Dear John, the latest Nicholas Sparks tearjerker, is the story of romance patriotism and the conflicts of love and country. The real-life version, one woman tells Salon, was a very different matter:
When you think about it, it's one of the last taboos: breaking up with a man while he's overseas, coldly dismissing him with a letter when he's been dreaming of tearful homecomings. Fildelity to a man in uniform is the stuff of WWII ballads, the highest pledge of feminine virtue. Which is why ending such relationships, says Courtney Cook, is especially fraught. (Made all the more so by the fact that the actual long-distance breaking up, so to speak, is so very easy and bloodless.)
Cook marries young, leaving college to have a baby and making due (and graduating) while her husband's deployed, soon caring for two children on her own. After 9/11, things only get worse, the gulf between them more pronounced.
My life and my kids' lives became still more challenging. I'd just started a career-track teaching position. Our son was starting junior high and playing football. I wasn't the parent he wanted around for advice. Our daughter was riding the school bus for the first time by herself. She started getting stomachaches and having nightmares. It was too early in the war to expect phone calls or many letters, and around that absence the children kept an awkward silence that I could not break no matter how I tried. I felt helpless, haunted by the image of two uniformed soldiers ringing my doorbell to tell me the same thing they'd told my sister-in-law — that my husband was dead. Killed in action. It was a phrase that rattled around in my head. I felt angry that I had to be afraid. Guilty for being angry...My husband was a world away from me. After 12 years of distance it felt as though he always would be. I was worn out with waiting. So I left him.
What comes through clearly, despite the fact that both Cook and her husband (actually named John) both come off as remarkably committed and resourceful, is that Cook feels she is fighting someone else's battles. It's not a WWII, where universal ardor drives the nation; she's torn by ambivalence and, much as she admires her husband's courage, resentful of forces she can't comprehend. She's living a life, simply put, not of her choosing, and believing his choices to be more noble than her own instincts make questioning those choices painful. And although the author ends up married to "a lithe, blue-eyed Marxist whose dissertation was on U.S. imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a man who participated in war protests in Santa Cruz, Calif., during the winter I lived at Fort Knox," her life can't be redirected that easily: her son, she writes, has just enlisted in the military. No ordinary time, indeed.