The Things They Left Behind

They left behind favorite chairs, ash trays and daughters.

They left worn baseball mitts and brothers and expensive cologne that dawdled in bathroom cabinets for years, next to shaving cream and mouthwash and toothpaste. They left hiking boots and dress shoes and leather jackets and old plaid shirts, the cuffs frayed and the fabric feeling like home.

They left razors and high school sweethearts and pet lizards and Easter candy. They left Christmas presents half-hidden in their closets and they left chocolate supreme pancake recipes and mostly, they left behind their youth because everyone is a child before they fight a war.

i.

Jerimiah Carter left behind a forty thousand dollar scholarship to Harvard, a weeping sister and yellowing Polaroids of lieutenant Jeremiah Carter Sr. in a fitted suit with little gold medals that lined up on his chest like soldiers.

He left behind books of poetry and tickets to the US Open and a road trip with his best friends in his beat up Corolla, the one with chipped red paint, worn leather upholstery and a broken stereo system that only played old cassettes and the mix tapes his younger sister, Elizabeth made for him.

Jerimiah joined the war because it had taken his father and he wanted to take something back. When he was twelve, his father told him that a man’s worth was not measured by his wealth, but by the sacrifices he made.

Two years later, his mother received a phone call and a letter printed on stiff paper with a official army insignia in the top left corner. She did not drop to the floor wailing, with tears and snot sliding down her face. She did’nt even cry. Jerimiah’s mother accepted the death of her first and only husband with a thin-lipped nod. She retreated to the darkness of her bedroom and only came out for her husband’s honorary military funeral. The coffin was empty because there wasn’t enough left of the corpse to send back home.

A letter, handwritten with something thicker than a pencil, like kohl, came two months after, from one of Mr. Carter’s men. It said that his death was fast and it was blinding, an explosion that blew him back, and that he was in the front, that he took the chance, sacrificed himself to save his men. It said that he had flown through the air like an angel. Jerimiah found her two days later, attempting to carve wings into the space between her shoulder blades.

People are like bombs and when they detonate, the shrapnel can embed itself deep into your flesh until you can no longer remember a time when it was not there. Jerimiah Carter decided, at 19, it was time to make some sacrifices.

ii.

John Sinclaire left behind nothing.

He owned three things in the world and he took them all with him to the war; his father’s wrist watch, an orange Chinatown am/fm radio with rusted batteries and a missing volume button and a letter from his mother that he found when he was ten after she left for the fourth time.

She was found of course, a few months later, in a crack house in Bedford Stuy, with one of boyfriends, Manny or Andy or something, the one that used to beat John when he was a kid. Now, at 27, John decided that he would join the war because there was really nothing else for him to do. His mother was a real bitch and a whore and a horrendous maternal figure but sometimes, she loved him and John thought she was the only person in the world who did.

John left behind potential and he left behind his stories, because John used to do real well in school but then he dropped out after sophomore year to become a decoy for his mother’s friend, Carlos’ heroin drop-off business. He made some money and Carlos had a friend who hooked John up with weed whenever he wanted so it was a cool deal.

John left behind his stories because he had this crazy imagination and could make up an entire novel in ten minutes and sometimes, when Carlos wasn’t busy, John would tell him his stories and make him laugh. John’s mother always said making up stories and telling lies were the same thing and it was good he was a decoy because if the cops got him, he could make something realistic up fast.

John left behind his long, straggly hair and he left behind his mother who laughed in his face and told him not to die when he told her he enlisted. He left behind his favorite slice of thin-crust pizza with a golden-brown slightly raised crust at Gino’s in Brooklyn and he left behind the dog he found starved in an alley, with bare ribs and bared teeth. He had named him Rizzo and fed him the tomatoes he grew with earthworm soil in the window sill of the apartment he shared with three other people.

John left behind nothing and in that, he left behind everything.

iii.

Adam Smith left behind twin boys who aspired to be the president and an astronaut, afternoons spent reading Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss to his daughter and a heart, completely and irrevocably broken.

He left behind a disastrous divorce strewn with court battles and disgruntled lawyers, a lake house that he had begun to hate and children that thought he was their hero.

Adam’s granddaddy was in the army and when Adam was a kid, he would listen to his granddaddy talk with a hushed voice about the Germans and how once, he met the president and the purple heart medal he got after being shot right next to his spine. The doctor’s told him that it was a miracle he survived and Adam’s granddaddy joked it was a miracle he was alive to begin with.

He told him that joining the war helped him redeem himself after his first wife left him. He said that he couldn’t sleep with his eyes closed anymore and that sometimes he saw corpses when he blinked, but it was worth it, that a war can make any problem you have seem insignificant.

When he went to war, Adam left behind his wedding ring and his wedding vows ’till death do us part’ and he left behind a college trust for each of his children. He left the flu which spread from his daughter to his sons to his ex-wife, the last thing that connected him to her. He left behind his promotion at the PR firm he worked for and he left behind his home, in hopes that his granddaddy was right.

Adam went to war because he wanted the shattering of his picture-perfect life to stop cutting him each time he breathed.

iv.

Amir Nadam left behind his accent, an empty plate of eggplant baba ganoush and regret. He left behind a stalled engineer degree that would never be completed and he left behind the shadows that whispered smoky regrets into his ears whenever he was alone.

Amir left behind his 25″ color television that sat cooped up in the corner of his tiny apartment, the one that only played Family Guy reruns, CNN News and PBS. He had wasted hours that he should have spent studying for finals, watching those three channels to perfect the pronunciation of words like ‘table’, ‘discipline’ and ‘assimilation’.

His parents and two sisters and three brothers and four nieces and three aunts and one uncle who all lived in Egypt did not understand why a good, smart, college boy like him, would join a war for a country he was not even from. They wanted him to settle down and marry that nice girl Jamila, continue his engineer work and eventually become the same people they were.

Amir left behind Annie, who he had met in a small bar in San Francisco. Annie, who he fell in love with immediately, with her rich auburn hair and freckled nose and eyes like the sea. Annie, who made him laugh and loved freely. Annie, who found beauty in the smallest things; a dandelion growing through the concrete sidewalk, freshly painted walls; an elderly couple having coffee together.

Annie, who was Irish and a Catholic and therefore, not halal to marry. Annie, who had been pregnant with his child. Annie, who had gotten an abortion and left with a single suitcase filled with all of her things, leaving him with nothing of her but her orange kitchen clock, her scent and his memories.

Mistakes have a way of creeping up on you when you are alone and vulnerable and Amir went to war, a loud vicious thing, to escape the ghosts that haunted him in silence.

~

War is about honesty, morality and split-second decisions that can change more lives than any one person can know. It shows people who they are once they trim away the achievements and failures that trailed them their entire lives. Either you shoot the ten year old in the head or you let him go. Either you continue trekking through forest or the desert or the empty village with hand-sewn dolls scattered, forgotten on the floor, or you shoot yourself in the foot, or the hand or the head. Either you make jokes and plaster on paper-mache smiles or you sleep in your foxhole alone and let your demons eat you alive.

War is about people, the humans you meet, the humans you kill, the humans you leave behind. Your ration’s guy who’s got a mom and a step-brother back home in Colorado or Connecticut, something with a C; your lieutenant who didn’t have any last words, who died softly in the night of pneumonia (a quiet death for a loud man); your buddy who sang like a god during the day and screamed like a child in his sleep. War is about the children you see, who play with broken toys and laugh with bright innocence, who hurry to the skirts of their mothers when they see the soldiers coming, who sometimes hesitantly tip-toe up to you and point to the silver medals on your coat, hold their palms up in prayer or plea, soundlessly asking for this pretty thing they cannot have. War is about your humanity, who you were before issued the standard M16 rifle and war is about preserving that person because what else are you fighting for?

War is about the present, the fried locusts that the villagers eat with their bare hands, the ache in your teeth and your legs and your bones, the manta of survivesurvivesurvive beating through your head, the impossible rush of adrenaline and wild, hysteric fear that races through your body when you hear a gun shot. War is about the future, completing the mission, getting more rations, waiting and waiting and waiting for a chopper to appear loud and small in the distant sky after someone stopped breathing and became a corpse. War is about the past, the person you were before, the people you loved and the people who loved you and war is about the things that you left behind.

Yasmin Belkhyr, Age 16, Grade 11, Garden School, Silver Key

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