The smell of banana muffins filled the car as I drove over the pass to Helena. To the Fort, where my father was recovering from a stroke and two heart attacks within twenty-four hours. The staff gave me approval to pass out some homemade muffins. I made them with Splenda since many of the patients there were diabetic or close to it. Someone had once told me, “We all get religion and diabetes if we live long enough.” I wasn’t sure she was too far off the mark as I started passing out the muffins and most of them weren’t sure they could have them until I told them they were sugar-free.
It was my birthday and I was at the opposite end of the country from my family, so I decided to share it with my new friends at the VA hospital.
“Can you take me to my room?” Captain asked me. Every day he asked me the same thing and each day I had to tell him he needed to sit up a little while longer. Sometimes I would get him a blanket. Always I would sit next to him and visit as he sat in his wheelchair next to the nurse’s station, where they could watch him. He was having respiratory problems, but in between the wheezing, we talked. Like so many others, his thoughts drifted more and more to the past. So many of the World War II veterans with so many stories.
My father was no different. He was in a battle for his life once more.
I held his hand and patted it as he lay in the hospital bed. In his other hand was a rubber ball he kept gripping.
“Remember the time you told me about the refugees from the camps, staying up all night so they could see the Statue of Liberty at first light?”
He nodded. “They fell down on their knees and thanked God for being delivered,” he whispered. “People don’t appreciate what we have, but they did.”
Dad had told me the stories of the survivors many times. He had a small metal box with old newspaper articles of their stories, stored away like a treasure chest. It renewed in me a deep appreciation for what we have and the sacrifices made to keep that freedom each time I read the yellowed clippings.
He sighed and looked at me. Eyes filled with pain and frustration clouded and he blinked to hold back the tears.
I squeezed his hand again and smiled, but I wasn’t as successful at holding back the tears as he was. I sniffed and rubbed my face dry with a tissue, then smiled again.
“Remember when you were being shipped out for an invasion?”
He nodded again and resumed gripping his ball. “I didn’t think we were going to make it. Everyone was writing letters home. I missed being on two ships that went down, by sheer accident. I knew I wouldn’t be that lucky a third time.”
We sat in silence. He continued to grip the ball, fighting to regain what he had lost in the stroke. I thought of all those men. Most convinced they wouldn’t survive the coming battle and spending what time they could getting their affairs in order. Saying goodbye to wives and sweethearts. Remembering their childhood and jotting down a final note to their parents. Others wishing they would be there to see the childhoods of their own sons and daughter. Nervous laughter. Card games. Some trying to sleep and staring at the ceiling or the bunk above instead. I tried to imagine what they were feeling and thinking, but I knew I could never really touch what they were going through.
I felt a sense of pride in what they had accomplished and sacrificed. At night I sifted through pictures of his past. They came to me. Images of soldiers smiling, with arms around each other’s shoulders as they posed for the camera. My father with an empty sleeve, sorting mail as he recovered from shoulder surgery. The uniform he wore in the picture was still hanging in his closet.
In the day I returned to the hospital. I stopped to visit with each of them. So many smiles and grateful hugs just to have someone to talk with.
Each of them had been young and vibrant once. They had passed through the trial by fire and lived to tell about it.
They were once the best we had to offer.
Our best was good enough.