest. It was once so simple compared to the problems and realities of a teenager.
As I changed diapers or held bottles or fed little ones, my mind could wander and think about other things. They went to bed so early that I had long hours in the evening to accomplish what I couldn’t do during the day. At the time, it seemed so hard but now it seems like I must have had all the time in the world. But I did notice, when my kids were little, that older children of my friends needed something different.
It was something I was lucky enough to learn before I had teenagers and so as my older children grew, I tried to grow with them. I tried to let them reach their borders, and push beyond them even as my younger children still required the simpler forms of attention. I wanted each child to have the security to be all that he or she wanted.
This is particularly hard in a society where security is often the one thing you don’t have. At times, it is an act of faith simply to let your child take a bus or meet a friend at the mall. Deny them these “normal” things, and you damage them. Grant them these freedoms, and you worry that they will be in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Perhaps one of the hardest things a parent has to do, is know when to be there and when to let them fly. You cannot choose your child’s world; you can only hope and pray they stay safe no matter what world they choose, no matter where they go, no matter what they do. And, as they grow, as they experience, we are left behind to follow them only through their eyes, their words.
Elie calls or comes home and tells me about army life and with each new challenge, my mind jumps ahead to the greater meaning behind why the army is training, moving, teaching. I have never been to war, and yet life’s experiences teach us the value of life. This is not something most “kids” Elie’s age need understand.
Each of the things he tells me sticks in my mind long after the conversation ends. I swirl it through my brain and add the parts that Elie doesn’t say. There is more than one dog tag, I learned early on…and I could figure out why, even though Elie didn’t explain. As he told me about this, I remember thinking that this was more detail than a mother needed to know. I have thought that many times in the last few months, but never once have I told him this. If it is on his mind, I want him to feel he can tell me, never to know how I suffer with the knowledge, how I cry at times with fear and how, most of all, I marvel.
The army is shifting training schedules and locations, and this too is something I don’t really want to consider too carefully. I know the date my son will be “ready” for war according to the army, and can’t help but wonder if anyone is ever ready.
And in tonight’s conversation, more information that I don’t really want to know. Several years ago, there was a great tragedy in Israel. Two helicopters collided while carrying 73 Israeli soldiers. There were no survivors. In the weeks and certainly in the months to come, Elie will be flying in helicopters if the army needs to move his unit great distances. If they are in the north and there is trouble in Gaza, they will fly by helicopter…and if they are in the south and need to reach the north to face a threat there, again, helicopters will be used. Just as those mothers and fathers didn’t know, it is likely that I won’t know in advance where he is, what he does, where he goes until later when, God willing, he will be there safe and have the chance to tell me.
Elie has been told to prepare name tags and before the troops enter the helicopter, these name tags are collected. Never again will the army have to wonder or figure out who was on what vehicle. Elie didn’t remind me about the helicopter disaster. But I know, and he knows, and we both understand what the army was saying. He’s too young to face this possibility, my mind says clearly. How old was I the first time I considered my mortality? Certainly not in my 20s and maybe not in my 30s.
This too I would not wish for my son and yet he understands. They only need to know who was on the helicopter if they don’t get off safely on the other side of the journey. That’s what this is – a journey, for Elie and for me, and as he goes through this journey, he stops every once in a while, and pulls me along.
It reminds me of when he was very little and I was anxious to get somewhere. I would push his younger brother in the carriage several yards ahead and then wait for Elie to catch up. When he did, I’d move on ahead, knowing he’d follow at his own pace.
Now he is doing this to me. He runs ahead with the army and then stops to help me catch up. Slowly, with each new step he takes, with the knowledge he gains, he helps me understand this strange new world he has entered. At times, he hints at technological wonders and at times he speaks of physical challenges. And, at times, he tells me things that a mother doesn’t need to know…because ultimately, at some level, I too have to face this new world he has entered.