There is only the memory of a storm. Lingering on my skin, haunting my dreams. Baghdad, Iraq. In the year 2006. Sounds and smells come back the most. I try to suppress them because of the panic attacks and the way those have crippled me at times. I haven’t had one for a while.
Now, when the memories come unbidden, it is usually an overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss. The awareness of my own fragility. The death of innocence. The inevitability of endings and an understanding that the privilege of memory is not granted to everyone.
All the fragments came together in the storm my last night in Iraq. I slept eventually but first my brain forced me to travel unwanted pathways. Made me ask why my life was intact when so many others had been shattered. When so many souls had leaked out onto the ground or been dispersed into bits and fragments inside the concussive blasts of hatred that I felt many times. Those punctuation marks only frayed my mind. They failed to shatter my body.
It doesn’t rain often in Baghdad. In a year we had perhaps a half dozen storms that actually contained life giving water sent down from the skies. My last night in Iraq I experienced one of those. The air became heavy with that smell of impending wet while my unit shuffled from line to line suffering the endless insults of modern war. The wind picked up as we finished our checklists and winded our way through the endless t-walls, machines and tired soldiers to take our sustenance. By the time we returned to our tent to retire, the sand was blowing into our faces. Stinging our skin.
The tent walls moved and sang to us in harmony with the angry air outside that night. As the storm’s fury mounted, I wondered why I was lucky enough to be alive. My overwhelming sense was that I wouldn’t make it through the night. That the storm had been sent as a last cruel joke. I felt that since none of the mortars or rockets had taken me out I was due to die in the tent that night. If a sniper didn’t have my mark, then surely the tent would fall in on me and finish the job.
I finally drifted off into a troubled sleep thinking about all the things that hadn’t killed me. Some men and women can fall asleep anywhere after being exposed to war. I haven’t mastered that skill. I was probably the last one to fall asleep that night.
I woke up to the sound of thunder crashing. The tent walls were moving so much I was certain they would collapse in on me at any point. I could hear vehicles grinding by and see lightning through the entrance flaps as the wind played games with my worldview.
Instead of waiting for the tent to collapse and end the nightmare I’d been living, I did what human beings do. I fought my way through the chaos and uncertainty to relieve my bladder. The memories of that short journey are burned into my brain.
Endless convoys of sand colored armored gun trucks moving through the darkness sometimes illuminated by the sodium lights that seem to be omnipresent inside U.S. forward operating bases. In the rare moments between thunder crashes, shrieking gusts of wind, the sound of rain hitting sand and the grinding, rumbling noises of convoys the closest thing to silence was the constant hum of diesel generators powering the camp. War has a very distinct set of sights, sounds and smells that I cannot forget.
That storm, on that particular night, added a level of surreal to the backdrop. The storm ensured I will not lose the tableau of that night until I am dead. It burned in the significance of my fragility, the randomness of man’s hatred towards man and the fact that I was supposed to go home in the morning.
The tent survived nature’s fury. No mortar landed on me during my fitful sleep. The chartered jet we flew across an ocean to return to our world did not go down in the ocean as I suspected it would. But that storm is still raging in my head. Reminding me that one day I won’t be able to escape an ending to my story. Storms remind me that I shouldn’t waste time. Remind me that the routine always holds the potential to become life changing.
What am I doing with my time? How am I spending the moments between storms? I lost a friend yesterday, long before I expected it. His storm came in a different form but it had the same net effect as the one I experienced on my last night in Baghdad. His tent fell in on him and became a burial shroud.
The memory of storms reminds that I should use the moments I have left intentionally. That I should live mindfully. That I should choose my relationships carefully. That every moment is an investment in becoming. Connectedness and love mean everything. I wish I’d understood that lesson better the night I was waiting for my plane out of Baghdad.
To my friend who just passed, I want to say, thank you for allowing me to know you. Thank you for letting me use the memory of your final storm to reinforce lessons I believe will cause my life to resonate more richly. Thank you for serving as an example of kindness and love that will allow me to be better for the people around me.
My final storm is coming. Yours is too. The only question is what will we do with the time between this moment and that one?
In memory of Dan