In honor of Memorial Day and for all who have served and are currently serving our great country:
Your life has never been easy. You dropped out of school to join the marines, and when they wouldn’t take you because they thought you should go back to school, you walked across the street and joined the army. You should have been playing basketball, checking out the pretty young girls, spitting tobacco when your parents weren’t watching, graduating high school and attending college, but instead you went to Vietnam.
Forty-five years later I have met you. You are going to lose your leg they say. It is probably because you have smoked for so many years, they say. Or maybe you could have done better by your health but you chose not to do so. Rest assured, they say that too.
What they do not say is how your childhood was stolen away by war, racism, and desperation brought on by economic disparity. They do not say that you had little choice in your future, or that your experiences have brought you the wisdom you can now share with your grandchildren.
We do not talk about that. You are watching last night’s game of Cavs vs. the Bulls when I walk in, and you ask me to sit beside you and listen to your story. You ask me what life will be like when you are no longer able to walk without a prosthetic device. I tell you frankly I have no idea. You laugh. “What a riot,” you say. From that day until the day you lose your leg, we share in this routine. You show me pictures of your bulldog waiting at home, we argue about the previous night’s games, you tell me I should have become a lawyer, I say you should have gone to school. You laugh again. “What a riot,” you say.
The day we take your leg I walk into the OR with my cap and mask, but you are still able to recognize me. You ask if that is me, and the staff gives a look of confusion and tells you the surgeon will be in shortly.
But you call my name and the room becomes deafeningly quiet. You ask me to hold your hand until you fall asleep, so I do.
The day we take your leg I cry for you, and not for you alone, but for your generation of adolescent soldiers who faced the horrors of war only so that their society would stay free to forget about them. I cry for your youth spent overseas and the fear in your eyes as you watched your brethren die in battle. After surgery, I wrap you up and follow you back to your room where you ask for me by name. When you see me, you smile and tell me I took the wrong leg. I warn you to be careful, there is still time to take the other. You laugh. “What a riot,” you say.
For this, I will never forget you.