My mom died tonight.
It was an unexpected punch to the gut. I was sitting in my Afghan plywood palace recovering from my nightly gym time when the familiar flash of a phone light indicated I’d received a message. Usually it’s my wife saying hi or a friend sending something funny. I reached for it, flicked the screen and read the kind of message you know has to come but you wish it could bejust one more day away; “Mom is down, CPR in progress”. Adrenaline flooded my body. I sprang to my feet and rushed to a green line; heart instantly racing faster than my mind. How can this be? Not now! Not while I’m stuck on the other side of the planet and unable to do anything!
I dialed my sister with shaking fingers. The seconds for the satellite to route the call through Tampa felt like an hour. As soon as she answered, I knew. The voice. I’d heard it so many times before. I’d spoken them so many times before. Death was present. The doctors were still working and while I was speaking to my sister one said a pulse was present. A moment of hope that experience told me was a thin line. That hope was a momentary. There was nothing else to do. She was gone.
I posted word of her passing on social media to notify friends and family. Messages immediately started pouring in; words of encouragement and love from people I hadn’t heard from in a long time wrapped me like insulating arms, despite separation by time and space. Death has a way of rallying people together. One message carried even more bad news about a family so close to me that I’ve always considered them a part of my own. 2020 has been a year of hits and they just keep on coming, one after the other. How do you take steps forward within your soul when life has brass knuckles on?
The truth is I’ve prepared myself mentally for this day for a long time. Hard truths are still true. My mom was getting older. Her health had been poor for many years. She’d had close calls before. Messages of health scares or “this is it” found me in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Africa many times. Very rarely was I home when these situations happened. They always seemed to happen when I was in some hot and dusty country. The familiar flash of phone or computer followed by the line “Mom’s not good”. There would be nothing I could do but call her. Hearing her voice would alleviate my fear. She always fought through the circumstances. My sister and I would joke that she was invincible. Experience told me otherwise but I’d push it away. She really was invincible. Nothing could stop her spirit. She always went home.
Tonight was different and I knew it. In an instant all those years of invincibility were gone. This really was it. No call. No voice. No going home.
Today is Memorial Day. How many calls associated with this day had the same punch? How many messages from friends? Messages that flowed around the world in seconds. Messages typed with shaking fingers. He’s gone. A friend, teammate, student, classmate, or respected warrior has felt the earth a final time. Tonight I had to pass the message on with the same shaking fingers. I believe I remember where I was when I heard of each of their deaths. Calls heard over static filled radios. One US KIA. We’d gather around crammed shoulder to shoulder straining to hear the Battle Roster Number. Its call brought that slap to the gut. Fuck. Not him. Not today. He’s invincible. We’d look at each other with disbelief. Many times the closest to the fallen would make their way to a quiet spot to be alone for a second. The worst days brought calls of more than one friend lost in battle. Laying in my room or on the rocky ground later, my mind would always think of their families. They were somewhere living their life at that moment unaware men were putting on their dress uniforms and printing the directions to their house. Everything was about to change. My heart would ache for them over the coming loss of innocence that would come like a punch in the gut.
I’m tired of losing people. I’m tired of flick of light on my phone bringing that punch. Remember what I said about hard truths still being true? Well there it is. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop loss. We’re all going to die. We will all lose our friends, our parents, neighbors, people that we work with. Everyone will die. Over the course of the war we’ve all lost many people. Every Memorial Day adds names to that list. Today was no different. Standing at our camp’s Memorial Day service I had no idea that one more name would be added to my list before the night was done. The beautiful Afghan sunset was antithesis to the names we heard read aloud by the First Sergeant. One more name was coming and this one hurt.
My mother had multiple health issues over many years. I’ve seen enough to know the hard truth of life is death. I’d always do everything possible to go see her before a long trip overseas. Just in case. I was mentally preparing myself for this day over many years. I made sure I’d tell her I loved her. That’s a sometimes hidden hard truth to life. Love. What do you have at the end? Look around you right now. What do you see? What can you touch? If it’s not another human being who you care about, then it doesn’t matter when you die. Love is a hard truth to life and death. Our relationships are all that will be left on that day you take your last breath. The memories you leave with others. That is what matters most. Many families see death rip them apart in fights over money, houses, land, or other physical things. Talk to any lawyer who deals with estates and you’ll hear some sad stories. Those poor people have missed the point entirely. The loved ones who will remember to speak our names when we are gone are the only thing that last. Make it matter.
Though I thought I’d mentally prepared myself for this day, I didn’t. I wasn’t. I’m not. The punch in the gut was still there. Sharp and with a sting that takes your breath. Not now. I’m not ready for this. Memorial Day is filled with memories of loved ones. Men and women who gave their all for us on their left and right. Warriors who fought for their friends and their families. My future Memorial Days will now have an added flood of memories of a loved one who passed on an Afghan evening while I was a world away. Another hard truth never to be forgotten.
Jim Thompson was born in a small town in Mississippi. He recently retired after 29 years of military service; 26 of which was Active Duty Infantry and Special Forces.