The dreaded knock

"Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, grandchildren. All these things are about to be taken away. By me." Illustration: David Shaw
Published September 1, 2010

We have to beat the press. No one talks that way of course, but the death of a soldier is news and we need to reach his loved ones first.

It’s 6:04 a.m. as our staff car clears the gates. The commanding officer and the regimental sergeant major are in the back. The driver and I are up front. We are silent, but I have a sheaf of papers in my hand that I am using to cover my anxiety. I have been holding them since 4 a.m. and the pages have warped under my grip. Every so often I will flip them as if to check a fact, but it’s all just an act. The facts are simple and already memorized. He was a young soldier, confirmed killed in Afghanistan; he was married with one child under two years of age. Sweet God Almighty, where are we?

An awful thought begins rolling around in my mind: nearby is a woman and a child whose lives are about to change forever. We get sidetracked en route, giving this woman an extra two minutes of not knowing her husband is dead. She might be lying awake thinking of him at this very moment, wondering how he is and what he is doing, thinking of a brighter future: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, grandchildren that they will enjoy together. All those things are about to be taken away. By me.

Too soon we are climbing out of the car. The house is dark. She is asleep, still married. We start up the front walk. It’s interlocking stone and I wonder if he did the work himself. This is part of a process that works in my mind at moments like this that I call “sliding.” When something supremely unpleasant must be done, a small battle of denial wages for my conscious thoughts: one side will note the interlocking stone, the weather, the bevelled glass surrounding the door frame that I think would look nice on my own front door. This part of me is the childish part that made me put my hands over my face during scary movies so I could pretend to not be in the room. The other side of my mind concentrates on why I am here.

Is this death worthwhile? Honourable? A future destroyed. A family devastated. A fatherless child. What can possibly be worth it?

I ring the bell in silence, count to 10 and ring again. Then, behind the glass, a dim light springs up and I think to myself: such love. People throw that word around, but real love is a sacrifice.

I hear the locks open. I see her outline distorted through the glass. I’m on the step standing where I think He’d be if He were here….

Lee Lambert has been a Canadian Forces chaplain for seven years. He lives in Orleans, Ont., with his wife and three children and is the rector of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Russell, Ont.


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