Army fatigues creeping out of dusty boots plop down across the narrow aisle, knee to knee with us in the Atlanta airport.  His duffle bag exhales.  Cropped hair edges out over his sun-toasted face; eyes bulge behind thick lenses.  He peers at us with a leaky need for conversation.  Our plane is two hours late, and counting.

We hear stories of his twelve tours of combat duty:  Grenada, Desert Storm, Kosovo, more.  Reports on his two daughters, now grown; his wife and mother living side by side in small town Ohio.  Iraqi cell phone, he laughs, waving it helplessly; so with ours he dials home.  Probably at the grocery, he explains when his eighty year old Mother doesn’t answer, getting my favorite things.

After some time, we draw our eyes back to the book, the laptop; his monologue motors on.  As a civil engineer – that’s how he survived thirty years in combat zones.  Neither side wants to kill me, he laughs.  I build bridges for ‘em.  After I leave, they blow’m up.  Though his limbs survive, his mind is clearly burnt by the heat of war.  We rose, at last, and wished him well; we boarded for Birmingham.

The van pulls up with mother peering out, searching the crowd for our faces; Dad back in the wheelchair well, clicked and battened into place.  At the Fish Market, strangers graciously stand to let the wheelchair squeeze by.  We close in around a corner table and indulge our common fondness for oysters.  Dad cannot talk while eating:  we prattle on about the projects we are engineering.

My parents live in a combat zone.  It is a battle to get up in the morning, to wrap the uncompliant body in a net that can hoist it from bed to chair. Extra arms assist the rise of food to the lips or the reach of arms to the sink.  Words are won with singular focus,  the concentrated firing of breath.  The breakfast room is indeed a mess hall;  eating is hit or miss.

In this desert of survival and setback, my father builds bridges, nonetheless.  At the desk, of course, where he still wrings out proposals of peace for the bickering church he loves.  But also in the light of his face, extended to the frightened new caregiver, to the waitress who welcomes him each Sunday noon, to the neighbor’s grandson, little Price, who asks to go see the man in the big chair.  In all of the small crises the day brings, he bridges our worries with a calm, forgiving air.  He glows like the president of a new peaceable world, beyond all barriers, where all is one.

At the airport heading back home, the young man in front of us has no legs.  Chrome shines from shorts to shoes where flesh once lived.  He has no right arm, either; a stump is there.  I am momentarily sunk by the ravages of war.  Or life.  Yet, he speaks with a voice round and strong and solid.  A voice that makes me want to weep, for the compassion and respect it holds in it, his dark face also beaming.  Bridges he is building, too; not with his hands, of course, but with all he’s got left.  All we’ve ever got.  Our broken pieces.  Our broken open lives.  Our presence to one another.

~ by Susan on 05/31/2011.

3 Responses to “a.landscape.(of)survival.”

  1. Oh my. I am ravaged by these words, this truth, the brokenness and the bridged. I’ve eaten in that mess hall. I’ve heard and felt the concentrated firing of breath. I’ve loved the wounded warrior, the shrunken and silenced matron of that frail peaceable kingdom. God bless little Price, and all who offer their presence.

  2. What a beautiful post. It speaks, it resonates to those of us who consider ourselves veterans in the world of disability, those of us caring for children with disabilities —

    • thank you, Elizabeth. Your own blog of riotous peonies and an equally riotous poem made me sing. http://www.elizabethaquino.blogspot.com Stephanie sent me home with a bouquet of peonies from her mother’s memorial service and they bloomed like foolish girls for days. I love nothing more than their uncensored faces.

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