Small towns… those places where sometimes it feels like the ability to be anonymous is so difficult. Sometimes I strive to be anonymous. It may all be a figment of my imagination, but to be able to go to the store for milk dressed in whatever was at hand in the morning, with my hair not brushed for days and socks that don’t match is a freedom that I want to embrace. Small towns, or maybe just this town, it feels that when I leave the house I am in a fish bowl – my life lived on display.
This town holds so many memories that I keep safely boxed and on a shelf. The memories find their way out and I work to quickly put them away, back in the box to be taken out in the privacy of my own time. This town harbors memories – both beautifully treasured and painful. This is the place where children were born and grew. This is the place where marriage, began with hopes and dreams began falling apart at the seams within months. Marriage that was painful, hurtful, and finally I freed myself of the daily pain and heartache. This is the place where newfound wings were born only to crash-and-burn when Gem born and died in three short months. This is the place where I learned that people may say they love you, but often those people don’t know what love truly is. This is the place where I learned that heartache is physically painful. When the heart breaks sometimes the mind does too.
This is the place I fled from to create happy memories with my children elsewhere – where I could start out in anonymity. This place holds memories of court appearances where people form judgments of you from words on a paper written by people who don’t take the time to learn who you truly are. This is the place belongs to the “ex”. This place is pain. This place is eleven years ago. This place is filled with mistakes, misgivings, mis-steps.
This place is also a juxtaposition. This is the place I lived where when all my children were born and two where two died. This place is also where my Roo came home. This place is where my Rin came home. This place holds their steps to freedom, where their hopes and dreams were found. This place is where I learned that there are rare people who take the risk and give second chances.
Without this place I wouldn’t have been able to witness Roo takes his first tentative steps of freedom, experience a life that he directed, made plans and had adventures with best friends, girlfriends, and planned for the future. Where he struggled with two dreams that could be fulfilled and how to choose the one he wanted to experience first. How often does that happen? A young man carving his way in the world presented with two paths, both of them paths he wanted to travel.
His senior year was filled with college applications and Papè internship papers. He wanted to work for Papè and go to school – and he was afforded a scholarship and less than a month out of school a job. His hard work and vision became a reality. His best friend was planning on enlisting in the Marines. Roo also wanted adventure and worried about his friend. We had had many a conversation about the horrors of war and how experiences can change a person.
One summer night Roo came home from an evening filled with quad rides and fun at his friend’s house. Rin was playing Guitar Hero and Roo looked nervous. I asked him what was going on and he replied with, “Mom I need to tell you something you may not like.” He was the sweetest boy, he was worried I would be mad or angry. He said, “I want to go into the Marines.” My heart dropped, my baby enlisting. He was 18 and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. But here he was nervously wanted to let me know. Holding by my tears and fears I asked why when he was working at Papè with scholarships waiting in the fall. He said he had already spoken with Papè and they would hold his job and scholarship for him until he came back. He had already thought about his plans – he was set on going. He was also worried about his friend and didn’t want him to go in alone. His friend, he said, was so tender hearted and was worried his friend wouldn’t know how to handle the harshness of the Marines. Roo and Rin have gone through rough times, you see, and had learned resiliency.
This young man was my boy. This was the same boy who was only nine on the first anniversary of Gem’s death, sat with me on the front stoop with me while I cried of a broken heart and said, “I’m sorry, Mom. I love you.” This boy was worried his friend would need him, someone who felt he knew how to handle hard times if things got bad in the Marines. Roo also said he was looking for adventure and wanted to see the world. What 18 year old doesn’t wanting adventure? I looked at my boy and all I could do was smile through the fear in my heart and replied with “let’s talk about this in the morning.” He grinned his lopsided grin – he knew I wasn’t going to stop him and he knew I was scared. He gave me one of his Roo-hugs, he had to stoop down to his Mom’s level (he was so tall) and his long, lanky arms enveloped his mom with love. Picked up his ever-present cell phone and walked off to his bedroom. I choked back tears and retreated to the backyard to smoke and call my mother.
My mom – my rock. I called her crying and relayed the news. She reminded me to be proud of the sacrifice he was making. I didn’t think Roo actually knew what was being asked of him. At least Roo wasn’t enlisting for the money or a way to pay for college, that was already taken care of. He was enlisting to be with his friend and for adventure. He was being a typical 18 year old who loved his country. I remember my mom trying to waylay my fears of him not coming home or coming home a different person, someone with PTSD and gruesome visions in his head. She said to me, “don’t worry, he could get in a car accident tomorrow, he will be ok, he is a good boy.” She didn’t know that her words would come true within the month. I don’t know if she even remembers that conversation, but it sticks in my mind. I sometimes wonder if she does, but I wouldn’t ask her – it’s something people say every day in passing… maybe as a way to try to minimize the fear, but this time it was almost an omen of things to come.
Roo and I talked about my fears of him enlisting and I was able to express my hope that he would be able to hold onto the important integral things about himself in the face of possible devastating experiences. He listened, like the amazing person he is, and began to get things in order for the recruiter. He was so excited, a little scared, and looked forward to being able to serve his country. One day as we were both tearing the house apart to find his birth certificate (I am not well organized) Rin, Joe and I raced to the storage unit to see if I had stored it away there all to no avail. We dropped by the recruiters office so I could ask all the “mom type” questions. I was in my sleeveless tie-dyed shirt my tattoos showing for the world to see complete with tie-dyed bandana and braids (I must have look like an “old hippie”) sweaty and dirty from rummaging through the storage unit and there was Roo and a couple of his friends standing out in front talking with a recruiter. I stayed in the car for a bit waiting for the office to open and not wanting to embarrass my son in front of his friends and the recruiter. Well, it was a hot day and we decided to leave and I would call with my questions another time. I got out of the car and motioned for Roo to come over. Can you believe he walked right over to his “old hippie” mom and gave her a hug? In front of his friends, too. That’s the kind of kid he was. I don’t know how he explained me to his friends, but to me it meant the world – he loved me in spite of myself. He had self-confidence and love that continues to amaze me. He had found freedom to live his life the way he wanted and exuded confidence in his choices like none other. Sure, he made mistakes, but he didn’t run from them. Sure, we didn’t see eye to eye on politics or religion, but I think we respected each other’s perspectives and we surely loved each other even though we didn’t agree.
See, this young man and I learned to talk about our different views and love and laugh with each other about these differences. He was an amazing young man who had a way of seeing things differently while still maintaining integrity in his convictions. He could disagree fiercely and love that person fiercely at the same time. I didn’t learn how to do that until I was in my late 20s – early 30s. How did this young man on the doorstep to adulthood know how to do that? What a difference he could make in the world with that under his belt at such a young age.
This small town is the place where these things happened. So, while I don’t want to be here – I still want to be here. This is where the most recent memories of him are, this is where memories of Gem are… As time passes I know these memories will change – the brain has a way of changing them – and I am so scared of them being changed by time… I write them down as a way of trying to preserve them so I can come back to them and remember just what the lopsided grin looked like. What that hug felt like, just how he had to lean down to his mother’s height. What he smelled like after a day of working in the field, in the shop, or out swimming. How he used to bite his nails while watching a movie. How he used to leave his hair in the bathroom sink after shaving his head. How he would “ruin” a perfectly good shirt by cutting of the sleeves… The grin on his face and clothes under his arm as he headed out the door to his friend’s house… He sweat-drenched football uniform after a game, but how his eyes shone when he would retell one of the plays where he tackled another player… How he could down a whole glass of chocolate milk before school just to make me happy because I didn’t want to send him out the door with an empty stomach… How he would deliberately put his pop cans in the garbage instead of the recycle, knowing I was watching, just so he could get a rise out of me… He was the most amazing kid you would ever have known… I wish you could have met him; he would have changed your life. He changed mine.