I drove out Barker Road, past the Spokane Gun Club and around a horse pasture in the sunshine Wednesday morning in search of good news from Iraq.
I found it in Greenacres, in a split level house hanging an American flag and a big yellow ribbon.
There lives Wanda Jeffries, quilt maker and Marine mom. On Wednesday morning she invited me into her living room, where beside the stone fireplace hangs an official portrait of her son, Lance Cpl. Nick Jeffries, in his dress blues. She perched in an antique wooden rocker beneath the photo, a gold cross hanging from her necklace, and her brown eyes shone.
Last weekend she and her husband gathered their family around the computer to finally glimpse an image of their 19-year-old son sent through a Web cam all the way from Fallujah.
“He looked just like himself… with his big, old dimples,” she said. She hadn’t seen Nick since Labor Day weekend.
She resembled an expectant mother who has just beheld an ultrasound picture of a tiny, curled fist and a sturdy, beating heart. Tears splashed on her cheek.
“When you can see your kid halfway around the world, live and in person, it’s something else,” she said.
Live. As in alive. As in still breathing.
Prompted by the Iraqi elections this weekend, I set out in search of good news of this terrible war. Surely in the middle of bombs and insurgents and mayhem, there had to be moments of grace.
On Wednesday Wanda Jeffries was glowing.
The difficult days back in November were receding. That’s when Nick Jeffries’ voice grew tight and curt on the telephone. The stress mounted as Lima Company prepared to invade Fallujah.
On those cold mornings, Wanda gazed out her window. If bad news were headed her way, she realized, it would pull right up into her driveway.
During the evenings, she would head to her computer in the basement after dinner, scanning the Internet to sites like marineparents.com for a slice of news or reassurance, right up until bedtime. She’d take a break only for “Survivor.”
These days, however, the news has grown quiet from Fallujah. She’s discovered photos of her son on gettyimages.com. But the photos from Lima Company end on Jan. 10. Apparently the conflicts have died down; the photographers have all moved on.
Nick tells his dad on the phone of peaceful patrols, of handing out candy to Iraqi children. His mom sends him Snickers, Butterfingers and Jolly Ranchers, but she doesn’t know where the candy comes from for the children.
When Nick left for Iraq, he heard the mission would be “to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.”
After a month on security patrols, he found that line ridiculous.
Now Iraqis come home to Fallujah to dig through the rubble, to make plans to rebuild, to line up for ready-to-eat meals, medicine and water being handed out by U.S. Marines.
Military moms and dads often tell me they yearn for good news from Iraq. They think of rebuilt schools and grateful Iraqi families. They suspect journalists don’t want to report it.
I think the dangers of reporting there — 49 journalists and support staff have died since the start of the war — restrict journalists’ freedom to find these tales. The truth itself likely makes these stories more complicated and difficult than many military families expect.
Instead, I wonder about the tender, but powerful force that restores life itself. Where is it in Iraq?
I talked with an older, wiser friend over lunch a few weeks ago. I asked her that question. The force of love and mercy and grace lies in Iraq, she said, as it always does, alongside the darkness there.
Nick Jeffries loves to hunt elk with his dad. His mother struggles to reconcile the idea that now he carries a semi-automatic weapon for a different reason.
But she supports his work. He patrols house to house in Fallujah, searching for weapons and insurgents.
She mails care packages filled with Corn Nuts, Power Bars and chips, and frets about how often he’s brushing his teeth. “The kid never had a cavity,” she said, smiling. Dental decay is the least of her worries.
Nick doesn’t say much about his emotions. Once when the stress seemed to be mounting, he requested his dad’s fleece Woolrich shirt.
“It was funny he didn’t ask for one like it,” she said. “He wanted his dad’s.”
Nick Jeffries is scheduled to arrive home in April. His mother talks of taking up elk hunting herself when he returns. In the meantime, the joy of last weekend’s Web cam conversation continues to shine on her face.
I said goodbye Wednesday morning and drove back to the newspaper.
When I opened my e-mail, a breaking news alert had arrived from CNN. Wednesday was the deadliest day for U.S. forces in the history of the war. Thirty-seven Americans died.
Yet, my wise friend would say, even that news lacked the power to destroy the love I found, in Greenacres and in Fallujah, on Wednesday’s sunny winter morning.
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