Thursday, June 28, 2007

It's Really Green

It was a long, hot week in Israel. Hard to believe that summer is just starting and already we've had days and days of hot, hot, hot weather. Elie is in a place where it is so hot, he told me that they could melt marshmellows outside in the sun. The army is very strict about respecting the heat and the dangers it presents. Soldiers are ordered to drink at regular intervals, ordered to wear hats outdoors. Soldiers are given permission to wear sunglasses when their eyes are sensitive to the sun and depending on the level of heat, training may come to a halt or be rescheduled for cooler hours.

This past week was dedicated to training on the equipment that the men of the artillery division will use in war. Elie and three others learned how to drive these massive vehicles. Because of the heat, they were required to do more training at night. This is also important because there is always the possibility in real life that they will have to drive these large armored vehicles at night. Elie was given night vision goggles to help him see.

"It's really green," he told me, "just like on TV." I laughed when I heard that, reminding me that deep inside the man, remains the boy. There isn't much more Elie could tell me about his training and what will happen in the weeks to come. Undoubtedly, the army is preparing for whatever threats it envisions will be presented to Israel this summer and in the months to follow. It's a scary time. Iran continues to make noises about going nuclear. Syria has now stockpiled tens of thousands of missiles. Hizbollah in Lebanon continues to threaten the north and is much emboldened by last summer's apparent victory and not so far from Elie's base, Gaza remains a hotbed of violence and terror.

For now, it looks like Elie's unit will remain in the south for the next few weeks to complete their basic training. "They want to keep people out of the north," is Elie's suggested reason. This coming week, Elie will continue to learn about the artillery aspects of his military service.

Again, Elie was on base for the Jewish Sabbath, taking his turn patrolling. This week he'll be training again and less on patrol. He tells me he still has cookies to spare and will be home next weekend. And so it goes, from week to week, as he reaches the end of this first part of his service. Three months have passed - one more and he finishes his basic training.

Tonight, the heatwave finally broke and it is likely cool in the desert. For the next few days, Elie and his unit should enjoy moderate temperatures, lessons in air-conditioned rooms, and patrol responsibilities on occasion. He lives, it seems, in a parallel universe to ours. Our lives have shifted to summer vacation and a different schedule from the rest of the year. His life remains one of intense scheduling...to the minute...to the hour. Last week after several days of training at all hours to avoid the heat, he was excited to be able to get 7 hours of sleep.

Next week, he will be home.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Coming Home

After being away for 21 days, Elie came home to...well, if not a hero's welcome, at least a hero's hug. Within minutes of walking through the door, while still in uniform, Elie's youngest sister heard his voice and came running down the steps. As we were talking to Elie, she got to the bottom step, happily called out his name, and literally launched herself at him. She was caught in waiting arms and lifted high into the air to receive a hug.

She clung to him; he clung to her. It had been a long time for both and reminded me that if we go visit him again, we will take her with us for the trip. I had hesitated last week, not relishing the idea of 6 hours of driving with a 7-year old who would get bored and want to be entertained, would need to stop and want to move around. It was a mistake, overall, and that single, almost -desperate hug was proof.

Elie got home early enough to help run errands and do things around the house. We drove down to the neighborhood local store, where Elie was greeted along the way and asked how he was doing, what he was doing. There's a funny custom in Israel to abbreviate common phrases. The newspapers are filled with them (Racham - stands for Rosh HaMemshalah, or Prime Minister). Elie has begun talking in abbreviations, assuming we will understand them.

On Thursday, I'd done the weekly shopping and there had been a sale on ice cream popsicles. Taking a break on Friday afternoon, we pulled out the ice cream and everyone started claiming a flavor. Only one vanilla was left, and that was what a few people wanted - and out came Elie's claim that he should get it because, "I'm in the army."

It was just another sign that the army has become a part of our lives, something integrated into our family, no longer something strange and foreign, but accepted enough to be used (and ignored) by Elie and his siblings. Elie still got the vanilla, but more because of strength and being the first one to grab the popsicle in question, rather than any feeling that we had to cater to him.

We learned more about what Elie has been doing and will be doing, what he has learned and what he will learn. In a few weeks, he will have completed his basic training completely and there will be a ceremony in which he will be given the beret of his division - sort of a turquoise color. At first, the army was talking about having this ceremony further north, near a memorial for the artillery division. According to the latest thinking, the ceremony may take place at Elie's current base in the south, as a culmination to a long overnight march. They may even invite the parents to march along with the soldiers for the last 2 kilometers or so to reach the site of the ceremony. Then Elie will get a week of vacation - a whole week.

Of course, all this depends on Hizbollah and Hamas and their plans for the summer. A week off - training in the south, possible plans for training in the north later in the summer. It is all plans right now, as Israel and the army wait to see what will happen in the days and weeks ahead. We had guests for lunch and at some point, I tuned into the conversation that the young people at the table were having. For much of the conversation, it seemed an accepted idea that a war this summer is inevitable.

And finally, tonight after the Sabbath ended, I drove Elie into Jerusalem to buy him sneakers. Each soldier gets a coupon from the army allowing him to purchase sneakers at a much discounted price. What should have cost 850 shekels (about $210), cost only 180 NIS (about $45). I asked Elie if he would be taking his new sneakers back to the army with him and he said he wanted to ruin his current pair of sneakers first and save these. This is another example of how the army is very attentive to the physical needs of the soldiers. Elie told me one story of a young soldier who has a bump or a lump on the side of his foot. When his commanding officer saw the lump that was causing the soldier pain when wearing the heavy and hard boots, the officer told the soldier to go to the doctor where, according to the commanding officer, the soldier would be scheduled for an operation to remove the lump.

The soldier went to the doctor who was quite amused by the concept that the soldier should have his foot adapted to the boot, rather than the other way around. The doctor gave the soldier written orders to have a boot made to his foot, and this is what the army did.

As the weekend comes to an end, we prepare to slip back into what has become routine. Tomorrow morning, Elie will get up early (he's already packed a large container of homemade cookies rather than risk forgetting them again) and head back to his base to continue his "classroom" and simulation training. His next time home is expected to be in 2 weeks. During that time, he will miss the end-of-the-school year celebrations of his sister and brothers, a family birthday celebration of his new brother-in-law, and numerous other little things that seem silly to mention during those short evening conversations.

But what we have come to accept is that the little things we don't get to mention while he is away often catch up when he gets home. And what we truly remember are the bigger things, like his sister's joyous greeting. This is enough to see us through...till he comes home again.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Visitor's Day

Ever wondered how to find a secret military base that is off-limits to civilians? Do you look on a map? Ask friends who served in the army? Set off in the general direction of the desert and start asking around? Well, that's about what it comes down to, I thought, when Elie told me on Thursday that the army was allowing parents to visit their children the next day.

When I asked Elie if he could explain how to get there, he joked, "Look for the sign that says, 'Secret Military Base'". To make matters worse, Elie would not be available during the time we were driving. By my best calculations, it would take us about 3 hours to reach his base - in each direction. During that time, Elie would be in class/training and unable to take our phone calls. At noon, he was required to go eat lunch - that's a 20 minute deal, leaving him 10 minutes to get to the front of the army base to meet us. At that point, he could call us...

In the middle of the night, I woke up, thinking what I needed to bring him. He'd asked for the backgammon set that was too big to fit in the box I'd mailed last week and one other small item.

What else? Some gum, two bottles of frozen ice tea that he likes, the backgammon set, of course. The grapes looked good in the morning when I stopped in the store, and so I picked up a container. Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath, is a time in our home when we all (or at least the men, when I feel like being lazy) go to the synagogue. These mornings include a quick breakfast of sweet pastries to keep the hunger away until we return and eat lunch. I brought Elie a bag of these chocolate and cinnamon danishes as well. Because Elie told me he would have just finished lunch, I packed a few sandwiches for us, some bottles of cold water and a few other things and we were ready.

Because it was Friday morning and the Sabbath begins at sundown, I quickly prepared what I would serve for dinner and lunch on Saturday for the family (or part of it) and gave Shmulik a list of when to turn things over or turn things off.

We set out from Maaleh Adumim at around 10:15 - later than I'd planned. Still, we made good time, initially following the map in the general direction. We had some assistance. His base is located near some prominent archaeological ruins of the same name and so we figured, if we could arrive near there, Elie could help us (or we'd flag down some soldier...or perhaps just follow the loud booms?).

We took the major highway heading south, bypassed Beersheva, and continued heading deeper into the desert. We passed Bedouin encampments and signs that warned us that there might be camels on the road. We kept going, not completely sure we were headed in the right direction and each time we passed some military installation, I wondered if perhaps we'd gone wrong some where.

We took the left turn off the highway and immediately, the road's quality started to deteriorate. We weren't even sure if we were on the correct road, but about 2 minutes later, Elie called and we told him we'd just taken the turn. I could hear the happiness in his voice as he stayed on the phone and guided us the last mile or so.

"As soon as you take the next turn, I'll see you," he told us, and sure enough, with the next left turn, "I see you - just keep coming straight and you'll come to me." That was all I'd had in mind when he told me that we could visit - getting to him. His voice, at that moment, told me all I needed to know. He was fine. He was happy. We were right to take this time and drive to visit him.

We spent a little over an hour with him before we had to make the long journey home. At one point, we called Elie's grandmother and let them speak on the phone.

The base is in the middle of nowhere - hot, dusty, flies all around. We met Elie at the outer gate of the army base, and he directed us to a fenced in area just to the left. We sat down at an outdoor table and looked around. Elie pointed in one direction to show where they have camped out in the past, and in another direction to show where they have shooting practice. In the distance, we could hear artillery shells occasionally.

Elie explained about how his unit was responsible for guard duty this week and pointed to the various guard positions circling the area where we sat, and the much larger base nearby. Elie's job over the weekend was to be "prepared" in case something happens. That means he must sleep with his boots on, ready to wake and run to whatever is required. We talked about what he was learning, the hours of study, the conditions.

He wasn't sure if he should take the grapes, "they'll just go bad." I told him to take them and share them with the others in his tent. He smiled when he saw the pastries, "breakfast tomorrow," he said happily. He still had cookies from one large container left (one of the two I'd mailed to him last week) and was very happy about the ice tea we brought. "I was going to buy some," he told us.

We told him about the broken door lock on the car and how his younger sister had wanted to come visit today. We told him about how one brother was going to be a camp counselor this summer and another was going to attend the same camp. All the silly things you don't have time to say on the telephone come rushing out in no particular order, to be spoken and quickly forgotten.

While we talked, other families arrived and each sat with their son at a separate table under shaded protection. It was hard to know who to feel sorrier for - the families that got there before their sons, or the sons who got there before their families. Both looked so forlorn at times and I again thought how lucky we were to have gotten so close to the base at the exact time Elie had been released and could meet us.

Each family had brought food, a ritual of comfort. Some families brought whole meals (even metal utensils and nice plastic dishes). Others brought the makings of sandwiches, cakes, and fruit. The soldiers snacked and talked and relaxed, waving to each other as they arrived, but more concerned to see their parents and siblings than anything else.

As it got later in the day, knowing we still had a long drive ahead of us, we took our leave. Judging by how many families came and the large visiting area set up around the base, it is clear to see that visiting your son in the army is yet another Israeli institution, another thing about the army we have learned.

All too soon, it was time to go. A quick hug and kiss and we were off. "I'll see you next week," Elie said as we waved goodbye. A few hours later, as we arrived home, Elie called us to wish us a peaceful Sabbath and thanked us for coming. The sound of his voice as we told him we had just taken the turn towards his base and would be there in a few minutes, and the thank you we received when he called us later all make the almost 6 hours of driving worth every minute. He's very far physically, but it isn't an insurmountable distance. This was the message we gave to Elie. As he learns what he has to learn and does what he has to do, he does it more easily and with less loneliness in his voice because he can reach out to his family and we'll come to him when we are allowed to visit.

Oh, and the grapes were all gone by the time we got home.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Unspoken Little Things

As we approach the day when Elie will have been in the army for three months, the one lasting impression I have so far is one of separation. The distance is made so much greater by the fact that we have lost the ability to speak to him beyond the one hour per day that he is given before he goes to bed.

This is not a normal separation in a day and age when the cellular phone makes most people constantly available. Once there was a time when you would be out of contact for hours traveling or in meetings. Those days are long gone here in Israel and throughout much of the world. Elie has had a cellular phone for several years now. It is a natural reaction when you live in a place where terrorists target buses, and high school kids rely on this same mode of transportation to get to and from school, friends, and after-school activities.

My three oldest children have had strict orders for years - if something blows up, anywhere, any time, you call me. It doesn't matter if it happened three hours away, only that I need to hear their voices, to know they are safe. For so long, the phone has been a means for the children to communicate with me, to reassure me, to reach out to me.

It was, in some ways, a communication that I needed and it was their willingness to oblige. They called me when they needed me and certainly use the phone for conversations and text messages with their friends, but I willingly pay the bill because I know that I can reach them, that they carry around a device that enables me to be in touch with them 24 hours per day. Now that has changed. Elie has the phone, but I can't call him. I can't reach him when I want. He has to reach out to me. And even more important, for the first time, I feel that Elie needs the conversation more than I do. The conversations seem longer, more about him and more a way to fill a need that he seems to have.

He tells me about learning in an air-conditioned classroom, something much appreciated as Israel slips into summer. He tells me about the meals he eats and something about the guys in his unit. His smaller group has been separated from the other units, as they begin learning the specifics of the task the army has set before them. The basic training has been left behind and his commanding officer has eased up some of the conditions.

Previously, they were given one hour before going to sleep to spend relaxing, playing, reading, calling home. Until last week, when the hour was up, the soldiers were required to once again assemble outside their tents and wait until the commanding officer came to bid them good night. There are many reasons for this. They are allocated 6 hours of sleep per night, and only 6 hours. This too is part of the training, teaching the body that the mind rules, that their lives are controlled to the minute and all things come in measureable dosages. Twelve minutes to do this, 4 minutes to do that. One hour until bed, etc.

Those who are late are required to give the army back time, and so are allowed to go home only one hour after others are dismissed. Elie told me about how the commanding officers came and did a "surprise" gun inspection, complaining to some of the soldiers about the condition of their gun. Elie's gun was very clean and the officers praised him for how he maintained it.

Now, having finished the first part of basic training, things have changed and Elie no longer has to assemble outside after the hour ends. They bid the commanding officer good night and have exactly one hour before they have to go to sleep. During that hour, they must shower and do whatever is necessary so that in the morning they can be prepared to assemble and begin the day within the allocated period of time. The rest of the time is their own, free to move around within the confines of their small encampment, free to call, free to read, free even to go to sleep early, if they choose.

Overall, the army is turning out to be an amazing experience for Elie, enabling him to grow in ways I never imagined. He is very aware of time; very aware of the responsibilities they give him. And also very aware, for the first time in his life, that home is far away and out of reach.

He received the package I sent him last week - two big boxes of homemade cookies, a deck of cards, his brother's gift and some other sweets. It is the only real way that we can reach out...and even that takes days to get to him. He still sounds a bit lonely on the phone. In the background, I hear the others shouting and having fun and wonder if Elie plays around with them too. He seems to like the others in his unit and sounds genuinely excited about what he will be learning and the role he will play in the army.

Just as we quickly adapted to the "14-day" plan in which he was home every other weekend, I assume we will adapt to the "21-day" plan. For now, the separation is difficult and there is an awareness, on both sides, I think, that we are all moving through time in different directions. So much happens here and I haven't had time to catch Elie up on what his siblings are doing. Little things that take so much of our energy aren't worth mentioning when you only have one small conversation in the evening.

Elie loves our older car and considers it his. He's got an emergency medikit in the car, a flashing red light that he can attach to the top of the car so that he can quickly meet up with an ambulance on a call. I haven't had a chance to tell him that the lock on the driver's door isn't working, or that the new radio he installed with his father is really cool. He doesn't know how his brother is doing on his end-of-year tests, how his little sister asks about him; I haven't had time to tell him about all the people who have written in, wishing him well.

It's hard to believe that almost three months have passed already, but harder to believe we still have the better part of three years ahead of us. In the meantime, my second son has already received the first call to the army and has begun his path towards serving. With luck, Elie will be out of the army before Shmulik goes in and unlike Elie, he will be able to benefit from the knowledge we didn't have when it was Elie's turn.

We'll understand the separation issues and know they can be survived. We'll know how long the mail takes to arrive, and if it is worth sending homemade cookies and he'll know that the road taken will bring him home again and again and that we will be waiting for him, as we waited for Elie, cherishing each phone call and each visit home.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Are the Winds of War Blowing?

Syria and Hezbollah are likely to start a war against Israel next summer,
according to General Staff assessments that have been gathered during a series
of meetings in recent weeks. (Haaretz, March, 2007)

The IDF believes, however, that the "greatest danger" to northern Israel currently comes from Syria, which has raised its level of alert, although forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights have not been beefed up. (Jerusalem Post, April
2007)

The head of the research division of Military Intelligence, Brigadier
General Yossi Baidatz, said Sunday that Syrian President Bashar Assad is
preparing for a war with Israel. (Haaretz, May 2007)

Muhammad Habash, a member of the Syrian parliament, told the Al Jazeera satellite television station last week that Syria was expecting an outbreak of hostilities with the Jewish state this summer. (UPI, June 2007)

There's much ado in Israel about the possibility of war this summer in the Middle East and the government says that we are ready for war but would still prefer peace. The army, says its Chief of Staff, is always in one of two states - either preparing for war or fighting a war. Syria is making bellicose noises, Hizbollah has re-armed and Hamas is as belligerent as ever.

For a mother with a son in the army, it's a heart-wrenching time. Like any Israeli, I am concerned with whether or not my country has learned the lessons of the last war. We were caught when we were not ready and we paid in lives and reputation. The Arabs believe we are vulnerable in a way they have not believed in many years. The invincible Israelis of 1967 had long since given way to the less-than invincible Israel of 1973 and now they believe we are the defeat-able Israel of post Summer - 2006.

They honestly believe they can beat us this time because last summer what our government felt was a policy of restraint was interpreted as weakness. We went to war to retrieve our sons, and left them behind. We battled to protect our northern communities, but they were still hit by thousands of rockets and our citizens spent weeks living in horrible conditions. All this encouraged Hizbollah to believe they can lead their people to glory and our people to exile.

So the Israeli in me knows that the day will soon come when the Arab nations will gather their strength and try, yet again, to erase Israel from the map. The Israeli in me also knows that, yet again, they will fail and yet again, countless innocents on both sides will pay the price for this sad reality.

For the first time, the mother in me carries around another fear, along with the guilty feeling that when a nation goes to war, we must think of the nation and not the individual. That might work, unless the individual is your son. Like so many parents, the army has become a face, a boy, a single focused worry.

So where do the winds of war that are coursing through the Middle East right now leave my son and his unit? The answer for now is unknown. Much depends on the date that any war, if there will be a war, starts. For now, Elie has finished the first phase of his service - the basic training, and has begun the more focused training required to operate complex, computerized artillery batteries and controllers.

Will Elie’s unit be sent to the front to take up a position in the north? Will his unit be used as backup to free other troops, should the need arise? Will Hizbollah risk another confrontation with Israel? Sadly, the answer is most likely yes. Under the very noses of the United Nations "Peacekeeping" Forces, Hizbollah has re-armed completely and now has an estimated 20,000 rockets. If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a comedy.

Apparently, Hizbollah has even been so bold as to tunnel under a UN base to set up war bunkers. There are two big differences this year versus last year. The first is that hopefully, Israel will know what it is facing. Israel will not go in with 6-year-old maps and ill-equipped soldiers. And the second difference is that this year, my son is in the army.

This next war will be fought as a war of survival and my son will join the sons of thousands of families. I have so many questions for Elie, so much to ask. But I'm determined to let him set the pace, to tell me what he is allowed to tell, what he wants to say, what he needs us to know. As a mother and as an Israeli, I know that Elie and our soldiers will do what they must this summer, as they did last summer, as they have done all too many times in the past.

I am not pro-war, but I believe that there are times when greater violence and more disastrous wars are caused by a nation's trying to avoid rather than respond to threats made by its enemies. Israelis know that the government's failures last year might well lead to a more complicated war this summer.

Syria may become involved and Hamas may attempt to further complicate the situation by forcing Israelis to a two or three front war. But I also know something else. Israel has a great and powerful weapon that will see us through the failures of the past and the threats of the present.

Beyond the blindness of the United Nations, the hypocrisy of much of Europe and the sometimes misguided pressures brought upon us by the United States, we have one great reality: the bravery of our sons and the love we carry for them.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Packages of Love

Elie is on the "21" day plan now. That means that he was home last weekend and won't be home for another 21 days. This is standard with some units, less common with others. The army dictates how often the soldiers come home and there are few surprises. Up until now, he has been home roughly every other weekend (the 14 day plan). It's another "smart" move by the army because it has helped ease us into the separation.

He's still calling often, though not every day. This week was particularly tough as he and his unit were put through the final hard days of training that mark the end of basic training. The pampering ends, if it had ever been there. Less sleep, interrupted, harsher conditions, cold food. This is as close to battle conditions as they can take these new recruits. After a few days of being out of communication and out in the field, Elie had a chance to call last night.

There are times I hear some loneliness in his voice and my heart aches. If it were any other situation, I'd jump in the car and go get him. This is what it was like when, at Elie's age, I was off at college. There were times when I would call home and there must have been something in my voice that told my mother I needed her, that I needed the familiar, that I needed home. She would, almost miraculously, offer to come get me for some silly reason. I didn't know then what I know now - that a mother can hear what a child's voice never verbalizes. There's that tiny change in the voice that tugs at a mother's heart.

"Is everything ok there?"

"Yes, great," Elie said and though I think he meant it, there was a part of him that may not have been as certain.

"What's new?" I ask. Silly question - the army is as old as...well, not as old as time, but certainly a lot older than Elie. Every day is much the same as the last, with an addition here, a change here. They'll train here, run a few extra kilometers there. They'll go shoot today, as they did last week and spend endless hours beginning to learn the intricacies of the complex equipment that makes modern warfare so very much more serious than ever before. But at the basic training level, days are about schedule and routine.

He tells me about his training. It was very hot yesterday. So hot that they didn't do any training. "We just stayed in the tents and did nothing all day."

"Did you send the cookies?" he asks. On Sunday morning when he left to return to the army, he forgot to take the cookies that I'd made the night before. I told him I would mail them to him via the post office's special army service.

We discussed how long it would take, what I should mail to him. "Can you send me a backgammon set?" he asked. I told him that his younger brother had made him a present - a telephone holder on a thick string.

It isn't practical. Elie can't wear it with the uniform and doesn't need it for the 60 minutes of free time when he could wear it. Don't worry, I told Elie, if it is anything like the one that Davidi made me, as soon as you do wear it, the phone falls out to the floor. It was good to hear him laugh and I almost asked him again if something was wrong.

Instead, I just listened. It was a longer call than usual and I could feel that he didn't want to finish the conversation so I searched for something I could tell him, something I could ask about. I told him how the car he typically drives was running. That took a few seconds. I told him his father fixed the mirror, that the new radio player was working very nicely. I told him I couldn't find a particular button and so he told me all about the radio. It was silly conversation because I didn't hear him wanting to end the call.

Things are fine and he does sound good. I think he just needed the connection and the tiny part in him that remains the teenager, even at the age of 20, couldn't admit this. He told me more about what he is doing on a daily basis. Yesterday he had kitchen duty and so had the chance to choose between the dairy dinner made for all the base or the one made for a unit that had been out training for the last few days and so was treated to a meat meal (yes, he took the meat).

He might be given the opportunity to learn to drive the massive equipment on which he is training. He's going to ask. It's about the size of a tank. More details than I probably need to know or remember. The soldiers in his unit are all trained to do all tasks, unlike some of the other units. If there are too many soldiers against the number of tasks, they have "bench."

"What's that?" I asked.

"It means that one job is to sit on the bench," Elie said, and again he laughed a little.

He told me he went to the doctor. My heart stopped for a second, but I kept my voice conversational (or at least I like to pretend I did) as I asked him why. He explained that with the heat, his skin is acting up again and so he wanted to get the special soap that helps balance and protect acne. He also asked for permission to wear sunglasses - something allowed as soon as you suggest you need it. The doctor agreed that with his light blue eyes, they are more vulnerable to sunlight.

Anything else? We talked about the soldiers in the unit. It is very common for a unit to have one or more "lone" soldiers. These are young men and women who have moved to Israel, leaving parents abroad. They come from all over, South America, the US, Europe and the former Soviet Union. Elie has one in his unit and I asked him if he wanted to bring the soldier home for a weekend some time. Elie laughed again. The boy has more family in Israel than Elie does. Technically, he is classified as a lone soldier because his parents live abroad, but all his sisters and brothers and uncles and aunts live here so he has plenty of relatives.

Elie told me about how he was going to do guard duty during the night and we discussed that for a few minutes. He would go to sleep and then be awakened to patrol for a number of hours, then sleep, get up for breakfast, and then have a chance to sleep a little more.

At 20 years old, Elie has not yet learned the need to say, "I love you" to his parents. It was something he said automatically as a child and something that slipped away as he entered his teenage-boy years when love isn't nearly as cool as cars and computers. It is something that comes with age, perhaps. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't need to hear it. "Good night, sweets," I told him just before we hung up, "I love you."

Usually I get an "ok" or "I'll call soon" or some silly response and last night was no exception, but he did sound a little brighter by the end of the conversation, the little catch in his voice that maybe I imagined seemed to be gone. Was it there in the first place? Was it my missing him coming back at me? Or can a few minutes talking to home on the phone reach through the ears of the man to the heart of the boy and warm him inside?

A few minutes after we got off the phone I got a text message telling me, "they changed the guard duty roster so I won't be guarding tonight. Good night." I wrote him back quickly that I wished him a good night and after I hit the send button, I thought about the months and years to come. A few minutes here and there, a quick message back and forth. This will be much of our communication for the next few years. And through each conversation, my heart sends a message of love...and with each laugh over something silly that I've said, I know that his heart has heard my message.

I'll say it again tonight if he calls, or Friday afternoon when he calls to wish me a peaceful Sabbath...even though he won't be here. I'll say it in every conversation and a thousand times in my head and trust that he hears it deep in the place we all have that needs such words.

I love you, Elie.

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