2001: Dark green bags, zippered mouths gaping open, mar the order of our living room floor, and our lives. Military families like ours know those bags – the ones that have to be packed and ready to go at all times. In more peaceful days they were forgotten, stacked on top of some boxes in our garage. Now they’re spilled out on the floor, demanding our attention, like the news footage from New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
My husband scrutinizes the scattered contents. T-shirts, camouflage gear, gas mask and other necessities strewn in a wide circle. One bag has a small American flag clinging by one corner. Stapled to the canvas as an afterthought, it is a reminder of another war more than ten years ago. In the peace of those years, it was easy to forget what is again clear to us. Life is uncertain.
Our children troop downstairs for breakfast and stop short when they see the bags. “Where’s Daddy going?” they ask. Fallen skyscrapers and crashed planes hundreds of miles away were too distant to change the order of their lives. The sight of the green bags brings events home to them, and to me, but no one can answer all their questions. We can only tell them life is uncertain, but God is not.
2005: Dark green bags, zipped up and piled on the luggage cart, signal another September departure. The flag is still flying on one bag. I’m glad I sewed it on.
On the way to the airport we take two of our children for their first day of school. The youngest stays with me. As I drive away from the terminal, I feel I have said goodbye a hundred times. In the back seat my son is quiet, until he asks what we’ve already answered: “How long will Dad be gone?”
“Probably four months. Four calendar pages, remember?” A pause and realization: “He’ll be gone for my birthday.” In the rearview mirror I see he is near tears. “Yes, baby.” Four lanes of traffic and no place to pull over. Words are so useless. I want to hold him and cry with him. I need it as much as he does. We’ve been through this before, but it’s no easier. When I can finally stop the car and open his door, I tell the truth: “I need a hug.” He gives it gladly, already chatting about what else we will do today. I’ve learned sorrow comes and goes. When it comes, cry about it; when it goes, don’t call it back.
I’ve always known the uncertainty in life was there, relegated to a pile in the garage like the green bags once were. It’s good to bring them into the rooms where I live, survey the contents and pack them up, face the uncertainty and be ready for action. Life is still uncertain, and still, God is not. I don’t know any more comforting words for Septembers like these.
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