Military, Personal Story
Putting words into the atmosphere, and expressing my thoughts and feelings with another person helps me process. I’m one of those…writers, I think they’re called. But, sometimes, I need immediate feedback, so verbalizing my thoughts in therapy sessions has been useful. I’ve seen a therapist during four “divorce seasons” in my life. The first time I went to talk things through with a therapist was when I was a child and my mother and her husband divorced. The second was more than 20 years later when my husband agreed to try marital counseling, sort of.
Our marital counseling sessions consisted mostly of me praying in the bathroom before we started: begging God to show up, begging Him to change my husband’s heart or my heart, or give me the right words to make some immediate, fog-shredding miracle happen, begging Him for a breakthrough. They consisted of me weeping throughout while my husband sat next to me, an uncommunicative, sequestered echo of who I had known for nearly 11 years. Once, the therapist was so overcome he actually began to cry when he was trying to convince the man poised for flight next to me not to throw away this life we were building together. Later, when I asked my husband if he was affected by the therapist’s emotional response to our situation, he said, “No. I think he’s been doing this too long, and he was dealing with his own stuff, not ours.” Marital counseling didn’t look promising after that point, but we continued to go for a few more sessions.
The third season came when I was working through our divorce, and I realized that fantasizing about drifting over the dividing line into oncoming traffic wasn’t normal, and I needed help. I was beginning to separate from reality, to float above it, a sad storm-cloud with no thunder and no lightning, the Eeyore of storm clouds. I needed someone to talk to–a pro. And she had a big job. I had a lot of issues, and she carefully, patiently helped me clear through the lenses of pain, betrayal, and desecrated confidence that muffled everything in my life at that time.
For the first couple sessions, I focused on her youth and freedom. She was nearly 10 years younger than me and unmarried. Sometimes, my mind would slink sideways and recall how hopeful I was in my mid-20s, how unsuspecting I was that life could, and would, punch me so hard in the throat. Sessions with Lauren (of course that was her name), started with me sobbing, continued with me sobbing, sometimes so hard that I couldn’t speak for minutes at a time, and ended with me hiding my reddened eyes behind my sunglasses as I passed the next patient in the lobby.
Weekly we would meet in a prayer room in my church. She agreed to drive in from St Louis, where her regular practice was located, to see more clients in my local area. Even though we met in a prayer room, I didn’t pray before those sessions. I don’t know why not. Maybe because I was only existing, and only moderately. And I needed therapy, because I knew I wasn’t going to be all right on my own. I had to do the work so I could take care of my children. I didn’t want to be unhealthy for them. I didn’t want to shrivel up from the inside out and deform into an “abandoned wife.” I also didn’t want my boys to be the sole source of my emotional worth, little crutches to help me walk through the hurt. I didn’t want them to carry the burden of my unmet needs and unexpected disappointments, my imbued sorrow and soggy hope. They were only children, and it wouldn’t be fair. So, I did the work. Most days, when I left those sessions I felt like a skinned tomato, an unsheltered, bloody discombobulation of nerve endings. Eventually, I stopped sobbing through every session, and I stopped needing to hide my eyes as I walked through the lobby afterwards. But most importantly, I stopped thinking of crossing the center line as I drove to work.
The fourth season of therapy is now: post-divorce. It’s really post-everything: childhood, teenage years, first loves, first times, my roaring 20s, marriage, motherhood (an ongoing excuse to see a therapist), divorce, five deployments, a few promotions, some diplomas, and the end of my 30s. No trauma is imminent or transpiring (except turning 40 in a couple of years–which I’m really looking forward to)…and no trauma has recently transpired (unless you count the disciplinary meeting I had to attend with my ex about our first-grader–but if I counted that I’d have a trauma at least once a week). I’m not recovering from anything, and I’m not worried or scared, sad or depressed. But I am in therapy. I’m in it. Fully vested. Bought in. Committed to doing more work.
I found her on the internet. She was listed through some sort of Therapists-R-Us site that seemed legit. Her profile said she had both counseling credentials and a PhD in her field. I liked that. She was all in, too. She looked mother-y in her photo. I like mother-y women. They make me feel cared for and safe. And her office wasn’t very far from my work, so I could pop over during my lunch break without too much navigation through traffic–all solid reasons to select a therapist.
Dr G is a calming whirlwind. She pulses energy through her eccentric jewelry, to the streaks of brownish red in her otherwise blond hair. She sports a trendy bob with an asymmetrical style that’s shorter in the back and lengthens on either side of her jaw line. I never smell her perfume, if she wears any. She sits in her office chair with one leg tucked underneath, and she gives me book suggestions about psychology theory. When I talk, she sits quietly, sometimes writing, sometimes nodding, sometimes waiting to ask me a question. A calming whirlwind, luring me further inward, into me. She told me she thinks of me as a fellow woman, not a patient. And our sessions are nothing more than two women talking about things. I think of her as an authority figure. I want her to have the right answers and give them to me. We’re still getting to know each other and navigating our relationship.
The first time I visited her, I was embarrassed and tried to distract myself by focusing on anything else other than walking into a therapist’s office. Instead I made eye contact with those I passed on the stairs or saw in the lobby, greeting each one with a smile and a nod. “See? I’m a ‘normal’ person seeing a therapist. See how I meet your eyes and smile? That’s because I’m ‘normal’.” In the past, I was obviously drowning, overwhelmed by wave upon broken wave, and in my drowning state, I reached out to therapy as a life-preserver. I was at the bottom of whatever life I had, and there was no room for embarrassment. Embarrassment would have been a step up during those times. But now…Is it okay to go to therapy, even if I have nothing terrible going on in my life? Am I allowed to simply want to be better? Is therapy really necessary?
And each time I bounce up the stairs to her office, check in with the receptionist, and wait for Dr G to usher me in, I know the answer: yes. It’s okay because it helps me be a light in my sons’ lives and in my own. I’m allowed and encouraged to be better. And it’s necessary if I say it is.
I’m still too concerned about other’s thoughts and feelings, Dr G points out. She calls me out on my self-doubt, and my tendency to minimize hard things I’ve experienced. She gives me permission to examine them under a microscope if I want, or casually, like window shopping when I’m not ready to go inside. Her office has become a ruby-warm cave where I am allowed to focus on myself, my thoughts, my frustrations, my joy, and, sometimes, my pain. I’m still doing the work to be healthier, to be an improved statement of myself, to be my own best thesis. Dr G assures me that 38 is a terrific age because I’ve evened out the irresponsible pace of my 20s, and I’m ending the uncertainty of my 30s. I’m preparing for the rest of my wonderful life, she says. That all sounds so good to me; I’m ready. Let’s get to work.
Ugh. Ugh and yuck and ugh. When I think about dating after divorce, I become super articulate. It’s like all the elements of the uncomfortable reality overtakes the part of my brain that can formulate anything more than “ugh.” The last time I really dated, I was in my early twenties. I looked young and alive and…firm. I was fit and free of baggage–emotional and physical. Yeah, my hair was sometimes unruly, and I sometimes needed makeup tips (I, apparently, liked to put on eyeshadow after a few cocktails), but I could wear almost anything and feel good. And dating was really nothing more than meeting a cutie at the club, busting some moves, playfully laughing at him as he tried to keep up and eventually reverted to grinding his pelvic area into my backside, and then maybe he’d ask for my number or want to buy me a flat beer for a quarter. It was all really romantic. Okay…the opposite of romantic, but it was easy. Less business, less algorithms, and more stupid, empty pleasure. I miss stupid, empty pleasure, if I’m being honest.
The chemistry either happened right there on the dance floor, or it happened across the crowded basement of some house party as you danced an impromptu routine to Prince’s Kiss. Chemistry was obvious, or at least less difficult. Sometimes, you could help it along with a few Dixie cups of beer, Boone’s Farm, or a shot of Jaeger. Where did those days go? Wherever they went, I can’t go back there after a decade of marriage, a divorce, two kids, and generally less firmness. What to do now?
Apparently, I don’t live a life that’s conducive to meeting single, felony- and STD-free, heterosexual men in person. It could have something to do with the “I’m-at-the-grocery-store-not-a-beauty-pageant” and “I-really-do-believe-the-gym-is-for-working-out” style and attitude I undoubtedly go around with in the world. When I’m not at the grocery store or the gym, I’m teaching 19 year olds English stuff or sitting in some Lit class with my fellow PhD candidates (all of whom are married and/or 26). Both places are not big pick up scenes for me. But when I look into the crystal ball of my future, I’m less than thrilled with what I see. In my mind’s eye, my youngest son is packing up his hand-me-down SUV that his older brother left behind when he went away to Harvard two years before. He is excited to settle in to UNC or USC or UC Berkeley where he received a full academic scholarship. I am excited to take that long-saved college fund and travel around Europe for the next three months, and after my final “baby” turns to give me an authentic, not at all obligatory hug before putting pedal to metal, I go to wrap my arms around the beautiful, solid, nurturing man by my side–except—um, there isn’t one of those there. Instead, I am forced to wrap my arms around myself ’cause I am alone. A. Loney. Lone. Lone. Lone. All by myself. Yep.
Possible desperate future times call for definite desperate present measures. So…I paid my membership fee and filled out my online profile. Who am I looking for? Let’s see, a non-murderer/rapist, please. I’d like not to be attacked at any point. After that, I’d like a man who’s single and divorced only once, if at all. I’d like him to have NOT cheated on his wife and left his kids. I’d like him to make upwards of $100K so he doesn’t feel threatened by my salary at all–and he doesn’t need any of it. I’d like him to have a full head of hair and not be skittish about Caesarian scars. I’d like him not to post any shirtless pics or pics of him with other women. That would be great. I’d like him to be secure enough in who he is that he is willing to follow me around as I carry on with my career. I’d like him to be assertive without being a domineering ass. I’d like him to have a master’s degree in something fascinating like rocket propulsion or history or gender studies. I’d like him to be more than okay with a woman who has kids, but in no way think she needed help from him to raise them. I’d like him to be funny, but not goofy. I’d like him to be wicked smart. Maybe even with a Bostonian accent. And be totally accessible. And honest. And self-aware. And faithful. And grown up. And I’d like him to choose me every single day, but be okay with using the bathroom and closet down the hall because he knows I’ve grown used to spreading out my crap. Too scary specific and demanding? Fine. The dating site forced me to narrow down my wish list into pithy little characteristics anyway: I’m a woman seeking a man between the ages of 35-45. Just checking that box makes me feel like my grandparents. When I was a kid, I remember my grandparents being in their 40s. And now I’m looking to date someone who used to be my grandpa’s age. In my head, that’s just old and weird even though being in your 40s is not old or weird. In my head, sometimes I’m still 11 and waiting for puberty to hit, and other times I’m in my 20s and still look like I’m in my 20s. Either delusional way, dating a 40-something is ugh. And yuck and ugh. But my profile is up. Make it rain, dating site. Make it rain.
Currently online, it’s not quite drizzling. Once, on an early morning run in Illinois, it was misting. It was the time of night/morning when the dew was fully present, but the sun was not even close to being awake. The air was wet. You couldn’t tell whether moisture was coming down from the heavens or whether the dew was being stirred up from the ground. The water was like fine dust, whirling around everywhere without committing to being real rain. The only way I could really feel the wet was when I ran my hands over my hair, condensing the mist and making it gather just enough to equal raindrops. For me, it’s the same annoyance as dating online. I’m getting poked and winked at, but it’s not raining. Right now, I would have to run my fingers across the keyboards to get some rain started and generate some email chatter. And I’m not willing to do that yet. If I have to make the first, solid move, he’s probably not going to be up to the challenge of dating me. Until then, I’m stuck with the three emails I’ve received so far. The first reads, “You’re beautiful and I’m not looking for anything serious;” the second one states, “hello.” I presume he wrote such a short note because mystery is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. The final email reads, “For some reason, I can imagine you with a European accent.” Yikes.
Looks like my imaginary future of wrapping my arms around only myself is coming closer and closer with each click. Oh well, at least I won’t have to share the long-saved college fund.
When I clicked open my work email today, amongst the many missives from anxious students checking to see if I received their final essays for our English class and the military members who wanted to ensure that I knew about the upcoming Spooktacular 10k and mandatory anti-terrorism training on Thursday, there was a climate assessment survey waiting for me, urging me, gently cajoling me to weigh in on the atmosphere of my workplace, begging to know how I thought things were progressing in my daily environment. After absolutely agreeing, agreeing, disagreeing, or absolutely disagreeing with the many statements like “Everyone in my workplace has the same opportunities, regardless of gender, race, religion,” I came to a question I had to really think about: “What do you enjoy most about working here?” It wasn’t that the question was overly complicated. It was one of those teacher-questions I routinely ask my students: “what were your biggest challenges while writing the assignment? What did you do well in your writing? What challenges did you face?” Or those mom-questions I ask my kids every day: “How was school? What did you do with your friends? What happened that made you laugh/cry/fart/frown/succumb to your childlike rage and throw milk across the table in the cafeteria?” This survey question had an answer; I just didn’t quite know which one to pick.
What did I enjoy most? What a personal question for a survey to ask. Why do you want to judge me, survey? What did I ever do to you? I felt a little exposed and vulnerable as I began to type in my answer. Definitely the part I enjoyed the most was showing my students what they were capable of in their writing. Definitely. Yep. That was it. It wasn’t the fact that this assignment left me room to gulp greedy handfuls of stress-free air in a way that none of my previous assignments allowed. I didn’t have to figure out how to host a holiday party for a four-star’s wife and her friends over the holiday break, with minimal staff. I didn’t have to chart the route from Homebase, Afghanistan, to a nearby girls’ school, avoiding well-known hotspots and threatening, white Isuzu trucks loaded with who-knew-what-explosives. I also didn’t have to stand in front of a crowd of 200 and give a memorial speech for a young man who fell victim to inexperience and wet streets on his recently purchased, lime green, motorcycle. It certainly couldn’t be the predicability of a 7:30 to 4:30 pm schedule every day (with a few annual exceptions). It probably shouldn’t be the fact that I was working with some great friends, relationships cultivated and deepened over the few years that I’ve been here (I almost typed that one first). It had to be that I was able to show my students what they were capable of achieving, what they held within, that propensity humans have for unexplored potential. That had to be it. That’s what a good teacher would say. And I need to be a good teacher.
I need to be. I have nothing else. Or that’s sometimes the dialogue that runs through my head. This is it, woman. You’re coming to the end of the tracks, military-career wise. You better figure out what you want to be when you grow up. I’ve decided I want to be a teacher. If I’m being honest, I want to be one of those people who collect checks for doing very little to basically nothing, but those positions are filled by the Gwyneth Paltrows and Tom Cruises of the world (I’m still annoyed with their comments about how tough it is to be actors while I’ve watched my service members experience unspeakable things for far, far less reward). And since those positions of laissez-faire seemed to be filled, I gotta get to work, again, in just a few years. And I’m afraid.
I’m afraid of not being successful. I’ve enjoyed success in my military career. I’ve tasted it, and it is yummy. I’ve achieved things I wanted to achieve, and I’ve been rewarded for my level-headedness, my multi-tasking ability, my adaptability, my follow-through, my leadership and followership abilities, my physical strength, and my endurance. Many of these traits are supposedly coveted by the civilian sector, but I’ve watched those before me slide back to Go, forced to begin again, forced to prove their worth in a society that claimed to love and revere them when they had symbols on their collars and stripes on their sleeves. So, I’m scared that if I don’t know what I want to be, I’ll listen to what those employers will tell me I am: no longer in the military, just one of the crowd of folks searching for a job.
I need to be a good teacher for other reasons, like the big one: I’m good in a classroom. It comes easier to me than parenting, being divorced, being a daughter/sister, doing math, re-learning French, or planning a weekly menu of dinners for me and the boys. I’m almost fully alive in a classroom. I feel heard and seen (except for the occasional Monday morning class where some try to disappear inside their chairs or desks). I know how to grab the students’ attention and hold it for a little while, maybe even 20 minutes straight, by being shockingly, unabashedly honest and sincere with the crazy things coming from my mouth. I know how to teach writing, how to leak out my passion for it, how to tell a class just enough about the things to notice in this world and in themselves that their heads will expand, but not necessarily explode. I think. I hope.
Now, I’m straddling the military-civilian fence. I’m teaching in two very different environments: a classroom of students working towards personal goals of education and serving their country, and the other group, largely filled with students who have goals to do who-knows-what because they don’t have to tell me. One group consists of assured (or most nearly assured) attentiveness, and the other…not so much. No guarantees, lady.
I fearfully gave that latter group the opportunity to assess me today. During our class, I asked them to anonymously identify things they wanted to stop, start, and continue for the rest of the quarter in our creative non-fiction class. I don’t know if they suspected my fear. I tried to represent a level of insouciance by making a joke about crying quietly at home, with my children watching, and a bottle of wine as I read their comments. I totally think I pulled it off. But when I got to the parking lot, climbed in my car and opened the box containing their critique-filled index cards, my hands trembled a little bit. What if I wasn’t any good at this? What if I wasn’t successful with those students who aren’t impressed with a military uniform? What if this isn’t what I’m going to be when I grow up?
And why do I need it so much? That was one question that should have been on the survey waiting for me in my email: why do you need this, Nancy?
My dog died today. Her name was Bluebell—Blue. When I went to bed she was fine, I thought, peacefully gnawing on her bone in the backyard. I was wrong. She was stuck in the backyard; stuck by paralyzed back legs, courtesy of an invisible erosion of her spine–invisible until today’s X-ray. Last night, she was stuck, alone, and scared, and I was asleep in the house. I should have sensed her trauma. She sleeps at the side of my bed, faithfully every night. But not last night. Last night, I thought she was outside chewing the bone I gave her, so I didn’t call her. I didn’t notice the missing slap-slap-slap of the doggy door indicating she was inside with me, walking around–walking. I didn’t look for her until this morning.
This morning, there was no Blue to watch out for as I stepped out of bed. She wasn’t on her doggie bed in the living room, either. “Blue!” I called her curtly, annoyed that she wasn’t wagging her tail “good morning.” Instead, she was laying down in a corner of the backyard, paralyzed. When I came to the door to call her, her head popped up and her tail jumped up and back down again, a groundhog covered in feces. But she didn’t get up. She couldn’t. She pushed herself up with her front legs, but could do nothing more. My legs nearly mimicked hers. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to go to her, to magnify the reality of what today would be, but I wouldn’t stop myself. Her whimpering and wagging tail whirl-pooled me towards the new nucleus of my world: Bluebell and her legs.
The new center, Bluebell’s corner of the yard, seemed countries away from the house. I just wanted to bring her inside, place her on her doggie bed, or at the side of my bed, and restart this day. I wasn’t ready.
I found Blue at a softball field in Las Vegas, Nevada, twelve years ago. A woman was trying to get rid of the “runt,” and Blue was going to the pound if she couldn’t find someone to take her that day. I paid the woman $100, and she gave me the sweetest, little black face and a worm-infested belly in return. My step-son named her after the popular “Blue’s Clues” character, and over a decade-long love story began.
The first few days were uneventful. The worms were tamping down her enthusiasm. Once they were cleared up, she was crazy. She dug a hole in the carpet of our brand new home. She chewed the stucco off the back of our brand new home. She would literally run circles (tracing patterns) in the gravel of the backyard, carving rivets into the ground of our brand new home. She was a pain in the ass. And I loved her so very much.
When I had my second child, we also had two black labs in a very tiny townhouse in Maryland. After much conversation, we decided to find Blue (and my then-husband’s dog, Bean) a new family who we felt had more time and space for the girls. I cried after we drove away from Blue’s new home. By that time, Bluebell had been mine for six years. I underestimated the hold she had on my heart. And I completely disregarded the hold I had on hers. Within two weeks, she had run away from her new place, and the pound tracked me down through the chip embedded in her neck. We picked her up from the pound and returned her to her new family. Blue would not be deterred. Within five weeks, she had run away three times. She was looking for me. I couldn’t go through a fourth phone call. She won and we would simply keep her home, where she clearly belonged. That was the only time I mistakenly thought I didn’t have enough room for Blue.
When my ex moved out, Blue’s name was among the possessions he wanted to take with him when he left. The guest bedroom set, the piano, the X-box, the big screen television, Blue, the extra set of pots and pans, the lawn mower…I put up no resistance about anything on the list, except one thing that was not a possession, but a piece of my heart. And when I was in Afghanistan for a year, Blue was loved and cared for by my aunt, uncle and cousins in Indiana–she was spoiled with stuffed animals and food off the table. I worried she would run away from them, like she had so many years before, thinking I was trying to abandon her. But she didn’t. She must have known I was coming back. When I did, I was greeted by her tail wagging so hard that it would leave marks on my shins, knock down little toddlers, and break lamps foolishly placed on end tables. Her spirit was in her tail.
Her spirit was there this morning, as she lay stuck in the backyard, but the strength was gone. I had heard stories of mothers who exercised super-human strength, lifting cars off their children when they were in danger. My strength didn’t activate. I couldn’t lift Blue’s 60 lb body. I could barely hold my head up. Instead, I knelt next to her and cried. I wasn’t ready for today. And I needed help. I fetched a blanket and was able to lift her onto it in order to drag her across the backyard. She cried softly along the way.
My neighbors weren’t home to answer my knock, yet Blue was whimpering. She was scared and still, her tail un-moving. A guardian angel in the form of a man taking a walk with his daughter, came over the hill. When I tried to ask him for help, I couldn’t get the words out, choking on all the memories: obedience training at six months, running buddy in Maryland, grief counselor during the divorce, big sister to the boys, and her recent difficulty getting in and out of the car during trips to the dog park. All I could say was, “I need your help. My dog can’t walk.” Blue would have been so happy to have more visitors. But she didn’t even lift her head when we lifted her into the car. Her tail was quiet.
I wasn’t ready for Bluebell to die today. I was getting myself ready, for two years from now. Not now. The vet reminded me that this was the best way to go: fine one day and down the next. No suffering, no gradual decline of quality of life. Fine one day and down the next. When the boys and I entered the room to say our goodbyes, her head came up and her tail popped–just once, but it jumped up then down in a final wave. I cried over her as she took her last breaths, her paws already cold. Her spine had deteriorated due to some tumor, some thing I could not see growing inside her body, eating away her bones from the inside. The vet promised me that I took the best care of her. She promised me Blue had a good life. She promised me I did right by Blue. But all I could focus on was the stillness of her tail. Its silence fills her space in my heart, and my heart mirrors Blue’s legs: fine one day, down the next.
Some time ago, I sat across from my professor and talked about different types of fear. He was very interested in how I, as a member of the military, processed fear in a deployed environment. Like most of the things my professors asked me, I hadn’t thought about my fear before. But I want to try to think about it now, and what I’ve concluded is: There isn’t much that scares me anymore.
I used to play around with fear. If there was a group going to the haunted houses for Halloween, I was there. Game of flashlight tag in a cemetery? Let’s do it. Scary movie marathon? Can’t wait. Death-defying roller coaster drop? Let’s go again. The charge of electrons that sparked in my brain when it came to being scared was something I sought after as much as I could, in very safe and predictable ways. In all those situations, the thing that I allowed to scare me was controlled. I was secure in the knowledge that the roller coaster would wind its way back to the start, and I would soon find myself safe on the loading platform again. I knew the scary movie wasn’t real, and the folks in the cemetery were not the same as those from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, waiting to break through their dirt-packed resting places and snatch at my ankles (That video was terrifying when I was a kid!). Those safe experiences brought a younger type of fear. It was flimsy and tin-foil thin, and it could be broken through anytime I wanted simply by reminding myself that it wasn’t real.
During my deployments, there were times when I was nervous about being harmed; times when I was grateful for the weight of my small bowie-knife bouncing against the outside of my leg as I walked through a darkened compound alone under watchful eyes; times when I was grateful for my M-4 grasped firmly in my semi-steady hands and the ammunition snuggled inside her; and times when I was happy for the heaviness of the helmet and Kevlar vest weighing me down as our aircraft flew low over enemies with high vantage points. There were several moments when I thought violence towards me was a real possibility and life, as I knew it, could be changed forever, but those fears were never allowed to fully materialize. They were simply breath-catching minutes that passed with little more than a racing heart, brief body shakes, and a mental sense of relief that something I couldn’t fully fathom hadn’t come to pass. That fear was the type of fear that I wouldn’t allow myself to linger in because what would be the point? Nothing happened. I wasn’t shot or raped by the Saudi guard at the checkpoint who was angry to see a woman alone, driving a car, and pointed his weapon at me while yelling for some explanation I could not provide. I didn’t have to fire my weapon at the young men greedily watching us walk across the bridge towards a village of Al Qaeda sympathizers. My limbs weren’t blown off by an IED (improvised explosive device) as our SUV bounced along the streets of Kabul days after an attack on an American convoy. No good could come of being traumatized by the possibility of terror. It was all around me when I was deployed, and I would not be able to function in other ways if I was overcome by possibilities rather than realities.
For me, the possible deployment atrocities where more shallow moments when compared to the fears-come-to-life I had already lived through. I wrapped those realized fears over my shoulders, tattered shreds hanging down my back, slipping over my chest and down my arms, enshrouding my body and everything in it like an invisible, bullet-riddled bed sheet. As far as I knew, I had already been through the worst sort of trauma, and it had numbed me to everything to follow behind it. When I was married, I had a fear that he would find someone else. And then he did. And after the divorce, there were the fears about him moving on, falling in love, re-marrying, and my children getting a stepmother whom they loved. All those things came to pass. These fears weren’t the same controlled fears of my youth, and they weren’t the distant fears of being killed in a foreign land. They were the fears of actuality. They really happened to me, emptying me of all the things that had filled me since I was a little girl. During those immediate months after the divorce, I was often like a wild animal, unable to control my thoughts or emotions. I would writhe in pain, sometimes physically rolling around the floor of my bedroom after my children were asleep, grabbing at my chest, begging for release, begging for my breathing to stop and for my heart to quit its insufferable beating. My fear was embodied within me. I could touch it, and stare it down in the mirror. I wrestled with it, and it kicked my ass. But with each new terror that came true, the struggle began to subside. I stopped fighting the fear and began to recognize it as a foreshadowing of strength to come. The fears happened, and I had to experience them fully, undiluted and unchecked by any protection. And the happenings made me braver and more certain that I was being held by something so much stronger than me because the fear didn’t kill me.
I didn’t die of a broken heart, just as I didn’t die from an IED. I didn’t die at the hands of my enemies, either home or abroad. Instead, the sun came up every morning and switched places with the moon every night. The trash kept getting picked up from the curb, and the mail kept getting delivered. My kids kept calling me mom, and the dog continued to need food and water. So, when one of my friends off-handedly remarked that I didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, I guess he was right. I may have a moment of panic, but I soon come around to the certainty that things will be better than fine. I am not afraid of things (most things) because I live in the reality that something much bigger, much greater, much more powerful than me and my capabilities keeps things going. I can take a deep, sometimes ragged, breath and step into the street in Kabul or sit down to a cup of coffee with my sons’ stepmom, because I have met the type of fear that I thought would destroy me and lived to tell the tale. Things kept going. Things keep going. I am one of the lucky ones.
When I arrived in San Antonio for basic training nearly 16 years ago, I didn’t have a name. Technically, I had one, but nobody there cared what it was. I was called “female,” if I was called anything at all. It was very strange how quickly I became used to my new name: female. It came with a certain ambiguous identity. I had a place, but it was along with all the other female basic recruits. And I didn’t have to settle into that name: female. I didn’t have to put it on, button it up, wear it, truly inhabit it, believe in it, or define it. It already came with a body, and I just had to stay in its shadow. Then, when I graduated basic training, I was recognized in a new way, the name I was born with: Thurman.
The military moves in graduations. We never jump in, head-first, full-bodied into the next phase. We are gingerly allowed to dip a toe, then up to the knee, then wade to the neck into the too shallow tub of individualism. In keeping with the tradition of less individuality is more, my first name was not used by my newly created friends, but I was allowed my surname. Being called by my last name was strange, but not uncharted territory. I played sports for many years, and the military wasn’t so different from the athletic world in the regard of last names. But, my teammates called me by my nickname more often than not: Red. No one calls me Red anymore. Maybe I’ve outgrown it; maybe it’s too strange a name to call a nearly 40-year-old woman. So, what happened to Red? In fact, what happens to any names I’ve carried, but no longer wear? I think there is a Lost and Found.
Before I married so many years ago, my fiancé and I discussed what name I would use–it was a discussion initiated by me. For him, taking on his last name was a foregone conclusion. A done deal. No discussion necessary. I remember trying to talk to him about how nervous it made me to no longer be Thurman after 24 years of being Thurman. Who was this Clemens person? What made her tick? How did she navigate the world? He saw my nerves as rejection. His name was a source of pride for him, and he wanted his wife to wear his name. In love, trusting that I was loved in return, the discussion ended. I acquiesced. Passive. I would no longer wear the name I had worn since birth. I would just put on a new one. Clemens was born.
With slightly less ease than he exerted when he gave me his name, the gift that he was convinced made me more his than not his, he jumped away from me, but left his name behind. And when we divorced, my children, young, strapping Clemens’ boys, were upset at the thought of me shedding the name they had worn since birth. “If you’re not a Clemens, you won’t be our mom anymore!” They are worried. For them, my existence is wrapped up in the name. And, again, I acquiesce, and wear it, a strip on my military uniform, a flourish on my driver’s license.
Just go back, someone suggested. Be Thurman again. If only. But I’m not Thurman anymore; I abandoned her. She was less changed, less formed by names she no longer carries. Will I still fit her? I worry she will not have me back. Thurman died at 24. Can I resurrect her? I’m not Red anymore, either. I didn’t leave Red, but she left me when I turned–what–22 or maybe before? Regardless, I’m too old for cute nicknames, now. And I’m beginning to grow out of my Clemens’ skin. Someone else is filling the clothes of Mrs. Clemens now.
What name will I wear moving forward? When I achieve something, who will get the achievement? Will I still be the same mother to my Clemens’ boys? I don’t know.