I wrote earlier this month about how I love to listen in on other people’s conversations – all the while wondering who they are. Are they long lost friends? Do they have breakfast like this every day, or once a week, or today for the first time in months? I like to wonder what their lives are like at home. My heart and my mind conjure up all sorts of stories. I wonder these things everywhere – not just in restaurants! So, here we have Part 2 of “What’s their Story?”
This past year I’ve spent some time visiting in a VA Home for Alzheimer’s patients. Last May, when we first took Charlie, my friend Kathy’s father to his new home, I was mesmerized by the men (and one woman) who lived there. I wondered…..”What’s their story?”
Names are changed to protect the innocent….
First, we met Pete. Pete’s picture, side by side with the rest of his fellow veterans, is hanging in the east wing. He was a dapper young man. I know he was in the Navy because everyone in the home sports a cap with the insignia denoting their specific branch of the Military. I also know that Pete played the accordion at one time. Whenever I see him he is walking the halls of the Home playing an imaginary accordion. I wonder. Did Pete play the accordion in the Navy? Did he entertain his fellow enlistees? Did he play at parties when he was a civilian? Was he a professional? If he had the real thing in his hands right now, would he remember how to play?
My last question was answered on a warm fall day last October. One of the workers in the home brought an accordion and put it in Pete’s hands. He went to town with that thing! Pete may not know his name, or where he is at any given moment, but he remembered exactly how to play that instrument! It was as if we were all transported, most of all Pete, to a place 60 years ago when memories were easy and time stood still. I didn’t have to wonder anymore. I watched Pete tell us his story that day.
Then, we had the pleasure of meeting Ben. Ben and Charlie are roommates. They were hooked up, because in their former lives they were Chief of Police in their respective hometowns. As a young man Ben oversaw the maintenance of war planes in Honolulu, Hawaii. Ben is in a wheelchair now, but in his stories he walks. He is active and provides a vital service to his country. His window box outside Room 4 displays many newspaper articles proving this.
Sam is the only Vietnam veteran in the Home. That makes him at least 15 years younger than all of the other residents. They say he was never the same after he came home. It’s startling to see such a young face walking the halls. It just doesn’t seem to fit. I wonder about his past life. What did he see there? What caused him so much pain that his mind couldn’t take the reality? His 83 year old mother comes to visit him every weekend. She drives. She gets around physically just fine. It’s such a contrast to see the two of them together.
Then, there is Charlie, Kathy’s beloved father. We call him “Chief.” He wears his giant Korean War cap proudly every day. Physically, I think Chief is in better shape than most people half his age. He walks. And he walks. And he walks. This is one of the main reasons his wife had to seek outside help when he lived at home. She couldn’t keep up with him and off he’d go down the street. Now he walks the halls of the VA Home. He seems happy enough there. But, how do we know? He enjoys eating ice cream on Saturday afternoons. He likes watching the basketball games on Sundays. He seems to appreciate being around other men. They talk about their former lives. What they say doesn’t make sense to us -but I think they understand each other.
A sight that I saw while visiting the Home last Memorial Day put many of my questions to rest. At around noon we heard the roar of engines coming closer and closer. We looked and we saw miles of Veterans riding in a motorcycle procession up the long roadway leading to the Home. Red, white and blue flags were flying proudly from their back seats. The noise was deafening. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Maybe it was the thunderous bass of those bikes. More likely it was the reverence we all felt as we stood and watched the hundreds of men coming to this little VA Home, in small town Illinois, to pay their respects to our heroes. This tribute said to everyone, no matter what the individual stories were, collectively we know that this Home holds amazing and awe-inspiring history. I didn’t wonder any more. I understood that these men did indeed have past lives and I felt privileged to honor them and to be a part of that moment.