I considered performing this piece on Tuesday, but ended up cutting it so that I could deliver the three poems I was performing at a normal human pace, as well as stick a bunch of haiku in my pockets and pull them out at random moments. This piece started as prose, but came out kinda poetry-like, and then I eliminated some sentences and worked on the cadence a little as I thought about performing it.
I originally wrote this piece on November 27, as U.S. troops were leaving Iraq. I had also just learned that my friend’s brother was in all likelihood going to miss the birth of his son.
(It was jarring to have been contemplating this piece for the last two weeks, then to wake up today to this LA Times article on U.S. soldiers posing with Afghan corpses.)
When he comes home, we will greet him with arms wide open. We will fold him back into the family he fought to protect. We will cook him his favorite dishes and remind him of all of the favorite things he longed for while he was away.
We will smile and laugh and cry tears of joy. We will secret our worry away, we will smile bigger to hide that we are concerned. We will watch for the signs and symptoms. We will take turns on guard at night, listening for fitful sleep that would be the warning. We will make sure he is enjoying the things he used to enjoy. We will work extra hard to make the transition smooth, but we will hide our efforts. We will not want him to sense any hint of doubt that he will reintegrate seamlessly.
When he comes home, we will have prepared. We will have tidied his room. We will have sat down the children to remind them not to ask rude questions. We will have removed the careworn toys of war we once naively placed in the hands of our baby boy. We will have practiced our smiles. We will have carefully considered the yellow ribbon on the family car. We will have debated whether this is a symbol of our support and love or a reminder that we will never comprehend what he experienced.
We will tell the neighbors that he is returning. We will have the camera on, trained on his reaction. We will capture the video of dog greeting master, happy whining and jumping all over and wonderful unconditional puppy love. We will analyze the footage and check for any cracks. We will be inwardly vigilant, outwardly relaxed.
We will place his son into his arms. We will snap pictures and we will say congratulations, so that we will not hold our breath. We will smile bigger and cry, but only tears of joy, so that our faces do not betray us. We will tell him that his son has his strong jaw. We will look away politely if a tear rolls down his cheek, and we will wonder later whether that tear is good or bad. We will wonder when it is appropriate to show him the video that he has waited so long to see. And we will watch him watching.
When he comes home, we will be a family again. When he comes home, we will start being a family again. When he comes home –
When he comes home, will it be him who comes home?
* When I first posted this, my friend Christine pointed out that a lot of imagery echoes Andrea Gibson’s “For Eli,” which I have listened to a ton. I don’t disagree that there are echoes.