Now I was running again, this time from my own life. On the fifth anniversary of my father's death, my mother had suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed; she died ten months later, in April 2008. I flew to Hawaii that autumn and scattered handful after handful of my parents' mingled dust into the Pacific Ocean they had loved.
Death, I discovered, uncorks sentimentality. I made myself throw out the pair of shoes my dad had been wearing the day he died (what was I going to do? bronze them? wear them?) though I kept a lock of my mother's dyed, champagne-colored hair. I had locks of my children's hair, too—two daughters now with homes of their own, lives of their own. I was a professor at a large university, a published novelist, a successful, self-sufficient woman. But waking up every morning to a large, empty house was a new, unexpected shriving. I felt as if my skeleton were gone, as if I had been filleted, deboned. I was standing, but barely. Wearing an exoskeleton of books, accomplishments, and titles, I fled to a children's poetry project in the brothels of Calcutta, then to an all-women's medical mission in Ecuador. After that, who knew? I was drawn to places of suffering that surpassed my own.
I didn't think about any of this rationally. This was not self-awareness. I was simply an old, old child orphaned by death, a mother with unneeded mothering skills, an ex-wife with decades of memories, not all of them bad. A woman bereft, floundering, ashamed of her weakness, fearful for her future, beginning with the next five minutes.
It was January 2009, and I had managed to keep my next destination and assignment, as an embedded journalist interviewing female soldiers, a secret from my daughters. With body armor purchased online, military-issue winter underwear, notebooks, tape recorder, vitamins, stale PowerBars, and a nagging conscience, I arrived at Bagram Airfield, 47 kilometers north of Kabul, and sent a quick e-mail from the media operations office, letting my children know I was now in Afghanistan, under the protection of the U.S. Air Force. I would, I promised, be safely home in two weeks.
Pritchard arrives in Afghanistan, and joins a convoy of armored Humvees heading through the Hindu Kush