Harry is home now. He slipped in on a perfect spring afternoon while hundreds of thin yellow ribbons fluttered like tinsel on the Japanese maple. He didn’t want any fuss, so he and his family spent the rest of the day quietly at home.
He is twenty years old and he has killed since I saw him last. On Christmas morning, he returned Iraqi fire to save his own life and continue with the job he was sent to do.
When I learned that Harry had shipped out to Iraq last year, I set out an American flag and wrapped a yellow ribbon around my poplar tree. I am not given to public acts of patriotism. I’ve always considered the ribbon thing a little hokey. Harry’s going changed that. Sure, I didn’t enlist and I didn’t demonstrate about the war. I continued my life and my work as a psychologist in personal safety and freedom here. But I woke up. The spin and political posturing that obscure the realities of war faded.
Thirty years ago, those distractions had shielded me from the Vietnam War. I was able, then, to know and at the same time not know about napalm and daily death tolls and my contemporaries who came home broken or not at all. I voted on election days and did nothing else but complain and resent the government. I played the part of not playing a part.
War is horrible and magnificent in its ability to engage and alter human consciousness. In psychology, we call such forces of nature archetypes and they are impulses that emerge from the deepest levels of our humanity. In the grip of an archetype, we feel possessed. Rationality yields. We fall in love, explode into rage, and descend into depression; we’re blinded by lust, mesmerized by religious zeal, driven to preserve life or destroy it.
War is like that; it sweeps us away. War triggers the most destructive and the most tender moments in a country’s life. We’re all drawn in, one way or the other.
When Harry shipped out, I experienced urgent feelings of empathy and solidarity. I didn’t intend to tie a ribbon around the tree. It was a blind reflexive gesture in the way that machine gun fire at close range is reflexive. I found myself doing it. I began thinking not about whether this war is right or wrong but simply about war and my place in it. And I identified venues for my involvement.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t really know Harry. We keep to ourselves in our neighborhood in a friendly sort of way. That young man and I lead such different lives, we’d never had reason to converse. He drives a Mustang, I drive a Volvo. He goes out after ten at night when I am anticipating a good book and an easing into sleep. He plays music on his car radio I know nothing about. None of that mattered. I got in the habit of holding my breath when morning radio reported the news from Iraq. I don’t know how the family stood the steady news of casualties and deaths.
The Sunday afternoon of his homecoming was soft and breezy, warm and grateful, the way an afternoon in early spring can be: triumphant, full of birdsong and the motion of yellow ribbons.
I tried to keep at the project I’d been working on but I felt agitated and distracted, not exactly excited but moved and drawn. I realized I had to do something. I wanted to say, "Welcome home,” to offer a gift that would help draw him back from the war.
I found myself stepping into the garden where the first wave of daffodils nodded. I cut a fat bunch, tied the moist green stems in streaming yellow ribbon and walked down the street to my neighbor’s house. I rang the bell and waited. When the door opened, there was Harry, still in uniform. He was finishing a conversation with someone inside and was in the process of turning toward me so I had a few seconds to take him in before our eyes met.
His drab green fatigues collided with the afternoon and gave the impression that he was sealed off. His form looked almost hazy, indistinct. He began to focus on me with a slow and deliberate gaze. I could see him in the process of coming home, cautiously, layer by layer, shedding the dust and dryness and danger.
I handed him the bouquet of yellow daffodils.
"I’ll bet you haven’t seen anything like these for a while," I said.
He looked down at them.
"No,” he said. “You’re right. I haven’t."
There was a beat of silence. I said something inane about how glad we all were that he had gotten home in one piece.
"Me too," he said.
Another beat of silence.
He looked intently into the creamy yellow flowers and then back to me.
"Thank you for this."
“You’re more than welcome.”
I turned and started for home. War, as they say, is fought “on the ground,” in the moment. Its violence and terror concentrate in war zones but its energy and effects exist everywhere. In budding gardens and chilly subways, in precisely appointed corporate offices and in the lives of returning soldiers. To pretend it isn’t happening or that it is contained far away is a fool’s game.
During periods when this archetypal force has been loosed in the world, I have hidden behind ideology or simply tried to ignore it. Now, being on the ground with it, in my own small ways, disturbs me but also enlivens me.Emma Mellon grew up in Southwest Philadelphia near Cobbs Creek Park though she was not allowed to play in the park unsupervised. She graduated from Temple University, moved to Washington DC to teach Language Arts in a private school and then returned and earned a PhD at Temple. She is a licensed psychologist in private practice and an author of non-fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in The Inquirer and The Daily News. Her essay, “Christmas with TwylaRose” will appear in the forthcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrates Dogs available in October 2004.