Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Safe and Strong (Babble)

My husband doesn’t complain as often as he should.  He tends to keep things to himself and small irritations fester into deeper frustrations, and I end up telling him later he should have just spoken up and I could have helped.

So I was taken off guard early in his last deployment when he made a clear point of telling me he didn’t like people asking him to “Stay Safe.”  He had discussed it with other soldiers, and they all agreed it bothered them.  They found it insulting.  He said it was as if their talents and training and skill counted for nothing and we had no faith in them to do their jobs.  Now, all of us–his mother, my mother, our friends, myself–we all expressed in our emails or letters that we hoped he would ‘stay safe,’ and at first I was miffed at him for finding fault with such a universally heartfelt sentiment.  He was at war, and we worried about his safety.  I don’t care how much talent or training or skill he has, war is dangerous and I want him home in one piece.  We all wanted him to ‘stay safe’ and asking us not to express that seemed unfair.

First the two of us had to get past the point that he was doing what I asked, and telling me when he was bothered by something.  Eventually I agreed that if it bothered him that much I was glad he told me.  I promised him we wouldn’t say it anymore, but that he should understand the spirit in which it was meant in case others continued to do it.  No one was doubting his abilities, we were just scared in general.  He accepted that, and I’ve never asked him to ‘stay safe’ ever again.

I think about that often, because it’s the most common thing people still say to me when they hear my husband is deployed–that they hope he stays safe.  The problem may be that most of us have a view of war that is constructed in our imaginations from what we’ve read or seen on the news or gleaned from popular culture.  In my mind, war is synonymous with chaos.  I don’t understand it, so it is random and terrifying.  I suppose with study and training it would seem less so, but it’s not easy for me to picture how. 

The closest analogy I can come up with in my area of training would musical improvisation.  For people who don’t play music and don’t have an understanding of basic theory principles, the idea of making up music on the spot must seem akin to magic.  But with training you come to know the rules and patterns and it’s not the crazy free for all some people seem to think it is.  There is order, and skilled people work within a framework that is not hard to navigate once you know what to focus on.  Soldiers see a framework that many of us do not.  My husband would know what to do in a circumstance where I would be lost, and that’s thanks to his talents and training and skill.  For me to imply in any way that he can’t conduct himself well in the war negates all his years of hard work to prepare for that circumstance.  I know how annoying I find it when people think creating music just happens because you’re born with some gift, and don’t acknowledge the great effort and preparation behind it.  (A pitiful analogy, but it’s all I’ve got.)  So I think I get it.  It reminds me a little of how one of my brothers doesn’t want to be wished ‘good luck.’  He always corrects me and says, “No, good skill.”

The problem is Ian’s job literally comes down to life and death, and there is an element of luck or chance to everything we do that is beyond our control or level of skill.  We have no power there, so we throw wishes and good thoughts that way to help manage our fears.  I can’t help Ian stay safe, so I hope for it instead.  We send him cookies, we remind him he’s loved, and that’s about all we can do from here.

On my end, the word I struggle with sometimes is ‘Strong.’   People want Ian to be safe and for me to remain strong.  I don’t resent it in any way, but I don’t know what it means.  I can only do what I do, and there aren’t many choices.  I suppose it means not falling apart, but I’m also human.  I arranged to have someone babysit my kids on a Saturday about a month after Ian left so I could work at the violin store without having everyone along for a change.  I got the kids ready, swung by the post office, dropped something off at the video store, took the kids to the sitter’s, and on the short drive from there to the violin store I burst into tears.  It took me completely by surprise.  I wasn’t sure what was happening, but then it occured to me that it was the first time I’d been completely alone in weeks.  I hadn’t cried since saying goodbye to Ian at the airport, and I guess I needed to.  In that moment was I failing to be strong?  I have no idea.

I’m pretty good about not losing it in front of my kids because I don’t want to upset them, but that’s not much different from simply being a plain old responsible adult.  I can only remember a few instances in my life where I let myself completely fall to pieces, but even in those instances it didn’t matter.  When my dad was badly injured on a trip to India, I remember freaking out and hyperventalating on a train platform because I was so upset and worried, but he was in the more than capable hands of my brothers and their friends, so I had the luxury of being useless at that moment.  Once we were on the train to Mumbai, I gave myself the job of keeping dad company all night long as he faded in and out of painful consciousness.  I held it together because I was needed.  I don’t know if ‘strong’ applies anywhere in there, just as I don’t know where or if it applies now. 

Most days are just days.  There is grocery shopping to do, schoolwork to help with, and laundry to fold.  Those things have to get done rain or shine, sick or well, strong or weak.  But now when I complete ordinary tasks I’m considered ‘strong,’ which seems to me to be way more credit than I deserve.  I’m just doing the best I can any given day like almost anyone else.  Most of the world has it much harder than I do.  I’m healthy, I do work I enjoy, I get to see my children smile every day, and we have a comfortable roof over our heads.  If I can’t draw sufficient strength from that to survive each day then I’m not even trying.

But words can be funny things.  They have power when we choose to give them power.  If in this new context we live in, the word ‘safe’ rubs my hsuband the wrong way, then it is easy enough to avoid it.  If when Ian’s gone, washing dishes somehow makes me seem strong, then I’ll pretend I’m wearing a cape.  Maybe for variety this week I’ll hope to keep myself safe and tell Ian to be strong.  Couldn’t hurt.

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