She walked him to the bus again, watched him
clamber aboard in his camo fatigues,
dust-brown boots, huge khaki duffel slung
over his shoulder. She waved
as the bus pulled away.
Back at the house, she busied herself,
cleaned, tidied, swept, set the place straight,
vacuumed the gray pile carpet, hallway and bedroom,
rinsed the crumbs from his breakfast plate
and washed the coffee cup that had touched his lips,
laundered the napkin he'd wiped his fingers with,
and sheets they’d made love and slept on.
She returned the extra chair to the dining room,
the kitchen table to its corner and angle,
and threw out Sunday’s papers
marred with marmalade and margarine.
She filled a jug from the cold faucet
to water the spider plant
he’d said to sponge with a soap solution,
the gangly, green poinsettia
he was surprised to see had survived till June,
and the African violet, still with note card
in his faded scrawl.
Sitting in solitude in her silent kitchen,
she thought of her mother.
Mom was a bundle of nerves after Pops shipped out
that final time to Vietnam.
She cleaned house,
clattered cutlery loudly in the kitchen sink,
stripped bed sheets, filled the washing machine,
ran the noisy vacuum
a dozen times up and down the hall.
When there was nothing left to do,
she sat in the breakfast nook and cried.
When your tour is over and done
you jettison chunks of yourself
and pack portions to take home.
Memories of mountains and moments
chafe against the yearning to return.
Images of sand versus sunrises on snow
stir memories of zipped-up bags.
Unfamiliar friends and deja-vu foreigners
masquerade State-side as friendlies.
When you come back, you leave
pieces of yourself in the field –
you carry parts from there with you.
But the shapes are different
and the new pieces sit uneasily in old holes.
When Greg and Julio came back,
their shackled spirits ended in prison.
Shame narrowed their outlook, fractured their hearts.
John is disconnected, alone.
Steve goes through the motions, behind a mask.
Still fighting obstructions, climbing walls;
I am wounded – no one else can see.
Robert is frightened to know,
exhausted from not knowing –
Was I the only one afraid?
Compare this to how a Cheyenne, Navajo
or other Native-American warrior
is received returning from battle – any battle:
Members of his tribe ceremonially cleanse him,
wash away all evil he witnessed, hurt he caused.
Whatever shame and sorrow shadow him
are cast down. They show him he is home.
An entire community, together: family
and friends unite, help shoulder his burden.
NPR Interview: Lt. Bill Cody Ayon, New Mexico Nat'l Guard, 09.16.2007, Camp Cropper, Iraq
More at http://www.npr.org/sections/pictureshow/2010/05/28/127245075/warriors