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08/04/2005

American morning

This morning was business as usual: I unloaded the dishwasher while Charlie sat in his chair after breakfast, contentedly gnawing on a rubber-backed coaster, laying salivary waste to the top half of Central Park. I had the small kitchen TV tuned to CNN on the off chance that some useful nugget of information might somehow fight its way past Charlie's high-pitched yodeling and my sleepy brain's defenses to lodge itself into my consciousness.

I turned my head for a moment to face the screen as I stacked Charlie's bottles in their customary pyramid on the counter, and saw the chiron, "OHIO MOURNS." The anchorwoman said it had been a bloody night in Iraq, bringing the toll to at least 24 American servicepeople dead this week, 19 of them from the same Ohio Marine battalion.

The anchorwoman was speaking to the parents of one young Marine who had died — Edward, called Augie — heroically trying to get them to conform to the network's pro-war thrust. To my surprise, given how recent their loss and how strong my own prejudices, they resisted.

"Was it always his dream to become a Marine?" she asked, for example. No, they answered, but he had always liked to serve, ever since he got his EMT certification in high school. To me they seemed as proud of that as they were of his enlistment; I liked them for it.

I liked them even more when the anchor asked, "Did he feel what he was doing was worthwhile?" Augie's father hesitated, then said, "The longer he stayed, the more he questioned whether it was worthwhile."

The anchor swiftly tried to put his remarks into a more comfortable context. "...What with the insurgents coming back again and again?" No, the Marine's father clarified, and spoke of his son's reluctance to disrupt the lives of the ordinary people of Iraq, subjecting them to searches and uncertainty, constant fear and danger...

Then a brisk "Thank you for being here." Cut to commercial.

Charlie was fussing; he'd thrown his coaster to the floor and wanted it back. I gave it to him, and when I saw his smile of satisfaction as he carefully worked his fingers around it in a still-unperfected grasp, it hit me for the very first time.

There are all kinds of things people tell you you won't understand until you're a parent. If you're infertile, you bitterly resent that, and you might not quite believe it. I didn't. But although I knew it intellectually, I did not understand, until I gave my pajamaed son his coaster and watched him jam it against his gums with a shudder of eagerness, that every soldier who fights and dies was once some mother's baby.

The same parents who spoke of their son's valor while quietly showing their own used to bend and get that jettisoned toy, used to aim that spoon of prunes toward the moving target of a rosebud mouth, used to laugh in exasperation when that baby sneezed with a mouthful of food.

And I know this isn't an original thought. This is what we're supposed to realize, what we forget only at our peril, after all, when we talk about grave subjects like war and death, that we're all connected, that "they" are also "us." But I've never felt it before, not with the visceral lurch of true understanding I felt this morning. And it made me queasy, and it made me cry, and it made me plant my nose at the base of Charlie's neck with uncommon fervor, breathing deeply, wishing it were different for Augie, his parents, everyone, us.

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