Essayist • Teacher • Attorney

Packing for the Ineffable

Apr 11th, 2007

A few years ago, Ms. Jacobs’s stepson secretly quit college and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. In this essay, she recounts the dilemma she faced in selecting a gift for him to take to Iraq. It was previously published in The New York Times:

I have a photograph of the guns he packed. Apparently, it is true that a rifle is a marine’s best friend. Greg will travel, indeed sleep, with his weapons. My husband snapped the photo and e-mailed it from North Carolina, right after he put Greg on the bus that took him to the airstrip where he began his journey to Iraq.

We are now 48 hours into a 210-day tour. I write “we,” though it is Greg, our 19-year-old son, who will actually serve the time. And I include myself in the equation, although I am not related to Greg by blood, having met and married his father only six years ago.

What do you give to a soldier bound for Iraq?

Each soldier is limited to a knapsack and two sea bags—what civilians would call duffels. Space is tight. Once Greg packed his firearms, there was hardly room for any of the other paraphernalia that might make seven months in Iraq bearable, assuming that such a thing is possible.

I am not there for the send-off, but confident that he made room for his iPod. “I would lose my mind without it,” he told me during his last visit home. “What makes you think you won’t lose your mind anyway?” I wanted to ask. But that is exactly the kind of thing I can never say.

My husband reports that Greg took a stack of DVD’s to play on his laptop, another piece of electronic equipment that he presumably managed to cram into his bags. But I have few details. I do not know, for example, whether he chose comedies or combat films to while away the downtime, if such a thing exists.

And I know precious little about what else he stuffed into his bags. Just as well, I think. It would be all too reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book that I picked up and then put down somewhere around Page 10. Right after the nervous guy who carried the tranquilizers took a bullet in the head. Besides, if he doesn’t make it, we’ll know soon enough what he carried. Don’t they send the stuff home?

Sometimes, however, curiosity gets the better of me. And then I wonder if the three items I sent made the cut.

Choosing those articles was tricky. What do you give to a young man who has decided to put himself in harm’s way? It must be small, it must be light, and it must be thoughtful. And because I am only his stepmother, it cannot be overly sentimental. Technically speaking, I do not have a place card at this party. I would be wise to tread lightly. So I opt for a prayer, a book, and a journal, which, in a lighter moment, my husband predicts will come home still encased in its shrink-wrap. I accept the teasing with good humor, and laugh. That’s O.K., as long as Greg doesn’t come home wrapped in anything.

At Christmas, Greg casually mentioned that when this is all over, he wants to climb Mount Everest. “Sounds like a good plan,” my husband replied. Sounds like another ridiculously dangerous decision.

But I keep quiet, switch lenses, and refocus on my stepson’s optimism and on his unspoken assumption that he will come home in one piece. Healthy enough to undertake such an arduous expedition. And that premise makes selecting a book easy.

“Great choice,” says the cashier at the bookstore, when I plunk down a paperback copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

But Ari, my 17-year-old daughter, is cautious. “Do they all make it?” she asks, examining the book jacket.

“Of course,” I answer.

But later, I am not so sure. After the book is gift wrapped, and it’s too late to retrieve it from my husband’s luggage, I suddenly recall the image of empty oxygen bottles and frozen corpses littering the path to the summit. But then, that little voice in my brain—the one that excuses bad behavior and stupid decisions—begins to rationalize: “Oh well, better that he knows the risks up front. Besides, it’s a page-turner. It will help to kill time in Iraq.” Assuming of course, that Iraq doesn’t kill him.

The prayer I pick is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim. Perfect for a member of this hodgepodge of a family, a patchwork of people, faiths and traditions. It is an old Celtic blessing, famous for its entreaty for the safekeeping of a loved one. An ideal choice. If anyone needs to be held in the hollow of God’s hand, then it is this sweet boy, who by some combination of fate and ill luck has pulled the short straw. The one that requires him to man the machine gun in the Humvee. Isn’t that the most dangerous job? Do they know that he is 6-foot-4? How will he be able to keep his head down? But that is exactly the kind of thing I can never say.

Instead, I type and retype the prayer, playing with the format and font until it is the size of a small card. Tiny enough to fit in a pocket—or hold in a private moment of panic. And then, at the last minute, I decide to laminate the slip of paper. I remember how my children loved that wonder film when they were young. How they coated everything they could lay their hands on. I still carry their shiny library cards in my wallet, tangible proof of their enthusiasm and wobbly beginner signatures. So I dig out the roll of plastic from the closet. This way, it won’t get torn. And he can still read the prayer if it gets wet, in case anybody spills anything on it. “Like blood,” a scary voice whispers.

By now, Greg is halfway around the world. Most likely in Kuwait, cooling his heels and waiting for transport to the real action. Already, he is lucky not to have been on that helicopter that was shot down by a missile. The one I read about in the morning while I sipped my coffee—and did not mention to my husband.

But my efforts to shield my spouse proved futile. Of course he spotted that headline. How could he miss it? We are now on red alert. No detail about Iraq goes unnoticed. We listen to the evening news like bloodhounds, thirsty for the scent of our beloved son.

“Don’t worry,” I tell my husband. “Bad news travels on wings. We will know soon enough if there is a problem.”

But silently, I worry. What if I am wrong? What if, in our upper-middle-class complacency, we assume the best and suffer the worst? What if the death notification squad arrives late, after we have read the newspaper? How will we bear it? But that is exactly the kind of thing I can never say.

Two hundred and eight days to go.

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