I Don’t Want My Son To Join The Military — But I’d Never Condemn Him For It

By Lea Page

I will never, ever cast my son aside to break against unyielding and incurious ideals.

“Thomas might be tempted to join the military,” I say into the cell phone as I picture my 17-year-old son with his proud beginnings of a beard.

The phone line — there is no phone line, but still, I can hear it as if there were — reverberates with my mother’s silence. How can I explain this unforeseen possibility to her, when she taught my sisters and me to sing “We Shall Overcome” before “The Eensy Weensy Spider?” I’d marched with her to protest the Vietnam War before I had marched in our town’s Halloween Parade.

I once tested her decades ago by asking, “What if I joined the army?”

I didn’t have any intention of doing so, but we were driving past the Pentagon at the time, and it satisfied my teenaged sensibilities to press a point to its extreme. That day was a usual August day in Washington, D.C. The vent windows of our VW Bug were angled all the way open to direct the feverish air at our faces and lift our hair off our sweaty necks, the closest we would get to air-conditioning.

There is no phone line, but still, I can hear it as if there were.

As we lurched through the traffic and crossed Memorial Bridge, I watched trim, well-groomed, purposeful men jogging along the sidewalk in their fatigues. They ran in twos and threes, seemingly oblivious to the sweltering miasma of humidity and car exhaust. The soldiers’ companionable ease with each other — breathe in, breathe out — was a counterpoint to the clenched silence in our car, and it hit me: They were family to each other. They would watch each other’s backs, take a bullet, even, no questions asked. Once you’re in, you’re in.

I tossed out my question as casually as I could, without looking at my mother. “What would you do?”

“I would disown you,” my mother replied, as we passed behind the Lincoln Memorial and merged onto Rock Creek Parkway.

Even though her answer confirmed what I’d already cynically understood — the guarantee of unconditional love had a codicil at the bottom of the page — my feet went heavy with cold, even as I had to steady a sudden light-headedness with a hand on the dashboard. She hadn’t even hesitated. But my mother had spent her adult life working as a secretary for various nonprofit organizations that advocated for peace and equality — The Committee Against Registration and the Draft, ERA America, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom among them — and she felt that it was her duty to judge.

Once, when she had come to visit after my first child had been born, I stepped out of our tiny living room to change my daughter’s diaper, and my mother followed me. I unsnapped my daughter’s onesie and pulled her fat legs out, kissing each foot. I had vowed to myself when I became pregnant that I would be slow to judge, that I would always look for the good. With my hand resting on her tiny belly, I looked up at my mother, hoping to share how my whole being filled with the treasure of my baby.

My mother stood in the doorway with her arms crossed, frowning in disgust, her mouth sour.

“I’ll be done in just a sec,” I said, confused. I didn’t expect her to react that way to a dirty diaper.

“You’re not living your values,” my mother said. Her lips were in a thin line.

“What?” I said, as I tried to hurry through the pinning and snapping.

“Look at all of that,” she said, aiming her chin at the changing table. She wouldn’t even point toward the shelf below the changing table. It was full of stuffed animals. “You don’t need all of those. You’re keeping them from a needy child.”

‘You’re not living your values,’ my mother said.

“I don’t need all of these? These are gifts, Ma,” I said. “All of these are gifts. You sent a stuffed animal. You sent several. What do you expect me to do? Tell people that they are assholes for sending gifts? For being kind?”

I picked up my daughter, who was still half-dressed, and said, “You have no idea what my values are.”

When my son was born, my mother called me on the phone expressly to inform me — lest I should overlook this important fact — that Thomas was guilty.

“Guilty? Of what?” I asked in my new-baby fog.

“Guilty of being male,” she declared. “Of being a white male.”

Given that — given all of that and more — I’m not sure what possessed me to tell my mother that there is something about the military that appeals to my son. Am I just provoking her, as I did when I was a teenager? Am I hoping that her love for her grandchildren will have softened her? Am I hoping that she will pause before she condemns, in order to wonder, to ask, to understand?

Now, as I hold the cell phone to my ear, waiting for the echo of that moment long ago, car doors slam outside in my driveway. The deep and deeper voices of my son and my husband come tripping through the door. They drop their gym bags just inside and come looking for me, to wrap me in their grins and their sweat. It thrills me that they always come to me, that they expose themselves to me so easily, that they know I will always embrace them. They don’t have to bloody themselves, as I did, against a reef of judgment.

“They just want to be heroes,” I say to my mother. “There’s more to it than politics.” I am testing again: Maybe love is not a contract and cannot be bound by laws. By her laws.

“Do any of them survive?” she finally asks. “Don’t they all come back shattered?”

The fear of that possibility creates a whooshing sound in my head. I’m not in favor of my son joining the military for many reasons. Politics is one. And, of course, I don’t want him to be shattered.

But I know that, whatever my son decides, I will have his back — no matter what. I will listen, and I will try to hear beyond the surface of his words. I will try to understand his intentions and look for the good. I will never, ever cast him aside to break against unyielding and incurious ideals.

I look down at my own body, my phone still pressed to my ear, and I can almost see the web of scars laid down on it by my mother’s disapproval. And I know that is one war I can protect my son from.

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