In the Absence of My Own Elderly Veteran Grandfathers...

At work last week, I briefly met an elderly veteran who looked like my boyfriend Kevin in his youth. When I shared this with Kevin later that night, he asked if I asked the man which branch of the military he'd served in. I hadn't.

"You might want to ask when you talk to those guys ["those guys" being veterans who wore hats or buttons--like this man had--identifying themselves as such]. A lot of them are proud of their service and would like to talk about it," he said. I knew what he meant. I'd gotten the sense that man would have liked to share more. And Kevin's advice--which landed well on my ears given that he is himself a Marine veteran--stuck with me.

The very next day I was walking through the lobby of my work when I noticed an elderly man seated, wearing a Korean War Veteran hat. I asked him about his service, and without a moment's hesitation he said, "Army, infantry." He began to tell me about his injuries--he'd been shot twice right off the boat (the boat that transported him there). "Purple Heart," I said. "That's right." The man said a few things more and then suddenly he was teary-eyed.

"Thank you for talking to me," he said.

Thank you for talking to me.

Suddenly I was teary, too...a little taken aback. I'm new to my work location, and I'd seen this same man seated in the same seat last week as well. Did he come in every week and sit drinking coffee in that spot, longing to talk? If so, how often did he have a listener? The experience was eye-opening for me, and it prepared me a bit for what was to happen the day after that...

Image Credit: Catfish Moore, 2014
I was sitting at my desk when I saw a man passing through the lobby with a walker at an excruciatingly slow pace. I asked if I could help him, to which he said, "yes...I need to sit down and talk to somebody." It took at least five minutes for him to make his way to my cubicle, where he collapsed into a chair with a loud and weary groan.

In low tones--so low I strained to hear--and with an exhaustion I can only with futility grasp at understanding, he told me about his predicament. His 94-year-old wife was recently admitted to the hospital. In the ensuing difficulty and confusion he'd lost track of his finances. He just wanted it all straightened out.

This man also happened to be wearing a veteran's hat (there is a VFW hall down the street from my work and a lot of elderly veterans live in the area). As I worked through his financial stuff, he began to talk about his service...his World War II service as a Combat Medic.

I would like to write more, in greater detail about the things this man told me that afternoon, but it wouldn't be prudent to do so without his permission. The things he told me landed heavily and stayed, thick in my mind and my heart. What stands out most was his telling me how he longed to forget. How for 70 years he has longed to forget the things he saw and all he tried to do but couldn't.

He was emotional. Then he was incredibly apologetic for being so emotional. Apologetic for taking my time and for talking so much. Apologetic for needing help.

I wish there were a way to accurately show a stranger what is going on inside one's mind. I wish there were a way for me to tell him so I knew he believed me that it was an honor beyond measure to be in conversation with this man and to be able to help him.

I told him both my grandfathers had passed away and that I could no longer listen to their stories. My maternal grandfather had been in the Air Force but (stationed in Goose Bay, Labrador), his service time stories were lighthearted--of playing drums in the band for the dances they held and goofing around in the snow. My paternal grandfather--German, immigrating here after the war...I hadn't dared to ask (but oh, how I wish I had...now). Newly reminded of the dearth in elderly family members in my own life to listen to and learn from...I was emotional as well.

At some point in our conversation, I'd told my customer about my 4-year-old son. In the end, he took my hand in his and looked in my eyes and told me to take good care of the boy. He told me to read to him every night and to make sure he gets a good education and just to take good, good care of him. Jesus I'm crying now just thinking about it.

I wonder if people say things like that when they know they could have and should have been taken better care of themselves. I thought all about how little we as a society knew about PTSD for so many years, and how few resources there were available for the majority of these veterans' lives...these men who'd seen and experienced some of the worst things a person can see and experience.

Over the years I've had strong opinions about the wars of my lifetime. I've felt they were unjustified, imperialistic, wildly unnecessary. I don't feel the same about the wars these men were involuntarily drafted into. But I hate that these men were sent away so young to fight in these wars and that they have been so thoroughly haunted, for so long, as a result.

And it's painful to contemplate that these men are left feeling thankful just because a person listened to them. Maybe I'm reading too much into it--after all, most of us feel thankful when we feel we've been listened to. But I can't help but additionally think about the general invisibility of the elderly to the (unseeing) eyes of many young people. I know this is not an original thought. Plenty has been made of the lack of regard we as Americans hold our elderly society members in, especially relative to other cultures. It's not an original thought but I think it's one that bears considering and repeating once in a while.

That customer I sat with had to know that--as much as I may take his words seriously and trust in the wisdom of his experience--I can't possibly know what he truly means or have a clue how life feels, from his perspective looking out. On a daily basis I understand things about my parents and their lives that I couldn't have absorbed as a younger person. But I did want him to know I was listening and taking note. I wanted him to know I respected him, honored his service (and, apart from his service, his life experience), that I could have listened for many more hours.

And as corny and trite and uncharacteristically patriotic as it may sound for me to say so: I want to give thanks to all the servicemen and servicewomen who have made unimaginable sacrifices, voluntarily or otherwise, on behalf of this country. I will keep striving to see them and to listen and to learn from them. I consider every opportunity to do so a gift.

1 comment:

  1. I wish everyone had a heart as big and as squishy as yours is, Kis. The world would be a far happier and far more connected place.