yards and yards of names

by bam

i assure you, when the boy came bounding in the door with a bolt of cotton the color of marigolds, i was intrigued.
what’s that, i wondered, trying to tamp a mother’s too-keen attention on the hard-to-pin-down adventures of a young budding teen.
except for the chest wall of campaign buttons, some now historical relics, and anti-war slogans pinned to his signature fleece, i cannot say that i’ve ever caught a whiff of an interest in what you’d call fashion, not from this boy at least.
oh, it’s for young democrats, he informed, starting to forage for after-school sustenance. settling into some sort of concoction involving triscuits, cheese and a microwave, he circled back to his backpack, pulled out a sheaf of six stapled pages.
we’re draping the courtyard with the names of everyone who’s been killed in the iraq war, he explained.
the boy now had my complete attention.
so did the six pages of names.
he had in his hand 259 names of 259 soldiers and sailors, mostly men, but plenty of women, from the army, the navy, and the marines. a roster of each one who died, in the case of his slice of the list, from jan. 24, 2005, to may 8 of the very same year. may 8 that year just happened to be mother’s day.
i flipped to the last names on the list, the mother’s day names, and i counted. eight. pity the eight mothers who live with the knowing their sons’ very last breaths came on the day just for mothers.
i looked through name after name. i looked at the ages: 21, 22, 24. 24, 20, 26. the oldest, by far, 51. the youngest, 19, again and again.
i was looking, merely, at numbers and letters spilled on a page. it doesn’t take much imagination, though, not much at all, to realize these are lives, were lives. had sweethearts at home, maybe. young children, too, who now go to sleep clinging their pillows, stuffing their cheeks in the folds of the cotton to soak up the tears.
each one of those names had a mother. had maybe a kid brother or sister. had someone for whom they were–forever are now–some kind of a hero. now, they’re a war hero, too.
the one soldier i know who did die, not one on these pages, but one who went off to iraq, one whose story i know, one whose story could be that of any of these combinations of letters and numbers, he was more than a name and a date, and some commas and slashes.
he had a guitar. he played for the men of his company. played and sang there in the desert. made them laugh, made them forget where they were. he had, back home, a cherry red ford mustang, parked now by the side of his ma’s barn. she drove it to his funeral.
the sign still hangs in their farmhouse, welcome home beau, after his first tour had ended. his medal, slipped in his mother’s hand along with the folded-up flag after the funeral, keeps watch from the fireplace mantle.
that story, or a story just like it, i’m sure is repeated and repeated with each of the names.
so what an honor, for us, for my boy who is lifting his pen, printing out in precise 4.65-inch letters, name after name after name.
what an honor to pause for as long as it takes to write all the names, consider the stories of those whose lives would otherwise have wholly escaped every one of us.
but maybe not now.
i am thinking, hoping, that as his wrist starts to ache, as his fingers cramp, from printing the names on yard after yard of marigold cotton, the depth of the truth will sink in, will seep down to a place not normally visited by a boy in a part of the world where not a single kid worries that his day in iraq is coming, is on the horizon.
to make the curve of each letter, to line up the dots over the i, to cross all the t’s, really, is to silently honor the dead and the fallen. it is to etch, one more time, a trace of their existence onto a swatch of the planet.
we don’t know the story. but tracing name after name, date of death, age at death, is to circle in on the outlines of who someone was.
there is a long tradition in this country, in this world, of keeping the list of the names of the dead. it is, for many, a blur of the alphabet. but to be the one scanning the list, feverishly narrowing in on the name of the one who you loved, it is a last shout not to forget, not to go on, leaving the dead unmentioned.
the idea here, to pen all the names and drape the whole courtyard in marigold cotton, to unfurl and to read the names of the ones who are gone, is to prick, maybe, the everyday thoughts of the teens who are, by accident of geography and economy, not so bothered by news from iraq.
the impact alone of the marigold cotton, all over a courtyard of brick and of stone, might jostle a few of their souls. at our house alone, there are 12 yards, that’s 432 inches, to be spun into a roster of heroes.
it is a joint effort of two clubs: young democrats, and young republicans. young kids, either way, who care just a bit about the politics outside those of the lunchroom.
and i, as the mother of one of the ones who will be up in his room, till late in the night, night after night, putting the name of the fallen to fabric the color of marigolds, i got to sit for a while with those names in my hands.
i got to imagine the moments they laughed and they frolicked as children. i got to picture the tears as they shoved off to war. and i imagined the silence after they died.
i too was touched by the names of the dead on the day set aside for remembering.

do you ever pause, as you hear a particular newscast, to think of the circle of rings left in the water, after that pebble is cast? do you know anyone off in iraq, anyone we should remember? hold in our thoughts and our prayers? or should we just try as hard as we can to consider the hell and the heart of those who are off in iraq, and anywhere else in the world, on this day of trying to remember?