Letters from Bidbid
When Colleen first opened her son’s latest letter, she had been ecstatic. It had been six months since he’d been writing from his outpost in Oman. Most of them came from Bidbid. It surprised her, because as far as she knew, there was no US military base there. The Masirah base served the US Navy, and Dan was an army man just like his father. But she didn’t question him because he never shared about work details, no matter how much she prodded.
Now, dressed in woollies and thick socks, she stoked the fire and finished her Christmas novena before settling in to re-read the precious letter. Holding a cup of hot cocoa in her shriveled fingers, she drew a long, sweet sip. The flickering fire cast playful shadows in the living room as she savored each word slowly, like a rich slice of pecan pie.
I hope you’re fine. It must be snowing there in Lonsdale. I always tell the guys here there’s only one place to enjoy winter — Minnesota, where the snow never stops until spring and Christmas lasts us three months. Bidbid is not very cold, but it’s better than the ghastly heat of summer. Nowhere close to Lonsdale’s sub-zero temperatures, though. It rained the entire evening, last weekend, and it caused the wadis to overflow. The roads were inaccessible and nobody went to work for several days. Such were the happenings in Bidbid.
This Christmas, Ma, are you going to make my favorite gingerbread men? And what do you plan on wearing for midnight Mass? I hope you got something new!
How’s Cara? Give her my love. Is she going to graduate this fall? Can you believe your little baby is going to be a teacher? I miss home and I miss you. I remember how we used to make snowmen and shovel snow on Christmas morning. It feels like yesterday. Would love to enjoy your roast potatoes and chicken for Christmas dinner this year!
Ma, I’m sending you a little something for Christmas. I hope you like it. I don’t want you to worry about me. Take care of yourself. I hope to write soon. Your letters help me survive the mountains here in Bidbid.
Ma, I wish I were there with you this Christmas. Hopefully soon, Ma. Work in Bidbid seems to be coming to an end. If God wills it, I should be home soon. Ma, I miss you and love you.
Colleen put down the letter and felt a twinge of pain. Fifteen months ago, the military had informed her that Dan went missing in Basra. He had been assigned a ‘missing in action’ status since then. Her daughter Cara had gone to the military office to pick up his belongings, and the grief that overwhelmed Colleen when those uniforms came back home had been enormous. All those things about him driving too fast and listening to that awful music, or the messy room he kept, things that used to annoy her, seemed so insignificant. She had been lost to depression for a year. And the only thing that brought her back to reality were letters her son started to send her.
Dan wrote that he’d been given a very secret mission. His disappearance was a decoy to go undercover. He asked her to destroy all the letters and not to tell anyone. Six months of regular correspondence from Bidbid infused new life into her. Cara left for college and Colleen was happy with her existence, as long as she heard from her son. She thought little of the fact that Dan had never written more than five letters in his total military career of four years, prior to his disappearance. She assumed it was her depression that forced Dan to write often now. His letters always brought great comfort. In them he was warm, appreciative, and wise beyond his years—something she had never noticed in him before. The letters also reminded her of the danger he was in, prompting her to seek St. Michael the Archangel’s intercession.
With the new letter still on her mind, she hurried to the kitchen. Knowing that Dan was sending her a surprise gave her a zing. She might as well start on those gingerbread men. For the next two days, she baked and baked every possible Christmas delight in her cookbook, enjoying every minute of it.
She was cleaning the kitchen when she stopped for a moment to think: what if her beloved Dan was going to be the surprise himself? That would be the best Christmas gift she’d have. But then she thought about what he had said; he still had work to do. Though she knew the entire letter by heart now, she had not yet destroyed it. Going to her Bible, she pulled out her son’s letter and read it yet again, tracing the words with her finger. By evening she was feeling particularly decadent, so she poured herself some scotch and settled before the fire. Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine Bidbid. She saw the people there dressed in white dishdashas and embroidered skullcaps. Her son with them, wearing his casual jeans and tee, smiling at her. The red stone mountains high and the valleys low, just how Dan had described. The quaint town of Bidbid was where she wanted to be, with her son. She imagined his lovely sea-blue eyes smiling at her, reaching out to her, his face bright.
And she was happy.
Just then the doorbell rang. It could be her neighbor checking on her as per instructions from Cara. Oh, she had to wake up from Bidbid some time. It would be nice to have someone around other than her dreams.
When she opened the door, she froze, for right before her eyes was her handsome son Dan!
He seemed very different from the boy she’d sent to the military. This man looked very much like his father, with those blue eyes, a rugged beard, and short-cropped gold hair. Scars of battles were etched into his forehead. His face looked war-weary. The harsh realities of life had aged him.
“Aren’t you going to give me a hug, Ma?”
With a loud cry, Colleen instantly moved to enclose him in a warm embrace. Tears streaming down her face, she sent a prayer of thanks to heaven. To think he would surprise her this way! She finally let him go when he wriggled in her arms. His six feet almost dwarfed her five-foot-three frame as they walked to the kitchen. She put some stew and homemade rolls on a platter. Smiling with wonder, she watched her son wolf down his meal.
Later, Dan sat in his father’s rocking chair with some hot cocoa, staring at the lovely Christmas tree dressed in homemade decorations.
He loudly shouted out to her as she stood clearing dishes in the kitchen, “Ma that was a wonderful dinner! I haven’t eaten like that for months! I’m stuffed!”
She scrubbed the marble counter in her kitchen and said, “I’m glad you liked it, Dan. Why didn’t you mention you were coming? I could have been more prepared. Maybe even killed my fatted calf if I knew my only son, once lost, was now found.”
“No, Ma. I wanted to surprise you. I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised myself that you’re taking this so well.” He didn’t hear a response from his mother. “The base even gave me a few pamphlets on how to deal with a parent’s grief.”
She continued hanging all her washed pans, intently listening to him. “The letters helped me survive, Dan. Else I would’ve gone mad. Trust me, I went crazy when they first told me about you.”
“What letters?” Dan asked aloud.
Colleen froze for a moment. Her hand carrying the pan stopped midair.
“Ma, the military released me in a sting operation at Basra two weeks ago. I got debriefed in DC and came home immediately. Did someone from the base write to you?”
Colleen looked at the kitchen around her, feeling lost in her own home. If Dan didn’t send those letters, then who did? There were so many things that only Dan would have known. Like the way he called her Ma, his sister Cara’s dream to be a teacher, the things he liked to eat. But then didn’t she always find that her letter writer had been warmer than Dan? Hadn’t he been everything Dan wasn’t? A pain hung low in her gut, settling in the innermost parts of her soul. She was upset and she didn’t know why. If not Dan, then who? The question nagged at her.
The next morning, the pair cleared snow from the driveway and spent time laughing and making a snowman, but the question still lingered. Who was writing her those letters? And no matter what she did, her mind drifted back to them.
A day before Christmas, the doorbell rang. A parcel was delivered to Colleen O’Donnell.
“Who sent you the gift, Ma?” Dan asked her, his tone teasing.
Colleen saw the glint in his eyes. “Didn’t you, Danny boy?”
“No Ma,” he said, feeling guilty.
She didn’t open it, waiting for the day to pass, delaying the inevitable. Postponing her Midnight Mass departure, she sat down that night with a scotch. She needed its encouragement, half afraid of the gift sitting under the tree.
Opening the parcel carefully, she edged aside the glossy wrapper to reveal a metallic frame with a photograph of Dan and another boy, both in their gear, holding their guns, looking sharp in their helmets and wearing broad smiles. It was probably an old photo, judging by Dan’s current appearance. Dan peeked in and when he saw the picture, stood still. He stared at the two men in happier times, his gaze unflinching. And then he walked away.
Colleen looked up at her son, “What’s the matter?”
“It’s Colin, Ma. We were in the same unit back then, even in Basra.”
He choked back tears. Sitting at the desk facing the window overlooking his mother’s garden, covered in virgin snow, he cried. Colleen went over and put a hand on her son’s shoulder.
“Ma. Colin was my best buddy.”
“Colin and I, we were best mates back in Iraq. He’d often stand there listening when I called you. Colin was adopted. When his parents died, he quit college and joined the army. Said we were his real family. I told him stories about you and Cara. I told him about Lonsdale and the Minnesota snow. He was like a brother to me.”
Colleen looked at his dimmed eyes and knew whatever was coming next was going to be extremely painful.
“When we were taken by the insurgents in Basra, he was left as a messenger to inform the military that three of the soldiers were taken captive. Two others were shot dead before our eyes as they resisted. I kept wondering if Colin would come back for me. We waited as one negotiation after the other failed.” Again, there was silence and more tears. “He led my rescue team, Ma. He was serving as a private defense contractor in Oman. Two weeks ago, he led a rescue mission to extract us. He didn’t give up on us. He came back for us.”
He paused. “Everything happened so fast, Ma. He got shot in the crossfire. We lost him, Ma.”
Dan clung to his mother’s shoulders and cried; his whole body shook, and Colleen felt a knife go to her heart. Her letter writer was gone.
“Ma, you know what he said before he died in my arms? ‘Your Ma needs you.’”
When Cara came home that evening for her Christmas break, it was evident that she’d been crying. Colleen took one look at her daughter and knew. They both knew the letter writer.
Colleen closed the door to her room and looked at the gift again. A boy with black hair and grey eyes stared at her, almost as tall as Dan, and with a toothy smile. She looked inside the envelope and found a letter. It was Colin’s letter. His last.
I hope Christmas is shaping up to be a treat. How’s Lonsdale? Bidbid remains the same. I’m going to be out on a very dangerous mission, Ma. I don’t know if I will make it back. But I want you to know, Ma, how much I miss you. I am sending you a picture of me with my best bud Colin. He says you’re a champion.
Ma, I want you to know that your letters have helped me survive these last few years in Bidbid. And I love that you wrote to me so often. I’m so glad about it. No one could ever replace you. Please pray for the mission and pray for me. Also, pray for the team working with me. Pray that all of us may return home. Pray that the war may come to an end and that no mother would have to go through this kind of pain.
Ma, I need you to be strong. I hope to be stateside soon, and if all goes well, I’ll come to see you with my buddy Colin. You truly have no idea how much your letters mean to me. They have been my strength and sustenance. See you soon.
Your loving son,
PS- Hope you like the photograph.
Tears rolled down Colleen’s face, grief overwhelming her. She went to Dan’s room and watched her son sleep. It was Christmas. Colin had promised her a gift and he was lying here in front of her. She didn’t know his reasons, but she did know the sacrifice he made. That Christmas night she had gained a son but lost another. The letters from Bidbid would come no more. And in that moment, she prayed for all the men and women who sacrificed much to save and protect others. Kingdoms would come and go, kings would arrive and depart, but today she understood what Christmas was all about. Not just the birth of a Savior Son, but the heartbreak of a mother who conceived a son, raised him to be a soldier and defender, only to lose him to senseless violence, and still be triumphant through it all.
By Pamela Q Fernandes