The days are growing shorter again. Another winter is approaching. My comrades say each year only gets darker. They’ve begun to ration our coffee intake. Something about our pulses being too fast and causing too much anxiety. I’ve tried to steal some and hide it with my stash of dark chocolate, shot glasses, and dreams and despair.
I don’t know when I’ll make it home again. When I signed on for this, they told me it would be four years. In and out. It seemed so doable. Now, I’m not so sure. August marked the end of the fourth year. There was no celebration. I did take a week of personal time, but I felt judged for leaving my desk.
The locals eye me with concern. They ask how long it’s supposed to take. Their eyebrows read, “Aren’t you taking too long?” But then you meet a soldier who’s been here for six years. And others reference survivors who endured for eight years. I want to ask how they survived. But those words never leave your lips. A lot of words don’t leave my lips to be honest. I can’t even get them on paper.
People ask, “Are you writing? How far along are you?” I want to point to the sky and say, “Do you see that star? It hasn’t moved, and neither have I.” Instead, I say, “Almost there.” People seem to think it’s just writing. If I write enough, if my fingers cross the keyboards enough times, that will bring me to the exit.
You begin to wonder if you want to exit. Yes, the dreams will end. Nightmares, really. So will the interrogations. And maybe there will be more certainty in the future. But you suddenly find some arcane beauty in this purgatory. Knowing you have a future, but you’re not sure what the future is. Bliss in the simple moments when you aren’t writing or thinking. Surefootedness in not knowing what you’re doing with your life.
Due to my extended education, I know I may invite rebuke by comparing my ordeal to war. I daresay I do not know the actual scars of war. But I know the bruises of academia, I feel the lacerations in comments and suggested edits, and I wince to see another email in my inbox.
People suggest I narrow the scope of my thesis. Especially Mother. She sends letters with directives meant to rescue me from this mess I signed up for, but she doesn’t understand my entanglement nor even my location. She once asked what year it is, how long have I been gone, and I asked if she meant me. Does she not count the calendar days like I do?
It is day 1,484. It makes people uncomfortable when I remind them. I don’t know why they should be uncomfortable. Most of them have 401(k)s at this point. I have a laptop that doesn’t belong to me and a to-go container of cold pizza from a seminar where too few people attended.
Occasionally I hear from other combatants in the field. They tell me about failed strategies, how they thought they’d take the city, but lost ground in a single hour and had to regroup. They say their supervisors display disappointment before they show mercy. Committees frown and sign off on another year of imprisonment.
They always warned you would question it all in the darkest hour. But, looking at my watch, it’s been longer than an hour. Friends reassure you that they know I'm working hard, the light is within sight (it’s just the moon), and I’ll get there. They often say this having returned from vacations to Saint Martin or Barbados. Then they imply I'm just a student, my life is easy, my reward is excessive, and I'm a lazy fool. (They’re right.)
“What do you do all day?” The whispers echo and ensnare you. You wake to them. They follow you in the trenches. People don’t understand. They condemn any attempts at a social life and then taunt, “You deserve a break.”
A break means more time here. And I dream of the end, of coming home, of seeing sunlight, of not feeling gray clouds overhead. Even on sunny days, you sense the night coming. Momentary is elation. Temporary is freedom. Esoteric is explanation.
That is why I write this. I need to read this, to remember and to remind. Please send help. Send coffee. Send love. Send money. Send promises of a future beyond a dissertation. Assure me that the gray does end, that seas crash upon bright shores, that you receive these letters and also wait for me. That Day 1,485 and 1,486 and 1,700 will come. And let me be free on Day 1,700.
On Day 1,483, I asked my Commander about the end. He stared at me and then said he could not predict the future. Admittedly, I can’t even predict the outcome with an overdispersed, negative Binomial-distributed, hierarchical, Bayesian model. So why should he able to forecast my release?
“I can’t say,” he mumbles. “But it could be unlikely.”
Also unlikely are relationships, goals, income, and an end to this dissertation. But the inverse of this probability is a likelihood. Perhaps it’s normally distributed. Perhaps it’s not. But probability, by definition, is greater than or equal to zero. Therefore, there is probability of daybreak. That is what keeps me going: Dawn is coming.
I send my love. And I send my warning.