The Year of Tears 2004/2005
by Shelly Harlow
When my son returned from his first deployment to Iraq in 2005, I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry even when I saw him walk into the building in formation with his brothers-in-arms, all the shouts and cries from hundreds of family members giddy with relief and excitement surrounding and pressing down on me. In the midst of it all, I didn’t cry. Surprising, right? I was probably the only person in that whole place not crying.
I’d flown across the country to Washington state and waited two days for his unit's plane to arrive. The anticipation shared by all the families was palpable, and when the plane landed and it was time to go see him, to finally, finally welcome him home, I felt lightheaded, almost like an out of body experience. Ok, well let’s be honest, it WAS an out of body experience. But my emotions were so overwhelming, so huge, that I couldn’t stay with them. It felt like if I did, they'd consume me. So I detached from those feelings, kept them at arm’s length, and there were no tears for my son’s safe homecoming that day.
Those tears didn’t come for days and months, not even for years after that. Not a conscious decision at all, but a primal survival skill at work there. Of course I was ecstatic, overjoyed beyond compare that he was home, but still.... I remained somewhat disconnected from my emotional experience of that past year, I kept it all out of body and heart, kept it at arm’s length, so as not to feel the true level of intensity those emotions were for me.
Actually, for the year that my son had been in Iraq, honestly, I’d probably been out of my mind the majority of the time. Because every day that year I ran from the thoughts that were a continuous refrain of 'Where is he now? What is he seeing? What is he doing? Has he been shot, is he hurt, dying... oh God...is he already dead?'
With each of those thoughts came a vivid picture in my mind of what that looked like. And ultimately these questions that endlessly cycled through my brain over and over again, sometimes they weren't even conscious words or thoughts. Instead, it was just an embodied experience of yearning to know; 'Is he safe? Has he been injured? - Is he still alive?'
In truth, I knew he wasn't safe in any sense of the word. I knew he existed in a place where on some level, he breathed in terror and the possibility of death, and breathed it out again, over and over, every single day. And I felt a piece of me die a little bit more, every single day as I wondered if my son would die that day.
Kinda hard to go through the daily life/ daily routine stuff with THAT running around in your head.
Later, I learned the emotion weaving through all of these thoughts and images I was having, was called -- “Anticipatory Grief” -- a state of being that I, like many other military family members with loved ones deployed, became intimately aware of that year. The experience of feeling like I would throw up every time the doorbell rang, or the terrifying and heightened awareness when some dark, official car would slow or stop near my home - as I froze - dreading they were coming to my house and bringing the news to me that my son had died.
It’s a strange and horribly painful way to exist, when your child goes to war, sort of like the movie Groundhog Day I think. Each day I’d wake up from a fitful and broken sleep and each day those same thoughts and images slammed into my head and my heart. The thoughts would come before I could even open my eyes to begin my day. And as I started my day, there was a second wave of thoughts... 'How can I act normal today, take care of my youngest, go to work, do homework, dinner, sports, school events, cub scouts... life. How will I get through another day like this?'
And then would come a flash of anger and the thought; 'Why should I even try for normal? My life is nowhere near normal anymore.'
Today might be the day my son dies.
That is not a normal way to live. And I struggled mightily with finding any value in the routine of daily life. I was tormented by my inability to turn off my continuous terror and grief, so I could care for my 7-year-old son in the way he needed and deserved.
And every day those things stretched out before me as impossible to do, because - I'm sorry, there was not room in my brain for normal everyday routine. Not with my son in Iraq. I began to feel furious at other people’s expectations and assumptions that I would just do what I was “supposed” to do, furious at their ignorance of what it meant to have a child who went to war. At times that same resentment would surface unfairly at home with my other son, so young and vulnerable, and not easily able to understand any of this, because his hero, his larger than life big brother, had gone to war. He didn't deserve an anxious, irritable, and distracted mother. So well, yeah, let’s add some guilt to the mix.
Let me clarify that I never, for one minute, felt that what I was experiencing came even close to what my son was living as his reality. And I was not about to let him know what was going on in my head and distract him from his job. A woman I met during that year, married to her soldier for years, had been through several deployments and raised her family largely on her own while he was gone. She had the perfect mantra that I used constantly to hold me up through my fear and grief:
“If he’s brave enough to go -- I can be brave enough to let him”. Those were the best words I ever heard for this and they worked for me as well as anything could.
There was another thing that happened with unexpected regularity. It was nothing I planned, but it became almost ritualistic, and absolutely predictable. Every morning, on my 30-40min commute to work, I would cry. Most of the time I really didn’t cry the rest of the day. And on the way home, again the tears came. And they weren’t like “boo-hoo” tears or loud gut-wrenching sobs either.
What was it I would do? I would weep. Almost effortlessly, mostly silently. As soon as I dropped off my youngest at school and turned the car out into traffic, the tears would start. They were a steady stream down my face. I would allow myself this luxury of grief for that time each day. The commute to and from work. It did not ease anything, fix anything, or make anything worse. It was just what I did, for the entire year. It was not something I had a choice about actually, I never planned them, but I came to expect them.
Tears are a funny thing for me in my life. I certainly have never been called a crier; tears did not come easily to me. For the most part, if I cried, it was usually in solitude, infrequent, and definitely not where others could witness my pain.
The really funny part (funny is a relative term here) about my - ahem - changed crying behaviors, is that I can trace the change in crying behavior directly back to 9/11.
My son graduated high school in June 2001, and he entered Basic Training just weeks later in July. He joined for the appeal of being a soldier and the money for school stuff. I was proud and terrified. Just having my son enter the Army and choosing 11B (Infantry) as his MOS, was immediately pushing some of my old buttons.
Because I'd been engaged to a man who had served in Vietnam, and I knew what the possibilities were for my son should there be a war. I knew if war happened, everything would change for him, and his world would never go back to the way it was before.
I had seen it happen to this man I planned to marry years before. He suffered with post-traumatic stress and those deep and terrible wounds to his soul, so extreme and untreated that ultimately, I chose to end our relationship and he was gone, leaving a gaping hole in my son’s and my world. Years later he ended his own life –and took the lives of 2 others - in a savage and horrific way. In truth, I was an up-front witness to what war could do to a person, and I experienced it as profoundly and personally as anyone not actually military could.
And all that came back when my son chose to join the Army and went off to Basic Training for free college, shooting guns, and lots of structure in July 2001.
And then... September 11th, 2001 happened. And it happened while he was still a recruit in training at Ft. Benning, GA.
Yeah, 9/11 happened and like everyone else in America, my world and my perspective changed forever. We weren't safe here, or anywhere, and what did this mean for all of us? And what did this mean for MY family? And oh wow. What did it mean for my son serving in the military?
And there was also this... something that colored my experience of all of what was happening with my son. When I had been the same age as my 18 year old son, I lived in a house with my best friend and several others, and they were all brutally murdered. I don’t know why I had the good fortune to not be in the house when it happened. That event, and many others during that traumatic time period, left a multitude of scars and vivid memories of times when for me the world was a constant dark and dangerous place to live.
So ten years later, as a new mom strongly committed to changing my life for the better, I looked into my newborn son's eyes and vowed fiercely that I would protect him forever, and that he would never have to witness or experience the kinds of evil and darkness that I’d lived through.
The irony of this pronouncement came back to haunt me at this point, as I realized I had no control over what life would hand my son along the way, a grotesque mirror of my own 18 year old life played out in another dimension of horror in his 18 year old life.
And one week to the day after 9/11, I took the subway to downtown Washington DC, to meet with my therapist at the time and we of course talked about the events of the terror attack, how it was impacting me and my family. And in her office, I allowed myself to become fully aware of the reality of my son going to war.... And along with that came the staggering realization that he could die in war. I mean, I felt that new reality deep inside me, of how everything in my world had completely changed.
And I felt the very real possibility of losing my son forever in a violent and foreign land so far away from me. I felt it deep down in the core of my being, how that reality had now attached itself to me and I knew that it would stay with me going forward, my new normal in life.
And then our session was over, and it was rush hour in DC. I still had to take the subway back home to suburban Maryland. As I left her office, I began to just...cry. And I could not stop. And when I say I could not stop... I mean I could NOT STOP, and the tears just kept rolling down my face and I was crying a solid stream of tears, and my chest and throat were so tight I couldn’t breathe, I was sweating, hot and cold both, and I had to get on the subway and go home to take care of my other son who was waiting for me, and I could. not. stop. crying.
At rush hour, the DC subway is so crowded that people are literally crammed into each car, all seats filled, and everywhere people were standing in the aisles and by the doors, every space occupied by bodies. We were all up close and personal. And this was seven days after our country had been attacked and planes had flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and Pennsylvania fields. Remember, this was when there was a constant conversation throughout the country about how we all were united and coming together against a common enemy. It was the only thing on the minds of the majority of US citizens at this time. And this was one of the actual places attacked. I guarantee no one was NOT thinking about some variation of it that night.
I remember I was wearing a sweatshirt that had “ARMY” written on it. I remember that I had to stand sandwiched in between two other people and near the exit doors, holding on to a pole so I wouldn’t fall as the train moved. And still crying. It was ugly crying. And so exactly me that day. I mean, bloodshot and swollen eyes, snot just running down my face along with the tears and I was carrying something, I forget what, but I had nothing to wipe my nose or eyes and I couldn’t even raise my arm to use my sleeve and wipe my face with it. I would turn my head and use my shoulder, but that soon was soaked and useless. I was absolutely mortified to be that vulnerable, and in a cramped small place with so many people and no personal space available at all.
And I remember feeling kind of out of my mind, because I had simultaneous thoughts of “Oh my god, please don’t anyone look at me like this”, and “What the hell? No one is saying a word to me, or looking in my direction or trying to help.” This is in DC! After a plane had just flown into the Pentagon a week ago! I’m crying inconsolably, wearing a sweatshirt that says Army on it, and NO ONE is moved to reach out in sympathy or compassion?? Holy crap! Agh... I was full of indignation and at the same time mortified. Go figure.
It was a long subway ride back home, and during that time I did not stop crying for even a few seconds. I experienced this weeping in a way where I felt something vital had been ripped out of me and I was bleeding out from the deepest part of me.
Dramatic? Yeah maybe, but melodramatic, or overly dramatic? No, not really. I was realizing on a visceral level that my son was going to go away to a place where men wanted to not just kill him, but torture him, behead him, desecrate his body, and make him suffer a most horrific death. So no, there was nothing over the top about my reaction to that very real possibility. And he was 18. He was only 18 and had not lived anywhere close to long enough yet.
It was a strange phenomenon this weeping. I wasn’t loudly crying, although I did have some involuntary sounds... like... keening is the word that comes to mind in hindsight. I now have a true understanding of cultures where mothers are completely overcome with grief, falling down, wailing and lamenting. I get it. It isn’t an act but instead is a primal, physiological and total emotional experience. I would have told you before this that they were probably being overly dramatic, faking or exaggerating. Nope. Not so.
And well... I didn’t stop this until over 4 hours later. Seriously. This did not let up in intensity or constancy for that whole time. I had to have someone watch my younger son, I couldn't go home in this state, he would have been bewildered and frightened. I was weeping, and then I also weirdly started yawning in the middle of crying. Years later, I learned that this yawning was my body’s way of trying to cool down my brain that was literally overheating from it all. Interesting fact.
It was a long year.
By the end of that first deployment... I was pretty numbed out. I still had my daily cry to and from work, and I experienced an unrelenting grieving and anxiety, but I felt hollowed out inside, and brittle, like I might snap any minute. My son was injured in an IED attack on their vehicle at one point in the deployment. I got a surprise phone call from his squad leader. Not injured severely enough to be sent home but bad enough for the CSH, Combat Support Hospital. He went back to his unit after a few days, and at the time I felt more numb than any other feeling. Numbly horrified about covers it I think.
So when he returned home from the deployment in the fall of 2005, the combination of that year, along with the extreme level of excitement and giddiness at his homecoming... I guess I just had no tears left in me for that day. Or the next day. Or for a very long time. And time went on like it does.
Until 2008, when my son got married. In hindsight I know it was that day when it caught up with me.
The wedding was across the country from where I lived, and they had planned a beautiful and fairly elaborate event. Not lavish, but with great attention to detail and getting it just right for this important day for them. I was a little wary, not trusting where my emotions were going to go that day, as this was another extreme. It did not feel at all like a loss or a negative, but it felt big... and important. It went just the way they planned, all the details fell into place and they were truly the most beautiful couple, the world was theirs and their bright future and everything in it, lay ahead of them just waiting to be experienced.
At the reception, the music, the people, my son and new daughter-in-law, my other son now not so little, were all there. Many other family members had traveled across the country too, wanting to witness this wonderful event. Then the music started up, and the bride had the first dance with her father, dancing to a song that had meaning for them both. They were done and my son came to ask me to dance with him for our dance. He had picked a special song and hadn’t told me what it was.
And so I stood up and heard it start, “Song for Mama” (of course). He had picked a song that was of course over-the-top sentimental and hokey and beautiful and the perfect “dance with your mother at your wedding” song.
That was when it hit me finally. My son was home, and alive, and he chose a song that was all about how his mother had cared for him and loved him and watched over him and how grateful he was. And I realized my son was here with me. He was home and he was doing a normal thing. He was getting married, they’d have babies, and before I knew it, I’d be a grandmother... and he was in one piece and doing what most guys do... getting married and dancing with his mother at his wedding. And I was able to feel that he was really, really home. And safe. He had come home safely.
Of course, I began to cry those same kinds of tears I had after 9/11, that weeping that came from a deep and primal place in me, and I was mortified (again), because I wasn’t just the mother of the groom crying at her son’s wedding. This was more than that. No one knew that I was crying because my son was ALIVE, and right at that moment I had him with me and he was safe.
And there was such pain and grief from that longest year of my life mixed in with my joy, that I could not do anything but cry and hide my head in my son’s shoulder and avoid the damn photographer. It was that snotty, swollen red-eyed crying stuff, not the stuff for pretty wedding pictures. And people were definitely watching me cry this time. No one knew what my tears were really about and again, interesting, no one said a word to me about it that night...or ever.
I’m not really sure how clear I was about why it happened this way for me until later either. Maybe my son sensed it, in some way. He was so gentle with me as I hid behind his shoulder.
In hindsight, it makes sense to me that it hit me then, instead of on the day they got back from Iraq. I couldn’t trust or allow myself at that point to feel it when he returned, at his homecoming. It was all still too close.
Now? I guess now I choose to look it as kind of like bookends. Bookends for that time in my life. I had these primal, visceral, powerful emotional experiences that came on either side of my son’s first deployment. And this was my story between the bookends.
About the Author
Shelly Harlow is the mother of 2 US Army Veterans. She lives in Maryland.