Γιαννης Παπαδοπουλος

Waiting for the soldier

By Ioannis Papadopoulos

NORFOLK- The shadows of the evening crept in her silent house. Mary Hopkins, tall, blonde, and alone, walked up the wooden stairs and turned on a light in the shape of a candle outside an empty room, praying that her son would come home safe.

For Mary Hopkins, of Norfolk Mass., turning on this light has become a ritual. Since last September when her son, Chris Hopkins, left with the Marines for Iraq, this light has represented her agony, hopes, and fears.

This light reminds her that a piece of her life is missing thousands of miles away.

Hopkins remembers saying goodbye to her 20-year-old son as if it was yesterday. Tuesday, September 4th, at Logan airport. A few tears, a hug and a phrase: “Don’t worry mom, I’ll call you.”

He stood there with a frozen face. She looked scared and voiceless. Since that day Hopkins has been sleeping with a phone on her bedside. Hopkins, a mother of three and nurse at Norwood hospital, lost her husband 13 years ago. Today Hopkins is living alone in her two-story house in Norfolk.

Standing red-eyed in her dark kitchen on a chilly afternoon, she says she cannot control her worries. “I can’t stop thinking of him. Everyday, every minute, I am thinking of him.”

Hopkins knew that her life wouldn’t be the same when her son joined the Marines last spring. Sooner or later he would join the war too, and Hopkins could do nothing more than pray.

“I was scared, but I wanted to support him,” she said. “I knew that I couldn’t change his mind. I’ve been praying for months for this war to end so that he wouldn’t have to go to Iraq.”

Norfolk doesn’t seem like the town that would send a soldier in Iraq. Life in this semi-rural suburban community of 10,460 souls is peaceful and quiet, “the ideal place to raise a child,” residents sometimes say.

Few families lock their doors and many leave their keys on their cars. A sign on one street reads: “Caution drivers, turtle crossing.”

But Norfolk already counts a dead son in Iraq, a Marine on the frontline. And at least four other youths in the Marines –each 20– are waiting for their turn to join the war.

Chris Hopkins dropped out of University of Massachusetts last year to fulfill his dream of fighting in a war.

“When Chris was a child, he used to try his grandfather’s World War II uniform. Chris liked the history and the army, but I still wonder why he enrolled,” Mary Hopkins said. “Maybe he wanted to prove to himself that he is someone. Maybe he wanted to stand out.”

For some of his former classmates Chris Hopkins is a role model. “I was jealous that he got there so soon and I have to wait,” Nick Hasenfus, a Marine and classmate, said in an e-mail.

For others Chris Hopkins is a friend in danger. “I miss him. I still can’t believe that he is over there [in Iraq],” said Andrea Pinciaro, a classmate and friend.

Mary Hopkins can’t believe it either. She barely sleeps. She closes her eyes just for “four hours everyday.”  At night, when she hears a car coming down the Ridgeroad Street she jumps off her bed in fear. She thinks that someone is coming to deliver her the bad news, “Your son is dead.”

Her TV is constantly on MSNBC. “I’ve become obsessed with the news,” Hopkins said. But, she added, “I am confused. I don’t really know what is happening in Iraq. The newscasts don’t show everything. They don’t talk about the wounded. I want to know what is going on over there.”

It’s not easy for Hopkins to escape her fears. It’s not easy to lead a normal life. “One day I was out with my friends at a restaurant, laughing. I felt guilty. I thought that my son is at the war and I am having fun.”

Charley Richardson, co-founder of the antiwar organization Military Families Speak Out, has heard stories like Hopkins’s again and again. “Life is horrible for the families,” he said. “For many the loved one that comes back is not the one who left, because of the nature of the war, the psychological impact of the war.”

Nancy Smyth didn’t have the chance to welcome back her son. Adam Kennedy was the soldier from Norfolk who died in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded last April near his car. But Smyth knows from other families that it can be scary when soldiers return.

“It’s scary when they try to incorporate themselves back into a life where they don’t have killings all the time,” she said. “It’s not over when they come home. The worries are not over. They all come home changed by this.”

Hopkins shares this fear. She doesn’t know if her son will come back a changed person. She often wonders: What is he going to see there? Will he have nightmares? Will he live a normal life?

So far time hasn’t touched Chris Hopkins’s room. His mother left it as it was. Naked walls, a photo of her son with his girlfriend on a small table, and a big American flag next to his bed with a phrase written beneath: “These colors don’t run.”

Mary Hopkins’s life has seemed like a routine since September 4th.  Pray, turn on the light, pray again, and wait. She tries to comfort herself and be optimistic. “He will be ok,” she says, thinking out loud.

The light at the second floor of her house, outside Chris Hopkins’s room, will remain on until May. When Hopkins will see her son she doesn’t know what her first words will be. But, she knows what she will do. “I will hug him and cry.”

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