I will forever hear the word marine as love. I know, I know. The Marines are not about love. You might say they're about defense and protection. The Marines will tell you they're all about fighting and killing. I'm not exaggerating. The drill instructor made sure we wimpy moms standing around the visitor center on Parris Island, the ones who hadn't seen or heard our young sons for almost 100 days, understood that the Marines were not training our precious children to be journalists or mechanics or paralegals, or any other thing they might have selected as their course of study. They were fighters. They were killers. That's just the way it was.
Curiously, I was used to it, but from the audible shudders that rippled through the crowded room, many were not. I'm not sure why I wasn't appalled, why I didn't wrestle with some impulse to insist they must have made a mistake: This child of organic carrots and wheatberries and peaceful resolutions was not theirs, and I must now take him home to our quirky house on a dirt road in the luscious shadow of Mount Katahdin.
But I wasn't, and I didn't.
My son is a Marine, and the Marines have taught him to love, at least given him voice to the speaking of love and showing of love to his mother.
Until recently, I could count on one hand the number of times my youngest child had told me he loves me. Now I have a clutch of letters, about 45 of them over the past three months. And in them I have at least 40 times I love you or I love you very much. Even I miss you Mom speckles these pages, written below a military insignia featuring an eagle that looks to be sitting on top of the world with a grenade pin in its mouth.
This is my white bread and macaroni-and-cheese-out-of-the-box boy. The one who challenged me in every conceivable way: the one who stole a gun from a deserted campground; the one who would stare me down for days to prove he had not done whatever I had seen him do; the one who always resisted established definitions of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. I could not comfortably hug or kiss him.
He is also my smartest. We all acknowledge it. He taught himself to drive a standard shift in bed at night when he was 7. He read 350-page books at 10, intuitively did electronics, and made historical associations without 'knowing how.' Before going to sleep, he opened 'Windows' and clicked the genre of dream he wanted: adventure, nature, shoot-'em-up, friends, sports, and, I am sure, sex. He thought everyone could.
That day, after a 35-hour bus ride, after the drill instructor had prepared us for the children we were about to see: I watch him walk out of a crowd of 500 boys/men on a South Carolina field. He is the one with the smooth brown face barely able to produce stubble, the bony elbows, toes I suspect he still can't touch. I almost don't recognize him standing so straight, walking so crisply, wearing his clothes so neat and form-fitting-a man of serious intent. This is not the boy I pulled through the eye of high school with the size 40 pants in a tenuous relationship with his 28-inch waist. This is not the boy who carried in the firewood more reluctantly than if it had been poison. This is not the boy who smoked a lot of dope and hung out till 4 a.m. when he lived with his father before I convinced him to come home again.
This is the man who has been meritoriously promoted in boot camp, the one who now says, 'Yes, Ma'am,' and 'No, Ma'am,' and holds doors, the one whose drill instructor tells me is 'a very motivated young man.' I am tempted to say, 'Who? This one? Mine?' But I just nod, wondering how the boy on the edge managed to jump full center. I know why-he said the Marines are so tough he wouldn't be able to choose to step outside the lines and then try to talk himself out of trouble-but I might never know how.
And so, now I am the mother of a Marine. A Marine who says, 'I love you,' and, 'I love you very much, Mom,' and one who thanked me for implanting integrity and honor (he actually said that) in a child who resisted at every turn. Today, thousands of miles away, my son suits up for his nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare tests; I tighten a handwoven shawl around my shoulders and sprinkle some sunflower seeds into the crumbled tofu, licking up the warm, fruity olive oil and fresh oregano. He is my son and I am his mom. I love him and he loves me. And so there is nothing I can do but wish my killer well.
Poet and essayist Annaliese Jakimides was recently featured in The Other Side of Sorrow: Poets Speak Out About Conflict, War, and Peace (Poetry Society of New Hampshire, 2006). Reprinted from the progressive parenting zine Hip Mama (#34), a nominee in the Personal Life category for the 2005 Utne Independent Press Awards. Subscriptions: $12-$24 sliding scale (4 issues) from Box 12525, Portland, OR 97212; www.hipmama.com.