You’re thinking, “That doesn’t make sense. They’re happy to have him home. That’s all that matters to them. He’s safe and alive.”
True. That’s their first reaction. It lasts until the welcome home hug and the long breathless embrace. It’s afterward, when you each pull back and look into the other’s eyes. That’s when you lose each other.
Let’s say you’re his Dad. When this vet left for war, he was still your boy, full of fun and pranks. Life was an open invitation to adventure. Anything was possible. That’s the image locked in your mind since he left. Your response now to this vet is to that image.
But that’s not the image before you. His eyes tell you how much he has changed. Their twinkle is gone. His gaze is unwavering, but deep beneath its open appraisal dwells hurt, pain and confusion, and a longing for returned innocence.
After months at war, your boy has grown older than you. He’s lived with death chasing him, usually on the roadside or on the path of a local village. How many improvised explosive devices have killed his buddies? Those buddies became closer to him than you, his Dad.
He’s happy to see you, but his heart yearns for those left behind, for the adrenalin rush, for the heart-pounding fear, for the ecstasy of mutual relief when they beat death together one more time. Even what he smells has changed. Every new scent is tainted with his memory of reeking cordite, burnt flesh, gas fumes, and the stench of spewed guts.
For that moment, he’s vulnerable. He lets you see into him, and then the impact of seeing you again strikes him. He sees how you’ve changed, and aged, worrying about him. He mentally pulls a mask over his need for comfort to protect you from all that he has seen and what he has become. To defend and protect. Who better than the ones he loves?
He shakes off the sudden sense of discomfort and uncertainty, and says to himself, “I’m home. Everything will be fine.”
And the estranged tap dancing around each other begins.