As we approach the day when Elie will have been in the army for three months, the one lasting impression I have so far is one of separation. The distance is made so much greater by the fact that we have lost the ability to speak to him beyond the one hour per day that he is given before he goes to bed.
This is not a normal separation in a day and age when the cellular phone makes most people constantly available. Once there was a time when you would be out of contact for hours traveling or in meetings. Those days are long gone here in Israel and throughout much of the world. Elie has had a cellular phone for several years now. It is a natural reaction when you live in a place where terrorists target buses, and high school kids rely on this same mode of transportation to get to and from school, friends, and after-school activities.
My three oldest children have had strict orders for years – if something blows up, anywhere, any time, you call me. It doesn’t matter if it happened three hours away, only that I need to hear their voices, to know they are safe. For so long, the phone has been a means for the children to communicate with me, to reassure me, to reach out to me.
It was, in some ways, a communication that I needed and it was their willingness to oblige. They called me when they needed me and certainly use the phone for conversations and text messages with their friends, but I willingly pay the bill because I know that I can reach them, that they carry around a device that enables me to be in touch with them 24 hours per day. Now that has changed. Elie has the phone, but I can’t call him. I can’t reach him when I want. He has to reach out to me. And even more important, for the first time, I feel that Elie needs the conversation more than I do. The conversations seem longer, more about him and more a way to fill a need that he seems to have.
He tells me about learning in an air-conditioned classroom, something much appreciated as Israel slips into summer. He tells me about the meals he eats and something about the guys in his unit. His smaller group has been separated from the other units, as they begin learning the specifics of the task the army has set before them. The basic training has been left behind and his commanding officer has eased up some of the conditions.
Previously, they were given one hour before going to sleep to spend relaxing, playing, reading, calling home. Until last week, when the hour was up, the soldiers were required to once again assemble outside their tents and wait until the commanding officer came to bid them good night. There are many reasons for this. They are allocated 6 hours of sleep per night, and only 6 hours. This too is part of the training, teaching the body that the mind rules, that their lives are controlled to the minute and all things come in measureable dosages. Twelve minutes to do this, 4 minutes to do that. One hour until bed, etc.
Those who are late are required to give the army back time, and so are allowed to go home only one hour after others are dismissed. Elie told me about how the commanding officers came and did a “surprise” gun inspection, complaining to some of the soldiers about the condition of their gun. Elie’s gun was very clean and the officers praised him for how he maintained it.
Now, having finished the first part of basic training, things have changed and Elie no longer has to assemble outside after the hour ends. They bid the commanding officer good night and have exactly one hour before they have to go to sleep. During that hour, they must shower and do whatever is necessary so that in the morning they can be prepared to assemble and begin the day within the allocated period of time. The rest of the time is their own, free to move around within the confines of their small encampment, free to call, free to read, free even to go to sleep early, if they choose.
Overall, the army is turning out to be an amazing experience for Elie, enabling him to grow in ways I never imagined. He is very aware of time; very aware of the responsibilities they give him. And also very aware, for the first time in his life, that home is far away and out of reach.
He received the package I sent him last week – two big boxes of homemade cookies, a deck of cards, his brother’s gift and some other sweets. It is the only real way that we can reach out…and even that takes days to get to him. He still sounds a bit lonely on the phone. In the background, I hear the others shouting and having fun and wonder if Elie plays around with them too. He seems to like the others in his unit and sounds genuinely excited about what he will be learning and the role he will play in the army.
Just as we quickly adapted to the “14-day” plan in which he was home every other weekend, I assume we will adapt to the “21-day” plan. For now, the separation is difficult and there is an awareness, on both sides, I think, that we are all moving through time in different directions. So much happens here and I haven’t had time to catch Elie up on what his siblings are doing. Little things that take so much of our energy aren’t worth mentioning when you only have one small conversation in the evening.
Elie loves our older car and considers it his. He’s got an emergency medikit in the car, a flashing red light that he can attach to the top of the car so that he can quickly meet up with an ambulance on a call. I haven’t had a chance to tell him that the lock on the driver’s door isn’t working, or that the new radio he installed with his father is really cool. He doesn’t know how his brother is doing on his end-of-year tests, how his little sister asks about him; I haven’t had time to tell him about all the people who have written in, wishing him well.
It’s hard to believe that almost three months have passed already, but harder to believe we still have the better part of three years ahead of us. In the meantime, my second son has already received the first call to the army and has begun his path towards serving. With luck, Elie will be out of the army before Shmulik goes in and unlike Elie, he will be able to benefit from the knowledge we didn’t have when it was Elie’s turn.
We’ll understand the separation issues and know they can be survived. We’ll know how long the mail takes to arrive, and if it is worth sending homemade cookies and he’ll know that the road taken will bring him home again and again and that we will be waiting for him, as we waited for Elie, cherishing each phone call and each visit home.