A veteran finds out that he can still be surprised
|He sat, wheelchair-bound, slumped by the window at Ocean's Rest Nursing Home. How I hate that damned ocean. My hearing is just fine, thank you very much, I am sick to death (hah! He smiled mid-thought) of those waves roaring and crashing non-stop. For the uninformed, people should know that no vet wants to be forced to hear anything that sounds like bombs exploding, let alone twenty-four hours a day. The sharp crack of a big wave sounded too much like the crack of gunfire. I don't need to be reminded of any of that. That beach never was far from his mind, even seventy-nine years later. How I miss the old farm. The winter wheat turning green every spring, the colors in the fall. The silence.|
The bouncy young thing perked into the dayroom. "Good Morning, Henry! Happy birthday!"
He looked up at the girl, who might have been twenty, and wished she was not quite so effervescent. No one should bubble the way she did. But then, he wondered, have I ever been that enthusiastic about anything? He really didn't think so. Perhaps when he and his Mary had been together, but then it had been such a short time and so long ago now that he could barely hear her voice in his mind. Stupid waves managed to drown out almost everything.
She wheeled his chair towards the dining room. "I've got a surprise for you!" she sing-song-ed her announcement. "Not every day one of my residents turns a hundred years old! I hope I live that long," she effused.
No, no you don't, he thought.
"I so wish you could talk, Henry. You must have so many stories and I wish you could tell them to me. My grampa always had so many stories. He's been gone now a long time, almost ten years, now. I really miss his stories." She pushed him down the polished floor of the main hallway.
When was the last time ten years seemed like a long time? He couldn't remember. Now it was just time. Apparently endless.
His driver, so to speak, opened the door to the dining room and, pulling him in backward, spun him around. The room was all decorated with crepe paper streamers, balloons, and a big, goofy banner that read 'Happy 100th Birthday, Henry.' Her beaming smile popped in front of his face. "Surprised?" she asked as all forty-two of the old folks on his floor yelled 'Surprise!' and began singing.
Henry stared out at them. He truly did not like being the center of attention, but it appeared there was nothing he could do about it. Someone handed him a piece of chocolate cake with pea green icing. His stomach roiled in protest. He set the plate on the table.
"Oh, don't you want your cake, dear?" asked Mrs. Hattie, a woman who resided just down the hall from him. "It's very good. I already ate mine," she simpered.
He shrugged. Just then, a middle-aged man came up to him, pulled a chair close, and sat down. "Henry, or should I say Corporal Granger? My name is David Dalton. I believe you knew my father a long time ago. Steve Dalton, PFC Dalton."
Henry looked closer at the man. Yes, he looks like his father, he thought, remembering the young man who'd been injured on that beach.
"Dad always told us how you saved his life. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have been born. I'd like to shake your hand, sir," he said holding out his hand. Henry shook the man's hand, appreciating the firm grip. Too many people had flimsy handshakes now-a-days.
"I've been looking for you for many years now. Dad always wanted to find you. He died three years ago, but he never stopped searching for you and insisted I keep looking. I am so glad I found you! When they finish up this party for you, might we speak in private?"
Absolutely, Henry thought, but simply nodded.
"So, Sir, I hope you'll forgive me, but I did some checking up on you after I found you. You grew up on a farm in the Midwest and spent most of your life after the war on one as well. My dad used to hate being near the ocean. He'd always complain about how the waves crashing made him nervous and uneasy. I expect, maybe, you understand what I'm saying."
Henry looked into the younger man's eyes and nodded.
"Well, Sir, I live on a farm in upstate New York. It's just my wife and our boy, Stevie and we live in a big old farmhouse. It's all accessible. We even have a planked path out through the woods nearby. Stevie and I laid every plank of it ourselves when we built it for my dad. He used to like going out to his favorite glade, said he could hear himself think out there. The Missus and I, well, we were wondering if just maybe you might like to come out and visit us for a while, and, if you like it, consider just staying with us. You see, we, Stevie and I, really miss my dad and we were thinking that ..." David stopped talking, swallowed noisily.
Two tears ran down Henry's face. He just nodded. "I ... I haven't said a word in more years than I can count. Yes, son, I would love to. Best birthday present. Ever. Except for when they told me that Dalton was going to be okay. Best damned friend I ever had, your father. A good man, a true friend. I'm honored."
A few hours later, David carried Henry's few things as Henry wheeled himself down the hall and out the door.
"He can talk?" gushed the young lady in surprise. "He never talked to any of us!"
Henry sat in a birch glade looking out at the distant wheat field. Robins chattered. They make more sense than the ladies down the hall ever did. he thought. Peace settled around him like a cozy blanket in the cool autumn air. He sighed ... and smiled.