Saturday, February 14, 2009

The War Still Looms in the Mind

It's already been a few weeks since the war ended and yet there were times over the Sabbath that it continued to dominate the conversations we had with Elie. There are moments in your life that you know change you forever - for the good and for the bad. Sometimes, you know them, anticipate them, expect them, while other times they simply happen and then you learn that it is something that will remain with you.

When my oldest daughter said she wanted to go to Poland, that it was important for her to make this trip, as so many young Israelis do, and that she wanted me to come along, I decided her need to have me with her for that week was greater than her siblings. For those 8 days, she needed me more than they would and so I went, while my husband and friends stayed in Israel and kept the house running, the children fed, the daily routine of summer vacation rolling.

Within hours, I understood that my life would be changed by what I saw and experienced in Poland. You can walk into a gas chamber, I learned that first day in Maidanek, and a part of you never quite walks out. Or, maybe you walk out with an extra part, more than you were, rather than less. Either way, I was overwhelmed by the experience.

We walked into a room with 800,000 shoes, remnants of those murdered in the death camp. The guide knew how impossible it was to comprehend the numbers and the reality. "Find a shoe that tells you a story," he told us. Find one and let it talk to you. And there, in the dusty, crumpled cage I saw a small woman's shoe - impossible to know anything about it, I later wrote The Story of a Shoe. It was one of several life-altering moments I experienced there. It is daunting to know that my children are already experiencing such moments.

I can't imagine ever forgetting the weeks of this past war and from what I am getting from Elie, it will be something he too will always remember. He is not haunted by it, not traumatized in any way. He speaks openly and frankly about what he did, the role he played. As I've said before, the Israeli army is extremely professional and technically savvy. Elie knows where his missiles landed, and what damage they caused. And, he knows what he saved, what he defended.

"I got bored," he explained at one point during our discussions, and so joined in the loading and even the shooting of artillery shells into Gaza. That isn't his job in the unit; but the experience was good for him and for the unit as a whole. There is nothing an Israeli commander will ask his men to do that he won't do himself. He knows what units he defended. A friend's son was there in Gaza, "tell him I covered him going in," Elie said with a smile, "and out," he added.

There were many such discussions this past weekend, while we prepared on Friday, while we ate or walked home from the synagogue. This was a lazy Shabbat for me. I had frozen chicken made two weeks ago in the freezer, and a large container of soup as well. Mostly, I used Friday to concentrate on catching up with folding and distributing laundry and as a treat, my sister-in-law had brought us 7-layer cake from America during her recent trip, so I didn't even bake. She also brought Rainbow cake (marzipan) and kosher candy corns that are impossible to find here.

I offered to bake brownies or cookies for Elie for the week, but he said he was going to take some of the special Rainbow cake his aunt brought, along with the candy corns. "I want to lose weight," Elie explained when he declined my offer for additional food, "I gained weight in Gaza."

That was a roundabout way of saying that Elie, like most of the soldiers, was treated to an unbelievable outpouring of love (and candies and cookies, and tons of nosh) from Israelis. Losing weight and talking about Gaza are part of the getting-back-to-normal process.

What I learned after visiting Poland was that sometimes normal is different than it was before. The army has changed my son in so many ways. He is what he was before - I saw that in the way he kept teasing his little sister, long after she had tired of it and how he spoke to his brother about cars...and phones...endlessly.

But he is so much more - I saw that in our discussions of Syria and Lebanon. He is convinced that Hezbollah knows that our army is better prepared to fight in winter and so there will be no war...at least until the summer. These were discussions we never had before, never could have had and I am beginning to think - will always have, now and then, in the months and years to come.

I always dreaded this moment - it was, even a few months ago, an unbearable thought - that my son would be in a war, would be forced to kill. That he would live for weeks in danger while the sun would shine in Jerusalem, buses would run, and children would play on their bikes.

Of all the lessons I have learned - and perhaps may yet learn - the need to accept and adapt have become paramount. This Elie has done; this I will yet learn to do.

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