On Wednesday evening I talked to Matt on Skype. The presidential elections were to take place the next day, and he was mentally preparing for some action. It was close to 1 a.m. in Afghanistan, and I could see that the lights in his empty office were dim. The night so far had been quiet, he said. But it was expected that the base would be attacked before morning. Matt was surprised it hadn’t happened yet.
“If we’re attacked I’m going to have to suit up immediately and go to the bunker,” he warned. I could see his rifle balanced on the table behind him. “Just so you know,” he told me. “Just so you’re prepared.”
“OK,” I said.
His evening was still calm when we hung up. But I spent the rest of the day on edge.
I get my news of Afghanistan in real time these days. I read the newspaper every morning, but that feels increasingly like an afterthought. Matt and I are lucky to speak often, and I know basically what is going on. Usually I appreciate this. I like to be in the know. It makes me feel more in control.
Other times, I don’t like it at all.
I hate getting emails from Matt like the one I got on an afternoon while in France. The subject line read: “I am OK.” He told me about an attack that had just happened near his base; he told me about the close call, the deaths that could have been his own. Twenty-four hours later, I calmly read about it in the paper.
I immediately bristled at the e-mail from Matt that I read on my phone one morning a few weeks ago. I was on my way to a meeting in Manhattan, walking quickly past Union Square. The note read: “we just got mortared and rocketed. two of three hit the camp. no one was hurt, though, thank god.” I paused on the sidewalk as the significance of the words sank in, my vision blurred for a moment. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. But I was late for my appointment, so I kept moving, and hastily typed back: “oh man, scary. i don't know if i love or hate knowing everything that goes on there in real time. makes me feel quite shaky.”
I did want to know. I wanted that small wisp of control. But at the same time, it’s the knowing that slams my utter lack of control against my face at regular intervals throughout the day. There is absolutely nothing I can do. I’m unable to influence a thing. The worry nips at my heels constantly and there’s nothing I can do but keep moving.
I often think about what war was like for those left behind before the rise of technology. Before the Internet. How would I have dealt with Matt’s deployment without the ability to talk to him everyday on Skype? Without regular e-mails? Without this blog? I wonder what it would be like if the newspaper was all I had.
I spent a while today on the web, looking up letters that soldiers had written home during the first and second world wars. I drank tea and ate a peach and read letters from soldiers to wives or girlfriends, parents and siblings and friends. I found many sweet ones that declared an earnest, everlasting love. Some expressed an intense desire to know what was happening with family and friends in their absence. Others tried to explain what was on their minds—the fear, the danger, the unknown. And a few tried to detail what they were going through, with varying degrees of success. Many had been censored of much detail and immediacy.
These letters were all received by mothers and fathers and girlfriends in the past tense. They were all composed about events after the fact. They were sealed in envelopes and in transit for weeks and months before finally arriving at their destination. The dialogue between a couple in love, for example, could take seasons to move. Relationships, it seems, were suspended in time.
In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a beautiful novel about love and loss, memory and forgiveness, a couple is separated by World War II. The woman writes a letter to her lover. It ends: “I love you. I’ll wait for you. Come back.” Then, there was nothing else she could do.
Part of me is jealous. It would be so much easier to get through the day without knowing, without frequently checking my e-mail or my iPhone news applications to see what could go wrong. But, I remind myself, my relationship with Matt continues to evolve on a daily basis now. It has expanded with the shared burden of separation.
On that Wednesday night before the elections, I had an interview to do in Manhattan. It was a hot and sticky evening and I got home late, around 11. As I walked to my apartment from the subway, it began to rain. Wild bursts of thunder startled me. Lightning filled the sky. It was violent weather. Over 50o trees fell in Central Park. But I was tired and worried and went right to bed. I slept deeply, dreamless. I woke up to an e-mail from Matt.
“Things are surprisingly OK,” he said about the progress of the elections. “But it’s not over yet.”