Amanda Cantu
Amanda Cantu, NIU

Amanda Cantu is a graduate of Wheaton North High School and enjoys
music, poetry, and drawing. The NIU meteorology major aspires to
become a private pilot for an aircraft hanger upon graduation. “A
Warrior at Heart” is significant to her because it reminded her to be
grateful for her friends and family.

Somewhere in a distant place where the land is dead and covered in sand, chaos has erupted. A silent, barren wasteland is soon filled with the sound of screams. I look over to find a lonely mother crying and screaming with pain, soaked in the blood of her child. The guns are now pointed at me. Everything is moving so fast. I look down to see a grenade, pin pulled, at my feet. Without warning, it explodes and a flash of light passes through my eyes. Everything is still and dark. I’m still breathing. With one last gasp of air, I awake in a cold sweat. She can’t go. I won’t allow it. She promised to take me under her wing and teach me everything there is to know, but the Army has already claimed her time. The country has called her out to war. They’ve called her out to that barren, dangerous, hell hole. She is my sister. Why can’t someone else go?

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee began to fill every corner of my room. My eyes shot open to my stomach growling for some sustenance. January 17th was like any other day, with that same old routine that I’ve established since I was five: wake up, get ready for school and eat some breakfast. This time, though, was different. I could feel a change in my heart as I slowly sank back under my covers. It was a dark and cold sinking feeling. It’s five o’clock in the morning. I never get up this early. Wait. Today is the last day I will be able to see my sister. She’s leaving for Iraq.

I slowly and half-heartedly threw my jeans and T-shirt on and grabbed my favorite sweatshirt Diana bought me. She always knew what I liked: anything blue and fuzzy. I stood at the top of the stairs for a moment. There sitting solemnly were my parents, in their respectful places, pain and anguish etched out on their faces in the dimmed light. We all knew today was the day. Nobody was prepared. As I turned toward the kitchen, my sister stood by the door. A pair of shiny black boots stared at me. She was wearing her army uniform that was freshly ironed. Her nametag, pinned above her left breast pocket, gleamed with her marksmanship medals under the light. Those dreaded shiny metal dog tags draped over her neck. The only reason she needed those would be for a coroner to recognize her lifeless body. A tag on her cold, dead foot, and she’d be bagged, taken away like another number in the KIA polls. As I slowly met her gaze, I could see tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked so brave and courageous standing tall in her uniform. Underneath the pride in herself was the unnerving fear. It screamed at me every time I looked in her eyes. She is my sister, Diana, a person who isn’t afraid of anything, or so I thought. I looked back down again in embarrassment to see her crying, only to be taken aback by the duffel bag in her hands. The “Army of One” insignia glared at me. Her strong but gentle hands were wrapped tightly around the bag, those same hands that held me as a baby. This was the innocent little girl, now a woman, with whom I shared my childhood. I remember the times she would take me out driving, and the music was blaring songs from Jimmy Hendricks, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and all those oldies but goodies. She was the one who planted a seed of passion for music. Each moment I spent with her, that seed grew. She nurtured and protected me like a mother. She was always watching out for me.

Soon, though, she won’t be here anymore to watch me grow. That’s something I knew I would miss. A chill ran through me as that thought passed my mind. And our eyes met again. She smiled at me. Every time she smiled at me it was like the sun warming me up on the inside. Her smile always comforted me, but not today. I knew the smile was a poor, innocent attempt to reassure me. I gave her a big bear hug. Holding her tightly, I could feel her wet, brown hair against my face and her skin so soft. I took a deep breath taking in her familiar scent of Dial and Herbal Essences. It was at that moment I felt our minds and hearts connect without words escaping us. I realized this might be the last time I would see her, the last time I would hold her in my arms. Before too long, she would be out of reach. I didn’t want her to go. I still needed her in my arms. I still needed her by my side, standing tall, willing to help me fight my battles at home.

As we prepared for the long, agonizing trip to the airport, I remembered to grab my CD player. I rushed outside and hopped in the far back of our green mini-van. I watched as my dad threw her duffel bag and carry-on into the trunk. The same “Army of One” insignia sat mocking me. I turned on my music and began to prepare myself for the worst that was to come. The Beatles lulled me into a peaceful state, but my thoughts slowly began to drown out their voices. Thoughts and doubts climbed into my head. What if she didn’t come home? What if she gets injured? If she comes home, how different will she be? I felt my stomach churn and my heart sink. She hadn’t even left yet and I was almost in tears. I swallowed the hard lump in my throat and began to regain my focus on the music playing in the background of my mind.

We arrived at the airport. No one wanted to leave. Finally, we brought ourselves into the building where millions of people come and go. I felt so out of place. The whole area was crammed with people like my sock drawer; all tightly squeezed into a one small place. We walked down the white hallways. It seemed so depressing with no splash of color. No designs, just white. Every person’s face flew by me in a whirr of confusion. My thoughts were bouncing off the ceiling, never staying long enough to understand them. We decided to accompany my sister to the gates just to delay the moment that she left. I stepped onto the moving walkway, and my legs felt like Jell-O and couldn’t be stabilized. I felt sick to my stomach, and my tears were on the brink of exploding out of my eyes. My heart was in my throat as my head flew in circles.

We found a seating area and stopped there. As I approached the seating area, I couldn’t help but notice the lives continuing around me. Lines of people snaked around every corner and children ran around with their Barbie and Transformers suitcases. It was funny how oblivious everyone is to each other. We carry on with our lives forgetting that someone else might have it a little harder. Slowly, I sank into a chair. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I knew my heart was going to break soon. I was squirming in my seat trying to find a comfortable position, but it was useless. My sister said her goodbyes to my mom and left her in tears. It was now my turn. Everyone at the airport just stared with blank expressions, as if they had nothing better to look at. I didn’t care about anyone else, though, only my family. We were falling apart for what could be the last time. I kept composed as best as I could but my cheeks became warm with salted tears. She told me, “I love you … Don’t worry. I will be home soon.” It was now dad’s turn. The world seemed to stop dead in its tracks, and between them, tears started to fall. Some words were exchanged, and then it was over. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. This was the first time I saw my dad cry, and I broke down. I held my head in my hands; the tears poured into my hands and streamed down my wrists. All the feeling in my body left me. My mind went blank. I was in a daze as we all got up and led Diana to the baggage check. I was holding her hand the whole time, thinking of holding it forever and never letting go. I took a deep breath. My steps slowed a bit as each linoleum tile passed under my feet. I took another deep breath. It was at that moment I could let go. I could let my sister fulfill her duty as a soldier. I could give her up for my country to fight for those who don’t have someone to protect them.

I looked up at her, and her eyes were full to the brim with tears, but they were steadied on the path ahead. She was ready to let go. If she was ready, then I was too. All the pain that crammed itself into my little heart all of a sudden became weightless. Everything was lifted off my shoulders. I took another deep breath, and finally, my mind was at peace. I stumbled back to the chairs and cried. I cried my heart out. I cried until I was feeling weak and my lungs were burning. I just cried until my heart was content. It was just one of those days.

That mother screaming in my dream was my fear of letting my sister go. I was the woman holding that child. I was holding the symbol of her innocence and her childhood. Everything happened so fast as if a dream in itself. As soon as she stepped off that plane a year and a half later in Fort Hood, Texas, I felt like I was holding her for the first time. More tears were shared, and our laughter was lively again. This experience is one that I hold dear to my heart. It is an experience I will never forget. She can remain a daughter, sister, friend, and soldier. She is my warrior at heart.

Published by Aaron Geiger

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