by Linda Craig

A skin bag of bones and muscle came home, upright, not my son.
Hollow eyes, drooping chin, slack mouth. No Army boots, just running shoes. Shuffling through the airport with a large backpack throwing him a little off-kilter, he stared hard at the floor.

I let him walk right past me at the airport waiting area. Holding back the urge to wave and shout his name, I sat silent in my chair. My chest tightened and I sucked in a shaky breath at the sight of him.

A shell. He wasn’t even a shell, he was a cracked and smashed shell of the strapping, handsome young man I had dropped off two years ago at this same airport. Before Kuwait.

He headed straight to the Men’s Restroom. A few minutes turned into ten minutes. Thoughts raced through my head. Was he air-sick? Should I ask someone to go in and check on him. I didn’t want to embarrass him. But after fifteen more minutes I searched for a kind, male face. Someone with compassion, someone who might have kids the same age as mine. I spotted a respectable-looking stranger wearing blue jeans and a collared shirt who was also just deplaning.

“Excuse me, sir. Could you go in and look for a young man with an Army backpack, really skinny? I’m his mother. He’s been in there awhile.”
He nodded at me with a kind smile, heading to the door.

Three minutes passed, then ten. Two figures finally appeared in the doorway. My son was shaking the stranger’s hand now. I flashed the man a thank-you smile and a nod as my son looked up and headed toward me, smiling sheepishly.

“Hi, Mom. I fell asleep in there, three flights to get here, I’m beat.”
As I reached out to hug him the first embrace was gut-wrenching. I could feel every rib poking through his thin t-shirt.

I hugged tighter and longer. “I can fix this”, I thought. We would take him out for some great meals. I would fatten him up and fill him out. And he could sleep as long as he wanted. I could fix this.

As I released him from the mama-bear hug my hand brushed across his jeans pocket. And my heart sank. I knew all then. I felt the outline of a needle and syringe. The crumpled, hard knot of aluminum foil bulging just slightly in the bottom of the pocket was familiar to me. If I checked his backpack I was absolutely sure I would find a spoon. A blackened spoon.
Feeling dizzy, I clung to him.

The whole scenario was morphing into a familiar nightmare. This was not my only man-child. I had been on this death ride before.

As I stared into his sunken eyes I did love him with all my heart. But I knew I could not fix this with steak, potatoes and clean sheets. And I knew from experience that I might never be able to fix this.

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