“Sheryl, where is it your son is stationed again?”
The question has come out of the blue. It’s a Friday morning in early January 2020, and I have come to say hello to the dancers who rent out the gym at the church where I serve. James, fiddling with sound equipment at the far end of the gym, knows that my son is an officer in the Canadian military.
“Iraq,” I reply.
“No, I know that,” James says, “but where in Iraq?”
James looks up and his eyes meet mine. “Oh, I’m so sorry…”
“What! What’s going on?” I say. “I haven’t checked news yet!”
James’ face becomes more serious. He lets the wires and cables drop and makes his way towards me. “An Iranian general was assassinated at the Baghdad airport,” James says, pulling out his phone. “They’re threatening retaliation against foreign military personnel.”
A picture of my son hangs in my parents’ home. In the picture, Rory* is about six. He wears a knight’s costume, a tunic and matching pants that we picked up at a thrift store for dress-up play. In my mind, that’s what it was at the time, just play. Only recently, Rory said, “all my life, I have thought of myself as a soldier.” That had never occurred to me, but when you look closely at that picture, he’s holding a broomstick tightly to his side. His spine is erect. His eyes face forward. His mouth is grim. He stands at attention. How would he know how to do that at six?
Rory’s older brother was born in the summer of 1990. I was nursing him in the middle of the night when I learned that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. I had birthed this baby, learned how to feed him with my own body. Now other mothers’ sons were going to war. I kept vigil, I prayed, I wrote letters to the prime minister. This child, and any others I should bear, I vowed, were not going to war. I filled our home with crayons and paint and paper. Weapon toys, violent TV shows and video games were not allowed. We had squirt guns, but in the shape of fish. We took our kids to forests and creeks and beaches. I wanted them to be immersed in the creative life force that I knew to be more powerful than the force of destruction.
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When Rory was about 10 and wanted to join Air Cadets, we made it happen, but I secretly hoped it would be a phase. He only stayed with it for about a year, and I was glad when he dropped out.
But when did the talk of military college begin? I imagine I tried not to hear it until it became a real option for Rory’s future. It was me who took him to Kingston for the tour, me who wandered the grounds with a heavy stomach. Could Rory sense my discomfort? My desire to flee and find the nearest café or art gallery? The tour leader was showing us a dorm room and opened a closet. The hangers, holding parts of various uniforms, were all one centimetre apart, each of them evenly spaced. I saw Rory’s eyes light up.
I run from the gym to my office. I turn on my computer and wait for it to warm up. It takes so long. I devour every bit of information that could help me answer the question, Is Rory safe? I text him via WhatsApp. His response is short, curt and cryptic: “We’re fine, haha.” He can’t give any details. I already know that, but details are what I need. I fall into sobs in front of the useless computer screen, the sobs of a mother who is powerless to keep her child safe.
I had lost him once before. One summer day when Rory was two, me, Rory, and his older brother were walking around the block in our neighbourhood with a friend and her toddlers. Rory had run ahead up the maple-lined street, and suddenly we couldn’t see him anymore. Assuming he had turned the corner and headed for home, we picked up our pace, but when we arrived, Rory wasn’t there. A leaden ball filled my gut. My friend kept the other kids as I ran around the block. “Rory!” I called every few steps, “Rory!” When I got to the main road, I saw that a police car had pulled over and an officer was kneeling over a little body in the grass. I got to the spot, but I do not know how. Rory wasn’t dead or injured. Knowing that he was lost, he had decided to just lie down in the grass.
I head back into the gym. The dancers stop and gather ‘round as I offer a report: There is no evidence that Canadian forces are being removed from Iraq. There’s nothing, no information at all. I am pulled in, pulled into their centre, held by the three of them as I begin to sob again.
One day in seminary, just before Rory went to military college, I was walking from a class at Knox College on the University of Toronto campus to return to Emmanuel College where I studied. Waiting for the light to turn, my breath visible in the grey November air, I watched a military vehicle, then another one, speed into the loading bay at Queen’s Park, the Ontario legislature. Soldiers jumped out of the trucks in full gear and ran into the building. I stood, watching. If there really was an incident at Queen’s Park, there would be more of a hullaballoo. It must be a training exercise, I reckoned, and I hurried to a chapel service at Emmanuel.
It was a Taizé service, quiet and contemplative.
Veni sancte Spiritus
Veni sancte Spiritus
As I sang the words over and over, an image came to me of one of the soldiers jumping out of the truck. He was about the same height as Rory and moved like him. I realized that if there were an incident at Queen’s Park, or anywhere, if someone, anyone, needed assistance or protection, there was no better person than Rory for that job. I saw his desire to be a soldier as the fulfillment of a calling, just as I was fulfilling mine, and it just happened that they were very, very different.
Why my son, God?
Of course I was on the side of the chapel farthest from the door. Of course I had no tissues as sobs bent me forward and the snot ran from my nose. When the service ended, I bolted for the door, grabbed my coat from my locker, went outside and walked. I walked into neighbourhoods I’d never encountered, knowing that I might get lost. I walked until the sun set into a chilly night, continuing until I could get used to this uneasy, but inevitable truth. This uneasy, but inevitable truce.
I leave my office at the church at the end of the day and go home. Other people are heading into a winter weekend, but all I can see are missiles pointed toward foreign military installments in Iraq, and I know that my son is serving in one of them. I do what I need to do. I get groceries. I write a sermon. I prepare for a baptism. In between, however, I reach out to friends. “Please pray,” my texts begin, “Rory is in Baghdad.”
When Rory joined the infantry, I had questions. Did he feel that he was adequately prepared for what he might one day encounter? How would he deal with moral ambivalence?
“Watch American Sniper,” Rory suggested.
“O.K.,” I said, “but only if you watch Selma.”
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I watched American Sniper, scenes in shades of grey and khaki, often unfolding through the crosshairs of a rifle. I got a glimpse of the uniformed, weaponized, knife-edge world my son had joined. Rory watched Selma. He said he liked it, that he hadn’t known much about Martin Luther King Jr. before that.
When Rory was posted to western Canada, I flew across the country to visit. I needed to see where he spent his days, to meet the soldiers he led. I arrived at his battalion before the work day was over. “Captain____________,” the duty sergeant intoned into the PA system, “your mom’s here…” Mothers didn’t often drop by, I guess. On a tour, I shook the hand of the battalion chaplain and we traded the usual clergy info – denomination and seminary affiliation, where we were at in our current call. This man was in uniform just like everyone else. I read the body cues and listened to the banter and recognized the trust he held. It made me glad. If there is ever any bad news, I figured, I now knew the man who would deliver it.
I am on day five of not knowing if Canadian military personnel have been evacuated out of Iraq. Friends and family keep checking in on me. Just after 3 p.m., a message comes through via WhatsApp: “We’ve been relocated for the time being until Baghdad is more stable.” I am still taking this in, saying prayers of gratitude for helicopters, planes, politicians, generals, whoever and whatever helped make this happen when, five minutes later, the news on CBC Radio lets me know that the Ayn al-Asad air base and the Erbil International Airport in Iraq have been bombed. I continue praying in my kitchen, leaning against the kitchen counter. I am imagining a bomb scene in a country I’ve never been to, imagining my son, elsewhere, safe, imagining other mothers whose news in this moment might be different from mine. My prayers of gratitude are mixed with anger and bewilderment.
But I’ll accept it, because my son is safe. For now.
*Rory is a pseudonym
Sheryl Spencer ministers in southern Ontario. She is a member of the first cohort of the creative writing and public theology stream in the doctor of ministry program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This piece was originally written as part of that program.
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