The Mom Thing

One morning when I was scrubbing for a surgery in the California hospital where I work, one of the staff nurses approached me and, knowing of my interest in and knowledge of firearms, asked what kind of gun she ought to buy her seventeen-year-old son for his introduction to arms.

She told me her boy had recently been to a range in Texas with an uncle who had shown him how to shoot, and now he was keen to select a college in that state because he liked the open attitude of Texans toward firearms.

I suggested that if her son was that interested in firearms, he might also be thinking of the military, and if so, Virginia Military Institute might be a good choice for college.

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than she screwed her face up into a tight frown of distaste with "I don't want him in the army."

I asked her if she believed, as I did, that no citizen can enjoy clear title to the benefits and privileges of a society unless he or she has worn the uniform to defend that society. She hesitantly said yes, but she said she still wanted to keep her child far away from the military, saying, "He's my little boy; I got the mom thing going on."

I then inquired if she thought our country should have a strong military or even a military at all, and she again reluctantly said yes, but then repeated her "mom thing" caveat.

I asked if she understood that if her child failed to do his uniformed duty, then the slack would just have to be picked up by some other mother's son or daughter, but she only repeated her mantra a third time, and a bit testily. 

Our conversation ended, but for the rest of the day, I reflected on the "mom thing," knowing, of course, that as a male, I could never have firsthand knowledge of motherhood. But then it suddenly occurred to me that I might actually have seen and experienced -- up close and personal -- the phenomenon my nurse friend was talking about.

It was on a cold drizzly December day a few years ago when I witnessed the "mom thing." I was following the mom of one of my son's VMI classmates as she marched slowly through the rain behind the horse-drawn, flag-draped caisson that bore the body of her "little boy" to its final resting place.

A mournful, muffled drum marked cadence.

At graveside, the honor guard did their part in the "mom thing" as they smartly folded and presented the tri-corner flag to the fallen hero's mom, who stood straight and true, her body flinching slightly at the sharp cracks of the rifle salute.

The piper, on a grassy rise behind the undulating rows on rows of crosses with the stark walls of the Pentagon as backdrop, droned an Amazing Grace as the soundtrack to this sad woman's "mom thing."

And then, from the near distance, the bugler blew the final notes of this "mom thing": the familiar and haunting twenty-four notes of Taps.

Yes, maybe I did understand something of the "mom thing."

Maybe it was the "mom thing" I experienced during the year my 82nd-Airborne, Ranger son commanded a combat infantry platoon in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when, in the late evening, my doorbell would ring unexpectedly, and my world and heart would stop -- literally.

And maybe it was the "mom thing" I lived during the seven long months my Marine daughter served in Al Anbar, Iraq, and in the long, silent periods in which I would receive no calls or e-mails, my mind would turn -- back to Arlington.

Yes, maybe I did know the feeling, but I guess if I called it anything, it was the "dad thing."

But what does it matter the name we assign to the most powerful feeling we humans can experience -- the love and the fear of the loss of our children?

And now, to that young nurse who saw her "mom thing" as a call to keep her little boy away from the military and safe at home, I say only: You owe me no explanation.

But there may be someone to whom you do.

Next time you visit our nation's capital, take a walk down the Mall from the Washington Monument, past the World War One Memorial, the World War Two Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Women's Memorial, and "The Wall," and continue walking across the bridge, the one just behind the Lincoln Memorial, to Arlington National Cemetery, and please explain your "mom thing" to another mom's little boy, the young captain from Idaho we buried on that gray, brooding December day -- ironically, the seventh.

And when you go, please take your own little boy along so he can hear what you have to say, for I'm sure he'll carry and perhaps even treasure the memory of your words for the rest of his life.

You'll be looking for Section 60, Site 8081, and the hero's name is Luke Wullenwaber, Virginia Military Institute, Class of 2002.

And you needn't bother calling ahead, because he knows you'll be there -- someday.

Because Arlington is the biggest "mom thing" there is.
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