First Person: A father's story of his son at war

"Abba, it's Yona," said the raspy voice, as 15 days of fear melted away.

Gaza  pullout 248.88 (photo credit: IDF)
Gaza pullout 248.88
(photo credit: IDF)
"Hello," I muttered into the phone at 7:15 last Sunday morning, after looking at - and not recognizing - the phone number on the caller ID. "Hallo," a raspy voice answered back, waiting for recognition. When none came, the voice continued: "Abba, it's Yona." And with those three words a 15-day trauma that began with the IDF's ground operation in the Gaza Strip simply melted away. "Honey," I giddily screamed to my wife. "It's Yona." The lad was out of Gaza. He was safe and he was sound. Never have I felt more relieved. Well-ensconced in middle age, I have tasted a good range of life's emotions. I have felt the pain of losing a parent at a relatively early age, the joy of marrying a woman I love, the delight at the birth of four healthy children. I have felt pleasure, bliss, happiness, satisfaction; hatred, pride, envy and disappointment. I also thought I had pretty much run the scale of all the emotional chords involved in child-rearing. But I was wrong. I never felt anything that came close to the all-encompassing, gut-wrenching worry that comes when one has a child fighting in a war. These were virgin waters, and waters that at times made me feel as if I were drowning. It was worry laced with pride. Pride that my son, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, was actively protecting and defending the Jewish people. Pride, tinged with a little regret, that he was a boy who did not shirk difficult duties and leave them for others. Pride that he had courage and convictions. But the pride didn't eclipse the worry. That phone call, a one-minute conversation just to say he was all right, was the first we had heard from him in 15 days. During that time all we had were our deepest fears. I feared sniper fire and friendly fire; roadside bombs and hand-to-hand combat; kidnappers emerging from tunnels or - like evil Ninja Turtles - out of the blue on motorcycles. I believed what I read about what awaited our soldiers in Gaza, and at various times during the day one of those horrible scenarios would enter my mind and create an anxiety that would quite literally take the breath away. "How are you sleeping?" friends asked frequently. "Sleeping isn't the problem. The tough part is being awake," I'd reply. When I was awake, my son in Gaza was pretty much all I thought about. And I wasn't alone. Thousands of other parents, including a number of our friends, were going through the same thing, struggling with those same emotions. The first night the IDF went in, I went to bed dreading a phone call from a hospital or a dreadful knock on the door. It was a ritual that repeated itself for 15 nights. The worst was last Friday night just before the cease-fire, when the phone rang at 12:45 a.m. Since we are observant, no one ever calls our home on Friday night. The ring that stabbed the quiet and woke me up pierced my heart as well. My daughter ran to the phone and looked at the caller ID. She didn't recognize it. I figured if the phone would ring again immediately afterward that would be a sure sign of an emergency, and I would answer. Those minutes waiting for that second call were a nightmare. The phone didn't ring again; apparently it was a wrong number. But I couldn't fall back asleep, and spent the rest of the night on the couch near the phone waiting for another call, or for sounds of an army car that might pull up to our apartment bearing dreadful news. I found myself wondering a lot during this period about what my son was doing at that precise moment. Was he cold? Was he sleeping? Was he in close combat? Was he scared? Was he eating? But I couldn't call. I couldn't find out. About half-way through the operation, we started receiving SMS-messages saying that everything was fine. The first message read as follows: "Boker tov, our loved ones are all okay. Have a good day." "Who is sending those?" a friend asked. "I don't know," I said. "Probably my wife trying to calm me down." Those were the upbeat messages, and their true source was a mother of another soldier in my son's unit who received brief daily updates from officers in the field. The downbeat messages came after media reports of a clash with injuries from my son's brigade. "Our guys are completely okay," one such message read. "The injured are not from our unit." Although my primary fear during this ordeal was for the boy's physical safety, that was not my only concern. I was also worried about his emotional safety. What would he see? What would he do? What would he go through? What footprint would this all leave on his psyche, on his soul? With all my carping and kvetching at the boy over the last 20 years, I actually like him the way he is, and wanted him back just as I sent him. On Monday I knew I was on pretty safe ground. Sunday night, some 18 hours after the cease-fire, we raced down to his temporary base near Gaza to see him for a couple of hours: to touch him, to talk to him. It was a wild scene, an Israeli version of a football tailgating party. Cars were lined up for a kilometer on the side of the road: there were balloons, coolers out, music playing, pots of food on the hoods of cars. People were hugging tightly; laughing; crying. Imagine the arrivals terminal at Ben-Gurion Airport, and then magnify that 1,000 times. The next morning the lad called and we had another chat. I called him back an hour later. "Yona," I said, "I'm calling you now just because I can." Abba, he said, his gravelly voice music to my ears. "Al t'shagea oti (don't drive me nuts). I'll call you." My son had returned.