VA Stories

March 30, 2013

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the VA Hospital since Mickey moved in. “A lot” translates to maybe eight day-long trips while Mickey had various ailments looked into including a broken shoulder (mea culpa) and cataract surgery. So it’s not like it’s become my second home, but eight visits is a lot to someone who eschews hospitals and had never been to a VA hospital even once prior to 2010.

An amazing thing about the VA hospital is the cross section of society you meet there. I expected to see veterans, yes, but the word “veteran” conjured a very definite mental image in my mind that I’ve discovered was nowhere near the truth. Yes, you meet the almost stereotypical dignified, white-haired veteran with the carefully coiffed wife sitting quietly by his side, but you also meet the crazy Nam vet with the greasy hair who’s cussing everyone, the pockets of black veterans speaking in slang that I can only understand a fraction of, young men with empty eyes, dying men with eyes full of pain, young women vets who carry an incredible amount of pride on their tiny frames, and lesbian vets who think a tall woman like me is the cat’s meow for some reason. And the most amazing thing of all is how many of them (white-haired vets with coiffed wives excluded) seek me out to tell me their stories. Amazing stories. Wonderful stories.

Yesterday it was Henry. An elderly black man that I had a hard time understanding at first, until he whitened-up his vocabulary enough for a pasty person like me to follow, which I thought was very sweet of him, considering that I was just another middle-aged white woman in the human sea that is the ER waiting room. He started out telling me that he’d taken almost no game this year. His eyes filled with regret. Not one single deer. I didn’t tell him that I’m a vegetarian, I just let him talk. He talked about going out hunting with his brother-in-law and bagging about a dozen rabbits, then discovering that dialysis had made him too weak to carry them out. There he was, he explained, in the “woods” with a dozen freshly killed and gutted rabbits and him too weak to take them home. But thankfully his brother-in-law hiked out for help and someone brought a truck and he got those rabbits home; he wasn’t sure why he bothered since his wife couldn’t cook a decent rabbit stew even after all these years of him bringing them home.

He told me about how in his time he wasn’t allowed further east than 8th street. “Your mama wouldn’t let you?” I asked. My own naivete astounds me sometimes.

No, it wasn’t his mama. It was the whites. Unless a black man was hauling garbage or mowing lawns, he wasn’t allowed past 8th Street.

Then he told me how he missed beans. Lord, how he missed beans. Something about the potassium in beans being deadly when you’re on dialysis, so he couldn’t have them any more. He remembered coming home from school and his mama would have a big pot of beans on the stove and a huge pan of cornbread, and you didn’t want to be late getting home or you wouldn’t get seconds.

And he told me about how he listened to the staff at the VA talking to people and how he was convinced the world had no sense left at all any more.

He asked me if I wanted to go outside for a cigarette. I didn’t want a cigarette, but I wanted to go with him, so we did. And we stood on a veranda under multiple “No Smoking – $75 Fine for Violators” signs while he smoked an unfiltered cigarette with hands misshapen by age.

He told me that being married to a military man was a special responsibility (I didn’t bother to tell him that Mickey and I aren’t married – I don’t think that was the point) and that he hoped I understood. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I did or not, but that I would try to understand better than I had before.

Then we went back inside and we watched the news and Henry got me laughing so hard about Obama flying B-52s over Korea that I’m sure I disturbed the people around us.

And then Mickey came out of the back and I said good-bye to Henry. We won’t meet again in this world, I’m sure and I’m sure he was sure of the same thing. It was in his eyes.