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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

How My Daughter's Death Taught Me
The Meaning of Life

 

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CHAPTER TWELVE: MICHEL IN IRAQ

I was most impressed with how gracious she was under nerve-racking circumstances while missing all the people she loved at home. Each night as Bob and I came home from work, we'd find the table set with the most amazing gourmet meals, ranging from a shrimp-and-artichoke dish to Bolivian recipes from her mother. And this was Jenny, who had never really cooked before.

In spite of the circumstances, we grew close because our hearts were in the same place. Each day, we crossed off the date on a calendar and lit candles and said prayers at Grace Cathedral across the street from our home. We even alternated weeks when each of us would send a care package. Once when Michel e-mailed a picture that someone had taken in the mess hall at the base, Jenny looked at the plate in front of him and said, "That's just not enough food for Michel. He needs to eat more or he'll be hungry." That, of course, won a mother's heart.

During the first week that Michel was gone, none of us slept well. We were constantly exhausted, which made it difficult to have any semblance of a normal routine. Then Bob came home one night with a journal he had just bought. If we knew in our hearts that Michel was safe, he said, life would return to — well, some semblance of normal. The journal was there for us to write an affirmation every day that started with, "Michel is safe because ..." Jenny and I thought this was a great idea. Each day, the three of us would not only write our affirmations of his safety; but we would also read each other's entries for an added sense of security and certainty about them. The journal had a beautiful design, with a Jim Dyne-styled heart on the front. When I turned it over, unbeknownst to Bob when he bought it, the back cover identified the publisher as Michel Publishing Company, with the same unusual spelling of Michel.

Soon we all began to sleep. Interestingly, a week after hearing of Michel's deployment, I had received a call from a psychiatrist asking if I would be willing to sublet my office. The caller had an unusual name — Jenan — so I asked where she was from. "Iraq," she said. I couldn't believe it. The timing was incredible. I had never known anyone from Iraq and said I couldn't wait to meet her. During the months Michel was away, Jenan became a huge help. For security reasons, he couldn't be specific about the location of his assignment in Iraq, but through bits and pieces of information in his e-mails — an old Iraqi military base, a river nearby — she was able to tell us where he was located. That was an immense relief. My new friend and her husband, also from Iraq, were a great comfort during this time, and since then, we have all become close friends.

So after seven months of care packages, affirmations, dates crossed out, prayers said, and candles lit, the three of us boarded the plane back to Michel's Marine base at Cherry Point. The long-anticipated day had finally come. A woman seated in the row ahead heard us talking about Michel's return and asked if we were going to Cherry Point. I said yes, and she told me about her own son's return. When the plane with returning soldiers approaches, she said, "the welcome-home ceremony is beautiful. The Marine band plays, and the area is decorated with flags, and colorful banners fly high with the names of all those coming home." I got choked up and tearfully told her we couldn't wait to see him.

When I asked her where her son was living now, she said, "He's back in Iraq for another tour of duty, and I don't know where he is." I got tearful again and told her I was sorry, but she was smiling, proud, and full of hope. I was embarrassed in front of this brave mother. My pride in Michel might have been obvious, but the bravery part needed a lot of work. I clearly wasn't a very good military mom. I did not raise my child to go to war. The casualties had been hard to hear about, and the threat of danger seemed more and more intense during the months he was gone. I could not learn about U.S. soldiers killed or wounded without thinking about their families. When one's child goes to war, his family goes with him.

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