Author: Lena Isleson
Location: Camano Island, Washington
Lena Isleson is a former journalist and psychotherapist who has spent the last five years working as a consultant to the military on issues related to military families who are based around the world. This submission is part of her book-in-progress called How Much Longer
; a book that she hopes will hasten the transition not only of herself but the U.S. out of the war zones of the Middle East and the landscapes of the American psyche.
An eyeball rolls across the floor, keels over and lays flat on the floor, pupil enlarged, fixed, staring, clearly dead. One of the children notices me staring at it, walks over, and picks it up. He carries it to the table, reaches for the bottle of Elmer's glue and dabs a bit onto the animal cut-out stretched out on the table before him to affix the eye on the monkey's face he is creating. "My monkey," he squeaks in his 8-year-old voice. It was the eyeball that got away, apparently, for it matches the other eye. The monkey face takes shape as eyes, nose and mouth get pasted onto the art project of the morning.
It's raining outside so summer camp has moved inside until the downpour ceases. The kids are learning how to construct faces. First a monkey, then a deployed mom or dad. If only it were that easy to reconstruct a face. Some parents have been away so long that the children stop talking about the distant imitation of a voice or video body image sent through cyberspace they call "dad" or "mom." Each day a parent is away at war feels like a thousand years and they feel abandoned.
I wander over to another table where an older boy sits alone working on a craft. I've noticed him the day before, walking as if he carries the weight of the world -- a tough load for a 9-year-old, even on his stocky shoulders. While other kids laughed and roughhoused by the lake, he sat alone, stony faced, pondering something deep. While other kids launched off in canoes, he told me he didn't feel like going out. He sat on his towel staring past the swimmers at the island not far offshore. It captivated his attention -- this rock obstructing the view of the other side of the lake, unmovable, irritating.
Intelligent, articulate, depressed ... is my initial assessment. I have a week to reach inside him and pull out what's eating him. However, it doesn't take as long as I expect. It is as if he has been waiting for some adult to come alongside him and listen.
He bends over a pile of Popsicle sticks and a bottle of glue, building something undefined as I slip into the seat beside him. My presence doesn't seem to disturb him. I ask, "A lot of the kids here at the camp have a parent deployed and working overseas. So I'm wondering, is your mom or dad in Afghanistan or Iraq?"
I expect a shrug, a silencing response or signal that my intrusion isn't welcome, because he seems so quiet and withdrawn. Instead, the boy looks up from his project and makes eye contact with me, already deciding he could trust me, perhaps desperate to trust someone with the secret knowledge that has been ticking away inside him, ready to explode.
He blurts out softly, "My dad is in Afghanistan."
His lips pull up into a grimace, his eyes squint as if trying to keep from crying as he continues, "My dad says they are putting bombs on kids and sending them into the street to blow up."
"Did he tell you that directly?" I ask, keeping my voice calm despite my instant horror.
"I heard him say something to my mom on the phone about it," he replies, pretending to refocus on his art project.
There is something about his voice, the twist of his face that unsettles me; and it dawns on me how he must have interpreted the half-heard phone conversation. His father marched out his front door and off to war as a loving dad, a hero, strong and kind. But now, a haze of confusion clouds the boy's vision and is apparently morphing his father into a monster. The boy needs to hear the truth that would combat the lie that was possibly tormenting him. I found myself intuitively responding, "Not your dad. Your dad and our guys would never do that."
The boy looks up as a wave of relief softens the painful wondering that has weighed him down. "Not my dad?" he asks hopefully.
"Your dad and our guys would never do that. It has happened once or twice but not to all children. And it was the terrorists who did that. Our guys would never do that to any child," I emphasize.
"It was the enemy?"
"Yes," I reply and then wait as the news sinks into his little mind and pushes out the overwhelming lie he has believed based on an overheard conversation. I can almost hear his thoughts. Not my dad. He is not a bad guy after all. I don't have to be afraid of him when he comes home. We are not monsters after all.
I can tell as we sit together in silence that he is joyfully reconstructing the last image of his father's face.
Later that afternoon the rain squall gives way to a blazing sun and the children run down to the lake for water sports. He runs with them, lighter, laughing, ready to make friends. He pays no attention to the island far offshore.