The VA hospital sat shrouded in silence, like a morgue for the living. Men in dire conditions sat quietly on scooters or in wheelchairs. They stared at Jack and I as we walked through the front door. I nodded hello to them. Some nodded back. Others did not. I felt very much out of place. For some reason, I felt very guilty.
“Oh, by the way, we’ll need to put on a gown and some gloves before we go in to see Ken,” said Jack, my friend and former Navy SEAL. “He’s got some open sores, nothing infectious, but we should cover up.”
I tried to hide my surprise. I thought we were just going in to say hi to a sick veteran, not don full Hazmat suits and enter an area where people’s limbs fell off. But it was too late for me to back out, so we stood there in the silent hallway, breaking open plastic bags. Pulling gowns over our heads. Squeaking our way into rubber gloves. I helped Jack slide a rubber glove on to his right hand – his left hand doesn’t work so well for things like that.
We walked up to the open doorway. Jack knocked on the metal frame – cling cling cling – then walked in. I hung back. The man in the hospital bed was not what I had expected.
Once upon a time, Ken had served two tours in Vietnam. Once upon a time, he had been a dog handler and a physical specimen. Once upon a time, he and Jack had done a four-hour swim during Jack’s recovery from being shot in the head. I would not have believed any of this, except that these once-upon-a-times hung on his wall in the form of photos. A small, square collage of a life long gone.
Now, just under 500 pounds, he sat in the bed. His chest hung down on to his stomach, which looked immobile. A heart condition had led to an incredible retention of water – left undiagnosed and untreated, his weight ballooned. A small blanket covered him from the waist down. A large mask covered his face and delivered necessary oxygen. Tubes slid past his nose.
I waited. I expected him to hate me, to stare at me with glowering eyes, wonder why someone would have the indecency to come and look at him, half naked, without permission. To see him at his worst, at his sickest, at his most vulnerable. After all, that’s what my response would have been in his situation: lock the door, stay away, don’t come near.
But immediately he smiled and took off the large mask. He sneezed maybe ten times while adjusting to the normal air. We punched knuckles.
“Hi there,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“This is Shawn, a friend of mine,” Jack said quietly.
“Hi Shawn. How do you know this guy?” he asked. And so started our conversation. And he was normal. He was human. He was kind. I asked him about Vietnam. I asked him about coming back from Vietnam. He was happy to have gone from 492 to 468 that month. He talked and talked about it all, talked as if he never wanted me to leave, talked as if he had been unable to speak his entire life and these were the first fresh words to leave his mouth.
Too soon, we left. He wanted me to come back the next day, or maybe the next week? I explained that we would be on the road, leaving for a new destination. I told him to keep working hard, to keep getting better. We punched knuckles again. I could tell he was disappointed.
Jack and I walked into the hallway. I didn’t see another visitor, not in the entire place, just man after man who had given his life for this piece of geography I call home. Shattered minds and bodies littered those quiet hallways, and besides the staff there was no one to help them gather up the pieces.
Jack and I got into the elevator and rode it down to the ground floor. We walked outside and crossed the street. The San Antonio sky felt wider, higher.
Behind us they prepared to lock the gates for the night.