A Lasting & Loving Christmas Card
(© 2010 by the author)
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Tom sat reading near the bookcase with the other two books he’d brought from the library stacked there. He loved the look of the bookcase. It was built into the wall. It was empty. He owned no books.
He’d only been home from Afghanistan for three months and most of that time was spent in hospitals. He moved into the small residence once he left the VA hospital. There was a community center van that came once a week to take him to the library and then to the Community Center for a hot lunch.
Other vets came to the Community Center on Wednesday afternoon for the meal and the company of men like themselves. There were no vets living in the small row of attached residences where Tom lived two miles from the VA hospital. He waws first to move in and he was sure more vets would join him in the convenient new housing.
Tom went to the hospital twice a week for treatment and rehabilitation. He stayed to read to the blind vets who didn’t get to enjoy the literature Tom got lost in while he was at home. The books lifted his spirits and transported him to worlds far away from the difficulties in his life.
Otherwise there was a small radio he listened to for news and sports. The quality of music was poor and Tom found himself turning it off once it became annoying. The pile of TV dinners was replenished once a week by a nurse who checked in on him to see to his general welfare.
Tom was lucky. He had both his arms, although his left arm lacked the strength it once had. The lift on the van from the Community Center made it easy for him to load and unload. The few times he’d been out in a car since coming home were painful and unpleasant.
One day he was sure the pain would subside and car trips might once again be enjoyable, but not yet. He turned down anyone who was willing to lift him into the front seat of their car, storing the wheelchair in the back seat Tom smiled and was extremely grateful people cared enough to come to his aid, but he’d stopped accepting offers to go out in the car.
The van was easy and painless. Tom wanted to be tougher and accept offers to go with someone in their car, but not yet. This meant spending more time than he had to alone in his apartment.
The apartment was his space. It was the first place he’d ever had alone. It was built to facilitate entry and exit for someone in his condition. The cabinets were within reach of a man in a wheelchair. His long arms made it even easier to reach things, although he found it easy to pop frozen dinners into the microwave rather than risk eating his own cooking. There was a substantial variety to keep him from getting tired of them for the time being.
Tom had no difficulty waiting for a deal to be struck with a local cable company to supply cable service for the ten dwellings that sat all in a row. The cheerful canary yellow trim highlighted the small white units, making them easy to find in a community of single family homes.
Television would allow him to see football games and it wasn’t very long until baseball season. He had once played baseball in school and liked keeping up with major league teams. His prosthetic legs might allow him to walk again but his damaged left arm would never again field a ball. He thought there might be a time when it would be possible.
The doctors had asked Tom if he wanted the left arm amputated, but he’d given enough body parts to the Afghanistan War. He wanted to keep anything he could.
“It may regain strength as time goes on but it’ll never be a fully functioning arm,” the doctor said.
Yes, and a prosthetic arm was amazing. It would be almost like having a real arm. Only they weren’t real and Tom wanted to keep his original arm no matter how damaged it was. It had healed and he was in no danger of it becoming life-threatening any longer. He could move the arm. He was beginning to get feeling back in it, although his hand did no more than open slighly and close by his willing it to do it. He had no illusions but he still had his left arm.
Tom would never be an athlete again and he understood his life was forever altered. He had limitations and he’d live within the restrictions he now had. He knew he was lucky. The other three men in the vehicle didn’t get to decide to keep this part or that part. The other three men were dead.
Even worse than being wounded, losing three friends wasn’t easy. They’d laughed, joked, lived, and worked together. When Tom thought he might feel sorry for himself, he thought of Gene, Tony, and Bobby. He knew he was living for them now and he refused to feel sorry about losing some odds and ends off his body.
As Christmas came nearer and families and friends spent more time than usual with their wounded soldiers in the hospital, Tom read to those vets who got no visits. He was surprised that some soldiers either didn’t have families, or if they did, they were unable to visit at this time of year.He was happy to read to these men. Tom’s family was far away and not planning a visit. Once he’d read the book he brought, he stayed to play chess or checkers to help pass the time.
Time passed slowly but Tom did his best to make it easier on the soldiers who hadn’t gotten to leave the hospital yet. Being able to help was his way of repaying those who had sat with him, while he got used to the idea his life was changed and even his army days were done.
The week before Christmas, Tom had an appointment to be fitted for his prosthetics. The several operations on his legs had kept him from having the artificial legs fitted earlier. They started before 8 a.m. and it was after noon, when he was finally finished at the hospital. It was more tiring than usual.
Tom wasn’t in the mood for the Community Center van that came for him. He passed on a stop at the library but he needed the hot meal after only having a cup of instant coffee before leaving his place that morning.
There were Christmas carols, cookies, and fresh brewed coffee the Ladies Aid Society furnished. There was a nice tree, decorated with beautiful ornaments furnished by the senior citizens who kept the Community Center a warm and friendly place for all who came for a visit.
It was all quite lovely and Tom even got his second wind as turkey and yams were piled high on top of dressing, covered in gravy, and there was as much as you wanted. The vets tended to sit together to talk, laugh, and share what had made them become soldiers. None talked about how their career as soldier ended.
After all, it didn’t take a genius to see the damage done to them by war. They were hardly more than children. If they were not teenagers, their teen years weren’t far behind them. What could be a difficult challenge for young people growing up was now filled with obstacles far above and beyond what most kids faced. The vets didn’t complain, being grateful for the bounty the Community Center offered.
Once Tom heard the elevator lifting him into the van, he smiled. If he’d been tired before he got to the Center, he was exhausted now. Oh, it was the most fun he’d had since he’d gotten home, but he’d left his place early that morning and it was getting dark, as the van crossed the highway to go into the community where Tom lived.
If not for having to cross the highway, Tom could have gotten home on his own. All that turkey had made him a little sleepy and that made the van a good idea. He would be glad to get home though.
Vance, the big van driver, came around to push him up to his door. This was service with a smile. Vance usually buttoned up the van as Tom wheeled himself the last few feet to his front door.
“I can make it from here, Vance. Thank you,” Tom said, without discouraging Vance in the least.
“No, sir. Door to door delivery today, son. You’ve had a long day. I want to make certain you’re safe and sound before I leave you.”
“Suit yourself, Vance. You’ve had a long day too, you know. Thanks for being such a big help.”
Tom’s key turned the latch and he pushed the door open. His eyes opened wide and any thoughts of exhaustion left him. The inside of his unit was bathed in red, green, blue, and orange light. There was a Christmas tree filling the front corner of his once empty living room.
“Merry Christmas,” people yelled, and Tom had a cup of punch shoved into his hand.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, as people said it to him.
Garland was draped around the ceiling and it ended at the empty bookcase, except the bookcase was filled with books. Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and too many authors to name lined the shelves. Tom no longer had to depend on the library for his reading needs. It was turning into quite a nice Christmas.
“Thank you. This is about the best present anyone could ever give me. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Oh, there’s more,” Emily from the Center said. “We got you a coffee maker, a slow cooker with a recipe book. We’ll take you to the market when you like. There’s a television. It’s small but it’s a nice one and the cable was hooked up today. We understand you want to watch the football playoffs. Now you can.”
“Yes, it’s not as much fun on the radio. How can I thank you? I never expected all of this.”
“It’s we who are looking for ways to thank you, Tom. You’re our hero. We wish we could do more. We wish we could give you everything you want,” Emily said.
For the first time Tom looked down at where his legs once were. There was someone he wanted to see more than anything. They’d lost contact after Tom was wounded. Harmon was far away and Tom was hard to track, going from hospital to hospital and from one country to the next. Once Stateside, he’d moved three different times. Harmon knew he’d been wounded and was on his way home. Being in Afghanistan meant there was no way to find Tom.
He’d gotten the best care possible and he knew he was lucky, but there was one gift that would have made his Christmas perfect, but Tom was grateful for what he had.
No one spoke as Tom thought how he wouldn’t be able to walk to meet Harmon, when he came home. He knew he would come home. They’d promised each other that.
“No matter what happens. No matter where we are when we are discharged, we’ll find our way back to each other,” was their vow when they last parted.
Vance stood at the storm door looking out into the night as the cab stopped at the curb. Tom thought Vance was ready to get the van back where it belonged so he could get home, but he stood fast, staring outside at something.
Other people looked at Vance, wondering what had his attention. It was then that Vance stepped out, holding the door open for a man in a green suit with a green hat. Harmon Cobb stepped inside the door, seeing Tom for the first time since he was wounded. Tears filled his eyes.
Tom’s eyes met Harmon’s. He was stunned and he began to cry. The day had finally become overwhelming.
Harmon rushed forward, dropping his duffle bag on his way to the wheelchair. He hugged and kissed Tom, and Tom hugged Harmon with his one good arm. There had never been a better hug for either of them. They both laughed.
The people from the center were surprised. They’d not known there would be a reunion that evening, but their desire to see Tom happy was realized far beyond anything they could give him. Harmon was what Tom wwanted most.
“I love you, Tom,” Harmon said.
“Not half as much as I love you, Harmon Cobb,” Tom said, as they held hands.
Applause of approval reminded the boys they weren’t alone. They both laughed and smiled. They were together again and Harmon’s discharge was less than a month away. He was there to take care of Tom.
After a year they were back together again and it was a Merry Christmas for both Tom and Harmon as well as for all their friends from the Center, who wished them happiness.
John Lennon was assasinated 30 years ago today, 12/08/10 Imagine if he had lived.