Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It Could Have Been Elie

Being a soldier’s mother seems to mean a whole bunch of sleepless nights. Some nights there is cause; others are self-induced nights of worry fed by the imagination. Tonight falls somewhere in between. It is after 2:00 in the morning. Elie has just returned from the checkpoint where he has been standing for the last 8 hours checking vehicles, guarding and doing his job. He called me as soon as he got back to base, heard the news.

I forgot to ask if he called me because he saw that I had called him or because he knew that I was worried or simply because he needed to call. I’ll try to remember to ask him (that and other questions I keep saying I’ll ask). But for now, as soon as the phone rang and I saw the time, sleep fled.

While we were in Jerusalem this past weekend, we saw groups and groups of soldiers walking the streets of the Old City. The army has “cultural” days during which it shows our soldiers why they fight, and what they fight for. You are defending your people, your land, your family. But you are also defending this holy place. Feel the connection, understand the link.

I don’t know if other armies in other countries do this, but in Israel it is a natural and logical thing to do. It makes you a better fighter and even more so, a stronger Israeli. Some of the places that the army has taken Elie did help him strengthen this link, but places in Jerusalem were simply like having an unexpected trip home in the middle of the day. It was his playground, streets he knows. There was excitement in being close to home, to the known, to a place he loves. Jerusalem is unlike any city in the world, and Elie loves it.

My husband and I left Jerusalem on Sunday to head to the beautiful seaside city of Eilat secure in the knowledge that we deserved this time, that our children were safe. It is as far from Israel as you can get, while still remaining here. There is security here, but it is more relaxed. Eilat is about sun and water and doing nothing more relaxing than eating, taking naps, and leisurely strolls next to endless stores.

It offers, in the best sense of the word, a fickle vacation dedicated to simply unwinding. There are no great sites to see. God has made the beautiful red mountains in the desert and the crystal clear sea and the most amazing Coral Reef and colorful fish. But these are easy to see, take only as much time as you wish to spend, and little money. The rest is man-made attractions of rides and entertainment. A huge slide that splashes down the side of the building, a kingdom made of ice, large 3D theaters. Each year, there seems to be some new attraction, better, bigger. It’s so easy for me to skip those. All I need is a chair by the water and time alone without a phone.

Tonight, we sat in a fancy Chinese restaurant celebrating 25 years of marriage, when my phone buzzed. “Terrorist attack in Jerusalem in Kikar Zahal,” it said. It’s a useless message in many ways. Was anyone hurt? What kind of attack? Is it over? Did they catch the terrorist? It was close to 11:00 p.m. – my children wouldn’t be there at this hour. It’s possible that some friends might be there, no way to know. It’s impossible to call everyone, and so the wait begins. Bad news travels like the speed of lightning.

Kikar Zahal is a pedestrian square at the point where the Old City of Jerusalem meets the new. It is dedicated to the soldiers of Israel (Zahal is an abbreviation for Israel Defense Forces). City Hall is nearby; there's at least one hotel on the corner of one of the intersecting streets; it's a major traffic area.

I asked the waitress if she had heard anything and with my phone surfed the Internet (something I rarely do, but this seemed to call for this). These news alerts are unreliable at the best of times. I’d say close to 50% of the time, the first reports turn out to be nothing. But sometimes, enough of the time, there is a base upon which the quick news tip was generated.

There was nothing on the Internet and no one knew anything. We finished our meal and began the walk back to the hotel. But my stomach wouldn’t settle and I just knew something had happened.

Back in our hotel room, I turned on the news. Twelve people hurt, 2 seriously. And then I watched the pictures. Soldiers – all soldiers. Some in stretchers; some with bandages; some getting into an ambulance; some standing around - all soldiers. An Arab driving a BMW saw the soldiers walking in formation and decided it would be a good day to kill. With the help of God, no one was killed and the soldiers opened fire and killed the terrorist.

I watched the pictures and right away noticed the blue beret on one shoulder. Artillery. Elie’s division. But there are hundreds, no thousands of soldiers in Artillery. They were too young to be reserve soldiers, but still. Elie is safe on base. He would have told me if they were going to Jerusalem, wouldn’t he? Another soldier, another blue beret. My stomach clenched. The news becomes more clear. The army had taken the soldiers to Jerusalem; they were attacked. Many injured, no fatalities.

At this point, I’ll tell you the short story before the long: I called Elie's phone, but there was no answer. It was already after midnight, so I assumed he was asleep. Two hours later, he called. No, he wasn’t in Jerusalem and he wasn’t hurt.

And the longer story: I started thinking. Is it my nephew’s unit? Where is Yair? Is it my neighbor’s daughter’s unit? Where is Ya’ara? Elie was to have been a commander of the incoming soldiers. About a month after Elie was first inducted, the army took him to the Old City of Jerusalem for a cultural day. It might well have been these new soldiers who entered the army about a month ago, including my neighbor's 19-year-old daughter Ya'ara.

Was Ya’ara there? They didn’t say whether it was boys or girls, only a group of artillery soldiers visiting Jerusalem. Maybe, if Elie would have been a commander of these new soldiers as the army had originally planned, he would have been there tonight. Isn’t it amazing how God works, I thought to myself, even then, before I knew it all.

The mind plays endless tricks and so I told myself to stop. I put through the call to Elie. It was after midnight and there was no answer so I assumed he was already asleep. I didn’t want to call my sister at this hour to find out about Yair. Like Elie, he’s already stationed somewhere and I was pretty sure it was the new soldiers. I didn’t want to call Ya’ara’s mother. She’s a widow. Ya’ara is her oldest. She would know by now if Ya’ara was hurt and I was too far away to help her, if it had been Ya'ara's group.

Midnight is not the time to call others. During those first weeks of basic training, soldiers can only call their families for about one hour per day. If my friend hadn't heard from Ya'ara, she would be frantic to call her, but Ya'ara's phone would probably be closed. if it was Ya'ara's unit, her mother would know already. If it wasn't Ya'ara's unit, but her mother couldn't reach her, she'd worry anyway. I was doing enough of that for both of us.

If Elie had been there, he would have called right away, I told myself. Someone would have called. So, my mind reasoned and my heart settled just a bit. Elie couldn’t have been there. He’ll see I called and call me in the morning.

Only now, it’s just after 2:00 a.m. and Elie just called. No, he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there because he was “on” tonight. Two buses from his base did go to Jerusalem tonight. Two buses did go and the soldiers walked down the street and an Arab saw them and decided to try to kill them with his fancy black BMW. Elie wasn’t there and he doesn’t yet know who was hurt, but it was his unit, his friends, soldiers he knows, soldiers he sees every day.

The Arab terrorist rammed into them as they walked down the street, injuring almost 2 dozen of them. As they were trained to do, as Elie has been trained to do, the soldiers realized right away what was happening. Several loaded their guns and fired and killed the terrorist, but 23 were hurt enough to be sent to the hospital. Those who were not hurt are already back on base, surrounded by Elie and the other soldiers who didn't go tonight.

This is the army way. There will be some trauma, even for those who were not hurt. Keep them together; let them heal each other. Let them get back to normal and the trauma is lessened. There are traumatized parents all over Israel tonight thinking how close that car might have come to their son, but Elie wasn’t there and their sons are back on base. Except for those 2 dozen sets of parents who got the call and went running to their sons.

I didn’t get the call. Elie is fine. He’s safe on his base. He wasn’t in Jerusalem. Elie got back to base and called to tell me. It was his unit. His base. I’ll keep saying this to myself. He’s safe. He’s ok. It wasn’t him but I can’t imagine that I’ll sleep. How can I sleep? It could have been Elie but for the scheduling of guard duty tonight.

“They all shot at him,” Elie said. “They knew right away what it was and they opened fire.” The news says it was an officer that fired and killed the terrorist. Elie will be home this weekend and through the Rosh Hashana holidays. I’ll talk to him. I’ll listen to him and I’ll trust him to call me because I won’t tell him how I came down to the lobby to sit and type because I couldn’t sleep. I won’t tell him how my eyes fill with tears and my heart shouts in fear. The security guard asked me if everything was okay and I told him about the attack. Here in Eilat, things are so isolated, intentionally so, and so he had not heard.

"Your son is okay?"

"Yes, thank God. He wasn't there. He's on base. He's okay."

“Did they catch the terrorist?” the guard asked after asking more about who was hurt and how badly.

“Yes,” I told him. “the soldiers opened fire and killed him.”

“Good,” he said, as he turned and walked away, “good.”

Part of being religious is accepting the Hand of God in all things. God didn’t send my son to Jerusalem to join in the special prayers said at this time of year as the New Year approaches. I’m almost four hours drive away from Jerusalem. Almost the farthest point you can be without leaving the country. One phone call would have sent me flying back up north. This was the reason I wouldn’t leave the country, because of the call I didn’t get tonight.

And here’s the confession of a sick mind. Today, while I was sitting on the beach, long before that Arab decided to commit murder in the name of some misbegotten cause, my mind played a game, as it does every so often.

While my husband was snorkeling, I realized I had left my phone back at the car. It was somewhat deliberate. You can’t unwind from the pressures of life, if you take the pressures with you and the phone is a sure-fire way to take them all right along. And while I was sitting there, almost at the point where Israel meets Egypt, across the water from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, I thought to myself, “What if the call were to come now?” How would they find me?

Being a technical writer, and having documented some telecommunications wonders, I know that the police can find a cellphone, so long as it is on, if they had enough of a reason. I know that they would use this special technology to avert a crime but not to find my neighbor’s car when it was stolen and the thieves called and said the car (and her laptop) were in Ramallah. Would they use this technology to find me if Elie needed me, if there was bad news?

My car is legally registered in this country. A simple check of computers and they could find my license plates and the make of the car. Would they bother to try to look for the car and then walk to the nearby beach to find me?

My kids will know we are in Eilat. The tourist area isn’t that big. Couldn’t they find us? If they found the car, we parked just up the hill from where we were sitting, would the army come, if they had to, I thought to myself. Bad news travels. I pushed the thoughts aside, recognizing that my imagination was getting away from itself and this was part of why I’d wanted to get away. It’s part of an exercise I have always played with myself. It’s sort of like – out-thinking God. If you can think of the worst thing that could happen to you, God will think of something else to do. So just think of it all and each scenario, one by one, will fall away. The army won't search for me, because I thought of the possibility that they would have to. They wouldn't call on my husband's phone, because I thought of that too.

But, I didn’t think about a driver ramming into the boys in Elie’s unit. I didn’t think about two busloads of soldiers being taken to Jerusalem in honor of the upcoming New Year celebrations.

I pushed the silly thoughts away, this afternoon, recognizing that I needed to go through the exercise and trust that if I needed to be found, I would be. I focused on the beautiful water and the clear sky. When I got back to the car, not a single missed call on the phone. I walked with my husband along the boardwalk and went out to dinner at a fancy restaurant.

For all intents and purposes, the call didn’t come tonight; Elie is safe and why I feel like I’ll never sleep again is beyond me at the moment. Elie’s unit. Elie’s base. Elie wasn’t there. Elie is safe.

I’ll find my balance again. The one that was feeling such peace at Elie being in the army. I’ll settle this down but quietly (and here on the blog), I’ll let my heart scream a little longer. It’s silent, after all. No one in the hotel can hear it or see it. So I sit here, a bit of a marvel to these young kids walking past seeing me on the computer.

“Do you have free Internet connection?” asks one young lady. And while my heart looked at her and said, “it could have been Elie,” my brain took control and explained about where there was free Internet and how much it cost in the hotel.

It wasn’t Elie. No one was killed. They are young and strong and beautiful boys and I won’t ask Elie if anyone of them was in my car the many times I have given them rides home. I won’t ask because it doesn’t matter who it was – only that it was. That some terrorist decided to honor Ramadan and Allah by ramming beautiful, healthy, young men with a BMW.

May those who were injured be granted a complete and speedy recovery and may the Arab who decided to kill in the holy month or Ramadan be damned for the sins of hatred and hurting others, for thinking that his God would bless such a crimes.

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Update - July, 2011: More than a year after this incident, after Elie was discharged from the standing army, he told me that he had not been on a checkpoint, but rather an operation. He thinks it is funny that I believed the army would switch units at 2:00 in the morning and believes that I should have known something was strange. I had always been able to call him when he was on a checkpoint and if he could not answer, for some reason, he would call me back within a short period of time. Never two hours. Only so much later, did he tell me this. On that night, as far as I knew, he escaped injury because he was on the checkpoint.

1 comment:

Debi said...

When I saw the headlines yesterday I stopped what I was doing and I prayed for you. I understood absolutely what you would be thinking, feeling, imagining whether or not it was your son involved in this.

I am so glad to hear that Elie is safe and sound and that he was not involved. I am so sorry that our world is like this and that you had to experience this fear. My thoughts and prayers continue to be with you.

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