Last night while on my knees next to my daughter’s bed I tucked in a little girl who asked me a big question.
“What will we do if Nolan dies?”
I had asked her if she was ready to see her oldest brother again when he had graduated from boot camp and was a Marine. “Yes,” she said, her head settled onto her pink pillow and blue eyes locking onto mine. “But what will we do if he dies during the next four years?”
I pulled back to look at her and there were tears in her eyes, trickling down each cheek. As I moved to wipe them away she moved her hand quickly to her face and did so before I could.
I didn’t know what to say. I assured her that he’d be safe. That he and his Marine brothers were training to ensure such a thing wouldn’t happen. I hugged her close.
As will happen with my mostly matter-of-fact and practical daughter this moment passed swiftly and she soon made a joke, said her goodnight, and shooed me out the door.
She’s quite bright, and growing up in a house with two older brothers and a dad who watch John Wayne westerns and Peter Jackson visualizations of the battles of Middle-Earth has made her aware of the fact that well…it is a fact that soldiers die.
Soldiers + Battle = A chance of death
Nolan will be a Soldier, ergo she now sees that
Nolan + Battle = A chance of death
I had always danced around that possibility with her. But as I said, she’s quite bright this young one.
The October day that he left for boot camp we stopped to pray in a roadside chapel along the interstate between Omaha and Lincoln. We continue to pray each day, at Mass, and each Sunday late afternoon/early evening we four pray a family rosary together. Except this last Sunday we didn’t. I don’t know how or why but we forgot. This was not unnoticed by my daughter. Before I closed the door I turned and told her to continue to pray for Nolan’s safety.
“We forgot to pray our rosary on Sunday, dad.”
“Yes, Sophie, we did.”
Turning to face the wall she said “We need to remember better.”
“Yes Sophie, we do. How about we do one tomorrow night after your brother and I return from his practice?”
“Ok. Good.” <yawn>
“Goodnight Sophie. I love you punkin.”
“Goodnight Dad. I love you too.”
I have been surprised to learn just how lonely a place it is to be the parent of someone in the military. Our “family” has expanded in a sense as we’ve met many other parents going through the same ordeal in online forums, and friends of mine that I know personally have been warm, supportive and encouraging. But in the end you are alone. Alone when you see how much your son’s peers have moved on. How carefree and different their lives are whereas just a calendar year ago they were doing the same things in the same classrooms or same ball fields. As parents we all shared in these things together. Now I feel as distant from them as I did before we met.
“It’s part of the growing up process. It’s normal. It would be the same had he gone to college” I tell myself, and it’s true.
But it’s different. Much different.
So different that it brings tears to a little sister’s face and dampens her pillow.
It’s tempting to wallow in self-pity, especially during the holidays. But I’ve always tried to be a “big picture” kind of guy. I try to maintain perspective. Believe it or not I am an optimist.
Life is like looking through a knothole in a wood fence. You can see whatever passes by the knothole, but not the whole picture. God knows the bigger picture, and all is well in it. We are being blessed right now even if we are only looking through the knothole and don’t see all the good that God has planned for us. We must trust. When you feel the pangs of struggle, turn your gaze and know that you are cherished by God. Your human past or present might leave a lot to be desired. But your spiritual now is filled with love. My daughter has not learned this yet, which is where my experience and guidance is best served.
I love to keep the Psalms close which is why I pray the Divine Office. It has become so much a part of who I am and my day overall that I am aware of the emptiness when I fail to do so. It is a part of the rhythm of my life.
There are two other prayers that I pray each day. I began to pray the Anima Christi on my knees after returning from Holy Communion. I will let the Eucharist dissolve slowly in my mouth, consciously absorbing every fiber of the host and Body of Christ. This is warmth. This is safety. This is Eternity.
This prayer attributed to one of my spiritual mentors and favorite saints, Ignatius of Loyola (who was also a soldier before becoming a priest) is one that I’ve prayed and meditated upon many times. I closed my final letter to Nolan at boot camp with it.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
Good Jesus, hear me.
In your wounds, hide me.
Apart from you let me never be.
From the enemy, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me.
And close to you bid me,
that with your saints I may always be
praising you eternally. Amen.
Right below this prayer in my Daily Roman Missal is another prayer that I’ve now made a part of this time with God. It has become my prayer for 2015 and indeed the rest of my life. I will continue to pray them in order to keep my gaze on God and not on my struggle as seen through a knothole.
SELF-DEDICATION TO JESUS CHRIST (OBLATIO SUI)
Lord, take all my freedom. Accept my memory, my understanding, and my will. You have given me all that I have or hold dear. I return it to you, that it may be governed by your will. Give me only your grace and the gift of loving you, and I will be rich enough; I will ask for nothing more. Amen.
As I was proofreading this post and about to hit “Publish” my mobile phone rang at 4:45pm. I knew from other recruit parents that phone calls were being made from a certain area code by our recruits to finalize travel arrangements post-graduation. This would be Nolan.
When I answered the phone I heard his voice for the first time since Oct. 27th. He sounded strong and normal; his already deep voice sounding even deeper. As soon as he recognized my voice answering him back his tone immediately changed. And then my 6’3″ 185 pound soon-to-be-Marine began to sob. I knew the call was monitored and there were to be no questions other than those related to travel. So I kept on task and I asked him if he’d received the ticket information I’d sent to him two weeks ago and if we were all set. His voice was still breaking but he seemed to recognize what I was trying to do and he said “Yes, we should be set.”
I told him I loved him and that we’d see him soon. And then we hung up.
The entire conversation lasted 43 seconds.
My son turns 19 in two days. I forgot to wish him Happy Birthday.