Their Past Lives

SOL #28

Hosted by Two Writing Teachers
Hosted by Two Writing Teachers


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.


8 thoughts on “Their Past Lives

  1. These are such beautiful stories. I especially like, “Pete’s,” …the accordian playing extraordinare. 🙂 That’s awesome. You are so right and we take advantage or dismiss the richness and lessons found through our elders- their life experience, their heroism, compassion, accomplishments, and wisdom. A friend of mine is an RN and works in a retirement/ hospice home. He tells me of his patients/ friends often. How they joke with him, how they talk about their children (mistaking him for their ow at times), their homes growing up, their careers. He tells me how often family does or doesn’t visit. I think many take the wisdom found in their life experience for granted. Thanks for this eloquent, heartfelt reminder.

  2. Such a wonderful tribute to the amazing SOL at most such facilities. I used to sit and wonder about the lives at the table when I would sit there with my father and father in law. So many experiences – so many miracles – so much love – we need to acknowledge all they have done and try to learn from their experencies. Thank you for the remidner.

  3. This story touched my heart in many ways. My Grandma lived with Alzheimer’s at a nursing home. When reading this, it brought many memories back to me. I would like to read this to my Dad. He does a lot for the vets and would appreciate this writing piece, I know i did!

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