I Went to War and Lost My Mom in 2003
“Sergeant Klein!” the voice cracked through the canvas tent late one afternoon.
“The Major needs to see you.”
We were back in Kuwait after being in Iraq and were waiting for our orders back to the States. I walked out of the tent and across the hard sand, heading to where the senior staff was bunked.
“Sergeant Klein reporting as ordered, sir,” I said as soon as I got there.
“Sergeant Klein, we need to head down to the Red Cross tent,” he said. He sat down on the ammo box at the end of his rack to tie his boots. “There’s some news from home.”
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. No one wants to hear from the Red Cross when you’re in the military — it usually isn’t good news.
Without saying a word, I nervously walked with the Major down the sloping sand hill, looking out over the Kuwait City sunset skyline across the bay as we went. The spear-like tips of the Kuwait City Towers looked like they had impaled a few falling stars the night before.
When we arrived at the small Red Cross tent, it was empty; perhaps the clerk had momentarily stepped out for a bathroom break or some dinner. A yellow legal pad lay open on the desk near the phone, though, so I read it:
Sergeant E. Max Klein-Mother
My face went cold, and I felt like I’d been slugged in the gut. My heart raced. The next few minutes were a blur.
“You can call home from our phone here,” said the clerk as he walked back in.
My dad answered.
“They’ve been doing some tests. I hear they may send you home early. She’s going to have an operation at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore around Mother’s Day.”
A lot of things go through your head when you hear news like that. It was a surreal state of affairs — just as the last few months in Iraq had been — but much, much worse. People dying who you don’t know is one thing, when you know them and love them it is completely different.
A few days later, I was in a United Arab Emirates airport, being detained by security while they tried to decide why I was traveling alone back to the States with no luggage at a time when most American military personnel were heading the other direction.
The Red Cross letter explained things to them. I may very well have been the first Marine in Iraq to come home.
When I arrived in the Atlanta hub, I was wearing the civilian clothes that had spent the last few months in a bag. It felt strange to be wearing them again.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of being back in the United States after you have been somewhere like Iraq. It felt safe; I felt thankful to belong there. It also felt somehow protected from the rest of the world — insulated, less vulnerable, and warm. A good place to have children.
It would have felt peaceful, too, if it weren’t for the turmoil dwelling inside me.
My mom passed away that fall. In the years following that year of war and death, I’ve felt a bit numb. Like life lost its color that year and has been gray ever since.
I felt like I’ve been dreaming and I’ll wake up someday and be back in Kuwait or Iraq and the world will be in color again.
The color returned again when the big things in life happened. My wedding day. The day my son was born. Then my daughter. And many days of beauty they brought with them just by being them. Kids add beautiful color for sure.
I’ve gotten along well since then as far as anyone can see. Beautiful family, nice house, good job. But I feel like I’m no older or different than I was in 2003. I feel like 2003 was just earlier today and I’m dreaming now.
Something really cool happened this year though. My old high school friend and writer Michael Thompson shared a beautiful article on Facebook. I loved it. I messaged him and told him I wanted to try writing. He didn’t have to help at all, but he took his time to help me get started and really encouraged me to write. It has been an amazing journey this last year in writing. I’ve done all my writing on Medium so far and I love it here. I’m meeting new people who are doing exciting things as well. It’s a great community.
Writing is bringing more color back to life.
It got me thinking. I may start a publication for veterans so they can share their stories. Writing can exorcise thoughts that have gotten log jammed in your brain and keeping the present from flowing by. It is breaking the jam for me letting 2003 pass so the 2020s can arrive.
I feel the ice thawing more now.
I feel like a better dad and husband. This isn’t all from writing of course but a lot of it is. I feel like I’m in 2021 now. I’m creating a new reality with each word I type. New stories. New experiences. New memories. I’m not living only in the old ones now, but now I’m living in all of them as they freely flow through my mind.
It’s a thrill to learn that sometimes the ice in life can be melted with a pen.
I still think about Iraq and my mom a lot. I still feel 26 too…that’s good though right?!
But I feel like writing, along with the constant wonder of being a dad and the love I get and give there, has thawed me a bit and enabled me to live in color again. I don’t know where my writing will go, but even if it never makes it off my desk, it is still valuable to me.
So hello 2020s! I’m living here with you now. And I’m warm.
And the world is getting more colorful every day.
This article is dedicated to my Mom, my dad who was a rock and a friend then and since, and my good friend Michael Thompson for seeing something in my writing and encouraging me to keep at it.