I awakened this Shabbat morning to a bright sunny morning, as I usually do. I sat in up on the side of my bed and it hit me; there was nothing usual about this morning. Our country is at war.
I reach for my IPad and look at the local news. Rockets have landed in various locations throughout the southern half of the country, killing a father and wounding four members of his family. Several soldiers have died.
Life is surreal.
My son was released from the army the day before the ground operation began as his 3 year obligation ended. Then his old unit, his unit, was called to duty and entered the battle somewhere in the Gaza strip. Two days later, his platoon lieutenant was injured in a battle. Another comrade of our son’s was killed in combat.
Our son went to the hospital to visit his officer, his friend (a unique relationship to the Israeli army). They spoke, they joked and they felt all the normal emotions given the situation. My son, our son, whom we raised to be moral, ethical and responsible, felt he had deserted his friends, his comrades, when they needed him most.
Our son suffered. We hurt for him, but quietly said thanks that our son wasn’t there.
That same evening, our son attended the funeral of his comrade who fell in combat. He cried, he laughed with comrades, they talked.
Our son suffered. Again, we hurt for him, but quietly said thanks that our son wasn’t there.
For the next day and a half, our son was depressed, not only over his loss, but also for the sense that he deserted his comrades in their time of need. Maybe if he had been there, next to his officer things would have been different. Maybe. Maybe.
That ‘maybe’ was hurting our son, keeping him awake all night, feeding a sense of purposelessness, feeing a personal pain that was truly his and only his. We were proud that our son, the boy who we raised, really had this sense of responsibility towards his comrades and towards others, something that all parents hope to instil in their children.
And there was nothing we could do to help. This one we had to sit on the sidelines. There was no Band-Aid, no kiss to make it feel all better.
This, we suffered.
I walked in the afternoon with our son ‘to let him talk it through, father and son, ‘cause there are some discussions that can only be father and son. Fathers and mothers are different and this was a time for father son stuff. He told me how useless he felt, how if only he had been there, with his unit, things would have been different. Of course, as a good father, I asked him what he thought he could have done to change things, what he could do now to help him through what I knew was a terrible personal situation. His answer was ‘sensible, well thought out, but not what I had hoped for.
“I made some phone calls to see if I could rejoin my unit. I called my lieutenant in the hospital (he will probably lose the sight in one eye from shrapnel) and he told me it probably wouldn’t happen. I made some other calls and they also told me not to expect anything. One officer said she’d check it out, but not to get my hopes up. I, the parent, felt ‘ok’. I told my wife, his mother; she felt ok. But our fears refused to be silent and kept at bay.
At dinner that night, our son seemed as though a burden had been shaken from his shoulders. He spoke, laughed with us at dinner, even joked about the absurdity of the situation. We felt better. He seemed to feel better. He advised us that early the next morning he and a friend were going to go on a bike ride for a couple of days. Our sense of the sense of the whole situation had moved from absolute dread to good. Things seemed to be moving, for us, in a ‘better’ direction.
The next morning we woke, brushed our teeth, dressed and came downstairs for coffee. Our son had departed with his friend, on bikes, for their trip. We felt relieved. We felt safe; we felt our son was safe. Our lives seemed good. As we prepared to leave the house for a meeting, my cellphone rang. It was the distinctive ring of our son. Our hearts fell.
“Dad, I have to tell you something, but I need to say it to you face to face.” My heart stopped, as any parent’s would. Did someone get hurt on the ride? Did he get a notice that a comrade was hurt or killed in action? I demanded more.
“What happened? Ae you ok?”
“I want to tell you face to face. Can you or my brother come to pick me up?”
“What happened? You have to tell me something,” I demanded.
“I got a call from the army. I’m going back to the unit.”
My world crashed. I had to maintain my composure, for him, for me, for my wife, his mother.
“OK, I’ll tell your brother to come and get you.” I called his brother and told him what was needed of him and why. His world changed. This would have an impact on the whole family and I couldn’t do a thing. I couldn’t protect our ‘babies’, my wife, myself, from what was going on in our world. I was impotent to protect my family. I was helpless.
My wife and I left for our meeting as though nothing had changed, but everything had changed. Our son, the brother, drove to get his sibling and bring him home. We all moved to a different space, one in which we had no sense of control, in which we simply drifted, aimlessly, waiting for some impending catastrophe that was completely out of our control.
And we waited.
During our wait, our imaginations nearly destroyed us. Our son was going back to his unit which was in combat which we already knew had suffered casualties. And we were helpless to do anything about it. We also knew that our job was to support him, an absolutely horrific responsibility, but one that was required of us. No parent should have to face this dilemma. But here it was, in front of us and we couldn’t run from the task, our responsibility, or our fears.
We waited. We struggled to control our own emotions, our own tears. I actually hoped our son was hurt slightly in a car accident on the way home, a broken leg or arm, nothing too serious, and wouldn’t be able to go. The front door opened and we faced our son, the little boy we had raised, now a man, facing his choice.
“I got a call from the army and they told me to come to the unit’s main base. I have to be there by 6:00 PM.”
My wife was beside herself. She cried out to him, “Tell me what happened, who called, what will you be doing? I need to know.” Holding back her tears, she demanded information, anything to give her a handle on the situation, something to help her through his parental nightmare. Her voice rose, not in anger, but in fear.
“I need to know everything.”
Our son sat there and looked at the floor, not at his mother. He understood the pain and fear. He felt responsible for it. He hurt.
“I got a call from the unit’s clerk and they want me back. I’m going to be sent to the battalion’s communication HQ and that’s all I know. I’m going to try to get reassigned to my old unit. That’s all I know.”
“That’s not enough”, my wife cried. “I need more.”
“I don’t have any more”, he stated, too matter-of-factly.
I stepped into the fray, trying to bring us all to a place we could talk rationally, in an irrational situation. “We need something to help us, to help us control our own fears. We’re afraid.”
We needed his help to give us a sense of something I was helpless to explain to our son who couldn’t possibly understand what it was to be a parent of a son who was placing himself in harm’s way, a place where already over 20 youngsters, like himself, had died. We were terrified and he could only see our fear, with no capability to really appreciate what was going on inside us. It was too much to ask of him and we knew it. But we asked anyway.
“Ok, you have to tell us as much as you can, as soon as you know something. Call us, keep us informed. You have to give us telephone numbers we can call for information, someone to contact.”
“And remember, don’t be a hero,” I said. “The only heroes I know, and I knew a few real heroes during my service, are all dead. Remember the guy in the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ who sat on his helmet in the helicopter to keep his balls from getting blasted away. Protect yourself. Keep your ass covered. Be safe. No heroics.”
A smile appeared on his face. “Yeah, I know. I’m not going to be a hero.”
Our son was frightened and pained by what was happening to us. He didn’t know, couldn’t know, that his friend’s mother had called my wife earlier, unable to stop crying, that she hadn’t heard from her son, our son’s close friend from kindergarten, whom she knew was inside the battle area since it all began. He didn’t know that half of his friend’s unit already was hospitalized from combat wounds and the unit’s officer had been killed. We knew. And we were afraid. And he was afraid.
We said nothing about this to him. We sat there, both of us, and understood our job was to support him in his choice, a choice that we disagreed with, that terrified us. His decision, a choice he had made alone, had changed our lives and the lives of the entire family. Our job was just to be his parents and to be there for him.
“OK”, we said together, “we’ll drive you to the base.”
“No, you don’t have to.”
“Stop”, I yelled rather calmly, “we’ll drive you.”
“OK, I need to shower and get my gear ready. I have everything. At the base, they’ll give me a weapon and ceramic bullet-proof vest.”
He went up to his room and we were left alone with our terror.
“How could this be happening? Why didn’t you tell him no, we weren’t going to allow him to go. Why did you tell him this was his decision?
I had no answers to my wife’s terror. Nothing I could say or do would help. I couldn’t let her know I was in the same place she was in. I had to be there for her, for him, for everyone. And I had to be there for me.
Too soon it was time to go. His mother drove with his brother; our son drove with me.
“I didn’t really think they were going to call me. I thought they wouldn’t call and I could sleep better knowing I tried. I sort of regret my decision to call them. But I had to. I couldn’t turn my back on the guys.”
We went to his favorite restaurant for lunch, all of us. We took 2 cars so his brother could go home after the meal and we could drive our son, his brother, to his base. We ate in a state of shock. I paid the bill and we left the restaurant. By the cars, brother said his goodbyes, painfully aware of what was going on. They hugged.
We got in our car, the 3 of us, and drove. We tried to make small talk; it didn’t work, so silence was safer. We arrived at the base and parked the car. I got out. He got out. His mother sat in the car. I opened the trunk and he pulled out his gear. His mother got out and we stood there, silently, each with our own thoughts, our own fears. I pulled out my phone for a picture of our son with his mother. He didn’t fight it the way he normally did when we tried to take family pictures. His mother demanded a selfie with all of us and he complied willingly. His smile in that picture was remarkable. His mother posted it on our “WhatsAPP” family group, immediately. We hugged one last time and he turned, grabbed his gear and walked away.
We stood there alone, each thinking the same thought, that this might be the last time we hug him, tell him how much we love him.
And we drove home, to wait, each alone with our thoughts and our fears. And we wait, along with thousands of other parents of the children in harm’s way, praying we don’t get ‘the knock on the door’, the phone that confirms our worst fears have come true.
No parent should have to go through this. Yet we, as Israeli’s, do, too often.