Between flights, as I sat in the Denver airport near my gate, a young man, maybe half my 46 years, approached me. He tilted his head toward the chair next to mine, then toward my suitcase blocking the chair. There were many open seats. Why this one? I thought. When he sat, I noticed the markings on his duffel bag and his faded camouflage uniform. I asked. He nodded. I bowed my head slightly in honor of all I could never know to thank him for. He asked where I was headed.
Braced in the chair, hands on his knees, he told me he had just come from Afghanistan. He was going home for a few days of leave. He planned to surprise his mother in Florida. I asked how long it had been since he’d seen her (five years). I asked what he was looking forward to at home (a shower). He said it was almost harder to leave the war than to stay, leaving others behind, knowing he had to go back. But this might be his last chance, he said without saying, to see his mom.
Absent invention, I can’t re-create how each word passed back and forth. But I remember what he said. I remember how he scanned the room warily as he talked. How when he looked at me, his eyes kept no distance. He seemed to want something from me. I could not tell what.
I was a mother; he, a son. Even though he was muscled and desert-hardened, he looked too small, too gentle to hold a gun, to carry a war.
He said it was hard to stop scanning for danger. Yesterday, he’d been in the desert. Fellow soldiers, men under his command, had blown into pieces around him. Today, he was in an airport trying to fathom anger over flight delays, the rush for coffee. He didn’t know how to be, here in this place.
I thought maybe I understood. Only weeks before, my friend’s teenage son had died suddenly. One evening, after spending still hours with a broken mother, I went to my daughter’s theater performance. In the crowded lobby before the show, mothers complained about their seats and bemoaned other small slights, but only compassion made sense to me. I felt disoriented, distant. I told the soldier beside me about this. He breathed deeply, showed a small smile. I had given him a sliver of connection.
He’d seen the raw and unbearable. He knew what was real and mattered. But he did not know how to tell us. This was what he needed from me, I realized. He did not want the seat beside mine. He wanted to sit with me. He needed to feel safe and understood for a brief while between here and there.
I did not know his name, how his surprise would turn out, how long his tour of duty would last. I hoped his mother had a strong heart. We sat together until our flights were called and then said goodbye, two strangers heading home.