I will forever hear the word Marines as “love.” I know, I know, the Marines are not about love. You might say they’re about defense and protection. The Marines will tell you they’re all about fighting and killing. I’m not exaggerating, The drill instructor made sure we wimpy Moms standing around the visitor’s center on Parris Island, the ones who hadn’t seen or heard our young sons for almost 100 days, understood that the Marines were not training our precious children to be journalists or mechanics or paralegals or any such thing they might have selected as their “course of study.” They were fighters. They were killers. That’s just the way it was. His face was grim under his shaved head—shaved, he said, so that he could better slither through treacherous undergrowth and deep slime, so we had better get used to it.
Curiously, I was, but from the audible shudders rippling through the crowded room, many were not. I’m not sure why I wasn’t appalled, why air didn’t choke in my throat, why I didn’t wrestle with some impulse to insist they must have made a mistake: this child of organic carrots and whole wheat berries and peaceful resolutions was not theirs and I must now take him home to our quirky house on a dirt road in the luscious shadow of Mt Katahdin please.
But I wasn’t and I didn’t.
My son is a Marine, and the Marines have taught him love, at least given him voice to the speaking of love and showing of love to this mother.
I could count on one hand the number of times my youngest child has told me he loves me. Until now. Now I have a clutch of letters—about 45 of them over the last three months. And in them I have at least 40 “I love you”s or “I love you very much”es. Even a few “I miss you Mom”s speckle these pages with the military insignia of what looks like an eagle sitting on a world with a grenade pin in its mouth in the corner.
This is my white-bread and macaroni-and-cheese-out-of-the-box boy. The one that has challenged me in every conceivable way: the one who stole a gun from a deserted Shin Pond camp; the one who could stare me down for days if need be to prove he had not done whatever I had seen him do; the one who has always resisted established definitions of right and wrong, black and white, acceptable and unacceptable. I could not comfortably hug or kiss him. Sometimes I have been lucky and could sneak them in when he forgot who I was and casually, almost gently put his arm around my shoulder, caught in the telling of a story, the memory of which is now only the sound of his voice almost bursting into unknowable worlds.
He is my smartest. We all acknowledge it. He taught himself to drive a standard shift in bed at night when he was seven, read 350-page books at ten, and intuitively did electronics and
historical associations without knowing how. And when he went to bed, he opened “Windows” and clicked on the genre of dream he wanted—adventure, nature, shoot-’em-up, friends, sports,
and, I am sure, sex. He thought everyone could.
After a 35-hour bus ride, I watch him walk out of a crowd of 500 boy/men on a South Carolina field—he is the one with the smooth brown face barely able to produce stubble, the bony elbows, and toes I suspect he still cannot touch. I almost didn’t recognize him—standing so straight, walking so crisply, his clothes so neat and form-fitting. A man of serious intent. This is not the boy I pulled through the eye of high school with the size 40 pants in a tenuous relationship with his 28-inch waist. This is not the boy who carried in the wood more reluctantly than if it had been poison. This is not the boy who smoked a lot of dope and hung out ’til 4 a.m. when he lived with his father before I convinced him to come home again.
This is the man who has been meritoriously promoted in boot camp, the one who now says, “Yes, Ma’m,” and “No, Ma’m,” and holds doors, the one whose drill instructor tells me is “a very motivated young man.” I am tempted to say, “Who? This one? Mine?” But I just nod, wondering how the boy on the edge chose to jump full center. I know why—he said the Marines were so tough he would not be able to choose to step outside the lines and then try to talk himself out of trouble. But I may never know how.
And so, now I am the mother of a Marine. A Marine who says “I love you” and “I love you very much, Mom,” one who thanks me for having implanted integrity and honor (really, he actually said that) in a child who resisted it at every turn. Today, thousands of miles away, my son suits up for his nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare test while I tighten my hand-woven shawl around my shoulders and sprinkle some sunflower seeds into the crumbled tofu licking up the warm, fruity olive oil and fresh oregano. He is my son and I am his Mom; I love him and he loves me; and so there is nothing I can do but wish my killer well.