Previous – Part 4: Rehab
The airline had arranged for wheelchairs, but both had refused. They were still capable of moving under their own power, and they were determined to do so. Instead, they sat patiently on the plane waiting for everyone else to get off before carefully picking their way down the isle on crutches. Emerging from the jetway, Jim first and K9 right behind him, the small crowd parted silently to reveal a small formation of veterans who rendered a salute. Jim balanced his weight on his remaining foot and returned the salute without saying anything. He hadn’t expected this.
“Daddy!” Sammie squealed as she broke free of Leslie’s hand and ran towards him.
He had just deplaned after flying in from Fort Bragg. The training had been six weeks long, and had taken a hard toll on both is body and mind. The joy of his wife and daughter was the best medicine he could imagine right about now.
“Key kiddo!” Jim said as he dropped his backpack and scooped her up into his arms. “I missed you so much!”
Leslie had closed the gap between them and was embracing him, sandwiching Sammie between them.
“Oh… It’s so good to have you back,” she whispered in his ear while squeezing him very tightly.
“Hey beautiful,” Jim answered, “you smell amazing.”
“It’s just shampoo and conditioner.”
“Yeah, but it’s the stuff you use. You could wash your hair with vinegar and I’d learn to love the smell.”
“Well, I’ll admit I go in the closet sometimes and smell your shirts when I get really lonely.”
“Let’s get my bags and get out of here.”
“Gentlemen,” the apparent head of the veteran delegation said addressing both Jim and K9, “we are here to honor you and your sacrifices. While we cannot know your individual struggles, we want you to know that you are not alone. Please allow us to escort you on this leg of your journey.”
Jim silently nodded and shook the hand extended towards him. With a veteran on either side of both Jim and K9, the group began down the terminal towards the baggage claim. A wave of silence followed them. As soon as they approached any area, everyone stopped what they were doing and turned silently to offer their respect. A mixture of crusty veterans and guardsmen in uniform lined the pathway every fifteen or so feet to render a salute as they passed.
When they reached the baggage claim one of the veterans had already retrieved their bags and was waiting to follow them to the curb. Outside, a small motorcade of cars with a police escort was waiting. The two were escorted to a limousine, baggage was loaded into the trunk, and the motorcade pulled slowly away. They were headed directly to the funeral from the airport, and the chapel where the services were to be held was only a few miles away. All along the route, people had gathered and were placing their hands over their hearts as the cars passed. Jim had seen this kind of procession before, but only for soldiers being brought home in a box. He wasn’t really sure how he felt about it.
“Wonder who set this up?” Jim asked without directing it at anyone in particular.
“Your brother-in-law, sort of,” one of Jim’s escorts answered. The speaker had on an expensive suit and had the air of importance about him. “He told a friend of his what had happened, at least what he knew of it. That spread, and the local VFW, American Legion, and a few of us others took it from there. He didn’t mean for it to be this big a deal, but I couldn’t let you come home without letting you know you weren’t alone.”
“Is it going to be like this at the funeral?” K9 asked uncomfortably.
“No. We made it very clear that the funeral was for family and close friends only. We’ll deliver you to the chapel and leave you in your family’s care.”
The whole team was here. Everyone was silent and waiting, knew their place, and what they were supposed to do. The door opened, and someone nodded. That was their queue, and with a single motion they stood and filed out the door behind their guide and into two vans that made their way down the parking ramp. Nobody spoke during the short drive. The vans stopped just short of a C-17 transport and everyone filed out and formed up.
Another vehicle approached and backed up close to the assembled men. Eight men stepped forward and carefully lifted the two long aluminum containers draped in flags onto their shoulders. They turned and began marching in slow unison towards the airplane’s open cargo door but stopped just short of the loading ramp.
Jim rendered a final salute to his fallen friends, and on queue the remainder of the team raised their rifles and fired three successive volleys. Somewhere nearby a taps began playing as the coffins were carried up the ramp and into the airplane.
The public viewing wasn’t supposed to start for another hour, and the funeral wasn’t going to start for two. Consequently, the chapel was mostly empty when they arrived. Jim’s mother, father, and in-laws met him at the door and took turns embracing him. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said. Nothing could be said. They then took turns introducing themselves to K9 and shaking his hand.
“Jim,” his step-father said, “why don’t you go in and say goodbye. When you’re done, we’ve got your clothes in one of the rooms here so you can change and have some privacy until the services start.”
Jim nodded and followed as they all headed towards the room where the caskets stood open. As Jim crossed the threshold of the room, everyone else stopped, then pulled the door closed leaving Jim alone with what remained of his wife and daughter. He hobbled forward to Leslie’s casket. She was dressed in the same simple white dress she had worn for their wedding. Now she wore it laying in a simple wooden casket – she had always said she didn’t want an expensive or ornate funeral. That had always been her way.
There she was, at the altar smiling at him. A small group of close friends and family occupied the few seats available and looked on as the officiator spoke words of counsel. Jim didn’t hear a word of what was said. All he heard was his heart beating in his chest, and he didn’t see anything other than Leslie’s smile.
He leaned heavily on his crutches and reached out to touch her hair, then he gingerly touched her face. It was cold and waxy. It didn’t feel like her. She was gone, and had only left this corpse behind. Tears streamed down is face as he moved backwards and sat down on a nearby chair, hanging his head between his hands. He sat there for several minutes before pushing himself upright again and moving to Sammie’s casket. Running his fingers through her hair, he began to talk to his daughter through heavy tears.
“Kiddo… I miss you so much. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why you had to go instead of me. I don’t understand any of this. If you’re really on the other side, and can hear me, help me to learn to be simple again and to know that you’re okay where you are.”
Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out a charred piece of paper, gingerly unfolding it.
“I’ve got the real Lola, and the unicorn magic seems to be done for me, so I’ll give this back to you so they can protect you on your journey.”
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
“What are you afraid of kiddo?”
“You mean the ones in the story I’ve been reading to you? The ones who turned the boy into a mouse?”
“I don’t want to be a mouse.”
“You think there are witches around here?”
He knew there was no point in trying to convince her they were all imaginary. “Give me just a second, and I’ll be right back with some witch spray.”
“Yep. I can make up some witch repellent. Two squirts around the window and two around the door, and no witch in the world will make it anywhere near you.”
“What if a witch comes while you’re getting it ready?”
“Lola,” Jim called, “come here girl.” Lola obediently came into the room with a quizzical look on her face. Jim motioned for her to lay down near Sammie’s bed. “Lola will protect you while I’m gone. Witches don’t like German Shepherds.”
“But what if that doesn’t work?”
Jim walked over to the dresser and picked up the unicorn music box she had gotten from her grandma for Christmas. He wound it up and it began playing a lulaby. “Witches don’t like happy music either, and I’ll be back before the music stops.”
He stepped out of the room and started rummaging in the bathroom cupboard.
“What are you up to now?” Leslie asked.
“Yep. I need some witch spray to keep the witches out of Sammie’s room,” Jim said as he found a mostly empty squirt bottle and filled it with water. “Two squirts by the door, and two by the window.”
“That’d better work. We need some quiet time,” Leslie said with a wink.
Jim stepped backward and fell back into the same chair. It took several more minutes before he had the strength to stand again and approach Leslie’s casket.
“Hey gorgeous,” Jim started, “I really screwed this one up, didn’t I? This isn’t how our story was supposed to go. Why didn’t I walk away from the Air Force when I had a chance? None of this would have happened if I hadn’t stayed. I’m so sorry…”
Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Opening it up, he removed a small picture that was well worn from years of abuse. It was one of their engagement photos that he had carried everywhere with him since it was taken. He placed the photo under her hand.
“I kept this with me to always reminded me of the commitment we made to each other. It was a symbol for me of your unconditional love and support. I never doubted you. Keep it with you until we meet again. I wish I were with you now, but that doesn’t seem to be the way things are going to work out.”
Jim stood there for what seemed like an eternity, caressing the hair that framed her face and bathing her face with tears. Her hair, at least, felt like he remembered. How many times had he caressed those loose curles?
“I cut my hair,” Leslie said rather sheepishly as he walked into the small apartment they shared. It wasn’t as if she could have hidden the fact though. She had always kept her hair at least shoulder length since they met, and now it was only a few inches longer than his.
“Do you like it?” Jim asked, turning the unspoken question back on her. He knew he was standing in the middle of a mine field. If he said he liked it but she didn’t, he would be in trouble. If he said he liked it better longer, he was wrong either way. The only way he could come out of this ahead was if he said he liked it and she agreed. There was no right answer until she had spilled the beans first.
“It’s so light,” she said beaming, making Jim’s path suddenly clear.
“I love it,” he agreed. Anything that brought that kind of smile to her face had his seal of approval. For all he cared, she could shave her head if it made her feel beautiful. Anytime she felt beautiful, she was beautiful. The fact that she would spend the next ten years oscillating between short and long hair had very little impact on him. Long, short, or in between, he loved it all.
“Her fight’s over now,” K9 said quietly as he hobbled to Jim’s side.
“How is it that she could win ugly and prolonged battles only to get taken out by something as random as being on the wrong road at the wrong time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Some of what she went through makes Ramadi look easy. She was only just getting back on her feet and feeling close to normal when I got orders.”
“And just like Iraq, it’s not always the hot fights that end up getting you in the end,” K9 countered. He didn’t quite understand what Jim meant, but this wasn’t the time or place to probe further. There would be time for that later.
Jim nodded his ascent, then the two friends stood silently for several minutes until they were disturbed by the sound of someone clearing their throat.
“Jim?” The funeral director said timidly.
Jim turned and faced him.
“Guests will start arriving shortly. You should probably get changed now.”
Both his and K9’s dress uniforms were waiting for them in a small room just off of the chapel, and the two turned and started moving that direction. A health aide who had been sent as a medical escort for both of them was patiently waiting there to help them get dressed and adjust the uniforms for the missing limbs.
“Last time I wore this, I was meeting my new boss for the first time,” Jim said, looking at his neatly pressed service uniform. Someone had already added the bronze star and purple heart to his ribbon rack and replaced the rank. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever put it back on.”
“Me either. Then again, it wasn’t all that long ago when I wasn’t sure either of us would ever put anything on again.”
The aide alternated between the two of them, helping them pull their pants up and pin the unused legs out of the way. Shirts, ties, socks, a shoe a piece, and finally the service coat. They were ready.
“Sir, there’s a mirror in the bathroom next door if you want to look yourself over.”
Jim just shook his head. He couldn’t stand the sight of his face – whether covered in the splint or not. K9 asked the aide how he looked, and was satisfied with the answer. The two sat down in the chairs that had been placed for them and waited.
Jim’s parents and in-laws were in the forier greeting people as they came in. Jim felt like he should be there, but he just couldn’t face the family right now. He couldn’t take any more pity, and he didn’t want to have to explain anything. He didn’t want to have to tell people he was doing alright. He didn’t want to have to lie. Instead, he sat in that small room hidden from scrutiny.
“Where do you think you’ll go when the doc’s are done with you?” Jim asked.
“I don’t know. There’s a crazy part of me that wants to go back to Iraq.”
“You too? I hated that place, but I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”
“The team’s long gone by now,” K9 said flatly. “I think that’s what I actually miss.”
“Sure don’t miss the desert or getting shot at,” Jim agreed.
“My mom’s invited me to come live with her, but Jersey isn’t my kind of place anymore. Too crowded.”
“Jersey… long way from your life in the Army.”
“I’ve got a sister in DC, but that isn’t any better. What about you?”
“Lots of family here, but I don’t think I’m ready to be around them. Is that wrong?”
“Probably, but that doesn’t really change anything.”
“They talk to you yet about the rest of your treatment plan?” Jim asked.
“About another 4 weeks of therapy, then I’ll be in and out on a routine follow-up basis. They’ve already started the medical retirement proceedings. I’m supposed to move into a sort of halfway house in town for the time being.”
“Looks like they’re going to retire me too. I have no idea who long that will take though.”
“What do we do next?” K9 asked with absolute uncertainty in his voice. Jim didn’t have an answer, so they just sat quietly waiting for the funeral to start.
A few minutes later the chapel was full and the service was about to begin. Jim and K9 mounted their crutches and began making their way to their seats on the front pew. An organist was playing a quiet hymn, but it wasn’t loud enough to mask the rhythmic click-squeak of the two pairs of crutches as they moved down the isle.
The service proceeded without interruption as one after another speaker shared memories of Leslie and Sammie. Many laughed, all cried. Leslie’s lifetime of service and caring for others was on bright display. Jim’s mind repeatedly left the confines of the funeral and followed one of the anecdotes further, looking for reprieve in the solitude of his own mind. He was lost in memories when the service ended and everyone moved to leave the chapel for the cemetery across town.
The burial plot was in a small cemetery near Leslie’s parents house. Both caskets were to be interred in the same grave, and Jim watched as the grave was dedicated and flowers were placed on the caskets. That was the extent of the graveside service. The caskets would be lowered into the gaping hole in the earth once everyone left. One after another, family and friends filed past Jim, laying a sympathetic hand on his shoulder or kissing him on the cheek as they went by. Within minutes Jim was left alone to offer his last goodbye.
“God, if you’re out there,” Jim muttered almost silently, “watch over them. Even if you’ve abandoned me, take them home and make them happy.”
K9 had withdrawn to the car, but was standing outside looking at the blue sky and leaning against the door to take pressure off of his prosthetic. A short, round woman with wrinkled brown skin and gray hair approached him timidly.
“You’re very close to Colonel Harwood?” she asked.
“We’ve chewed up a lot of dirt together…”
“My name is Maggie Tso. My son caused the accident that did this,” she said, gesturing towards the grave site. “When the time is right, please let him know that I would like to help him heal. Tell him I will help him visit the scene of the accident, and that my heart and home are always open to him.”
She handed him a small envelope, and turned to leave without saying anything further. She had driven all the way from Shiprock the day prior and waited patiently through the funeral for just this short conversation. It would be a long drive home, but she couldn’t afford to stay longer.
K9 watched her walk to an old beat-up Chevy truck and climb in. She was tilted and hunched, and the impact of arthritis was clear in her shuffling gait. With effort, she climbed into the cab and pulled the heavy door shut. The creaky old truck started in a cloud of blue-white smoke and rattled slowly out of the cemetery. As the old woman drove out of sight, K9 worked his way back towards the grave and sat down next to Jim.
“I need a wheelchair. I don’t think I can walk,” Jim said after a few moments of silence. K9 nodded and waived to the health aid who was waiting just out of earshot.
Next: Part 6 – Transition