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A Second Induction Day: Shmulik Enters the Army

By Paula Stern
3/9/2010, 12:00 AM
It is rare that life puts you in the same situation twice...even three times...while also giving you the opportunity to measure so easily where you are, where you were, how far you have come. If I hadn't written this all down the first time, I don't know that I'd be able to compare. Memory fades. It's been three years less two weeks. On March 25, 2007, Elie entered the army of Israel. My oldest son, my first soldier and my first real encounter with that massive machine known as the Israeli army.

Well, the day has finally come - arriving with a mixture of so many emotions and unspoken fears. Elie packed his bag last night - as ready to go as he has been for some time now. Perhaps over the weekend, he was a little more playful, a little more "around" us than usual, but this morning, it was all business.

This time it is Shmulik. He packed his bag last night with Elie's guidance. He's prepared to be gone two weeks, though we are relatively certain he'll be home in just 4 days for Shabbat. He wasn't around so much over the weekend. For more than two years now, he's been very serious about a young woman. They want to marry and likely will. He went to the local religious boys' high school; she went to the local religious girls' high school. We lived one block away. He was at her parents' house, though she came to visit us Sunday night for a birthday party for Shmulik.

We got in the car, found the place a short 20 minutes later. There were a few other cars parked in front of the building, each with a young man sitting in the front beside a parent. No one got out to talk to anyone else, each holding those last few minutes. You don't want to speak any great words of wisdom - there aren't any left to be said. You can tell him that you love him, but really, he knows it already. This isn't like school, where he can call if he needs me to come and pick him up. His experiences are now his own and we are left behind in real life, as much symbolized by his walking alone into the building after a few quick words and a refusal to give me a kiss (typical of a teenager boy). I sat outside with nothing to do but go back home.

This time, Shmulik's meeting point was much farther away - about an hour's drive. Last week and for the last few month's I've been working on a national conference of technical writers. It's the fifth conference in four years and was attended by more than 200 people...and as expected, it left me exhausted and even sick. I'm too sick to drive and take him...and so Elie volunteered. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Give them "alone" time to talk about what the army is really like and cut the goodbye time. He doesn't need all that emotion. I spoke to him a few minutes in the morning and yes, I couldn't hold back the "I love you" but added "Give me a call later today" and "I'll speak to you tonight."

I didn't know what with Elie - that I WOULD speak with him later that first day. But Shmulik will have time to call and the army will encourage them. I don't know where he'll sleep tonight; when he'll be moved to his new base. I know he will be given a uniform today, supplies that he needs. Socks, undershirts, a belt. It will be okay - he goes in with a group of 9 other friends who have learned together already for almost two years.

In short, we know only what the army is ready to tell us - and this is how it begins and how it will likely continue for the next 3 years. My son is a soldier in the army of Israel. Why that makes me want to cry, I can't explain when it is something that I have accepted, something in which I feel pride. For now, the fear and worry that threatens to push the pride aside will be my personal battle in the next day and week and year.

I don't feel the need to cry this time and the fear is so much less largely because I know that I don't have to fear today and probably not tomorrow and probably not even for the next week or two weeks or even the first month. He has 8 months of training ahead of him - that's when the real fear begins...or so I tell myself this morning. I won't check the statistics that tell me that in the past year, after the Gaza War ended, we lost more soldiers in training than in attacks.

I won't think about that...I'll focus only on today...each day, for the entire length of his service. The relationship I have now with Elie is so different than the one I had when he went in. He is so much more thoughtful, patient and giving. He was a boy when he went in...impatient and often short-tempered. Last night, I came home from work and went straight to bed. It was Elie who came and asked if he could make me food and brought me tea. That was an outcome of his serving in the army and the relationship that came from his being away from home.

Now Shmulik leaves and I can only hope for the same. They are so different in personalities and it is the differences that worry me. Elie is a fighter and a leader. He learns his rights and makes sure he gets them. He analyzes, he thinks, he determines, he decides...and he doesn't suffer needlessly (nor does he suffer fools).

Shmulik is the gentle one in so many ways. Physically, he is a bit shorter than Elie - opposite Elie's blue eyes, Shmulik's are the darkest of browns, his hair almost black. We have never figured out where Elie got his blue eyes from (only reassured beyond all doubts that he was really ours when our third son was born with the same blue eyes), but there is no doubt Shmulik got his eyes from my husband's mother.

Beyond the physical difference, there is another that does concern me. Most children are very connected to their bodies and with the first, tiny bruise, they come running for a kiss and comfort. You'd need a magnifying glass for some of the "boo-boos" my children came to me with...but not Shmulik.

One Friday night, he came home with a brand new pair of beautiful pants...torn at the knee. I couldn't believe it. I gave him a hard time and told him to go upstairs and change. He returned in short pajamas...and only then did I see that his knee was cut and still bleeding.

"What happened?" I asked him, no longer caring about the pants. He's slipped on the grass while walking through the park with friends and landed on glass. I asked him why...why hadn't he told me. Who cares about the stupid pants? I told him, you have to tell me when you get hurt.

If Shmulik complains, he has a raging fever or a massive headache. I so much prefer the situation where the child complains on all things...to the one where the child complains not at all. That is my greatest fear, I think, with Shmulik.

I trusted Elie to tell me if he needed me. I would run to Shmulik every bit as fast...but I need to know he'll call me. I need to have that trust. So that is my challenge this time around. Last time, it was to battle the fear of the unknown. Now I know so much more...

My son is where I have always wanted him to be, doing what he must do. It is something that Jews have been unable to do for thousands of years - to defend their land and their right to live here. My son is a soldier in the army of Israel.