It’s Friday morning in Israel and another one of those hot summer days. Even in mid-June, Israel is sweltering under yet another heat wave. We accept it as part of life here, especially when we can sit in an air-conditioned room! As happens each time Elie is asleep in his own bed, my heart is whole and I’m calm and at peace. When he’s not here, there’s a part of me missing too. It’s strange because it is so different than other times when Elie or one of my children is away from home.
A few weeks ago, when Elie spent the holiday at his yeshiva, my heart was calm and fine and whole. Life holds no promises, I’ve told my children and been told throughout my life. I’ve often had friends or relatives tell me they were afraid to come to Israel and my response has always been the same. Fate will do with us what it will, no matter where we are, no matter where we go.
And yet, I simply can’t find myself able to apply that to Elie. When he is home (and home essentially means any time he isn’t in the army), I sleep, breathe, think, and feel differently.
These years put tremendous pressure on parents and, for the most part, we weather it silently as part of life here. I have an outlet, this blog. Most parents simply get through it. It’s like not breathing for days at a time, not sleeping with both eyes closed. And when our sons are home to rest, we rest too. We too recuperate from having a part of us gone because each time, they take it with them as much as they take their clean clothes, or the snacks we buy them.
It was a long two weeks away with Elie gone first for training and then a week of "vacation" with his entire unit (the whole g'dud). How the training went, I haven't a clue. As in the past, they were outside in the field doing…well, what soldiers due while training. I supposed once Elie wakes up, I'll find out more about that.
As for the week of vacation, the army did quite well. They went on various hikes and swimming almost every day. One day, they were taken for a 5 km. kayaking journey that was scheduled to take an hour to an hour and a half - it took 5 hours. When I asked Elie why it took so long, he explained that they were all constantly getting out of the kayaks, racing through the white waters, only to stop and have fun, explore, splash and wander. Then back into the kayaks for more of the same. The point wasn’t to finish the journey, but to enjoy it. After training them to be aware of every minute, they were giving them a well-earned respite.
The army over-planned and then canceled what was necessary so that each event was a relaxing time for them. The goal was to further bond, to spend downtime together. They canceled a trip into Kiryat Shemona, no time. They canceled another event as well. Karaoke night was fun, Elie said. The sports and hiking was wonderful. The army catered to the fact that about half the unit consists of religious men and changes or exceptions were made where needed. At one point, they went to hear a comedian. The commander spoke in advance to the comedian, explaining that his g’dud had many religious young men and detailed what topics were not appropriate.
Within minutes, the comedian veered off the permissible and entered into the firmly inappropriate (probably for anyone, never mind this group), and so, within a few words, the religious contingent stood up quietly and left. The commander later apologized, “he was an idiot and I can’t believe the Ministry of Education approves him,” he told Elie by way of apologizing.
The weekend started Thursday afternoon. I had yet another day at a client in Netanya, a short drive to where Elie's group was staying on Wednesday night so that they could enjoy a day of sports and recreation before being released to go home the next day. The timing worked out perfectly. With a bit of advance notice, I left work at 4:00 and went to pick Elie up.
"Do you have room in the car?" That's Elie's standard way of asking if we can give a ride to some other soldiers.
"Sure, no problem," I told him, and he told me that two others wanted rides to Jerusalem.
In the end, it was three and so my car was packed with four soldiers (Elie in the front, three very polite and tired friends in the back). The first logistical matter was figuring out what to do with all the backpacks. Each is huge (I can barely lift one and cringe when I see Elie and the others lifting two). As "master of the car," and the one who would be last out of the car, Elie put his backpack as far as possible in the back of the trunk of the car.
At this point, I should explain that my husband and I were taken with the environmental concept of a hybrid and so bought a Honda Civic. The wonderful part of this car is that it has an electric battery and an electric engine so that it uses less gas. The bad part, is that the huge electric battery is against the back seat of the car, in the trunk taking up space.
For most things, on a day to day basis, this means little and the trunk space is adequate. For piling four huge army backpacks, it doesn't come close to big enough. So, three went in with a lot of grunting and pushing and maneuvering. One went on the lap of one of the boys, and off we went.
Traffic was a pain, with a planned demonstration of truck drivers promising to close a lane on a major highway during rush hour. To avoid that, we drove first south - far enough to turn around, then back north beyond our starting point. From there, we took the latest "super" highway in Israel (called Road 6). All in all, it was much better than I expected.
One by one, as they nodded off to sleep, I felt such contentment. Elie almost never sleeps when I am driving, no matter how long the trip. I've always joked that perhaps he doesn't trust me. I've picked him up at times when he's been so exhausted, and still, he only slept when he got home. Even as a child, this was his habit. I can’t count how many times everyone else was asleep, but there in the back were these two blue eyes watching me, watching the road. I guess this time he was tired enough and relaxed enough that he too began to doze as we moved from the traffic to the flowing highway on the way home.
As they slept in the car, driving through the beautiful hills on the way up to Jerusalem, I listened to my music (having finally changed the station after Elie too fell asleep) and enjoyed the feeling that I had with me the most precious of cargos. No, I'll never fight for the State of Israel, never risk my life, never guard its borders. But I give my contribution where I can and when I can and this time, it was as simple as offering three young men a comfortable and air-conditioned express service to get them home more quickly.
Along the way, I marveled at the fact that my car carried four Israelis soldiers, and one was my son. Several times along the way, one of their phones would ring. It was their families calling to see where they were and when they would be home.
It reminded me of all the times I call Elie on Thursdays or Fridays, "Where are you now?" or "So, when will you be home?" The wonder was in the patience each boy had as he explained, "I got a ride home with the mother of one of they guys," and "Yes, all the way to Jerusalem, see you soon." Each spoke quietly, not to awaken his friends. Each spoke gently, closing the gap between their families and them. It was the voice I heard on the phone when I called Elie; the understanding and need to communicate with those you love, knowing they love you too.
When we arrived in Jerusalem, I still had another meeting to go to and knew that Elie wanted to get home, so I dropped all of the young men near the central bus station, from there, each was a bus ride away. Because I needed to make a U-turn I agreed to drop them all off a block short. I pulled to the side, slightly blocking the entrance to a driveway and popped open the trunk.
All four got out, each slinging their guns onto their backs before reaching for whatever they had in the car. There they were, all in uniforms, all a bit tired and stiff from 2 hours in the car. Within seconds, even before the last had gotten out of the car, and while two were still struggling to get their backpacks out of the trunk, a mini-van shuttle pulled up and gave a short honk and a wave.
Israelis are known for their lack of patience and behavior that sometimes appears harsh or rude to others. And yet, as he saw the soldiers piling out of the car, he leaned out and politely asked if I could move forward just a bit.
I inched the car forward, he drove slowly passed, and as he passed, the look he gave to the soldiers was what is reflected in all our eyes. There was such a special glance filled with pride, a gentle smile and a nod of his head to me. It was a silent thanks, a show of recognition that I had done a good deed by giving these boys a ride. He didn’t know that one of these boys was my son. These are our sons, was the message I saw there and a shared thought when he looked at me. Even the most impatient of Israelis melts when it comes to these men, these boys, these sons.
And the most precious of thoughts passed through my mind as I acknowledged his look with a smile. Yes, aren’t they wonderful, was our common thought, these soldiers of ours. So tall, so handsome in their uniforms, so strong.
And, even more wonderful, one of these beautiful young men was mine.