West Point new cadets are forced to eat in silence, three to five chews per bite, staring at the crest that adorns the top of the plate. The rhythmic cadence of silent eating allowed my mind to enter a trance like state, with the crest providing a movie reel of life scenes that I had forced my mind to suppress during the chaos of basic training, but inevitably would always creep their way up during meal time.
In that crest, I watched my family struggle to make ends meet, as my father’s illness and mother’s meager earnings couldn’t even afford the plane ticket I needed to get myself to West Point. Everyday, as I memorized the crest’s black and gold design, I recounted the daily trips my mother and I made to the local bagel store on Ridge and Little Road, just before closing time, so we could buy their leftovers for a fraction of the cost, and feed my father’s fragile digestive system.
It pained me to know that I left behind a suffering family, as I embarked on a new chance for a better life. But I suffered in silence. That’s the ironic beauty of new cadet basic training. No talking. Everyone in the same uniforms. No makeup or jewelry. No one knew just how poor or sad I was, because we all looked the same, and West Point was no place to express any kind of emotion, especially vulnerability.
The jam packed training schedule left me no time to think about my family. I couldn’t worry if my father was going to die or how my mother was going to pay the bills when I had to focus all of my attention on disassembling and assembling a M-16 rifle in under 90 seconds, let alone, shoot the damn thing at a Communist cartoon-like target 350 meters away, in the pouring rain, trying to steady my hands while the cold air made my entire body shiver. But then, like clock work, there was always silent meal time, and even if we were training outside in the field, in the absence of my meditative crest, just staring out into nature itself offered me a chance to privately grieve for my poor family.
Years have passed since I completed new cadet basic training and graduated from West Point. For many of those years, I chose to abandon my family out of a need to live my own life as pain free as possible. But inevitably, some kind of major life devastation – whether my divorce, or other lost lovers, and especially the recent death of my father, bring me back to the crest on my plate – an almost sanctuary-like haven – where I can simultaneously feel my heart shatter and glue the pieces back together – before anyone can even tell that I am hurting.