This week, I found out my brother is going to be deployed to Afghanistan. Ever since he joined the Marines, as difficult and stressful as the journey has been, I have always comforted myself with the fact that he wasn’t in a war zone, and that, thanks to the type of work he does, he probably would never have to be.
Over the course of the past couple years, I watched him swear his oath of loyalty to the military. I read his heartbreaking letters from bootcamp. I fell into a pretty deep depression. I fought with him and for a long time, we were estranged. I saw my family fall apart as we realized that our ways of dealing with such a massive change were completely incompatible.
But none of that mattered, because at least my brother was safe. At least my brother wasn’t at war. Whenever I read stories about military families with a loved one in the Middle East, I shuddered. When a friend of mine’s brother was deployed and she resumed her day-to-day life, I thought, She is so much stronger than me. I would just be a constant wreck. Imagining my brother in such a dangerous situation left me feeling frozen with fear. The idea of him killing people, the idea of him being killed — I had been able to stomach every other difficult milestone of this journey, but those two possibilities? I couldn’t even bear the abstract, hazy idea that someday they might be part of my reality.
And now my brother is going to war.
When I got the news via email Wednesday morning, my hands immediately began shaking and tears poured down my cheeks. My brother and I only recently began talking again. Our relationship feels new and fragile. This wasn’t part of the plan. “No, no, no, no, no,” I whispered at my computer screen, staring down the word “Afghanistan,” willing it to disappear. My tears came in the form of intense waves that forced me slowly to the floor, like someone in a smoke-filled room searching desperately for air. Eventually I realized I was staring up at the under side of my desk, one thought repeating in my mind: I can’t handle this.
For years now, I’d held up this moment as the test that I knew would break me. I’d shaken off a million other difficult moments because they couldn’t compare to what I imagined this one would feel like. I had used the looming specter of deployment — the scariest scenario I could imagine — to help me cope with smaller trials I’d faced along the way, like hearing about deadly accidents at Marine training camps, butting heads with my family, and losing touch with my brother, who used to be one of my best friends. Believing that pain and fear are relative, I’d compared every previous struggle to the thought of my brother getting on a plane to Afghanistan and, satisfied it wasn’t nearly as bad, let it fall away. In a way, my belief that I couldn’t handle my brother being deployed had actually helped me handle almost three years’ worth of the sad, scary, confusing reality that comes with loving a Marine. I’d decided long ago that I could handle anything related to my brother’s military career, as long as it wasn’t THIS.
Laying there under my desk, crushed by the weight of worst fears come true, I thought about how much I had already been through. My mind wandered to a documentary my boyfriend and I watched a few days ago called “Happy,” about the science behind happiness. One scene that struck me was when a psychologist explained that humans’ emotional states, negative or positive, no matter how extreme, don’t last very long. We are able to recover from terrible ordeals in a relatively short time.
The filmmakers interviewed a woman who had always been very beautiful and lived the kind of life that makes other people jealous. One day she was in a terrible car accident that left her severely disfigured. Her husband left her. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, the trauma of the accident brought back repressed memories of her father sexually abusing her.
I could never deal with that, I’d thought as I watched her tragic story unfold, but then something occurred to me: before this happened, I bet she never would have thought she could have dealt with it either, but here she was, dealing. “I’m happy,” she said, smiling into the cameras and describing how she’d put her life back together. Her new life, she said, was even better than it was before.
And then another memory tugged at my attention, a quote I had written over and over again in my high school calligraphy class (of all places!), while trying to perfect the curves of my italic letters:
“We say that we cannot bear our troubles, but when we get to them, we bear them.” — Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai
How will I bear the dreadful anticipation of these next few months, and my brother’s departure, and the anxious days when he’s away? I have no idea, but, like everyone else who has ever said they could not endure, and then proved themselves wrong, someday I will look back and realized that I did. Someday I will think about the morning I spent curled up under my desk, convinced of my inability to handle my reality, and I’ll know I was wrong. I could handle it. I can handle it. I will handle it.
In these situations, people often say that hardship made them stronger, and I think that’s true, but I also think there’s another truth that should be recognized: even before we are tested, we are all much, much stronger than we think we are.
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[Photo of soldier via Shutterstock]