Mom’s Letters to Bootcamp Help Me Cope with Her Passing
In the early ’90’s I left home and went into the Military. I was the youngest of three — my brother, six years older and my sister, twelve years. Between being the youngest and the baby girl, this was extremely distressing for my parents, especially my mom. My dad had been in the Navy in his youth and knew what I was facing. It was, after all, his fault for my interest in enlisting and my devotion to my country. It didn’t make it any easier, though. I was still the baby, leaving home in the middle of a war. Wartime was unheard of during my childhood. Vietnam was the last big one, and from there, there were other conflicts we just went in and blew up stuff and left. Operation Desert Shield Desert Storm was in full effect as I boarded the bus at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and headed to Boot camp 1,800 miles away.
I was always very close with both of my parents growing up. They were cool. When friends or boyfriends came over, we hung out with my parents. For one, the 900 square foot house didn’t leave much room to escape but mostly because they always enjoyed hanging out with my mom.
My mom and I would spend a lot of time together. We got along great. Sure, I had my temperamental teenage angst-filled moments, but mostly life was good. We would shop and hang out. She taught me to cook and sew, and all the things a domesticated goddess of a mom would do.
When I enlisted in the Military, it broke her heart. I was breaking up the band, the dream team. I had to do something. I was smart enough to go to college, just no real direction or clue what I wanted out of life. The one true constant was my love for my country and the Military. So I had to fulfill that calling, and I did despite the heartache it caused everyone.
My mom wrote to me every single day. Although the mail got delayed at times and I may not get letters every day, when I did, I would arrange them by postmark and read about home.
Again, this was the early 1990’s, no email, no cell phones. We had a phone bank that recruits would cram into and get our allotted time to talk to home. Time wasted for me. As soon as I’d hear a voice from home, my throat would seal shut, and the tears would flow. I would choke out a few inaudible sounds only to listen to my mom or sister on the other end doing the same. We’d grunt out the words “I Love You” and sob until the time was up. Eventually, as the weeks passed, it became easier to call. Those first few times were rough, though.
The letters were the best. They were a connection to home. Mom would write about the most mundane things, and I remember wishing I were there. Over and over again, she’d write about how proud she was and scared about the war. She’d handwrite or type out lengthy descriptions of what aired on the news about Saddam and our troops. Sometimes she’d include news clippings detailing our progress in freeing Kuwait. I’m sure these articles were contraband as we weren’t told anything about what was happening outside of our barracks walls. I would pass around the news pieces to my bunkmates, and we’d fixate on the crazy photographs of large groups of Iraqi soldiers surrendering to US Forces. Those letters got me through what I thought then was the toughest thing in life.
Of course, I kept the letters; I’m a packrat, that’s what I do. So when my mom passed away last month, I dug them out. I needed to hear her words in my heart once more. I was told by many that I am torturing myself and give it time. Stubbornly I sorted the letters by postmark and began a daily reflection where I read one a day. There are funny Hallmark cards about shopping and missing me. Messages about family and love from the family dog. There are long lengthy letters about the war, what a blessing to have these to read and remember the drama that played out so long ago. In a sense, they are historical souvenirs.
In reading these letters day after day, what I’ve found in these letters is peace. Oh, tears I shed are many, but just as mom’s words of wisdom were getting me through those days, they are getting me through these days without her as well. The words spring from the pages and straight into the void that’s left inside my heart.
I don’t know how to grieve; I’ve never had to do it to this degree. I know that nothing anyone says or does is taking this horrible pain away. Frankly, I think I’m lucky to have these letters to look back on. If you think about it, not many people today would have such keepsakes. Maybe a heartfelt email or text but not messages written in the hand of someone you loved. Yes, I am lucky.
“Hang in there. I’m behind you, you just can’t see me. But I’m there!”Letter from Mom – Tuesday, March 5, 1991
I find myself laughing out loud at some of the stories or just the way she talked. As she aged, my mom didn’t curse, but back then she did, and the few choice names she called my recruiter are classic. It’s so hard to think of her back then when she was well. It dawned on me that she was basically my age. She was 50 when I joined the Navy. I will hit 50 in a couple of years. Like me now, she was full of so much life. Working and having fun. So active. So much of the last 20+ years, we’ve dealt with her COPD illness. It’s so hard to remember days where she wasn’t strapped to oxygen or dealing with major medical issues. Reading these makes me see her young again and full of fire. Not weakened and frail. They are taking me back in time. Yes, I am lucky.
So torture or not, I will continue to read through the stack of letters every day until I reach the end. I may repeat the process until the pages are worn, and the print has faded beyond recognition. She was helping me survive the day to day and harsh unknowns of Bootcamp, little did I know those words would someday help me heal. Her words are constant reminders that I can get through anything because I am strong, and she believes in me, and she prays for me every day. I can’t give up or give in because she tells me in each and every letter.