I dream of going to Afghanistan. I’m fascinated with history and in particular with places that have seen much of it. But I’m not interested in the history of that ancient and storied land. Or, not all of the history. There is just one moment in the long ribbon of time that calls to me from a place so many have called timeless. And, there is a just one special place along that age-old road that I want to visit. I want to dig my fingers into the soil along the berm in one specific patch of ground and hold in the palm of my hand the very soil that absorbed my son’s life.
Picking up a handful of soil and rocks and stones is to hold the history of the place in your palm, it is reading the ground with your hands. It is also, I believe, a tangible, tactile connection to everything, every person, every event to ever occur on that patch of ground. In a place like Afghanistan, on a highway that was once known as the Silk Road, a road that saw millenias of travelers, of traders, farmers and fighters, pilgrims and those fleeing oppression as well as the oppressors and liberators, I wonder if the dirt would feel heavier.
Several years ago, a group of mothers whose sons were killed in war traveled to Iraq. There they met with Iraqi mothers who also lost their sons. Since then, I’ve dreamed of going to Afghanistan. Among the Gold Star mothers I know, this is a common desire. Most of us, myself included, aren’t interested in embracing the mothers whose sons died trying to kill Americans, nor even those who died fighting alongside our sons. We just want to stand on the ground where our sons took their last breaths.
Part of the reason for this is simple closure. Many of us were not allowed to see our son’s body when that flag draped coffin came home.
A few of the mothers I know say that they not only opened the casket, they touched and caressed their son’s body contrary to what we are told are orders, The truth is as we are not members of the military and we are not subject to orders. One of the mothers I know said to her CAO, “I saw him come into this world bloody I will damn well see him as he left it.” The decision to see what was left of her son both haunts and comforts her still.
My CAO enlisted my husband in begging me not to open the casket, to not look. I was made to believe I would not have recognized my son as his head was covered in a shroud. At least that is what they told me, but I remember the tears rolling down my CAO’s face after he stepped in the other room to do as he was commanded; which was to open the casket and view the body.
I did argue a little. I asked if I could just reach inside and touch him, even just the sleeve of the uniform in which I knew he was dressed. But, I relented. Between the tears coursing down the CAO’s face and the near-terrified determination in my husband’s eye, I decided that they were begging me to do what they believed was best for me.
I knew if I insisted, the CAO would have to comply because his orders were “Whatever Mom wants”. My husband would have put up more of a fight, but he would also have relented, in part because if I demanded it, the CAO, under orders from his superiors, would facilitate it regardless of my husband’s objections.
I don’t regret, or only partially, sometimes regret that I didn’t touch my son one last time. Another partial, sometimes regret came later.
It feels like a poor consolation prize, but weeks, sometimes months, after the funeral we are given a chance at some sort of closure. But with it came a choice that had no good option.
One of the last, and probably most difficult duties of the Casualty Assistance Officer is to give us the final report. This is a packet of information which includes the final answers on the cause of death, the After Action Report, and the autopsy.
The After Action Report, or AAR is full of a dizzying array of acronyms and terms unique to military lingo, and the Casualty Assistance Officer, or CAO is there with us as we read it to explain it all. The autopsy is in a sealed envelope within the packet and we have to choose whether or not to read that. And whether or not to view the photos.
I read the AAR. More than once. It included the individual reports, many of them handwritten, from each of the squad that were there that day. Later, I had the opportunity to speak to nearly every one of the members of my son’s squad and having the memory of what they wrote during those conversations I’m sure made it easier for them to talk to me. They didn’t have to explain as many things, I could follow what they were saying and I was able to fill in the blanks of what they could not say.
I also read the autopsy. From that I know exactly what injury took my son’s life. In my heart, I knew my son was gone before his body hit the ground.The autopsy report confirmed what my mother’s heart knew. He didn’t feel anything, didn’t have time to feel anything, as the force of the blast severed his brain stem, killing him instantly. I also know he never felt the fire that followed the explosion, which was the reason for the shroud covering his head in the casket.
Words are my life, not just because I am a writer. I’m a writer because words are my life. A written description is more powerful, more vivid than any photograph and often more so than mere memory. I can read a well-crafted paragraph and feel I’ve lived that moment rather than having just read about it. This is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to my decision to read the autopsy of my son. I did not view the photos. Sometimes, I wish I had viewed the photos instead.
The only way the moment of his death could feel more immediate, other than going back in time and somehow being there with him, is to touch the ground on which he died.
For a long time now, I’ve thought this desire to stand on what for me would be sacred ground, comes from the guilt only a mother can know over not being with her child at the moment of his death. Guilt, like grief, is not subject to rationale. The combination of the two is what destroys most who are deeply mourning.
But, I’ve had an epiphany. At least I hope that is what this is. I’m almost afraid to examine it too closely for fear that it will be one of those fleeting moments of clarity that dissolves just as we try to pull it in for a closer look. Already I feel it fraying around the edges, going soft and graying as I try to put what my heart understands, or understood for one brief moment, into words.
This desire to feel the course earth and stones of that eons-old dirt sift through my fingers is to accept the fact that my son is gone. He is dead. I did not get that last goodbye. I didn’t even get to touch him, much less see him one final time.
That part I do accept. What is harder to embrace, beyond the knowledge that there will be no future memories made and all I have is all there ever will be, is that it is time to let go.
To. Let. Go.
Those three words are the hardest I’ve ever written and I can’t believe I have. To. Let. Go. And I just can’t.
I dream of Afghanistan. I dream of digging my hands into the soil that absorbed the last of my son’s life force. Of letting it sift down through my fingers. Of finally, fully, saying goodbye. I can’t decide if given the chance, I would fulfill my dream of going to Afghanistan. I hope that by the time such a thing were actually possible, I’d be able. I’m grateful such a time is a long, long time from now.
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