Cindy Betsinger graciously allowed me to re-post her story here. “Honorable Discharge” was first published in 5th Story Review. Enjoy.
I only had three more days to spend with them, my son, Jeremy, and his family, when he received orders for deployment. It wasn’t that unexpected, but the timing could have been better.
Livvy was only two and had just gotten to know her daddy since he returned from the Army’s basic training six months prior. Living on base at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, was all she knew, really. Now he was packing his duffle bag and preparing for the Middle East; Iraq, maybe Kuwait – he didn’t know for sure – they didn’t tell him, or so he said. Livvy had no idea he’d be a stranger once again when he came home. Almost a third of her life will have passed by then.
“Can I help you, honey?” I asked him as he carefully placed his fatigues and equipment in the bag.
“Nothing to help with, mom,” Jeremy replied. “You can see if Sheila could use you in the kitchen, though.” He didn’t look up.
I rose from the couch and walked across the living room’s tan, blasé carpeting. The two-bedroom house on base had seen better days, but Sheila had done a nice job with the place. Her natural-born talent for decorating was obvious. The silver-framed family photos on the wall complimented the refinished oak end table and wrought iron lamp she had found at a rummage sale. Potpourri-filled mason jars covered in seersucker fabric and satin ribbons were strategically placed among the house. Even the mounted head of Jeremy’s first deer kill when he was sixteen was tastefully hung on the far wall, the offending arrow strewn across its eight-point rack.
“What time do we have to leave?” I asked Sheila as I entered the kitchen.
“Well, it’s about a half hour ride to the airfield. He’s supposed to be there and ready by nine tonight, so I suppose we should take off by eight, just to be sure.”
I nodded my head as I watched her carefully chop the carrots for Jeremy’s last dinner at home.
“Can I help with anything?”
“Um, sure . . . I still need to peel potatoes and get them on the stove. They’re in the pantry.”
Livvy was busy exploring the Tupperware drawer at the other end of the counter. I picked her up under her arms and gave her an unexpected kiss on the cheek before she cried “No” and wriggled out of my grasp.
“Awww, Livvy . . . grandma just wants some lovin’,” Sheila said as she slid the carrots from the cutting board into a waiting saucepan.
“How many? Five? Six?” I asked as I began peeling.
“Better make it six. Jeremy loves mashed potatoes with his meatloaf.”
I heard a slight sizzle on the stove and looked up to see Sheila wiping her eyes with her apron.
The ride to the airfield was somber and with little conversation. I rode in the back with Livvy and observed Sheila rubbing the back of Jeremy’s shaved head as she gazed out the passenger window.
I unbuckled Livvy from her car seat when we arrived. As I carried her over to the hangar, Jeremy and Sheila walked arm-in-arm behind us. The interior of the shelter was huge and a hundred or more people were milling around; some in uniform, others obviously civilian family and friends. Soldiers were posing for pictures and children were running and playing.
Nine o’clock came and went and, in pure military style, notice was given that their ride would be delayed another two hours. By then, I had Livvy propped up on my shoulder and she was starting to doze, thumb in her mouth.
“Jeremy, why don’t I take Livvy back to your place and put her to bed,” I suggested.
“Okay, mom. That’s probably a good idea.”
I reached up and gave him a squeeze around his neck and a kiss on the cheek. “Take care, honey. I love you.”
“Love you, too, mom. Thanks.” He put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a hug. He planted a long kiss on the top of Livvy’s head and stroked her soft red curls.
“Can you get back okay, Sheila?” I asked.
“I’ll get a ride with Keith’s wife,” she said, nodding toward the couple across the room.
“They don’t live far from us.”
“Okay then. I’ll see you when you get home.”
I rubbed Sheila’s arm and headed out to the car. By this time, Livvy was sound asleep and totally oblivious to the fact that she may never see her daddy again. I gently put her in the carseat, strapped her in and wrapped her blanket around her, pausing to look at her sweet innocent face. “Dear God, please bring him home safe and sound,” I whispered.
I ended my visit the next day. American Airline’s return trip to Wisconsin was uneventful and, remarkably, on schedule. For the next sixth months, it was my job to send weekly care packages to Jeremy and reassure his wife that I was only a moment’s notice away if she needed me.
I was numb the entire flight back to Ft. Bragg. As I peered out the window before landing, I couldn’t help but think that twenty-six years is not enough time to spend with your only child before he goes off to war. It’s not enough time to prepare you for his unnatural death at the hands of an unseen enemy. And, twenty-six more years will never be enough time to explain to a little girl that the daddy she doesn’t remember is a hero.