In recent years, my celebration of Independence Day has mostly been an exercise in personal reflection. Because I’m an optimist, I try to focus on what it means to be free in the present. This is the most reasonable way for me to reconcile with a day that celebrates the freedom of a country in which my ancestors were excluded. I start with how grateful I am that three of my children are home today, and we have the freedom to talk, laugh and eat together. At dusk, they even agree to come with my husband, my mother-in-law, and me to see local fireworks shows from a park hill that oversees most of our city. Sitting on top of the hill, among the others, the flurries of fireworks bursting through the twinkling city lights is quite the spectacle. This scene reminds me of the freedom to come together as a community and celebrate this symbolic display of independence without interruption or harassment. It is a peaceful crowd lined along the hilltop. Most are silhouettes in the darkness, but close to me, a teen couple on a blanket leans into one another and they sneak kisses. Some men stand near their wives, their heads tilted up to the sky. I imagine them a little pre-occupied with when the main show atop Mt. Rubidoux will end so they can guess the best time to move their vehicles close for family pick-up. Moms stand with folded arms, eyes fixed at the horizon. I imagine them reflecting on the day’s events, the year’s events, and maybe about the deeper meaning of the holiday in the same way that I am. I wonder are there any here who have lost their sons for the sake of freedom. How many mourn for their fallen flesh and blood? And, are they thinking of them now?
These are the questions that bring me to Marcus. As much as I try to accept my freedom and be grateful for it, and as much as I try to feel it, you know, feel light and without burden, I fail. Or, my psyche fails me, or God fails me, or the universe fails me. I want desperately to not mourn Marcus. We didn’t lose him in Afghanistan, or Iraq. No officer has come to our door to announce his death to my family. In fact, in a real sense, he lives. When I put my hand to his chest, it beats strong and it beats steady. His face is warm under my kisses that he, sometimes graciously, sometimes reluctantly, allows me to plant on his cheek. I shouldn’t mourn, I tell my heart. But it disobeys my request. It tells me that over 16 years ago, autism, like a dark, menacing thief, stole my boy with all his promise away from our family. Because I’m an optimist, I once believed that he would regain the toddler words he lost. I believed he would one day play soccer with his twin brother. I believed and dreamed many possibilities as the years came and went. But, now, he’s 18 years old. I have to face what is lost and what may never be gained.How does a mother who has lost her son to war ever feel free? Does she hold his picture to her chest and call up a favorite memory? Does she picture his smile, try to remember his scent, try to never forget his voice? How does the wound mend?
Not my heart’s desire, but circumstances cause us to exclude Marcus from this event tonight. He won’t feel the summer air, be bedazzled by the fireworks show, absorb the open space. Of course, this is my perspective; in actuality, his senses would go into overload, and everyone at the park would be distracted by his reactionary shrills and movement caused by his inability to process all the activity going on around him.
I imagine what I would do if he could be here with me, and I revert to what often happens between us if I catch him sitting still. I take his hand and massage his palm. Then, I rub each finger. When I stop, he looks at me for a brief second and gives me his other hand. I oblige. I rub the next hand the same. I massage his head, too. He smells of hair oils and outside. He bends forward and puts his head down, my cue to continue rubbing. I smile in the dark. This is what I would do if Marcus were here with us now.