The glowing red numbers of the digital clock near my side of the bed read 1:23. Wide awake, I'm lying here listening for the front door to open. Our 20-year-old son came home yesterday after 15 months in Iraq. Tonight he is out with a couple of friends he's known since grade school.
"Jonny and I are going over to Nicole's. OK, Mom?" Roman said, after the party that officially welcomed him home had wound down; after the deli platters in the dining room were bare, the salsa bowls empty, and the homemade Oreo cookie cheesecake little more than a sweet memory.
In the months his infantry unit was based in and near Baghdad, I can't count how many nights I watched this clock's red numbers flip toward morning. A certain amount of sleeplessness is an inevitable part of parenthood. But things like colic and missed curfews, I've learned in the last fifteen months, can't hold a candle to roadside bombs and Shiite militia.
How did it happen that my son was in the thick of all that? The way I see it, his after-high-school decision to join the Army was an act of independence, pure and simple. Or as it turned out, not-so-simple. It took us by surprise - his computer-engineer dad, his Stanford sister, and me, his English-major mom. Roman's choice of the infantry surprised us even more. While I still viewed him as the gentle boy who loved animals of every kind, he was e-mailing us pictures of himself in desert khakis in a camp near Sadr City, toting a machine gun. I couldn't help wondering when he came home, whom we would meet at the airport.
When Roman was still in Iraq, he had initially said "No way" to the whole idea of us throwing a party when he returned. He's always been a quiet kid, more comfortable in front of his computer than in front of a crowd. That partly explains his reaction. But it must have been hard, too, for him to imagine a room full of "Welcome Back" balloons, while he was still in the midst of falling mortars. Or to envision red-white-and-blue streamers fluttering here in the living room, when only the week before, one of his Bravo Company buddies had gone home in a flag-draped box.
The party question had come up again in a phone conversation shortly after he arrived in Germany, where his division, the 1st Armored, is based, and where he returned for two weeks of debriefing before flying home to California.
"A party? Well, OK. Sure. I guess," he said.