Two officers in dress uniform marched up to me, trying their best to be brave. They weren’t marching into battle; they were assigned to what might be a more difficult duty. They came to inform us that Paul was dead.
I knew it before they said a word, and so did Kim, who was my daughter-in-law, and so did Sam, who was both her lover and my son’s best friend. Natalie had known before the rest of us because she had dreamed it, although she may not have wanted to believe.
I don’t remember most of what the officers said, but I remember everything else about them. The one, a fuzzy checked Lieutenant, did most of the talking, although he stammered so that we had to finish most of his sentences. His voice cracked and broke, as if words could not carry the load demanded. His eyes sympathetically brimmed; although he didn’t know Paul, he would lend us some tears if we had not enough.
I thought: this Lieutenant is what it looks like to be brave. Bravery is not a puffed chest, or proud ribbons, or a five o’clock shadow. Bravery is a cracking voice and eyes brimming. Bravery is speaking aloud words freighted beyond capacity.
The other, a female chaplain, seemed to be there only to care for the wounded; a medic of souls, prepared to bandage suffering, anesthetize anguish, or tourniquet a hemorrhage of faith. She composed her face into quiet sorrow, as if to model the way a mournful face ought to look; but we did not follow her lead and displayed all the stages of grief at once.
“You must have the wrong house,” said I.
“Why did you let them in?” said Kim.
“No, God, no. No, God, no,” said Natalie.
“I should’ve been there,” said Sam.
“No,” we all said. “This can’t be; he was coming home today. He was done with the fighting.”
The fuzzy checked Lieutenant opened his mouth, but the words could not come out at first. The very air would not let these words come out. They were too heavy to emerge from his throat. They were words that never should be said.
At last he succeeded in telling us, “He was on his way home. His plane crashed shortly after takeoff.”
Bravery is not a useless sacrifice, helplessly gunned down while strapped to a seat. Bravery is not shooting down a plane that is leaving your country, killing men that are quitting war. Bravery is not war, at all. No, that’s all just stupid.
“It was a Stinger, wasn’t it?” Sam accused him. “It was one of those Stingers that you gave the Taliban.”
The Lieutenant looked guilty, as if he, personally, delivered the Stingers to Osama Bin Laden.
“They’re gunna cover it up,” said Sam.
The Chaplain suggested that we pray. She prayed; we sat as we had before, staring at the carpet. The praying being done, we still stared at the carpet. There seemed to be little to do, so they left.
Kim broke the silence some unknown minutes later.
“You’re a counselor, aren’t you?” she said to me.
“Well, counsel us.”