Homecoming

“I knew you were safe. I knew it all along.”

As a teenager during World War II, my mother had the unpleasant experience of watching her young friends go off to war, with some never coming home. Twenty-five years later, when the U.S. Army sent me to fight in the Vietnam War, her memories of those days returned with added anxiety, because this time it was her son who was being sent into the unknown. Since I was in the infantry, Mom knew that combat duty would often be dangerous, but her frequent letters never once hinted that she was not coping with my absence. In fact, Mom's ability to keep up my spirits while I was so far from home made it easier for me to deal with the uncertainty of the war.

As my yearlong tour was coming to an end, the Army gave me an eleven-day early release. I decided not to tell my parents I was leaving Vietnam ahead of schedule because I thought it would be more memorable to surprise them by me unexpectedly walking through the front door. As it turned out, we all got a surprise.

My cousin Donald secretly picked me up from the airport, and on the way home we fantasized about how I would make my entrance. When we arrived at the house, we were amazed to find it locked up tight and no one at home. My family had taken a trip out of state and was not expected back until late that evening!

Unsure of what to do next, I decided to get out of my uniform and change into civilian clothes. I did not have a key, so the only way I could get into the house was by crawling through an unlocked window. Once inside, a warm and inviting feeling rushed over me; I was really home! I fondly inspected the familiar surroundings and was happy to see that nothing had changed; even the clothes in my closet were just as I had left them. The only thing different was a map of South Vietnam hanging on the kitchen wall identifying all the places I had written home about. I still wanted to keep my arrival secret, so I decided to spend the night at Donald's. I was careful not to disturb anything or leave any evidence that someone had been in the house.

Shortly after midnight, my tired parents shuffled into the house, and my mother suddenly proclaimed, "Artie is here! He's home!"

Whether or not there is such a thing as mothers' intuition, Mom had somehow detected my presence. Knowing that I was not due home for at least a week, my father laughed at the notion, claiming that Mom was simply tired from the road trip. Yet she insisted that I was hiding in the house and called for me to come out. When there was no response, she began searching. After checking the closets, under the beds and in the attic, Mom finally gave up but could not shake the sensation that I was near.

Her antics put the family on edge, and although no one said anything, they shared the eerie feeling that perhaps I had come home but not in the flesh. They worried that I might have been killed in the war and that my spirit returned to say goodbye. Needless to say, they had a restless night.

Early the next morning, Donald called my parents to make sure everyone was awake because he wanted "to drop something off." When I triumphantly walked through the door, my father, sister and brother gawked at me without speaking a word.

"Hi, everyone," I cheerfully sang out, only to be confused by their silence and darting glances as they suddenly recalled Mom's announcement that I was home.

"What's the matter with you guys?" I asked, noticing that my mother was not in the room. "Hey, where's Mom?"

"Still sleeping," my father sputtered, choking on the words as his eyes followed me down the hall.

The moment I stepped into my mother's room, her eyes opened, and she tilted her head back as if she was expecting me. When I said, "I'm home," Mom gently replied, "I know, you were here last night." Before I could ask how she knew, Mom leaped from the bed and crushed me with a giant hug to make sure I was real. Tears rolled down our faces as she cried, "I knew you were safe. I knew it all along."

For my mother, the war and the waiting were over.

Cover image via  Cory A Ulrich I Shutterstock

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: On Being a Parent: Inspirational, Humorous, and Heartwarming Stories about Parenthood © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.

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