All We Have
John Michael Flynn
Diana Jara wasn’t one to tell her father not to cry. In a quiet respectful way, she said it thrilled her to say this time it was for good. No more deployments. In six months, she’d be a civilian in college on the GI Bill. She didn’t say she knew her parents were proud of her and glad she was home. She didn’t have to.
She helped Lindsay, her mother, wipe away tears. She wanted to tell Lindsay that arriving home was the easy part, that she’d been through hell – more than most women her age – but she didn’t. A show of pride would be ridiculous. All of her sisters had been through hell over there. Silence was best. She even kept her phone turned off and in her pocket.
Diana’s father, Eduardo, trusted his daughter understood it wasn’t sadness that made her mother weep. It was a releasing of the helplessness they, as parents, had been living through. So many had returned maimed or dead. Eduardo had followed the news closely, reading all of Diana’s online postings, learning as much as possible about the war. Statistics, like politicians, often lied cleverly. How many limbs blown off? How many families torn apart? Who counted such things?
He could now say his daughter had seen mankind at its worst and best, and she’d survived a test of her inner fortitude. There wasn’t a father he knew who wanted his child in war, especially a daughter. Yet if that daughter had to serve – would make no other choice – then let her return home braver and wiser. No medals on her chest. That didn’t matter.
It wasn’t wrong, he thought, to be idealistic. Yet stupid, Eduardo thought, all these wars. Still, he supported his daughter and his country. Having done her part, at last his Diana would begin a peaceful life.
He had no word for the giddiness he felt. He couldn’t stop beaming at Diana, letting her grip his arm as they walked the airport concourse, feeling such a sublime happiness. She’s home – my baby girl is home.
Once outdoors, when Eduardo’s tears came, he couldn’t control them. He felt such overwhelming gratitude to all forces in the universe that had brought her back. A small man with a slender waist and rounded shoulders, he felt puny next to Diana in her camouflage pants, jacket and camel-colored boots. He didn’t care. He let the tears flow, bawling the way Lindsay had, and the way of his mama during his childhood whenever she shared tales about her life in Mexico. The tears shook Eduardo and he felt for a moment as if he’d collapse.
This was not how it was supposed to be. Not how he’d imagined the homecoming, or how he’d planned to reveal himself as a grateful steadfast father.
But that didn’t matter, either.
~ ~ ~
In the basement of Saint Andrew’s Catholic Church, Lindsay McElmore Jara sat in front of young Father Donlan, a beefy tattooed red-haired ex-Marine who was far too grizzled to be Hollywood’s version of a kindly priest. Lindsay was a regular in a loyal Tuesday evening group of Saint Andrew’s parents who had children in uniform overseas. Eduardo often worked late and seldom made the meetings, but Lindsay hadn’t missed one. About twelve parents in all, each in turn spoke of fears about their children. Some remarked this war in Afghanistan, like the ones in Iraq – and for some like Vietnam – was unnecessary. One parent called it a “racket” and another said it was “sanctioned bloodshed.” Lindsay agreed with both points of view, but she was shrewd enough to know political opinions wouldn’t hasten Diana’s safe return home.
When it was Lindsay’s turn to speak, she put aside the big picture. She thought about her neighborhood’s residents – many of whom she knew and liked well enough – and said it disturbed her that so few others without skin in the game, so to speak, seemed to care about what was happening over there. She’d thought they cared, but they really didn’t. Why should they? It didn’t affect them directly.
Lindsay struck an impassioned note. A high-school drama teacher, she knew about reaching an audience. “These are our blessed children,” she said. “They are not abstractions to us.”
“Well put, Lindsay. But remember, faith will pull you through,” said Father Donlan. “Your faith is more real, more powerful than anything else.”
Maybe, thought Lindsay. She liked these meetings for many reasons, not the least of them was that her skepticism and her philosophical streak got a thorough workout. “Faith can’t stop an I-U-D if Diana happens to step on one.”
“It sure can’t,” remarked one of the parents, a divorced caterer named Brenda Craft whose son was a Marine deployed near Kabul.
“But your son can be sharp enough to avoid that I-U-D,” said Father Donlan.
“Why is that?” asked Brenda.
“Why?” asked Father Donlan. He turned from Brenda to face Lindsay. He smiled at her. “Because he has faith in himself, his training, his brothers, his experience.”
Lindsay sounded a snort. She hoped her sarcasm was obvious. “We’ll see.”
“God sees,” said Father Donlan. “God shows the way.”
Does he? Lindsay wouldn’t dare express this thought, but she hoped Father Donlan saw her flushed face and the doubt, anger and frustration there.
When the meeting ended, Lindsay approached Father Donlan and moved him into one corner of the room where she could apologize in private.
“I’m a mess,” she said. “Sometimes my sarcasm gets out of control.”
“It wasn’t directed at me,” said Father Donlan. “Why should I be offended?”
Lindsay thought it the perfect answer and was reminded why she admired this sometimes truculent yet optimistic priest.
“But there’s nothing we can do,” she said.
“You can pray,” said Father Donlan.
“No,” said Lindsay. She held back an urge to burst open and scream. “Praying is like begging. I want to do something.”
Father Donlan grew silent. He studied her face a moment. Lindsay believed the man was trying to help her. She wanted to look into his eyes. She couldn’t.
“When I was in Mosul, in Iraq,” he said. “I was pretty scared. I thought about a lot of things. My mind racing all the time. So to slow it down, I kept thinking about how little it takes to breathe. How little it takes to stop. You know, just seal yourself off. Clam up. Try it some time. Stop breathing until everything gets dark and you drop out.”
Someone shouted Father Donlan’s name and the priest raised his hand and shouted wearily: “Over here, I’m coming.”
Excusing himself, he started to lumber across the room.
Lindsay, intrigued, followed him. “Really?” She was puzzled. Was he advocating suicide? “But I don’t get it.”
“Neither did I,” said Father Donlan, throwing his words over his shoulder. “And I didn’t like it, so you know what I did?”
“I started thinking about something else.”
~ ~ ~
They sat in the living room, in the dark, and Eduardo held Lindsay in his arms on the couch. Lindsay had been sobbing for the past hour. Finally, she was spent. She felt an eerie lack of gravity. Eduardo asked if she’d like some ice cream. He’d stopped at the market on the way home and picked up her favorite, Cherry Garcia. Lindsay didn’t want any. She asked Eduardo if he’d pray with her, for their health, for Diana.
Eduardo said later, not now. He touched Lindsay’s face. He then kissed each place he’d touched. This is all I can do and it isn’t much. He held his wife. He said they should pray in their bedroom under the crucifix for all the mothers who would never see their children again. For the children who’d died, lost a limb or a parent. They should pray for love to flourish and for wars to end forever.
“Because we’re all we have,” said Eduardo. “Just each other.”
Lindsay knew she was an intelligent and emotionally complex woman. After twenty years of marriage, Eduardo still sometimes felt incapable of understanding her gringa ways. Not this time. He had broken through. Perhaps it was his simplicity. Nothing seemed to ruffle him.
“And you know how much I love you,” he said.
What would I do without him? thought Lindsay. “I love you, too.” She paused a moment, fearing she’d sounded automatic. “Father Donlan knows how to make me think better, but you know how to make me feel better.”
“Not that you can’t do those things on your own.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I’m more than capable.”
Eduardo hugged her and within that hug much of Lindsay’s anguish dissolved for a while.
All these nights, they’re all like this, Lindsay thought. The anguish would return. The waiting would continue. She had her job, routines, her weekly meetings, and Eduardo – but they were still not enough.
They’d have to be. It was that simple.
~ ~ ~
Walking to the car across the vast airport parking lot, Diana kept her head erect. She struck an aloof toughened tone with her father. “I’m no hero, Daddy. I just did my job. I’m glad to be out of that hell in one piece.”
“Really bad, wasn’t it,” said Eduardo. He carried Diana’s duffel bag for her, surprised by how light it felt.
“No, not really,” said Diana. “I’m just tired, that’s all.”
Lindsay stepped up between them. “We prayed for you the whole time,” she said. “We really, really missed you.”
“I know you did,” said Diana. “I prayed for myself. All of us did, in our own ways. Funny thing is that the hardest parts were when we had free time. There was nothing to do. Had to keep busy. Keep my mind off. Sometimes, I’d just do stupid stuff like holding my breath to see how long I could last without blacking out. I read this cool book, Ask The Dust.”
“No,” said Lindsay. “Don’t go back there.” Lindsay sounded peeved, recalling her conversation with Father Donlan. “You’re home now, Sweetie. It’s time to look ahead.”
“But I’ll always go back,” said Diana. She shrugged. “In a way, I’m still there. I’ll always be there.”
“No! You’re here now,” said Lindsay. Her voice had jumped and it held a firm edge. “It’s safe here. We’re all together. A family again.”
We were always a family, thought Eduardo. He looked at Lindsay as if to scold her. She should let Diana have her say, no matter how illogical. Madre de Dios, my little girl is fresh off the plane from a war zone.
“Say that again,” said Diana. “Please. Just say it.”
“Say what?” asked Lindsay. “That we’re a family?”
Eduardo stepped in. The girl obviously needs to hear this. “We’re a family,” he said. “As my grandfather used to say, the family is the first and last government.”
Diana paused a moment, her high forehead brown in the sun. A guarded and pregnant smile spread slowly across her face. A faraway look brightened her round eyes as if she were remembering a difficult yet inspiring moment. She snapped out of it by giggling and landing a playful slap against her father’s shoulder. “All I know is that I don’t care if I ever see a fucking desert again.”
Eduardo stiffened. “Madre de Dios, don’t swear like that,” he said. “Especially in front of your mother.”
Looking at her parents, everything about Diana softened. There was a gleam of recognition in her eyes, as if she were seeing them and her whereabouts for the first time. She apologized. Taking her mother by the shoulders, she held her and kissed her on the cheek. She let out a small sigh.
Holding on, tears began to well in Lindsay’s eyes. She didn’t care if pedestrians were looking. She slapped her arms around Diana and held on and she cried, hugging her for what seemed an hour.
When she let go, her first thought was that she’d never held Diana quite long enough.