The lead of a story is crucial. It’s the opening words, the first paragraph that must rouse a reader’s curiosity, take her hand, tug and say “come with me.”
Once I have my lead, I’m off. The story can flow from it. The words from one paragraph pour into the next and carry the reader along.
To me, the ending is just as important. I like an ending that brings a story full circle, wraps the narrative up in a bow and offers it to the reader as a gift to unwrap. I often have an ending in mind when I start though I’m always ready to go where the story leads. Endings change as the story writes itself.
I started the story of the soldiers of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team and their families in the fall of 2010. In Oct. 2010, I watched the soldiers train in mock Afghan villages in Alaska. In February 2011, I took three UAF students to the Mojave Desert and we witnessed “the scenario,” where the soldiers ran a seven-day training exercise at the National Training Center as their final preparation before deployment to Afghanistan in April last year.
I went to farewell events: a potlatch where Alaska Native elders blessed the troops, a private gathering for BBQ and fish fry with a soldier’s family and friends, a church service where soldiers renewed their wedding vows. JR Ancheta and I did portrait sessions for some soldiers and their loved ones. I attended the official deployment ceremony with the casing of the colors.
And then I went again and again to the base where the soldiers said farewell to their families. Lots of hugs, tears and photos. The soldiers would file toward buses. Sometimes family members followed, stood below the windows and waved. A father reached his hands out the window and his wife passed their infant son to him and he kissed him and held him one last time.
I went to Afghanistan in December with JR at the invitation of 1-5 Battalion Commander LTC Brian Payne to spend the holidays with the troops and send their stories home. I returned alone this February and spent another month.
I knew the ending for this story: the homecoming. Military band, kids with “welcome home” signs, flags waving, hugs, tears, kisses, chaos of joy. I knew where the story was going.
Then it took a turn I never saw coming.
I was supposed to in the United States in late March. I wasn’t.
I didn’t see Dylan meet Ashley in person for the first time. I didn’t see the FET soldiers return. I doubt I’ll see any of the “welcome home” ceremonies. The whole brigade will probably be home before I am.
I’m in a hospital in Kuwait. I ran a high fever for two weeks. The doctors ran all kinds of tests and asked questions. Where did you sleep in Afghanistan? What did you eat? What local foods did you eat? Were you around any sick people? Were you exposed to any chemicals on the military base? Were you bitten by any bugs? The tests yielded no answers, only created more questions. I refused to go to the hospital.
It’s called a Fever of Unknown Origin, an FUO. I laughed. It reminded me of the R.O.U.S in “The Princess Bride.” And I thought, isn’t it perfect? Even the disease I picked up on my embed has an acronym.
Last Thursday, after I’d endured two weeks of unrelenting fever, Ali, my friend, came home. “Cheryl, look. I would take this decision for my wife, for my sister, for my daughters. You’re going to the hospital.”
I let go. I decided to drift.
My favorite kind of dive is a drift dive. The best drift dives are in strong current along a steep wall of a reef or atoll. I love drifts because the fish love current: big schools of fish and sharks. A diver must be able to maintain buoyancy and monitor her depth. It’s too easy to go too deep with nothing but big blue below you.
So now I’m drifting. I let the doctors run their tests while my body and her fever warriors fight some unidentified and mighty sneaky, fierce invader.
And while they work, I’m writing a different ending for the story.
I’ll leave the hospital fever-free. I’ll restore my health and rebuild my strength. I’ll make it to the 1-5 Military Ball and I’ll watch my students graduate at UAF. The 10-miler, though, is probably a no-go.
After Alaska, there will be time with friends and family. There will be lots of dancing and real drift diving. Time in the ocean, in the surf, with the fish.
That’ll be my homecoming.