Twenty years old is a milestone. No longer a teenager.
"I'm getting old," Elie joked last night. What will you do on your birthday, I asked him. "I'm lucky," he told me. "My unit has patrol duty for the next two days and it's really hot."
"So why are you lucky?" I asked him.
"Because I got kitchen duty and the kitchens are air conditioned." We finished the conversation and I felt saddened that he was so far away.
Are you enjoying the army, "It's fun," he told me, "like camp." He was joking, but he does enjoy the army, the challenges it brings to him, the knowledge, the sense of direction.
Twenty years since the day I first held him. Twenty years since those startling blue eyes opened and looked at me for the first time. For nineteen years, we have celebrated his birthday as a family. Cakes or parties. There were the early birthday parties with families gathered around, and later the parties with his friends. The most exciting was probably the one where we gave out water guns as a prize, only to realize that wasn't the smartest of gifts. It took me hours to clean the mud from the path between the front door and the kitchen and bathroom sinks that were used to reload.
There are two sides to every effort, every gift. In this case, there is the receiver, my son, Elie, and there is the sender, us. How can I reach him today to wish him a happy birthday, to give him a kiss and tell him he should be well and safe and happy. He should live in health and have only good things, all the days of his life, to 120!
The answer, of course, is that with him so far away and restricted to one hour of communication in the late evening, I can't. Even were I to drive for hours, I wouldn't be allowed on the base. Even the road to the base is restricted. This isn't like a school where you call the principal and they let you bring a cake into the classroom.
On the bright side, Elie called last night and I wished him a happy birthday. There are others who know it is his special day and honestly, he's grown past the age of balloons and birthday cakes and surprises. Or has he?
I remembered the new magnet on our refrigerator. Just last week, Elie explained that his friend had recieved a huge package from his parents. They'd called the number on the magnet, paid a fee, and the package was delivered.
So, I called the number and Meital answered. It takes three days and there it is. You have a choice of shampoos, deodorants and personal items, or a second set which contains snacks and food. But I only just learned about this possibility and haven't had a chance to try to order anything, and today is his birthday. In three days, he'll be home for the holiday of Shavuot and next week he's got a week of "cultural" training (more on that later)...and, I want him to get a package today.
I feel like a child asking for the impossible, insisting it must be today. "It's his birthday today," I explain to the sweet woman who answers the phone. Meital sounds so young on the phone, "We'll do our best, but we can't promise it will be today."
"But if it isn't today, it won't be worth sending. Tomorrow he's in training and the next day he comes home for the holidays. Next week he's not there either. Isn't there any way it can be today."
"I'll try," Meital says earnestly and I know she is trying.
She calls back a few minutes later, "we need his personal number, the number of his gedud, or maybe his pluga." I don't know the names in English for what she is asking, and for the most part, I don't even have that information.
"You see what you can find out," Meital tells me, "and I'll keep checking to see if there is any way it can be sent today."
"I have his identification number," I tell her when she calls back. It is the number he received at the airport the day we moved to Israel, just a few digits above my number.
"No, we need his army number," Meital explains. "Can't you ask him?"
"No, I can't reach him." His phone is turned off during the day. In fact, the only one in the unit that is allowed to carry his phone with him is the young man who lives in Sderot with his wife. Because Sderot is constantly under attack by rockets coming from Gaza, he is allowed to have the phone open and his wife and relatives send him messages telling him that they are unhurt after each barrage. He gets to go home to her every Thursday and return on Sunday. But I don't have his number.
I don't have Elie's commanding officer's number. I try sending Elie a text message, knowing that he won't see it until this evening when he turns on his phone.
It's such a small country, I think to myself. Why does it take three days? While Meital checked if there was anything she could do to ensure Elie would receive a package today, I frantically searched for a bank statement showing a deposit the army had made to his account. Finally something good. I found his army number but Meital wasn't sure it was enough.
The name of the base. "That's like trying to send a package to 'a patient' in Tel HaShomer Hospital," Meital told me.
I started rattling off all the details of where Elie is serving. Artillery. "Everyone on that base is artillery."
"Basic training." He's just started. Ok, explains Meital, there are regular soldiers and those in basic training, but still that doesn't help much.
I know the first name of his commanding officer. Meital didn't even answer that.
I know a two-digit number, but I don't know if it is the number of his unit, his brigade, his platoon. I don't even know what they are called. He's in a special unit, I explained, and gave her the initials of the unit. But there are probably many similar units. "He's working on kitchen duty today, does that help?" I ask, knowing that it won't. Meital took it all down and promised she would get back to me again.
After exhausting all that I know, I realized it wasn't much and began to despair just a little. I'll make him a cake when he gets home, and we'll fill his room with pictures and balloons. It won't be the same as reaching out to him on his birthday, but it'll have to suffice. I'll have to settle for the conversation we had last night and his promise that he would try to call again tonight. It will have to do...and next year, I'll remember to start three days before his birthday, to make sure I can reach him.
A few minutes ago, Meital called. As a one time thing, they would get him the package today. Soon, Elie will receive a large package filled with every Israeli kid's favorite snacks, Bamba, Bisli, chocolate chip cookies and more. Too much for one soldier, his friends will come to see the large package and they'll all wish him a happy birthday.
"Mazel tov," Meital said to me, "I'm so glad that we could do it."
So, my Elie - mazel tov. May you go from strength to strength, this year and every year. May you be blessed with sweet things, happy thoughts, health and success. May we celebrate more birthdays together than apart and may you know, on all the birthdays that we aren't with you, that you are much loved.
And thank you, Meital, for helping one mother feel more connected.