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The ground rumbled just a little as it always did when the bus’s brakes squeaked it to a halt. I got on, and found a seat next to an older gentleman reading a book.
We nodded, and swayed back and forth with the motion in the traffic, and over time, I saw a pattern. He’d be there when I got on, and would be there about once a month. While everyone else insulated themselves from the rest of the passengers with their headphones and their smart phones, the older gentleman had his in a book that he was perfectly willing to put down. I made it a point to sit next to him, just to chat.
It took awhile, but I got to know him a little better. He always wore a baseball cap with USMC embroidered on the front, was always friendly, and seemed genuinely happy to see me. I got the impression he was going for his monthly checkup at the VA hospital.
At one point, he was holding the book in his right hand, and I saw that he was missing most of the index finger there. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, everything else I could see seemed to be in perfect order, and he was clearly used to it. Eventually I got up enough courage to ask how that happened, expecting to hear some story involving power tools or some action that had been preceded by the phrase, “Here, hold my beer.”
“Japanese sniper,” he said, turning his hand and looking at it, as if for the first time noticing that finger was gone.
“A… a what?”
And the older gentleman on the bus faded into the background as the story of a strapping 18 year old in the jungles of the South Pacific came out. He’d been in the Marine Corps, in the Pacific, during WWII, and they’d been dropped off at the south end of an island, and were to take the airfield on the north end. That was the book he’d been reading, a history of his unit. They had to get there at a very specific time, as a great part of the upcoming battle depended on that airfield being usable, and they had to take it. He showed me the map, and the huge swamp they’d had no choice but to go through, not around.
He talked so matter-of-factly about how they had to hike in triple digit temperatures through jungle, especially through that swamp. He held both arms up high as he showed me how he kept his rifle out of the water and mud to keep it dry.
They got to their destination, where he unknowingly had his appointment with the Japanese sniper, who’d been trained to shoot off soldier’s trigger fingers, and that’s precisely what he’d done.
As we were both looking at that stump of a finger, he lost in his memories while I was trying to imagine what those memories were like, the bus stopped, and we both looked up. I realized I was at my own destination. I thanked him for sharing that part of himself with me, and for his time and his service, and got off the bus, reluctantly coming back from that hot, humid airfield I’d been at in my mind to a street full of honking cars and rumbling buses, grateful for the privilege of the history lesson I’d just gotten first hand.
From someone who had been there.
So, on this Sunday morning, Memorial day, I find myself thinking of and remembering those of you who have served your countries, on the front lines or just as importantly, holding down the fort at home, whether that’s my Opa, or my dad, or my mom and Oma during WWII, Grampa, Grandma, or my uncles on both sides, my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and nephew, or Chris, Buck, Jon, Kevin, Brian, Ralph, Beth, Al, Jae, Denny, as well as so many others who never made it home, or brought back reminders of that time they gave more than we could possibly imagine.
There was a time when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this story.
I mean that in the most final way that could be possible.
The original was written almost exactly 9 years ago, about something that happened a year before that, and it’s been a learning experience all the way around, so with that, step with me into the time machine, back to a day where I sat in our basement, with my keyboard in my lap, both feet on the desk, and I wrote a little note about those things we’d learned on that first anniversary.
“We’ve learned a lot through this last year dealing with cancer, treatment for it, recovery from it, and the like – and it’s phenomenal the kinds of things you do learn when you find you’ve been to the edge and back.
One of the things I learned, honestly, that life is truly not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
The destination for all our bodies, is likely a pine box or an urn on a mantel somewhere. That doesn’t have to mean that has to be our soul’s destination. Sometimes, when we just spend our time existing, drifting, our soul just shrivels up, and dries up and is blown away like dust. Believe me, I understand that, I’ve been there. But that’s not what life is about. Life is about living – and the life that comes from LIVING (all capitals on purpose) as opposed to just existing – is the difference between black and white.
We’ve found that life now (after cancer) tends to be higher contrast (speaking of black and white) – the highs higher, the lows, lower – and while those lows are definitely lower – the highs more than make up for it, and the stuff in the middle isn’t gray… it’s a… a fine mixture of that black and white. (those are all links to stories I wrote up there)
I found that life, as most people my age tend to think, is not infinite, that “someday” is not a day of the week, and that weekends, while occasionally made for Michelob, might be better spent if you realized there weren’t an infinite supply of them… So walks in the park (or wherever) have replaced being half comatose in front of the boob tube. Trips to visit friends have replaced sitting idly at home whiling away another weekend – and – that brings up something that happened just a few weekends ago.
We went down to Portland (Oregon) to do a couple of things:
1) Celebrate the end of treatment/major phase of recovery and the beginning of going back to work,
2) Visit our daughter, and
3) Visit with some of our bestest friends.
While Cindy drove the car down so we’d have a way to get back on time, our son Michael and I took the train, and I’d learned that if you pay a little extra, you sit in what they call “business class” – so instead of 4 seats across, there were only three, and the seats were wider, two seats, then an aisle, then one seat, and you got discount coupons on the food in the dining car. So we went for the business class. I was expecting we’d get the seats on the right side of the train – where you can see Puget Sound as you go by – and the rows are only one seat wide, and the seats there face each other, which made conversation and stretching your legs out easy. However, when I asked, those seats were full and we got put into “Row 6”.
On the other side of the train.
So we sat there for a bit – and with all the benefits advertised of being on a train, it wasn’t much different than sitting in an airplane – Michael reading his book, me sitting there, kind of cramped – and right about then, there was an announcement that the “Bistro car” (apparently what’s replaced the “Dining Car”) was open. I figured that since it was dinner time, and we had those coupons for the food, we should get up there before the line got too long, and so we did, standing there, swaying back and forth as the train trundled down the tracks.
After a bit of that, we got our food… Michael a hot dog, me a chili (which I spilled later, but that’s another story), and sat down at this little table, and talked, and ate, and read, and laughed, and watched the scenery, and played a game, and in general were having a good time all by ourselves.
…which was when the girls showed up.
A 12 year old and a 14 year old – they’d just met on the train themselves, were bored, and ended up sitting across the aisle from us, and started to try to make up a game. Michael and I were playing our own game by that point, and after I stomped Michael once, and he stomped me once, even worse, he felt he’d had enough, so I said, “Hey, why don’t you go over there and teach them how to play”
“Oh, I can’t do that…”
“Sure you can, what have you got to lose?”
“If you don’t go over there, it’s as good as them having said no, and you’ll have learned nothing.”
“If you do go over there and embarrass yourself, chances are you’ll never see them again, so you’re not risking much.”
“However, if you do go over there, and it works, then you’ll have the next hour and a half to spend time laughing, having fun, and making memories.”
“So really, what do you have to lose?”
After a few minutes of pondering, he went over there. Big, hulking Michael, went over and in his suave, sophisticated way asked, “Hey, wanna learn how to play a game?”
The girls loved it.
Oh, gosh, did they love it.
And, come to think of it, I think Michael did, too.
One of them got a deck of cards, and while the 14 year old was playing, learning and laughing with Michael, the 12 year old taught me a card game called “Spit” – involving faster reflexes than adults can possibly have (and that children playing games against said adults should be allowed to have). She blew me away. Then she decided to go easy on me and asked if I knew how to play “War” (each of you gets half the deck, and you each put a card down, whoever’s card is highest wins both cards. The winner is the one with all the cards). I thought I’d shuffled the deck well. Turns out I couldn’t have shuffled it much better (for her), because by the end of the first hand, she had all but two of my cards. The sound of her laughter was like the joyful ringing of a bell, and told me that even though I was losing the card game (Losing doesn’t come close – annihilated is more in the neighborhood), I was winning something much larger. I realized that if I had to ‘lose’ a game in order to bring that much laughter and joy into a child’s life, then I’d happily lose the game.
It was at that moment that I realized that the high pitched laugh of hers had a bass line – and I looked across the aisle to find that Michael had his opponent on the ropes, so to speak, and was laughing uproariously at his position in the game.
I thought about this at the time – about how before all these realizations, before cancer, I might have just stayed there in my assigned seat because it had cost me $12.00 extra a seat to get those extra wide/comfortable ones – and by God, I was going to sit there and get my $12.00 worth of enjoyment out of them if it killed me.
I realized that for us to enjoy the journey the way we had, we had to get up out of our comfortable seats where they were showing a now long forgotten movie, and go up to that Bistro car, where there were no reservations for us, and no assigned seats. It was a risk, a small one, but the rewards were so well worth it. Getting up, and daring to get out of our comfort zones and living life, instead of life living us, was obviously the thing to do, for Michael, and for me.
Suddenly, before we were really ready, the call came out “Next stop, Vancouver”. One of the girls got off, and then 10 minutes later, we got to Portland – and the other little girl just disappeared into the river of people pouring out of the train. We joined the same river and spilled out onto the platform.
We stopped, the crowd thinned, we looked around, and at each other, and realized we were at our destination.
Having truly enjoyed the journey.
As I said, it’s been 9 years since I wrote that, and 10 years since the phone call that started it all.
We had no idea what the future would bring then. We had no idea how hard some of it would be, or how unbelievably cool other parts of it would be. Most surprising was how we would feel a peace about things through all the terror that made no sense, given what we were going through, but we also felt that that peace we were feeling was directly related to the shield of prayers our family, friends, and even some strangers (who became our friends) kept over us.
But back on that day, I remember that the doctor had said he would do his best. He’d remove what he could remove, and try to save what he could. And that little bit got me thinking the ‘what if’ thoughts that you try in vain to push out of your mind, but that wasn’t an option, so I went out that morning, while the sun was still low, and while the grass and dandelions were still wet, and I walked barefoot in the grass – trying to imprint that feeling, that memory into my mind, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to repeat that when I came back.
To say I was a little nervous about the whole thing might be understating it a touch.
I came back in, changed, and we left the house. I drove, and after getting all prepped, we were able to convince them to let me take a CD player and some headphones in so I could have something to listen to after the surgery. My favorite composer is Johann Strauss, and so that’s what I wanted to hear, that would be my subconscious signal to myself that I’d made it through that part of it.
I remember being wheeled into the operating room. They stopped, I saw all the equipment they had, as I groggily looked over at the table I’d be laying on…
Strauss? YES! It was Strauss!
I’d made it.
I wiggled my toes, on both feet, and as I drifted back to sleep, I knew that as hard as the road ahead may be, it was going to be okay.
There are many, many people to thank here. If I thanked you all, it’d sound like an Oscar speech. But this is not the kind of thing you go through alone. It changes you. It changes those around you. So for those of you prayer warriors who helped hold up that shield up over my family and me, and to God who provided it, I thank you. We thank you. For those of you who brought meals when we needed them, or fixed plumbing, or mowed the lawn, or sat on the front porch in the shade, in the breeze, with a cold bottle of Sprite and just chatted and listened and distracted me for a moment… Thank you. For the medical staff (doctors, nurses, and vampires and staff – you know who you are) who’ve been with me through thick and thin, we thank you profusely.
The reminder that life is short, and the journey has no guarantees, is ever present. Hug your loved ones when you can.
And speaking of loved ones, there’s my family, who’s been along for the ride, hard as it’s been at times…
There are no words strong enough. Thank you barely scratches the surface. <Hugs>
I went out in the front yard this morning as the sun came up…
…and felt the dewy grass on my feet…