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Countdown begins...The Final Days Before

By Paula Stern
6/12/2009, 12:00 AM
My daughter was married just two weeks before Elie went into the army. This event and its timing brought many blessings - the joy of welcoming our son-in-law and his family into our own, the happiness of seeing my daughter so happy, and, in another way, the chance to focus on something else besides Elie's entering the army.

Wedding plans filled our home - dresses and fittings and things for her future home. The wedding was wonderful, the week that followed unbelievably hectic...and then I had to face the next challenge. It was a countdown of sorts; each day a challenge to hold myself together, at least until he would go. I remember promising myself that I could...and would...fall apart - after. All I asked was that it wait until after he left.

7 Days and Counting - March 18, 2007

Seven days from now, I'll be driving Elie to the drop-off point. From there, he will be taken to join an artillery unit, given a uniform and a gun and taken to some location somewhere...and I'll cope with not knowing where.

This week, after my daugther's wedding, it's all about him. What he will need, what we should still buy. He still needs a strong backpack and locks, underwear and extra socks. He looked so handsome at the wedding, dressed in the suit he didn't want to wear, in the shoes he didn't want to buy. Everyday pants and his hiking boots would have been his choice, but he made us all happy by dressing for the occasion.

There are the physical things we concentrate on to avoid thinking about the emotional issues. What he will need, where he will go the first week, the second week. Months of basic training and then additional training for his unit. When will he be allowed to come home.

I don't believe wisdom necessarily comes with age, but fear certainly does. The older we are, the more we learn to fear. When I was expecting my first child, and my second, and even my third, I was too young to fear, to understand that we aren't always blessed with beautiful, healthy babies. Only as I got older did I realize what an incredible miracle each child was.

Now, with age, comes the reality that just as we are given this incredible gift, we must cherish it and watch over it at all times. This becomes hard to do when the child goes off to a new place, leaving you to wonder and worry.
Elie does not seem to be afraid; this is a stage in his life, an experience. Many boys love the army. It gives them direction, training, companionship and life-long friends. Only we mothers focus on the more serious aspects of where our sons will go and what they will do. We are the ones left crippled behind as they soar in triumph. They are free of their studies, free of daily routine. Life is new and exciting for them. Responsibilities come with trust. The state of Israel puts its faith and its love into its soldiers. They are treated with love as they travel from place to place. People stop to give them rides or hand them candy and food when they are on patrol. It is a love affair that never ages. There are few countries, if any, in the world who can claim the relationship that Israel has with its soldiers. Each is a son of the nation and the whole nation celebrates and mourns together when it comes to our soldiers.

Perhaps, despite the worries, my son is right. This is an adventure, a new road he will take. I should be excited for him. I should be (and I am) very proud of him. In other countries, 19 year old boys are drinking and driving and focusing on girls. It will be years before they grow up while here in Israel, they are given responsibility, life and death decisions.

In a matter of a few weeks, my son will come home with a gun and the training to know when to use it and when not to use it. He will be given responsibilities to protect whole communities and our country. All this on the head of a soon-to-be 20 year old. He celebrates this time while I quietly mourn the boy he will leave behind.

So, as Elie sees the adventure ahead, I look at the boy knowing that all too soon, the army will return him to me as a man, having experienced new and exciting things, having gone where I've never gone, done what I've never done. He'll hold people's lives in his hands and learn things I never dreamed he would need to know. How far to shoot, how to aim a massive weapon capable of bringing down a building.

They'll teach him the human side of war - our responsibility to avoid civilian casualties when possible and even to endanger his life to protect our citizens (and the citizens of other lands). He will learn how to defend himself, how to recognize the enemy and how to react. All this is new to him and it will change him, as it does each boy because in the end, he will be not just a boy, not just a man, but a soldier too.

6 Days and Counting - March 19, 2007

So - today we went shopping for those last minute items that the army recommends each new soldier should have. We went to a camping store, which has its own list of what the army provides (one column) and what they recommend (two bigger columns). The store gives a free wallet and discounts for many of the items the new soldier will need.

Undershirts - green; socks - gray. A wallet, a special strong backpack, a flashlight, toothbrush holder, antiseptic non-water cleaner, and much more. The hardest part wasn't paying the bill, but rather standing there listening to the young store clerk (who has served in the army), explain to my son what he would need. A rite of passage that they all go through here in Israel, a language they understand. It will be cold at night, hot and dusty during the day. You'll only have a few minutes to wash and dress (better to get the key lock rather than the combination lock); better to get the back with zippers and compartments. You can keep your wallet with you while on patrol, but you might get into trouble if you try to keep your cell phone. Don't take anything of real value - there are thieves even among your brothers in arms.

You'll get nine pairs of socks from the army; three undershirts in green; three undershirts in white. Two types of uniforms - one to be worn on the base and during training; one for when you are going off-base.

The young clerk smiled when he said that my son would be home the first weekend after he enters the army - the army's way of reminding us that we aren't losing a son...that he'll be home if we just have patience and hold ourselves together. We aren't saying goodbye forever...just a few more days and he'll be home - lugging dirty laundry, wanting to sleep and eat as much as he can. They can wear any pajamas, the store clerk explains, and any underwear they want. What matters is that on the outside, the uniform is perfect, the clothes according to regulation.

Black shoe polish. "How do you know he needs black and not brown?" I ask naively, and the answer is a single word "Artillery." How strict they will be depends on the particulars of the army base, but it will be dirty and dusty and unpleasant - in short...reality.

It's all so simple and logical - no time for a mother's feelings and worries. Monday is gone...6 more days.

Four Days and Counting...Nothing Left to Do - March 21, 2007

...but worry.

He's got all he needs - the backpack in which to pack his things, the green undershirts that will soon be a part of his uniform, extra little "gadgets" that he loves - like a keychain flashlight and a business card-size "thing" that contains pretty much everything - a flashlight, pen, 4 different screw drivers, magnifying glass, scissors, tweasers, and I'm not even sure what else.

For him, these last days are dragging by - he's ready, all set...waiting to go.

For me, I'm trying to act normal, keeping anxiety and worry at bay by trying to get the family back into a normal routine. Planning a family wedding is amazingly disruptive to the normal course of events. It's a wonderful thing to have, but it touches and rearranges schedules for weeks before and even after. Now, as things settle back to what they were and the new couple wants nothing more than to be left alone, it's time I can focus on Elie...but the amazing reality is, that isn't what he wants.

Going to the army is a part of what he was raised to do, as much a part of normal life as pretty much every other stage in his life. It doesn't represent life and death battles, moral dilemnas, enemies or politics. It's a place he'll go to meet his obligation and because of how he feels about the country in which he lives, he'll perform his service to the best of his ability, as he serves in the local ambulance squad, as he "serves" in the family.

For a young man, the army in Israel is about change, but also about growth. It's about new friends and about new experiences. To focus on this, is to help us cope with the unknown. He asked me tonight about how many pairs of socks he should bring with him. The army will give him 9 pairs of socks - should he bring a few more? This is a code phrase for the question of how long he'll be away from home. Or maybe not - maybe I am reading too much into what is really a simple question.

He'll go to the army on Sunday - just 4 days from now. The army almost always sends the boys home for the first weekend after they enlist. It's their way of assuring us that the separation isn't permanent; that they aren't leaving home forever. After the weekend...comes the first period of unknown. How long will he be gone? When will he come home? Where will he be stationed? How long will it take him to get back here and how early in the morning will he have to leave in order to get back to base in time?

If he's like other soldiers that I've met, he'll come home tired and hungry and all he'll want to do is shower, sleep and eat. We'll have to learn to leave him to the quiet he'll need, just as now he needs us to act as if Sunday doesn't represent some major change in our lives.

He wants Sunday to be just another day. Just as before he went off to his yeshiva to learn for a few weeks at a time, now he'll go to the army. No fundamental difference, he wants to believe. But for us, it represents every possible difference in the world. But this is too much for him to handle, too much to take in when he's looking forward and not back at us. He'll go with a clean head and a full heart because we won't burden him with our worries and fears.

Oh, he knows we are scared - but what is not spoken isn't heard...or so a young 19-year-old on the threshold of tomorrow would believe.

The Night Before - March 24, 2007

Trying to act normal when you feel your life changing from under you is an interesting experience. Elie has just carried his 7 year old sister up to bed. By the time she wakes in the morning, he will have left. She has no real understanding of the moment; I'm not sure Elie does either. Only later in life do things become so heavy. At 7 or 19, life is for the moment. You give or get a kiss goodnight and you don't wonder about who will give you a kiss tomorrow night.

As you get older, you learn that you can't freeze moments. They come and go in an instance and all you can do is hold the image in your mind. Of Aliza jumping up on Elie and of Elie swinging her up in his arms. He's always loved the strength he has over her, that he can lift her up high and make her squeal with delight. He can flip her and play with her as no one else can. She loves it, as does he.

I look back at pictures we have taken over the years and am surprised to see how often she is on his lap. He was just 6 months short of his 13th birthday when she was born. He didn't mind sharing the spotlight when his bar mitzvah came around and so many looked at the adorable 6 month old baby. I was terrified that she would wake up and cry during the service, but she slept peacefully. Even going through high school, when most boys would probably have no interest in a little sister, Elie adored her.

It was Elie that laid down the rule in our house that soda is only for weekends and what we call "happy days." And Aliza accepted it right away. Aliza's world is shifting - first with her older sister getting married two weeks ago and now with Elie going off to the army.

We believe, as is the army custom, that he'll be home next weekend, probably even before Aliza gets a chance to miss him. Tomorrow, his day will start in Jerusalem at a central gathering point for incoming soldiers. This is being repeated all over Israel.

From there, they'll take these young men to a central point in Tel Aviv. They'll get their alloted supplies - the uniforms, socks, boots, washing kits and more. Those that need haircuts will get those as well. Elie is thinking of going to the mall tonight to have his hair cut, though I'm not sure he even needs it.

They'll sleep the first night at this central point, before being dispersed all over Israel to the training camps that will be his home away from home for the next 2 months of basic training. By nightfall tomorrow, my son will be a soldier. In uniform. Beyond my reach.

This blog, that began as my way of coping with the changes to our family as my son waits to become a soldier now begins a new phase. From tomorrow, it will truly be about a soldier and his mother, rather than about the way in which we prepared for this moment. One thing I have learned over the years is that tomorrow will come in its own good time. For me, I can only bless my son that he should go in peace and come home in peace, knowing that we love him for what he is, who he is, what he will become.