Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Catch-22 Week: The Chaplain's Family

For all but 12 days of 2005, I was separated from my wife and three children by an ocean, two continents, and the sprawl of a battlefield.  I was in Iraq helping the United States and its allies prosecute the war against terror and make the world safe for children to once again play in the streets without fear of being blown up.  My family, separated by so much time and space, spent their days in Georgia trying to fill the father/husband vacuum as best they could.  Unlike soldiers in previous conflicts, I had the luxury of near-instant communication through email and the weekly phone call filled with an ocean-roar of static.

Still, I worried.

Absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder, it makes it freak the fuck out!  Because I couldn't be there to protect them from everyday hazards like falling tree limbs while raking leaves in the front yard, or food poisoning from the Chinese take-out left in the refrigerator for far too long, or blue bolts of lightning shooting through an upstairs bedroom while my boys played Xbox (something which actually did happen), I fretted.  My mind was knotted with worst-case scenarios and eaten by dark fantasies.  I was tortured not with thoughts of my own death by an enemy's mortar but theirs by a whizzing lawnmower blade come loose from its bolts.  So, when it came time for our weekly phone call, the relief hit me like a huge, powerful, warm wave and there were times I almost broke down and cried right there in the call center on Camp Liberty as I heard my sweet wife's voice coming through the static.

What I'm trying to tell you is, I can really, really relate to this passage from Chapter 25 ("The Chaplain") in Catch-22:
      The chaplain’s wife was the one thing in the world he could be certain of, and it would have been sufficient, if only he had been left to live his life out with just her and the children. The chaplain’s wife was a reserved, diminutive, agreeable woman in her early thirties, very dark and very attractive, with a narrow waist, calm intelligent eyes, and small, bright, pointy teeth in a childlike face that was vivacious and petite; he kept forgetting what his children looked like, and each time he returned to their snapshots it was like seeing their faces for the first time. The chaplain loved his wife and children with such tameless intensity that he often wanted to sink to the ground helplessly and weep like a castaway cripple. He was tormented inexorably by morbid fantasies involving them, by dire, hideous omens of illness and accident. His meditations were polluted with threats of dread diseases like Ewing’s tumor and leukemia; he saw his infant son die two or three times every week because he had never taught his wife how to stop arterial bleeding; watched, in tearful, paralyzed silence, his whole family electrocuted, one after the other, at a baseboard socket because he had never told her that a human body would conduct electricity; all four went up in flames almost every night when the water heater exploded and set the two-story wooden house afire; in ghastly, heartless, revolting detail he saw his poor dear wife’s trim and fragile body crushed to a viscous pulp against the brick wall of a market building by a half-wined drunken automobile driver and watched his hysterical five-year-old daughter being led away from the grisly scene by a kindly middle-aged gentleman with snow-white hair who raped and murdered her repeatedly as soon as he had driven her off to a deserted sandpit, while his two younger children starved to death slowly in the house after his wife’s mother, who had been baby-sitting, dropped dead from a heart attack when news of his wife’s accident was given to her over the telephone. The chaplain’s wife was a sweet, soothing, considerate woman, and he yearned to touch the warm flesh of her slender arm again and stroke her smooth black hair, to hear her intimate, comforting voice. She was a much stronger person than he was. He wrote brief, untroubled letters to her once a week, sometimes twice. He wanted to write urgent love letters to her all day long and crowd the endless pages with desperate, uninhibited confessions of his humble worship and need and with careful instructions for administering artificial respiration. He wanted to pour out to her in torrents of self-pity all his unbearable loneliness and despair and warn her never to leave the boric acid or the aspirin in reach of the children or to cross a street against the traffic light. He did not wish to worry her. The chaplain’s wife was intuitive, gentle, compassionate and responsive. Almost inevitably, his reveries of reunion with her ended in explicit acts of love-making.

December 18, 2005

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