It Only Feels Like Forever
Three weeks shy of his twenty-first birthday, the tall young man in the photograph stands next to his mother in their suburban front yard. The day is sunny and warm, Indian summer weather in western New York State. The young man is wearing a cartoon Cocoa Puffs t-shirt and blue jeans. His smile is a little hesitant; his eyes hold a hint of uncertainty, perhaps a glimmer of guilt. His mother’s eyes are glazed with tears. It hadn’t been his intention to make his mother sad, to be the cause of her tears; still, there is something in his posture that explains the rest of the story: he cannot wait for his adventure to begin.
On that early October day we waited for the United States Navy recruiter to arrive, to whisk Karl away on day one of a five-year contract. I had done the math – one thousand eight hundred twenty-five days – it seemed more manageable broken down into days versus years. For Karl, five years would span the milestones of legal maturity and the foothills of the prime of his life. All I understood was that five years would create new facets of my son that I would not witness. After twenty years of this job called mother, I was being permanently laid off and the severance package was peanuts.
The goodbyes to grandparents, sisters away at college, friends and family had all been spoken. During lunch Karl sat next to his frail grandmother. I wanted to freeze the kitchen clock, to make time stand still. Karl ate the last slice of the chocolate birthday cake I’d baked for an early celebration of his twenty-first birthday. There would be no birthday cake or first legal beer when he turned twenty-one during boot camp. Poor planning on his part? He did not seem to mind that instead of partying with friends and family, he would mark this milestone birthday surrounded by hundreds of recruits far from the comforts of home.
A car pulled into the driveway; a moment later, a knock at the door. With one final hug to his grandmother, his Dad and me, our boy, for I still thought of him that way, grabbed a small travel bag and ran out the door with all the enthusiasm of a kid let loose in an amusement park. I was reminded of his first day of Kindergarten, when I’d expected him to cling to my hand. To my surprise, Karl had raced his sisters to be the first in line to board the school bus. One moment Karl was still with us in the only home he’d ever known. The next moment he belonged to the United States Navy.
A few days later, returning home late from work, I missed Karl’s first phone call by mere minutes. He told his dad, “I’m ok. I’ll write soon. I have to hang up now. Bye.” Not a lot to miss, but a lost opportunity to hear his voice.
A week after the phone call, “the box” arrived. Without the benefit of too many details, I’d been forewarned about the package’s arrival, a sort of rite of passage for all new Navy parents. Members of a Navy Moms online organization, with whom I’d been communicating for several months, had kept the box’s contents hush-hush. I never understood why, until the box arrived. Of course, I suspected what the box held, some tangible connection to my son. However, seeing the box waiting on the kitchen table when I arrived home from work, a small, nondescript cardboard container with a FedEx sticker and a single stripe of packing tape, I felt apprehensive. I read each line of the hand-printed shipping label as if it held clues to what I would find when I opened the box. My husband handed over the scissors and I cut the packing tape.
A box of clothes. Not just any clothes. On top of the heap, a left sneaker, laces still tied; next, crumpled blue jeans, the belt still threaded through the loops, followed by a right sneaker, that one unlaced, and finally, the comical Cocoa Puffs t-shirt. It was wrinkled and a little fragrant, but I held it to my face for longer than I care to admit. Upon arrival at Great Lakes, recruits are given only a few minutes to change out of their civilian clothing, get the items into the box, tape it and print a shipping label. There’s no time to unlace, fold or pack neatly. Everything is just shoved into the box. I comforted myself by thinking about all the mothers getting boxes of dirty laundry. And then the tears fell. It hit me that my son wasn’t on vacation. He wasn’t at summer camp. He wouldn’t be home for dinner anytime soon.
As promised, his letters began to arrive, once or twice a week. Karl’s penmanship had once been described as chaos on paper, close to illegible. Now we received envelopes with neat block-style printing, precise, upbeat paragraphs describing his training, the good and plentiful food, new friendships underway. Some of the new recruits were very homesick, but Karl seemed to thrive. He said the rigorous training was “fun.” I read each letter several times, hearing his voice ring loud and clear. I recognized the changes taking place between the lines of his letters.
Thus began ‘the countdown to Karl’s graduation,’ and we eagerly made travel plans. Flying ahead of a winter snowstorm, my husband and I, along with one of Karl’s sisters, arrived in Chicago the day before graduation. On the morning of the Pass in Review ceremony, we woke to a foot of snow. We are from Buffalo, accustomed to winter driving, yet it took an agonizingly slow hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic to drive the mile from our hotel to the Navy base. We were welcomed to Naval Station Great Lakes by bomb-sniffing dogs searching each car, personal identifications examined with the thoroughness required in a post nine-eleven world, and strict instructions on how to proceed to the commencement venue without further ado.
Seated on the top row of a long line of metal bleachers, I searched the sea of immaculate dark blue dress uniforms proudly parading into the commencement hall. Finally, I caught a glimpse of Karl, and my heart soared. Could this handsome young man in the pristine uniform be the same boy who’d run out the door eight weeks prior, eager to see what military life had in store for him?
We had so little time with our new sailor, a train ride into the city, a steak dinner, the latest James Bond film – during which he fell asleep. Karl now had a curfew; simply asking him to hang out with us for even one more hour was not an option.
When I look at the photograph taken on that December day, the snowy Chicago skyline in the background, I see a tall young man standing next to his grinning mother, her shining eyes now the result of pure joyfulness. He’s lean due to eight weeks of intense training. The funny t-shirt and jeans have been replaced by a dark blue uniform, and his eyes no longer hold a hint of regret for making his mom sad, only the confidence of achievement.
While serving in the United States Navy, Karl had two deployments on the USS Ronald Reagan, and two deployments on the USS Carl Vinson. After volunteering for an assignment that necessitated leaving the carrier Vinson, Karl served the last four months of his contract at Kandahar Base, Afghanistan.
While Karl was serving his country, experiencing many new and exciting places in the world, I warned myself not to expect him to return to Buffalo. But he did. He stayed, and he gave me something wonderful – the gift of becoming a grandmother.
Heidi Popek’s writing has been published online at sayitatyourwedding.com, and in print at Play of Mind, and Affaire de Couer. She lives in western New York and works at a small private college. All three of her children live near her, which seems to surprise most people. In addition to writing, she enjoys knitting, traveling and anything on PBS.