On the eve of my mom’s second wedding, I slouched on a bench in her Texas backyard, nursing a beer and catching glimpses of my soon-to-be family members in the flickers of light from the outdoor fire pit. The three grown sons of my mom’s fiancé, Hank, lounged nearby in their chairs, drinking and ribbing each other over events long past. John worked in real estate, but Matt and Steve, like their dad, sported military-style haircuts — buzzed on the middle and bottom, a bit longer on top. Their father had served in the Marines in Vietnam. Matt followed him into the Marines, and Steve enlisted in the Army.
They would be the first active military men in my close family, although that life was not foreign to me. That evening we sat a few miles from Fort Hood, the country’s largest Army base, a place so embedded in my childhood that I didn’t bat an eye at seeing men and women in fatigues. Still, those were always the other families. My dad was a civilian — not traveling around the world on assignments, not subject to military honor codes, not off fighting conflicts while we celebrated holidays and birthdays without him. Dad passed away several years back, and my years of mingling with soldiers were far behind me. My husband and I were raising our baby boy in Oregon, a state without major military bases, where service men and women existed but were not the norm.
I strained to hear the woman next to me, Steve’s fiancé, over the others’ guffaws. Originally from Thailand, Pim had two daughters, and according to my mom, was a wicked cook. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of her short, tight skirts in flashy prints. But she was quick to laugh and easy to talk to, in spite of her accent and somewhat broken English, and I liked her instantly.
She’d had a few beers already, and for the moment her smile had disappeared. Pim pointed her bottle toward the other side of the yard where her younger daughter ran around with several other kids.
“That one dad, he went to Iraq,” she said. “He came home, and he not the same. He crazy in the head. He paranoid and take pills and drink.”
I looked at her older daughter, who sat staring at the fire pit from a nearby chair, separate from the commotion around her. She was eighteen, halfway through her senior year, and wore sweatpants with Yale emblazoned down the side.
“That’s awful,” I told Pim, but I looked at her daughter. Could she hear us?
Pim saw my gaze. “They have different dads,” she said before pointing across the yard again. “That one dad, I came home one day and found him in the backyard. He killed himself.”
I snapped my head toward Pim. The flames reflected on her eyes, which seemed to search her memory of that day. I reached out and touched her arm. “Oh no,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It happen three years ago.” She took another swig from her beer, then launched into a story of another military family she knew; of another soldier, back from Afghanistan, who called a help line and said he wanted to kill himself. They kept him on the line for half an hour, Pim said, while they located his wife and sent her home to be with him. After she arrived, the soldier committed suicide.
“He call for help but they don’t help him,” she said. “It not right.”
I looked again at Pim’s older daughter, but she still stared at the flames. “I agree,” I finally said. “It’s definitely not right.” I glimpsed Pim’s fiancé across the lawn and changed the subject by asking how they met. But for the rest of the evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about her former partner, dead, not from fighting in the war, but from trying to leave it behind.
The next morning, my husband and I piled our baby into the car, and Mom drove us to the nearby VFW hall to decorate for the reception. The wedding wasn’t until that afternoon. High school students in JROTC uniforms packed the parking lot, so Mom pulled her car into a spot down the street. It was the Saturday before Veterans Day, and the VFW was the starting point for the town’s annual parade.
I gazed at the JROTC kids in their olive-colored shirts and pants, rectangular hats perched on their heads, shiny black shoes scuffing the asphalt. “Pickles,” we used to call them back when I was in school. Nearby, the marching band, cheerleaders, dance team and flag twirlers laughed and talked as they waited for the parade to start. Around the corner of the building, Shriners revved the engines of their miniature cars and four-wheelers. I looked back at the pickles, their pants a tad too short, their varied heights, hairstyles and facial features not as perfect as the sparkly dancers gathered nearby. At the front of the group, a student leader yelled instructions like a kinder drill sergeant. His barely-past-puberty voice didn’t have quite the same authority.
We headed inside and found Hank, Pim and her daughters, and a few of their friends. While we arranged centerpieces and laid out forks and plates, several people complained about the reek of smoke wafting over from the adjacent bar. I buried my nose in the vanilla candles we placed on the tables. I never ventured into the bar, but my husband did later that afternoon during the reception. “It was smoky, dark and depressing,” he told me. Middle-aged people hunched at the bar with their heads down, smoking cigarettes, unhappy looks on their faces. Veterans, maybe. I thought of what Pim had told me and wondered what demons led these people to reject a sunny Saturday afternoon for a gloomy bar.
My son had never seen a parade, so after we finished decorating, we found a spot along the curb across the street to watch the festivities. A volunteer, himself a veteran, warned us to get back and cover our ears. “They’re gonna shoot off that cannon over there, and it’s real loud,” he said. “See? Those ROTC kids know what’s coming. The other kids have no idea.”
I looked across the street and saw the pickles holding their hands over their ears, while the oblivious band members and cheerleaders continued milling about. Several men in Civil War-era garb — gray, for the Confederates — stuffed the shaft of a cannon. My husband and I clapped our hands over our baby’s ears, holding on tight as he wriggled and attempted to push us away. I squeezed harder, trying to block out the impending roar, the crowd’s yells, the life both inside and outside that building in front of us. When the cannon went off, the boom vibrated the ground, my eardrums, my chest, my baby’s body — a deep jolt that we couldn’t escape.