In the late morning, the phone rings, and in her usual manner my mother answers, informally saying “hello” as she anticipates the sales pitch from a telemarker or Jewish charity. There is an unusual pause before she speaks next, and while I cannot see her reaction, as I am lying in my bedroom trying to fall back asleep, I can sense her body going rigid, her hands clenching tightly around the phone, her heart beating faster.
“You’re asking about Ryan?”
The way her voice cracks makes it sound as if someone is bringing terrible news about my brother. Her tone is suddenly sharp, distrusting, paranoid. Angrily, she asks the caller, “do you even know who Ryan is? Do you know him?”
I feel my heart break as there is a long, uncomfortable pause. “When was the last time you spoke to him,” my mother finally barks, and I wonder which long-lost friend the caller is. My first guesses are Grant or Patricia, but my mother never repeats the name aloud.
I imagine the caller is stammering, feeling interrogated and vulnerable, the horror creeping into their mind as they realize that they’ve just disturbed a grieving mother. “Ryan’s in the Air Force,” my mother says weakly, a small clear of the throat to hide the fact that she may be crying. The way she speaks, “Air Force,” could easily be replaced with the word “dead.”
Ryan is Dead.
In my mother’s mind, his enlistment was the act of signing his own death certificate. His infrequent calls and brief communication with me provide no consolation for her. While my brother will be stationed in a small base in Northern California, my mother firmly believes that soon he’ll be stationed in Iraq, dodging bullets and dropping bombs from planes, eventually landing in a body bag as a proud, Jewish soldier.
As I lay in bed, tangled in my covers, I try to hear more, but there is nothing. I strain my ears and suddenly I hear the bathroom sink running water, my mother shuffling around, the toilet flush, more running water. Then silence. The house fills with an emptiness, and for a brief moment, I feel like the air is thick with mourning, that my mother is sitting Shiva. Then my dog stirs, and the bright jangling of his collar remind me of dog tags. I picture my brother in the hot sun of Goodfellow, Texas, grumbling about P. T. and technical school, looking forward to the evening when he can swipe a slice of cake from the dining hall and then spend some hours online, telling stories to his sister about his pick-up softball games, casually mentioning a girl he spoke to that day, and making plans for when he eventually comes home.