The photo, full of light, movement, and color, is beautiful. In it, a small group of Iraqi children are skipping, laughing, and running toward the camera on a dusty road near Baghdad. At the center, a boy waves a newspaper high above his head. In the low sun of early evening, the children's long shadows fan out in the direction of the person taking the picture. The photographer, a kid himself not all that long ago, is an American soldier.
That soldier is my son, Spc. Roman Diaz, 1st Armored Division.
Back in December, a few months after his 20th birthday, he snapped this photo from the back of his Army vehicle the day Saddam Hussein was captured. He used a small digital camera he'd brought with him on his deployment to Baghdad last spring - tucked it into a pocket of his uniform so it wouldn't get bumped by the machine gun it has also been his job to carry.
In the e-mail that arrived with the photo as an attachment, this same young man, who typically begins his Internet messages with "Yo," wrote with a maturing sense of life and history: "It is a time of great hope here in Iraq."
Looking at that photo then, I too felt some hope that this war I'd been against from the beginning would, in the long run, turn out OK.
Now four months later, that hope hides in shadows dark as the smoke from burning Humvees, black as the charred bodies dragged through the streets of Fallujah.
It was Easter Sunday, April 11, and we were talking online, he and I, via instant messaging.
More than a month before, Roman had told me and his dad not to send him any more care packages, cards, or letters, because his unit was scheduled to leave Iraq soon. They'd been there nearly a year and were looking forward to heading home in the next couple of weeks.
Since we talked online that day, the news out of Iraq has not been good. Every day brings new images of fist-shaking, gun-carrying mobs. Kidnappers in ski masks. Cowering hostages. Bloodied men in desert khaki. Bandaged children in hospital beds. Liberation, it seems, has been redefined.
Two weeks ago I'd never heard of the radical young Shiite cleric who is leading the insurgency in the cities of Najaf and Kut, south of Baghdad. Now, Moqtada al-Sadr is all too familiar.
"What's it like for you guys these days?" I typed on my computer screen that Sunday.
"Tiring, hot, dusty, chaotic at times," Roman wrote, "It's like the whole country here has lost its mind."
"Well, all I can say is I'm glad it's near the end of your time there."
The box where his words appeared on my screen stayed blank. I watched it and waited for his reply.
"Mom," he finally typed, "Don't make me say it."
My heart jerked. He had confirmed what I'd read in the newspaper - that some, not all, of the 1st Armored might soon be getting orders to stay three to four months longer.
They did. And I chose to believe my boy wouldn't be among them.
But he is.
I blinked back tears so I could keep reading.
So what do people in a family talk about when facing a reality that feels so unreal?
Other things: the weather; his recent promotion to specialist; SpongeBob, his pet turtle that I've been making salads for every day since he left; our Easter plans at Aunt Irma's; jokes about government-issue jelly beans.
"None of those for us today," he wrote in response to another comment about Easter candy. "No celebrations. Just showers, hot chow, clean clothes. That's enough for us after this week."
A little later, I typed, "I'm always hopeful things will turn out better than we think."
His response to this echoed the disillusionment more and more Americans feel these days when opening a paper or turning on the evening news. The disillusionment that comes from learning there were no weapons of mass destruction, no direct links to Al Qaeda, no imminent threats.
"I try not to have any expectations," he wrote with a weariness well beyond his years. It's a statement so at odds with what he said that day he snapped the sun-streaked photo of those happy Iraqi kids, it's hard to believe that was only four months ago.
And I am light-years away from the days when I could make the world right again for him with the promise of a 7-Eleven Slurpee.
For families with loved ones over there, I'm afraid victory in this misbegotten war might come down to simply this: holding on to hope that our brave men and women come back to us whole.
"You guys will get through this," I told him.
"Yes, we will."
"And so will your mothers."
"Yeah," he answered. "And wives and kids, too,"
A few lines later something called him away suddenly.
"Gotta go, Mom," he wrote.
And he was already offline before I could finish typing, "I love you."
• Sue Diaz is a San Diego columnist and freelance writer.