With Your Shield Or On It
"The central struggle of parenthood is to let our hopes for our children outweigh our fears." -- Ellen Goodman
I had a memorable conversation with my eldest son when he was in the ninth grade. We'd started playing Kingdom Hearts and had just gotten to the part where the main character sneaks out his bedroom window for some typical teenage shenanigans and ends up getting dragged off to save the universe. He remarked that he couldn't do that. I would catch him, and there was no way I'd let him go on his own. The rest of the kids would insist on coming along, too. He was fine with it. With them at his side and me making sure that anything that so much as mussed their hair was very sorry, the journey to the final boss would be just a road trip.
That boy is a grown man of 21 now, and a lot has changed. The neon hunting camouflage that was so fashionable back then has given way to a freshly-pressed, pixilated ACU topped off with a tan beret and a Ranger tab. That's no sage avatar of a mystic force calling him to an adventure; it's his squad leader. His journeys to epic adventure in far away lands no longer stay within range of the controller cords. My son is a soldier, and he's being deployed overseas.
The story should sound awfully familiar. It's so ubiquitous, Joseph Campbell called it "the monomyth" in his classic work on comparative mythology entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A young man goes off on a perilous journey to defeat the bad guy and save the world/kingdom/village (or maybe just a fair damsel). Challenges faced and battles won, he retires and hangs his sword over the mantel to inspire his children to go off and get into similar trouble at a similar age. That plot is an integral part of the mythology of every culture, every age, and every media, from the Ramayana to Sir Gareth and the rest of the Knights of the Round Table.
Those thousand faces have a common feature -- youth isn't any sort of obstacle. If a kid can see over the hilt of Excalibur, he's fair game. You may as well put the prefix "Children's Crusade" on the titles of many videogames, movies, and books. Time and again, it runs into the same big question: Where the heck are their parents!?
There are a lot of cheeky orphans in these stories. You'd think there would be some responsible adults around. But no. Killing off the adults is traditional low-hanging fruit for any writer laying out the hardships their young protagonist has to overcome. And even if they survive the writer's imagination, any adults still standing send the children off to save the world all by themselves at ridiculously early ages.
One of my best bad examples would be Ashe Ketchum's mom from Pokemon, who just lets him go off to catch 'em all. Yeah, he's got a sidekick. But that bouncy little zap-rat does not constitute proper supervision for an 11-year-old, especially when he's dragging himself and his friends into every bit of trouble within arm's reach. The kid gets hurt more times than I can count. Just thinking about that situation makes me want to go to Pallet Town and slap some sense into her.
I much prefer a parent like Chi-Chi from Dragonball Z. She's all over Gohan and Goten to do their homework and their chores and she doesn't think little boys should be out there in battle. Whenever they do manage to sneak out on an adventure with their father, she's after them with rocket launchers to protect them and no one who's bright enough to see lightning and hear thunder messes with her on any level.
I could do that for my son back when the worst end boss we'd ever encountered was the Vice Principal. But that doesn't last. The journey gets rougher, and the forces they struggle against become even more complicated and powerful. Then just when it all hits a fever pitch, they're grown and you have to stand there and watch them go.
You're an NPC, pacing the same senseless pattern up and down the living room and hallway, hoping for -- but also dreading -- a phone call.
Motherhood has a lot of worry and fear in it, even under peacetime conditions. It's part and parcel of the business. There's a constant questioning of yourself and all the things you do to care for your kids. It's not just baseless drama; being a mother is an awesome responsibility and the stakes are dauntingly high. To quote an old saying, "If you're not terrified, you don't know what you've gotten yourself into." A mom may not have written it, but I bet they all nodded when they read it. Him being a soldier just adds a whole new FM3-0's worth of reasons.
With no save points or memory cards in the picture, I don't get to see the whole story anymore. This isn't his first trip there and back again, so I'm more prepared for the reality of the situation. Last time around he called me as often as he could and we emailed back and forth, but he had to watch what he said very closely. I'm not supposed to use the name of his unit. I'm not allowed to know where they're going or when they actually left the base or precisely when they'll get back. Every so often he will just go silent for several days with no explanations and I have to find a way to keep my cool. Even after they come home, they're not allowed to say a lot.
His first call home did reassure me somewhat that whatever else was going on in his head, there's still a lot of that same ninth grader. We were discussing some things he'd forgotten to bring, and on the top of list (even above sunblock) was Halo 3. I asked him why. Turns out every guy in the whole unit had thought someone else would bring it, so no one had. They'd all been stuck playing an old version of Call of Duty, and that wasn't cutting it. After I quit laughing about his priorities, I got a copy headed his way.
When he got home he had some good stories involving things like a ladder, a camel spider, and a scorpion. But I could tell things were a lot more interesting than that just by looking at him. He was sun-burnt, bruised, and about 10 pounds under-weight. When asked for details, he'd duck the question and trot out pictures of the spider to ick me out. I took that as a sign that I should quit being nosy. Besides, it’s almost comforting; I'll take Aragog any day over what it could have been.
He was home for the holidays and then on leave for two weeks, so he got to be around a lot and hang out with his friends and his siblings. Outside of the usual holiday and family bustle, I didn't really know what to say. I don't want him to think that I don't see the scope of what's going on, or that I'm going to be sitting around worrying and weeping for three months either.
As far as moms go, I'm pretty educated in these things. I'm an armchair grognard who grew up hunting, playing hockey, and loving paintball. I've been present for two gun accidents, one of which was fatal. I know enough to knowledgeably discuss his training with him when he comes home with his stories full of acronyms. But I've never been in real battle. I've never fired a weapon at another human. I don't know how to deal with that possibility.
I know I'm not alone. There are a lot of soldiers over there. And mothers have been facing this since before Plutarch reported in his book Moralia that Spartan boys were admonished to come back with their shield or on it. When he first signed up I said and wrote a lot of brave words. I still stand by them, but the intervening time has worn some of the shine off the bravery.
In the stories, there are lots of parents who stand there at the door and nonchalantly wave their kids off on their quest. Even with my practice from last time, I couldn't quite manage that. I couldn't find a way to give him a hug and let him walk out that door into harm's way while also keeping tears from running down my face. I'll have to find a way to grind that skill before he gets back and has to go again. There's not really anything left for me to do but watch him pack and make sure he's got Halo with him with him this time.