Love Notes From Afghanistan
My husband Paul had been serving in Afghanistan for almost a year now and, oh, how the kids and I missed him. Sure, we could Face Time once a week when he wasn’t out on a mission, but I craved his smell and the warmth of his breath on my face. For the kids, it was a bedtime cuddle.
Willow our youngest was fifteen-months old now. He'd missed her first tooth, the first time she took a step and many other things that dad's enjoyed. She would and run to the laptop calling say Dada, Dada, she didn’t understand. Eight-year-old Jake did though. He missed playing ball with his dad and trips to our cabin by the lake. He and Paul collected firewood each day and lit the ‘biggest bonfire in the world’. I tried to fill in for Paul.
‘Don’t even try, Mum, you can’t do it like Dad.'
That hurt. I settled for a gas burner inside the cabin and Jakes’ best friend, Alex, joined us.
Watching Jake struggle broke my heart.
The children couldn’t possibly understand the ways in which I missed Paul. A quirky raising of an eyebrow was all it took for me to put the kids to bed early and curl up with him in front of a good movie, with a single malt in one hand and his arm around my neck. Then we’d make our way into a night of the most exquisite lovemaking. And his cheeky grin when Jake asked us the next morning why we left our clothes ‘all over the place’.
Most of all though was his gift of being able to calm my fears and convince me things would be okay. Like when I was doing my PhD at Cornell. I was missing timelines for my thesis.
‘They’ll throw me off the course, Paul.’
‘No they won’t, how about I take the kids to the cabin for a couple of days. You can have the house and all the time you want to work on it. But first call your supervisor, she’ll understand.’
Paul. The voice of reason.
And then he was gone. Each night I’d hug his pillow and breathe in his scent, relive the lovemaking. Tears fell because my heart could no longer take the pain. Like rain they fell until the clouds could no longer take its heaviness. I let them flow, hoping for a brighter tomorrow.
Paul wasn’t there to catch them.
I smiled every time a found one of the many ‘love notes’ he’d hidden around the house before he left. I wanted them to last so Jake and I allowed ourselves just one each day. They finally dried up, as did my tears. I kept everyone of them in a jewellery box. They were my jewels, my gems.
Taco Bell had to wait until Paul got back. It was his and Jake’s ‘special’ time together. We passed there every Sunday on our way to church. Jake would look the other way.
‘The next time your Dad takes you there, Jake, will be when he’s back home with us for good. You’ll like that.’
We belonged to Oceanside Christian Fellowship, a church that Paul and his family had attended; where we got married and had the children baptised. Pastor Bob Darling kept an eye on us.
‘Your Paul’s a hero, Alice. He’s doin’ his country proud.’
Prayers were said, not just for Paul but for all those serving in what Bob termed the “most outrageous conflict that America should never have got involved in.”
This got him into trouble with some of the older members of the church who held the staunch belief that a man should “live and die for his country”. But this was twenty-fifteen and those whose loved ones were fighting for world peace understood.
Each Thursday evening the families would gather at Bob’s house for a barbecue. The kids played together and we Mums talked about anything and everything, just not the war. Karen Jones had
just had twins, Mavis Richmond had started up a women’s garden group. An invitation to join was prized by many. I was happy doing my volunteer work in the church office.
As much as I tried not to, I'd look across the lawn to where the men congregated searching for Paul’s face.
Every Sunday afternoon, the kids and I sat in front of the laptop waiting for the much longed for ‘ping’ that announced Face Time and our chat with Paul. Sometimes it didn’t ‘ping’, that’s when I panicked. I prayed for an email some days later. It was better than nothing. My family were in Florida but Paul’s folks lived close by, we were close.
One day instead of the post being left in the mailbox, there was a knock on the front door.
‘Here missus, I think you’ll like what I have for you,’ the postman said as he handed me a securely wrapped package with the official seal of the US army in one corner. I took it inside.
‘Jake, come see what your Mom has.’
Jake was jumping out of his skin. I was trembling at the thought that loving, caring Paul had held the parcel himself and would have been just as excited as the rest of us. I pictured him carefully choosing suitable gifts and imagined the exotic sounds of the afghan markets he had so vividly described. I handed Jake the parcel while I went to wake Willow from her morning nap. When I came back, he had it up to one ear.
‘Something’s rattling inside, hurry and open it, Mom.’
It took what seemed an age to cut through all the tape and wrapping. Finally it gave way and I let Jake finish opening it. He pulled out a bag of marbles, a small car and his favourite of all, a pack of notes written by Paul.
‘Would you hide these for Jake, Alice, I know how much he loves finding them.’
Willow’s gift was a traditional Afghani doll. She took it in her arms and hugged it. ‘Dada, Dada.’
It tore at my heart.
The last gift, a small box tied with a dark red ribbon, came with its own message.
‘This is for you, Alice, hope you like it.’ I opened the box to find the most beautiful pale blue lapis lazuli ring. ‘I chose this one because it matches your eyes.’
I wore the ring every day. And the look of delight on Jake’s face when he found one of the notes I’d hidden made my heart sing. Even from thousands of miles away, Paul was still with us.
A cascade of gold from the sycamores heralded fall. We spent as much time as possible at the lake before it became snowed in. I saw Paul everywhere out there. Jake tried hard to make up for his dad. He cut wood, stoked the fire and even got the boat in from the middle of the lake and secured it into the shed.
We played marbles on the rough wooden table in the kitchen. My beautiful ring caught the weak sunlight coming through the window. It shone like a star. Willow had her doll.
Paul’s folks joined us for the Columbus Day weekend. We laughed at stories about Paul when he was a kid and looked through an old photo album. I saw Jake in every picture of Paul. We never broke the golden rule – no sad talk.
Snow began to fall in early November. I laughed at the snowman Jake built and called ‘Dad’, beside which was ‘Mom’. A smaller one was Willow.
‘What about you, Jake?’
‘Dad always does mine.’
I put my arm around his shoulders.
‘He’ll be here next winter, I promise. Let’s do it together.’ We made snowballs and threw them at each other. ‘You’re the man of the house now, Jake, we’ll build one for you as big as your dad.’
He liked that.
Paul’s deployment was only ever to be three months but that became four and so on. I kept a video diary of the kids. Willow’s first steps, the first time she said Dada and best of all, when she coloured the hallway walls with one of my lipsticks. Jake and I had a devil of a time removing it.
Jakes drama teacher arranged to have a professional video done of the school play. Jake, the Artful Dodger, was very proud of himself.
As the months passed, I couldn’t help but notice how much Jake was becoming like his Dad. He was a quiet, caring boy who loved playing pranks and especially loved those secret notes Paul sent in his monthly parcel to us.
'When I have my own family I'm going to do the same thing for them.'
Camp Alamo near Kabul where Paul was stationed, sat in a valley surrounded by high mountains. As winter came on, Paul was often dressed in a heavy coat with ear muffs now attached to his cap, much the same as Jake and Willow wore when they went outside. As the weather closed in, communication from Kabul was severely interrupted. Instead of the weekly FaceTime call we had to make do with an email every now and then. And then there was nothing.
I scoured the newspapers for any updates on any escalation of hostilities. I contacted the Department of Defence, to no avail. I stayed upbeat for the kids’ sake but the constant knot in my stomach and night-time tears overwhelmed me. Jake must have heard me one night because he came into my bed and cuddled up to me.
‘I’m frightened, Mom.’ And he began to cry.
My faith in our Lord comforted me. Pastor Bob sent a group of women from church to visit me. Though well intentioned, their constant chatter about grandfathers who’d fought in the war in the Pacific or, in the case of a couple of older women, son’s who were going to sign up did nothing to comfort me. Neither did their ‘small minded’ talk about women in the community who had transgressed in the most trivial way.
‘Why, Tanya - May Wilson didn’t come to Bible reading last week. Said she had something important crop up. It was a visit to the hairdresser, I known that for sure because we have the same hairdresser and she told me.’
I’d had enough. The following day when I was at the office with Pastor Bob, I asked him to suggest to them that they find other ways to help not just me, but all the women in our church who had serving husbands. I breathed a sigh of relief when one after the other, they rang to offer their apologies for the next ‘get together’.
And then the news that I’d dreaded came. Paul had been killed in action. If ever I needed my faith it was then. Telling Jake was impossible. Paul’s folks helped me with that. He spent days shut in his room. I allowed him time off school. Willow who was about to have her second birthday clung onto her doll. ‘Dada, Dada, Dada dead.’ Had I mentioned that word in her presence?
Days turned into weeks before my beautiful Paul’s body came home. The three of us plus Paul’s folks stood on the tarmac at New Castle Air, National Guard Base in Delaware as his cask, draped in the US flag, made it’s way slowly into a hangar set up for repatriations. Jake saluted as the cask went by.
We would never get over Paul’s death but life had to go on. Jake was chosen to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the school’s Xmas play. I was so proud. Learning lines and making costumes were a welcome distraction from the loneliness. The craving for Paul’s body wrapped around mine, and the endless nights of lovemaking were unbearable. And there were the little things. His cheeky grin, and warm cuddles.
What we as a family missed most of all were those tiny notes, sometimes written on pieces of used envelopes or a page from his notebook which still had the indentations of his hand writing etched into the surface. Jake wanted me to continue that tradition.
‘When Willow is old enough to enjoy them,’ was my way of saying no. It could never be the same.
The night of the first performance of arrived. Willow, who would not let her doll out of her grasp, laughed when she saw Jake dressed up as Scrooge. Then she held up her doll, ‘Dada, Dada,’ she repeated over and over again. I took a deep breath hoping to hjold back tears.
When we got to the school, Jake was reluctant to get out of the car. Finally I talked him into it. I was waiting in the wings with him to go on stage. I looked into the audience. Paul’s Mom was holding Willow. I waved to them. Willow lifted the doll in the air.
When it was time for Jake to make his entrance, he hesitated.
‘Go on Jake, I think there’s someone watching, look up to heaven.’
He smiled and did as I said, just as Paul would have done in the same situation, then strode onto the stage. I could almost hear the intake of breath when he put his hand into one pocket and pulled out one of Paul’s notes. One I’d been keeping for just the right time. The one that said ‘keep smiling.’