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It was the day that management was performing routine checks on smoke detectors in each apartment in my building. I was on my way out to meet a friend for lunch when there was a loud knock at the door.
“Damn,” I thought. “Why do they have to come right this minute?”
I glanced at my watch as I opened the door to the smoke-detector guy, a young Middle Eastern-looking man in his 30s. Hoping it wouldn’t take long, I allowed him to come in with his ladder and tools.
As he started to work, he looked up at the family photos on my wall and softly asked, “Who is the American soldier?” Two of my three sons are soldiers, the elder with the Canadian Forces, the younger with the American. I have their pictures, in uniform, proudly displayed in my living room.
“That is my youngest son’s picture,” I answered.
“Has he been in the war?” he asked me.
“Yes, he has,” I answered carefully. “He was an army medic and he was deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006.”
That was six years ago, but it was – and still is – the most difficult year I’ve ever endured as a mother.
The war was my nightmare each and every time I tried to sleep, and it took over my thoughts for every waking moment of those 12 months my son was in danger.
The man looked at me with a serious expression and said, “I am happy your son made it home alive.”
He then continued to test my smoke alarm, making it go off a few times to be sure. When he was done he picked up his ladder, but instead of leaving, he began to tell me why he’d asked about my son.
“You see,” he said, “I served with the American military in Iraq as one of their translators for five years.”
He repeated those two words, “five years,” and held his hand up, spreading all five fingers as if to show me it was important how very long a time that was.
“The soldiers were very good to me and grateful I could help them communicate with the Iraqi people,” said the young man, who I now knew was Iraqi. “They were mostly kids and so very young. I wore their uniform proudly, although I was not a soldier, and I was so glad to help them.
“They were so young,” he said again.
“Lots of terrible things happen in war, and so I thank God that your son did not die there and that he is safe now,” the man said while making the sign of the cross and putting his fingers to his lips in a kiss to God.
We were both silent for a few moments. Then I held out my hand and said, “I would like to thank you for your service to not only your own country, but to ours as well.” (I am Canadian, my husband American.)
“It must have been so horrible to be there and to see what you saw,” I added. “I think you were very brave.”
He shook my hand and said: “Thank you ma’am. It was an honour to meet you, too.”
Then he quietly shut my door and moved on to the next apartment.
I didn’t get his name, but I didn’t need to know it. To me, he was the son of another mother who was, I imagine, as terrified as I had been for my son.
That connection suddenly seemed to knock the wind from me and I had to sit down, feeling weak. All the terror, anxiety and panic from that one year came rushing back.
All thoughts of lunch with my friend, or anything else for that matter, were forgotten.
My mind went back to when I had tried to bargain with God and begged Him to bring my son home safe; to when I wrote whatever came to mind, no matter how small, in each letter I sent him (more than 300); to when I would avoid the news in case he had been involved in another battle with lives lost.
I had kept a phone with me day and night, dreading hearing it ring and finding out my son was hurt or worse, and thrilled whenever it did ring and it was him saying the best three words in the English language: “I’m okay, Mom.”
I can still hear his voice from so far away saying “I’m okay.” And I remember thinking that for that one moment, when he was talking to me, he was safe.
I sat there as those memories went by, as quick and frightening as lightning. Slowly I began to breathe normally and come back to today – an ordinary day. Yet it wasn’t ordinary any more.
It was a day I learned that remembering a traumatic time in life can affect you like a physical blow to the gut.
And it was a day I learned that quiet heroes walk among us still.
We are both living our peaceful lives in Canada now, in a country whose role in the world is peacekeeping; a country that has great respect for other cultures, and for all Canadians.
I went to lunch, and he went on to finish his job in the building. But I know we will not forget that day. We looked into each other’s eyes and saw that the pain was still there, just as raw and real as it was six years ago. I knew we had shared something that, like the war, would remain with us forever.
Deborah Floyd lives in Ottawa.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mixed up the nationalities of the author and her husband. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error