SAN DIEGO — Whatever it is, let's be cool about it. We can act as if we don't even notice," I suggested.
My husband and I were driving to the airport to pick up our 21-year-old son, Roman, an infantryman with the 101st Airborne in Fort Campbell, Ky. Specialist Diaz was coming home to San Diego for 10 days before heading back to Iraq to begin his second 15-month deployment there.
In a call shortly before we left for the airport, his sister, whom he'd just visited, told us we were in for a surprise. But the only clue Anne offered was that it had something to do with her brother's hair.
"Now, Mom, just keep in mind where he's been and what he's going back to. Who can blame him right now if he just wants to have a little fun?"
"New color?" I guessed.
"You'll see," was all she'd say.
Roman's height alone - 6'2" - would have made him easy to spot, standing there near the curb in front of the terminal. But his hair made him impossible to miss. There's something head-turning about a Mohawk - even when it stands no more than an inch-and-a-half high - especially a bright red one, with the tips dyed black.
"Oh," his computer-engineer dad gulped, catching sight of him.
"Oh, my," I elaborated.
But after a curbside flurry of car doors opening and a couple of quick hugs, we simply said to Roman, with all the nonchalance we could muster, "Welcome home!" and "Good to see you!"
On the drive back I turned from time to time in the front bucket seat to ask him about his flight from San Jose, his weekend with Anne and Erick. His dad chatted offhandedly about the weather, asked about the soldiers in the unit he now leads -"my Jedi," Roman calls them.
But there was an elephant in the room. Twenty minutes into the trip, I could ignore it no longer. "Hmmmmmmmm," I said, twisting to look at Roman full on. "I can't quite put my finger on it. But something's definitely . . . different."
"Hmmmmmmmm. What could it be?" he teased, fingertip touching one corner of his smile.
Roman has always had an independent streak. And as far as surprises go, this one was small compared to his decision three years ago to join the Army instead of going to college. It's taken me nearly this long to come to terms with that choice. And I think I have, as much as any mother can. In fact, just a few days earlier, I'd told friends and neighbors about our soldier's brief visit home and invited them to come say "Hi" at a block party barbecue on Sunday in the cul-de-sac - the same place Roman learned to ride a two-wheeler.
A recent picture of him graced one corner of the photocopied invitation. Smiling in his dress uniform, complete with medals, ribbons, and the blue cord of the infantry, he looked handsome, clean-cut, and all-American. His hair was dark brown, not DayGlo red. And in that photo, it still grew on the sides of his head.
The former PTA mom in me wrestled at first with what the neighbors would think. I wondered if I might convince them he was actually a member of an elite, top-secret special-forces unit. "You've heard of the Green Berets?" I imagined myself saying. "Well, Roman is with the Airborne's Red Mohawks."
"Don't worry, Mom. I'm going to shave it off at the end of this leave. I'll have to," he said. "It's just that I've always wanted to do something crazy with my hair. And I figured this was my last chance."
I trust he was looking ahead to his role someday as a responsible post-Army adult. But like the dark smoke of a roadside bomb, the idea of "lasts" inevitably hovers over a leave like this one and colors it in ways Clairol never thought of. Anyone with someone they love heading into harm's way knows this. War has a way of making clear what really matters in this life. "What the neighbors think" is not high on that list.
To their credit and his, the 60 or so who came to the block party seemed to take Roman's hair in stride. It was a vindication of sorts, if any was even needed. Men clapped him on the back and laughed. Kids said, "Cool." Moms wrapped their arms around him. In spite of differing views about the war, everyone there wished our unconventional soldier well.
I must confess I still thought this new, albeit temporary, look of his was not the most mature thing my son's ever done. And then he surprised me again - with something that was. It came in answer to a question I asked the day before he left.
We'd been talking about how time flies, and how the end date of his four-year stint in the service will come up while he still has three months left in Iraq. "Well, then. Think the Army might let you come back sooner?" I asked. "You know, before the rest of your unit?"
Roman sent me a look that said he couldn't believe I was asking that. "Mom, even if the Army would, I couldn't do that. Say to my men, 'See ya! I'm outta here!'? No way. No. I'll come home when they do."
The next time you see a dusty group of US soldiers in the news, remember these stories - the funny hair, the serious conversation. Think about the unique individuals who wear those look-alike uniforms - their goodness and goofiness, their complexity and their courage. Think about all we as a country lose when even one of them falls.
• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written several articles for the Monitor about her son's military service, including: 'My illustrated son'; 'A Soldier's Hope Deferred'; and 'A Baghdad Christmas.'