Paula R. Stern

Thoughts from a Veteran…Mother

One day in December, 2008, my son called and told me he wasn’t where I’d dropped him off a bit over a week before. This was our unspoken code for his telling me something I knew was about to happen…more or less. Gaza had fired over a hundred rockets the month before. Seems silly now that they are firing that amount and more in a single day, but back then, outrage came faster and we weren’t so used to the concept that rockets were a part of our lives.

At the same time, Lebanon was threatening to burn the ground in the north…the only real question was where my son was at that moment. Headed to a potential war in the north with Hezbollah or a potential war with Hamas near Gaza. I knew he couldn’t give me any locations on the phone and then I knew what to ask him.

“Are you north or south of where you were?” I asked him.

South, he told me. Gaza.

A few days later, on Shabbat, my phone was beeping like crazy… everything inside of me wanted to go check the updates but I knew I had to wait, and I did. As soon as Shabbat ended, I checked. The ground war had begun; artillery was firing. My son was a commander in artillery; my son was at war. He didn’t answer his phone. Of course he didn’t; it was logical, wasn’t it? Logic was wasted on me. I needed, wanted to speak to him.

I went to sleep holding my phone, terrified I would awaken in the morning to find that I had missed a call from him. I spoke to him early Sunday morning. I was great all day Sunday, worried but fine. Monday was worse. I couldn’t reach him. I think I spoke to him on Tuesday and was comforted. Wednesday and Thursday he wasn’t available and with each hour my mind went to places that left me in tears constantly.

Well meaning friends urged me to have faith and when my eyes filled with tears, they told me I had to be strong. I didn’t want to be strong, I wanted my son home. I did have faith, tremendous faith. I knew without question, that God would do what was best for this country…I just didn’t know if God and I would agree on what that was, especially where my son was concerned.

Few things comforted me – I didn’t want to be comforted. Didn’t people understand that my son was at war? They did understand, of course, and kept trying to break through my need to feel that I was alone in the world.

The final break in that wall came when I called my bank to deal with something related to business. I live in a small city, Maale Adumim, and I know almost all the people who work in the bank. Rachel heard my voice and her first question was where Elie was…I told her he was in the war and she blessed him and wished him well. I don’t remember what else she said, what business I had called about. I just remember getting off the phone and starting to cry again. This time, though, the tears felt different, shared in a way. I remember feeling overwhelmingly grateful that I lived in this city, in this country.

I never really relaxed all the time my son was there. I watched as other parents looked worse and worse in the weeks it took till the war ended and imagine I looked equally as exhausted and run down. It didn’t matter – all that mattered was that we were all going through this together, one hour at a time. Even one day at a time was too much to overcome…but an hour was good.

The war will be over…though to parents with children in the war zone now, you may think you’ll never survive that long. Two years ago, Elie was called to Amud Anan (Operation Pillar of Defense)…it wasn’t much easier than the first time around.

So what lessons did I learn…here they are:

1. Don’t let others tell you what to do or what to feel. Do what you feel you can, and don’t do what you think you can’t. If you want to cry – crying is not a sign of weakness. If you want to listen to the news endlessly, listen. Don’t let others tell you that you are stressing yourself needlessly. (My son is at WAR do you think listening to the news will make it worse??). And if the news stresses you and you don’t want to listen, don’t. Whatever works for you.

2. If you can focus on others, it may help. This could be other children in the house, it could be other parents, someone who needs help in your neighborhood. Each time you do something good – say this should be to my son’s merit. Make deals with God if you want to.

3. Know that God hears everything you say, even if you don’t believe in Him. When Elie was in the war, several pairs of tzitzit were donated to his unit. I asked him if he got a pair and he told me no – all the secular soldiers took them (and were using them), so the religious boys just kept their own pairs and didn’t get new.

4. If you have younger children, realize that they have questions and need reassurance. My almost-13 year old (who is now 18 and already in the process of dealing with the army) asked if his older brother would be home for his bar mitzvah. Just that morning, they had indicated that the war would likely keep going. I didn’t want to lie and so, without thinking, I told him the truth. That Elie might not be home. What I didn’t factor in was that my 9 year old was right there and that “truth” was more than she could handle. She got angry and told me I should call the army and tell them that Elie had to come home. I thought to myself that I was so careless. I looked at her and tried to push my tired brain to address her needs, so different than those of my bar mitzvah boy. Before I could say a word, my youngest son turned to his little sister and said, “It’s a milchemet mitzvah [an obligatory war]; even a chatan [a groom] is commanded to leave his chupah [wedding canopy/ceremony] for a milchemet mitzvah.”

She accepted that – I just stared at him and forced myself not to start crying again. Talk to your kids but more, listen to them. They need you now and sometimes that can help.

One day they announced that the war could well take another two weeks and I nearly broke down again…then a few days later, the day before my youngest son was to be bar mitzvahed at the kotel, Elie called and asked if I wanted to pick him up. The war was over.

And the greatest truth that I can tell you, having gone through two of these wars/operations – is that you never get used to it. I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’ll always cry; you’ll always want to scream deep down inside. You’ll always have to search for that calm within and you’ll always have to find a way to face others, most especially your son or daughter, when they call. Perhaps that is the most important thing of all you can do in this difficult time. Each time he calls, don’t let him know how worried you are. Tell him what the family is doing – and let it be all normal things. Don’t tell him how scared you are, how you worry.

Several years ago, I “virtually” met a mother of a soldier who had been killed in Iraq. As I read her blog and we wrote to each other…I realized that we have a special blessing. In having our enemies so close, we have our sons close by as well.

In the coming days, sadly, you’ll learn how many others are in the same place as you. They are, or have been. It may not seem like this is survivable, this fear and worry so crippling…so you have to focus on now. He’s okay now. He’ll call soon. Don’t think about when he’ll be home – it’s too early to know and the thought will break your heart, so focus on that call…he’ll call soon. You can survive until that call…and when that call is over, you can survive until the next one.

Nothing else matters – go to work if you can, or tell them that you can’t. Go out or stay home. Read or play on the computer or scrub your house…whatever works. For me it was writing…I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote…

Figure out what works for you. Most of all, though you may feel alone, know that you are part of a new family – of mothers and fathers who understand where you are now, what you are feeling. We send you our love and our regrets…if it had been our choice, you never would have joined us.

May your sons be safe and blessed.

About the Author
Paula R. Stern is CEO of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company in Israel. Her personal blog, A Soldier's Mother, has been running for more than 5 years. She lives in Maale Adumim with her husband and children, a dog, too many birds, and a desire to write her thoughts and dream of a trip to Italy, Scotland, and beyond.