This story is by Jem Rogers and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Mommm…Dad wants you…” a voice yelled from the kitchen.
Sarah straightened books on the coffeetable, calling back, “Thanks Charlie.” Rolling her eyes and shaking her head, lips pursed together tightly, she grabbed the empty snack cellophane and miscellaneous toys from the table and assessed the room. It was good enough. There was still much to do in preparation for tomorrow’s visit by the social worker. And Tom was MIA even though he agreed to help. Tossing the wrappers in the trash can, Sarah muttered, “Someday I’ll miss throwing out these wrappers.”
Heading to the bedroom Sarah smiled, recalling Sherry’s reaction to being a foster family. “Mama, how come you wan’ another kid to live wif us? Don’t you love us anymore?”
“Of course I do, Peanut! But you know, a mama’s heart grows bigger for each child that lives in the house! Caring for children until they can go home to their families has been on my heart since before you were born,” Sarah explained, hugging Charlie and Sherry back then. Next was several months of classes, paperwork, fingerprinting, inspections and more. And today, the opportunity to help a child was almost around the corner! Sarah’s heart beat faster as nervousness, excitement, and caution about the unknowns swirled inside her chest.
Entering their bedroom, Sarah stopped short, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. The curtains were tightly drawn, and Tom’s figure under the covers slowly came into focus. This scene was annoyingly familiar to her. With restrained agitation Sarah asked, “What’s up?”
Tom yawned, “I’ve gotta talk to you.” He shifted under the blanket facing the wall, turning his back to Sarah. In a muffled tone he said, “I don’t think I can do this.”
Sarah shrugged. “Do what?”
“This. The fostering. It’s too much. You need to cancel tomorrow,” Tom stated flatly.
What did that mean? What’s too much? Sarah asked slowly, “And reschedule? Or cancel altogether?” Seconds ticked by. Sarah went to the window, pushed open the curtains, and turned to Tom, searching his face for an answer.
Under Sarah’s steady gaze Tom turned, laying on his back, eyes resting on the ceiling. “Altogether.”
“I don’t understand,” Sarah’s jaw dropped. Warm memories of deep conversations with Tom were fresh in her heart. They had grown closer during this process. It was her dream…they had a plan…they were a team. “What do you mean? What HAPPENED?”
Tom rolled out of bed, scratching his stomach. “I don’t know, man. I’ve been anxious lately.” He ran his fingers through his hair and sat on the bed. “I don’t think I can do it.” Leaning forward, looking at the floor, he folded his hands. “It’s already a lot with you and the kids,” he started.
“Are you kidding me?!” Sarah interrupted. “How is it a LOT with me and the kids? You go to bed early, you wake up late. You’re not working since your symptoms got out of control, you won your VA benefits. I thought things were better.”
The stress of the last 10 years came flooding back to Sarah. Symptoms that caused Tom problems in daily functioning and work with no explanation. Appointments with doctors and specialists finding nothing. All her research into Gulf War veterans. Encouraging Tom to go to the VA where finally someone, a nurse, recognized the cluster of unrelated complaints as multi-symptom illnesses. GWI. Gulf War Illness. Invisible illness had been hard for Sarah to understand and adjust to. But he had medications now. “Tom, you haven’t said anything was different!” She swallowed and blinked back tears, protesting, “I thought you were feeling better!”
Tom listened but as Sarah’s voice got louder, rising to a higher pitch, Tom’s expression changed from nervous to blank. Sarah, pausing for breath, didn’t notice. “How long have you been feeling like this?” she demanded. “Yesterday or today? Maybe it’s just jitters. You know, because it’s something new…” she said quickly. She stood near the bed, staring at his profile, willing him to change his mind.
“Nah, that’s not it,” Tom replied, wringing his hands. “I’ve been having these thoughts for a long time.”
“I dunno…maybe a month or so…”
Sarah was silent. Why did Tom keep this hidden? How could she not have noticed his hesitancy? They told family and friends their plans—what would she tell everybody? “We’ve taken 10 weeks of classes!” she exploded. “I scrambled for my parents and friends to watch our kids so we could do prep work. We’ve inconvenienced people! And you’re telling me NOW?!”
“You wouldn’t want me to keep it a secret, right?” Tom asked quietly, glancing at Sarah for a brief moment. “I’m sorry. I thought I could do it. I just can’t. I’m sorry I’m a failure and disappointment to you.”
She WAS disappointed. People made promises to Sarah her whole life, then dropped the ball. But Tom wasn’t like that. She could recite a long list of the times he was there for her emotionally. Yes, she was disappointed, but not in him. Her eyebrows furrowed as Tom’s last words registered in her brain. Tom’s tone and words were concerning.
Sarah’s tone softened, “Tom, what’s going on? Seriously.” She sat down next to him, her eyes probing his, looking for clues in his body language. She moved closer, her thigh touching his, and held his hand.
“Sarah, I don’t know,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I’m not sleeping well. I’m up seven times a night. I can’t fall back to sleep after a while. When the sun rises I’m exhausted and crash. That’s why I get up super late. I can’t help it.” Sarah waited for more.
“I’ve been having dreams, too. I’m back in the desert. Things are like the pictures I showed you the other day, with the landscape and stuff. And I told you how I drove for the Major. I don’t know if they’re dreams or memories, but they’re about things that happened then.”
Tom paused and Sarah remained still, putting her other hand on top of his. Then Tom shared the dream that was really a nightmare. It was the stuff of war movies, and knowing her husband, she knew anything he did while in the military was in keeping with his duty to follow orders, keeping himself and his battle buddies safe. She listened carefully, then leaned over to hug her husband.
But inside, Sarah was numb. Not knowing what to say, she quietly asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”
“Nope.” Tom was still for a moment, then stood, releasing her hand. “I’m going to shower.”
* * *
After Tom left the room Sarah sat alone. She needed to talk to someone. To process what just happened. She ticked through people who came to mind. Her friend, Nancy, was annoyed that Tom wasn’t working and received VA benefits. She didn’t understand that consequences of exposure to neurotoxins did not equal a vacation.
Maybe her mom? That idea exited her mind as quickly as it entered it. Her mom watched the kids for VA appointments and Sarah asked her to keep it private. But her mom told her indiscreet friend everything. And her dad listened, but was quiet and didn’t share much of his own military experience to give her perspective.
Joan, her neighbor, was empathetic. Except for the time Sarah shared frustration and overwhelm with kids, household, work, life. “You shouldn’t have to shoulder all the family responsibilities,” Joan asserted. “Tom should step up since he’s a member of the family too.” Joan didn’t understand invisible illness.
Sarah’s heart dropped and started racing. Was this PTSD? Why did it come out of nowhere? What was she supposed to do to help Tom? Taking a deep breath she collected herself and scoured her memory for anything out of the ordinary. The lightening! A month ago there was an unusual storm. “The lightening looks like the flashes of artillery from the Gulf,” Tom commented. And at the art festival Tom wore sunglasses to scan the venue and even steered the family away from one area. “That guy looks suspicious,” Tom said. Yes, she had missed the subtleties. Tom was being drawn back into a battle ready stance. He even positioned himself in a corner to observe the restaurant when they were out the night before.
Sarah’s heart was pierced by guilt. When she was impatient with Tom’s mood or annoyed by his quirks, he was trying protect the family, she realized.
As Sarah left the bedroom, she was snapped back to the present by the phone ringing followed by Charlie calling, “Mommmm, it’s for you.”
“I’m coming,” Sarah answered. It was probably the social worker calling to confirm the appointment tomorrow. Her dream of fostering children in need of acceptance and love was not to be right now. But she had a new mission. She could still foster acceptance and love. And she would begin in her own family, with her husband.