Through the wavy triple-digit heat of the Mojave in midsummer, the Humvee headed our way up the long sloping road. From the front seat of our parked car, I tracked its progress, stepping outside as it got closer.
"Think that's him?" I asked my husband. "Hard to tell," he said, peering in the same direction.
It was Saturday, late in the afternoon, at the main entrance to the Army's Fort Irwin, near Barstow, Calif. Our son, Roman, a soldier with the 101st Airborne in Kentucky, was there with his unit for three weeks of desert training. When it was finished, they'd be flying back to Kentucky to prepare for deployment to Iraq next month. It would be Roman's second 15-month tour of duty there.
Earlier, just after lunch, he'd called us here at home with news that he'd been given the night off: "You guy's wouldn't by any chance have plans to be near Barstow later today, would you? Because if you did, you know, we could maybe get together for dinner or something."
The invitation was vintage Roman. Wry. Low-key. Unassuming. He knew, of course, that we were as likely to be near Barstow as we were to be planning a weekend in Baghdad. But he also guessed his parents would be happy to make the three-hour drive on the spur of the moment for one more chance to see him. He was right.
The plan wasn't without complications. When we arrived at the guard station at the fort's south entrance, the MP there informed us we wouldn't be allowed on base unless we were accompanied by our soldier.
"Wait over there," the guard said pointing to a paved spot nearby. We pulled over. Parked. Rolled down all the windows. Opened the front doors. My husband used his cellphone to call Roman on his.
"Hey, all right! You made it!" Roman answered. "Soon as I can find a ride, I'll be there."
My husband got out, sighed, stretched, and paced. I unbuckled my seat belt, leaned back, and took in the scene around me: low hills dotted with rocks and scrub, trails etched into the hard, dry terrain. In spite of the small city of boxy buildings a couple miles down the road, and all the cars and trucks passing the guard station on their way out, Fort Irwin seemed to be mostly sky and sand. In a place like that, thoughts have lots of room to wander. Mine did, to Roman - 21 and on the brink of going to war for the second time.
No matter how old our children are, it's hard as a parent not to still think of them as kids. And whenever my son's been home on leave, he hasn't gone out of his way to change this view. He'll typically sleep in. Shuffle into the kitchen in bare feet and baggy jeans. Open the refrigerator, idle there for a while, bypass the V-8 juice in favor of a can of Pepsi. Schlep to the family room sofa for some channel surfing, happy as can be to rediscover SpongeBob SquarePants.
And that's OK. If anyone deserves to be cut some slack, it's a kid who's been to Iraq and back. And is headed there again.
No longer a lowly private, this next time he'll be in charge of a group of men. Most are older than he is, he's told us. Some married, with children.
I tried to imagine the little boy I used to call "Bunky" barking orders to men carrying machine guns. Tried to picture the laid-back teenager I knew now giving instructions in how to clean a weapon, pack a duffel, carry a wounded comrade. Try as I might, I couldn't do it.
And wondered if I'd ever begin to understand what he's been through and how he's changed; if I'd ever be able to see him, really see him, not so much as my son, but as someone separate from my memories, someone coming into his own in the complicated world beyond our backyard. It would require a fundamental shift in perception. And in those families where this sea change somehow happens, it means, I think, not only that the child has grown up, but that the parent finally has, too.
The Humvee we'd been watching stopped about a block away, just before a turnaround point. I saw the door on its right side swing open, a backpack land on the pavement, a tall soldier in camouflage khakis jump out. I would recognize Roman, I was sure, even from a distance, just by the way he moved. I looked for that ambling walk of his I knew so well.
The manner in which this fellow carried himself was something else entirely. Back straight. Chest out. He'd scooped up his pack with one hand, and with the other gave the hood of the Humvee an authoritative thump, then pointed as if giving directions. With a quick, full-arm wave to the guys inside, he turned and headed up the road toward us and the guard station. His stride, smooth and sure.
I shrugged. Not him.
I turned to get back into the car, when somebody called out. "Hey, Mom! Dad!" I heard him say, in a voice familiar as my own.
• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer.