War takes a toll on mothers, too

April 06, 2003|By Laura Hambleton

I LAY my sleeping son onto a nest of stuffed animals and covered his thin body with a green comforter.

The darkness of night had settled on my house as I tucked this child in, seeing the slender curve of his shoulder as he snuggled under the cover and his close-cropped hair peeked out from beneath the goose-down blanket.

I know every inch of my boy. I know his smell. I know the scar on his forehead where his big brother accidentally hit him with a baseball bat last spring. I know each wart and beauty mark, as I know every perfection and imperfection of each of my three children.

A mother who has spent any amount of time cradling her children just knows these things. Our eyes and minds are trained to record the nuances of our offspring and the information stays with us, always.

I am sure this is the world over. Just as I am sure every slain soldier, every wounded warrior, every captured and besieged fighter or bystander is someone's child. It doesn't matter who is on what side, it doesn't matter who is right or wrong; a mother weeps in Iraq, alongside a mother in America.

I am sure of this. An Iraqi mother was quoted in my local newspaper recently saying a mother's heart hangs with her son's. Where else could it go?

When my 73-year-old mother had small children, the Vietnam War was raging. Since the time my mother was born in 1930, war has been a distant backdrop. Her brother fought in World War II; her sister's husband was a career Army officer. She said Vietnam, though, was so far away from her life of watercress sandwiches and four children in small Wisconsin cities.

"I watched Walter Cronkite every night," she recently told me. "But there were no journalists embedded in the military. They weren't there on the front lines. I remember a headline once in a while. That's the way it was."

Back then, she flicked off her black-and-white television before she tucked in her cherubs, as she called us.

I can do that and I do. But the war is always with me. I read every story about some soldier killed. I did read about the jailed journalists who were freed. I don't read about the strategy. I don't study the maps. I care about the faces of war.

The Pew Research Center recently released a survey saying Americans are growing weary of the war coverage. More and more viewers feel sad or frightened when they watch the war, but six viewers out of 10 surveyed like the fact that journalists are deep within the trenches with American soldiers.

The television coverage is too real for me. I look at my life. I go about my daily routine waiting for a bomb to fall. I imagine my grocery store erupting in rubble. I imagine putting my children to bed amid debris and chunks of broken buildings and lives.

Midweek the week before last a friend who lives a street over called to tell me her ceiling had caved in. Plaster and dust dangled from wooden rafters.

"It was as though a bomb had gone off in my house," she said.

A pipe had burst above and soaked the plaster. A 4-foot hole remains in her ceiling. She was able to cart away the mess, leaving behind traces of white dust that her two children have tracked throughout her house. Nothing more lingers.

Eventually the pipes will be fixed and the hole patched. She and her family will get on with their lives.

Obviously, it won't be so tidy for a mother in Iraq. It won't be so tidy for those returning from war, either.

I run my hand through my boy's prickly hair. I drink up his sleepy smell and switch on the nightlight, knowing I will see his smile in the morning when he climbs into my lap for a long-armed hug.

Laura Hambleton is a free-lance writer who lives in Chevy Chase.

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