We were all together decorating the Christmas tree, the day the orders came for Daddy. Special delivery.
Daddy opened the envelope slowly, unfolded the letter, and said only one word: Vietnam.
Mama sat down right there on the floor, right there in front of the tree. “I leave in February,” Daddy said.
Daddy needed to explain to my brother and I what doctors do when they go to war: “Doctors don’t fight. We take care of the people who get hurt in the fighting.” “Doctors get hurt, too,” Mama needed to say. “Bullets and bombs do not care that you went to medical school.”
After Christmas, the four of us moved three blocks away from our apartment near Daddy’s hospital, to a government-owned apartment in a four-family house surrounded by other four-family houses, all the same.
All the houses together were called Valley View, but there wasn’t any valley and there wasn’t any view.
There were a lot of signs everywhere – in the parking lot, on the buildings, in the hallways – signs, everywhere, printed in big block letters stating rules and regulations, all beginning with the words “DO NOT.”
My brother read every sign out loud, but Mama did not seem impressed.
“At least the Army will pay the rent,” was all she said. “I can’t help you,” Mama said to Daddy as she folded clothes and rolled socks. “I have no idea how to help someone pack his bags to go to war.”
Mama placed two boxes or airmail stationery on top of a pile of clothes, following the list the Army had given to him.
Last of all, in the corner of a big green duffel bag, he tucked away three small framed pictures of Mama, my brother, and me. “I don’t want to forget what you look like,” Daddy said. He smiled at me and I laughed out loud, the only one who thought Daddy’s joke was funny.
And then, on a snowy day in February, all the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins came to Valley View to say goodbye.
Daddy wore a new green uniform and a new green hat, and new green boots, and everyone helped carry big green duffel bags out to our car.
All the relatives surrounded Daddy for one last hug, one last kiss and I saw my brother kick the pile of green bags stacked by the curb, lopsided in the snow. “What’s not your favorite color?” he asked. “Green,” I said.
The four of us gathered with other families, we all gathered in a building on the Army base, all in a special room set aside for saying goodbye. “One year is not such a long time,” Daddy said, kneeling on one knee in front of me, squeezing my shoulders. “In one year, Baby, you’ll be in second grade, not first, and you’ll be seven years old, not six, and then I’ll be home. One year is not such a long time.”
I did not tell Daddy that he was wrong – that second grade was half a hallway and a whole world away from first, that seven was everything six was not, and that one year was forever.
The apartment looked exactly the same as when we had left it. Nothing much changes in one afternoon.
“Let’s have pancakes for supper and go to bed early.” Mama sounded excited, almost singing, like she’d just had the best idea in the world.
My brother and I jumped into action – measuring flour, cracking eggs, pulling on pajamas. We had things to do after all – tomorrows to plan and places to be, school in the morning just like always. Nothing much changes in one afternoon.
No one looked at me any differently at school the next morning. No one asked me any questions or said anything special at all.
The teachers were the same, the kids were the same, and the cafeteria ladies smiled the same way they always did as they scooped up the macaroni and cheese.
I must have seemed the same as always, too, because no one looked at me any differently for the whole day, except once, during afternoon recess when I was it and I turned around
fast and stood face-to-face with my brother.
I never cared much about the mail before, never cared much about the envelopes and packages that were never meant for me.
But Daddy wrote to us every day from Vietnam and that changed everything.
My brother and I raced every afternoon to our mailbox, raced to be the first to find the letter that was always meant for us.
Sometimes, a day or two would pass with no letter from Daddy, but then the next day would come, and there would be two or maybe three.
Most of the time Mama read the letters to my brother and I. Sometimes she would read the whole letter from beginning to end. Sometimes she would stop suddenly and leave out parts.
Daddy wrote about lots of different things like volleyball games and all the doctors living in tents and how there was not one nurse in all of Vietnam as beautiful as Mama.
Daddy wrote about lots of different things all the time, but the endings of his letters were always, always the same: “Love you, miss you, need you…”
Every day after school, the three of us – Mama, my brother, and I – would walk two blocks left and three blocks right to the post office.
Every day, we would join the line in front of the second window; it did not matter if the lines in front of other windows were shorter.
Mama liked the old man who worked at the second window. He always gave us lollipops with looped safety sticks, he’d even give one to Mama. “I like these,” she used to say, smiling.
Then the old man would take Mama’s letter to Daddy into his hands, saying, “I’ll take special care of this.”
Mama liked to take us to the playground sometimes. “It’s important for kids to be kids,” she’d say.
So we would walk a short way past the post office, and then the three of us
would run, fast and laughing, for the last block and a half when the playground came into view.
Mama would inspect the sandbox for broken glass and cigarette butts and check to see if the swings were securely fastened, or if there were
enough rungs on the ladder to climb to the top of the tallest slide.
And then, on the best days, she’d smile and say, “You go play,” and my brother would take off running and I’d chase after him, while Mama followed close behind, whistling and shouting about how she never saw a little boy
run so fast, she never heard a little girl laugh so loud.
I thought Mama just might be in love with Mr. Roger Mudd, I had never seen her stare at any man the way she stared at him.
Every night after supper, Mama would turn on our old black-and-white TV set to watch the evening news, and she would stare at Mr. Roger Mudd like he was the most beautiful thing in the world.
I didn’t think so… “Listen to this man,” Mama would say. “He has news of where Daddy is. He has news of Vietnam.”
My brother and I laughed at the idea of having “mud” for a name, but we learned to be still and to listen to that man and look at the pictures behind him as he spoke.
Sometimes, my brother would jump up and stand close to the TV screen, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who just might be our father. “Hey, Dad,” my brother would whisper sometimes, “Where are you?”
Mama had a picture in a gold frame on a table next to her bed. It was a picture of Daddy in black-and-white, wearing his Army uniform and hat, not quite smiling but trying.
My brother used to snatch up that picture and kiss it until Daddy’s face was covered with smudges, and Mama needed to wipe the glass clean.
I would look at the picture almost every day, sometimes reaching out with one finger, touching Daddy’s face lightly, never leaving a single smudge.
Mama was listening carefully to the news on the radio as she drove, and raindrops were drumming loudly on the roof of our car. “Do you think Daddy knows it’s raining here?” I asked. “No,” my brother said. “Do you think he knows we’re riding in the car right now?” I asked. “No,” my brother said. “Do you think he knows Mama made spaghetti for supper tonight?” I asked. “No!” my brother said. My brother stuck his fingers in his ears and started to hum. “Do you think Daddy knows I’m forgetting the sound of his voice?” I asked.
Mama was listening carefully to the news on the radio as she drove, and raindrops were drumming loudly on the roof of our car, and my brother was humming.
The old man who worked at the second window in the post office knew which kinds of lollipops we liked best.
Whenever he saw us standing in his line, he’d reach into a big pot to pick out three special flavors, reds and purples, usually.
One day, the old man held two greens and one purple in his hand, and I stared at that purple pop, licking my lips, hoping it was meant for me.
Then I saw Mama lean closer to the window as the old man held out the purple pop out to her. Then I heard Mama say in a voice
too quiet, “We haven’t been getting any mail.”
And I knew that my mother was not telling the truth. I knew for a fact that we were getting lots of mail, bills and magazines for sure.
I knew we were getting lots of mail.
Every night, the three of us – Mama, my brother and I – would climb into my brother’s bed to read a story and say a prayer.
Every night I closed my eyes and listened to the words, the sounds, and the comfort: “Our father, Hail Mary, Angel of God.”
My brother knew all about prayer and how to test it’s power: “Dear God, help Mickey Mantle hit a home run whenever he wants to even though people say he’s too old, and help everyone to come home safely
from Vietnam, and I mean everyone. Amen.”
It was fine if I was silent after such powerful words; it was fine if I was too quiet, too shy to pray out loud.
Later, lying in my own bed with a night-light glowing and my brother snoring, I found my own way of praying: “Our father, hail Mary, Angel of God, help me, help me, help me remember him.”
Mama smiled a lot at Daddy’s sister’s wedding; everyone had such a good time.
I danced on the toes and in the arms of uncles and cousins I never knew I had, and I’m pretty sure I smiled a lot, too.
But no one smiled as much as Mama, who shook her head and kept on smiling every time an uncle or cousin or friend asked her to dance.
“This is the best Christmas ever!” I announced, sitting right there on the floor right there in front of our glowing shimmering Christmas tree, right there in the middle of heaps of torn wrapping paper and red and green ribbons, and books and stuffed animals, paint boxes and games, skateboards and hula-hoops everywhere.
Then I looked at Mama and my brother and their tight lipped
faces and wondered what in the world was wrong with me.
Suddenly it seemed the men on the TV news were angry – not Mr. Roger Mudd, who remained calm and comfortable – but other men with important jobs who screamed at each other about things I did not understand, like “escalation,” and “casualties,”“body counts,” and soldiers who could not be found.
And there was Mama staring at the TV screen, staring and saying something I did not want to understand at all: “They have no idea where he is.”
My brother held a finger up to his lips.
Mama was in her room with the door closed but not quite closed, and we stood there in the hallway listening, guilty.
Mama’s voice was steady and strong repeating Daddy’s name and rank and numbers so many times, steady and strong.
My brother and I could do nothing but run away and try to disappear when she finally hung up the phone and cried.
I watched the kids at recess play their games, the usual ones like chase and rundown and dodge ball.
I leaned against the side of the building and shook my head when kids asked why I wasn’t playing. “Don’t feel like it,” I said.
Later, I sat at my desk and put my head down even though no one told me to. I listened to all the other second-graders get excited about choosing jobs for the next week. I shrugged my shoulders when it was my turn to choose. “Don’t care,” I said.
My father was missing in Vietnam, and I had heard my mother cry for the first time in my life and I didn’t know what to do.
And then, at last, the mail came and Mama twirled and laughed and skipped and leaped before settling down breathless to read out loud the one letter I remember better than any of the others, with the end coming
at the the beginning: “How I love you, miss you, need you… I’ve been lost in the jungle for a while, lost in the fighting and left behind, but now I’m found and coming home. Did you dance a lot at the wedding?”
My brother could not wait for the day to come. He dreamed the same dream every night for weeks and woke up every morning with the same story to tell: “We’re all lined up at the army base, waiting for the plane to land, and then the plane comes and the soldiers get out, and then I see Dad, and I break out of line and run to him faster than anyone and I jumped right into his arms and it all seemed so real it just has to come true.”
Perhaps I had heard my brother’s story so many times that I began to dream the very same dream about my brother breaking out of line, running faster than anyone, everything the same.. Except in my dream, I run even faster, passing my brother and winning the race, jumping into Daddy’s arms first.
“Sleep,” Mama said. My brother and I fidgeted and squirmed in the backseat of our car. “It will make the trip seem shorter." We were on our way to the Army base for the second time, and I thought it sounded like a good idea to dream my dream one last time before it all came true.
But every time I closed my eyes everything was all mixed up. Sometimes Daddy looked like his picture, the one next to Mama’s bed, his face frozen in an almost-smile. Sometimes Daddy looked like Mr. Roger Mudd, his face always moving, saying the word “Vietnam” over and over. And sometimes Daddy looked like someone I didn’t even know, his face blank, as if he didn’t know me, either.
We stood in a line at the Army base airport in a section roped off like a movie theater before the Saturday matinee. We stood in a line
watching the airplane land, and then watching the soldiers in green uniforms shield their eyes from the sun and slowly make their way down the airplane steps.
Then I saw him, and I was under the ropes, running, and I heard voices behind me telling me to wait, shouting at me to stop, but I ran, fast, faster than anyone, and I saw him reach out to me, and I heard him call my name, and then I stopped, still, standing in one place, because I saw him and I heard him and I knew that I remembered him, his face, his voice, and I knew that Daddy remembered me, too.
So, I stopped, still standing in one place, because I knew I had already won the race against forever.
Daddy comes to me… He kneels and places his hands gently on my shoulders, studying my face. “Oh, Baby, I’ve been gone forever.” His voice is dry and hoarse and sad.
Mama and my brother catch up to me, gathering Daddy and me in their arms. “Almost forever,” I whisper to Daddy. “And then you came home.”
dies dies dies dies dies dies dies dies dies dies dies
Congrats, you deserved him. Your an amazing friend and home c:. Spoil him rotten ~ from Natsu
You deserved him Loon- I know you’ll take care of him. ~ syelus