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A Christmas Dinner

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A guest post from David J. Karwoski –

John was a disabled Vietnam veteran who struggled with debilitating health issues as a result of the war. His daily struggles centered around diabetes, peripheral neuropathy and residual problems from malaria—not to mention the several pounds of metal used to hold his leg bones together; they had been shattered from blunt trauma explosions. He lived in a middle-class neighborhood, and until 2007, had a meaningful profession. That’s when his disabilities made it impossible to work anymore. He had always said he would retire as soon as he could. But now, not being able to work made it difficult to maintain a good mental balance.

It was the twentieth of December, and John would be home alone until the twenty-third. His wife had gone to visit her relatives and John was fairly lonesome and discouraged. He could not fly due to the considerable metal in his legs which, he had been warned by doctors, might cause dangerous bloods clots to form when flying. His wife had flown out to the Midwest; he had told her to go, assuring her that he would be fine. She would only be gone for four days, after all, and he was still a strong-mannered person. However, after one day, John was in terrible shape, suffering from inadequate sleep caused by his PTSD medications. And, of course, suffering from the PTSD itself, which, the night before, had manifested itself into a panicked, eight hour span filled with night terrors. Not an unusual occurrence.

It was eleven in the morning. and it was snowing, which added to John’s despair. It was hard for him to handle a big snowblower; his abilities seemed to fade with age and ailments. He was sitting downstairs in his “man cave”—as his wife called it—watching TV and eating a sandwich. It was depressing to John—the hours of Christmas shows and endless news pundits preaching how bad the world was. “No kidding,” John thought. He was losing faith in everything, and he was alone.

Just about when John was at rock bottom he heard the doorbell ring. He went up the stairs, holding on to the railings for support. He peered out the peephole but could see only the white winds of a driving snowstorm. He opened the door to find a thin, elderly woman wearing no hat, no gloves, and covered in snow.

As John opened the storm door, the woman pointed to the US Army and Vietnam Veteran decals on his door and asked, “Did you serve in Vietnam?”

“Yes,” he tentatively answered, “nineteen months, in Vietnam.”

My husband served in Vietnam, but he died three years ago,” she said sadly.

“Can I do something for you?” John asked.

John was nervous. The promise of Christmas riches in people’s homes had spurred a series of home invasions in his neighborhood in the last month, and each of the crooks had gained entrance to the home by some ruse.

“Yes you can,” the woman replied. “I saw the Army and Vietnam decals on your door, and I need help. I thought if anyone will help me it will be another Vietnam veteran. My husband always said veterans never forget veterans.”

“What is the problem?” asked John.

“I need to get to the Urgent Care Medical Center up the street. I’m walking and I’m awfully exhausted and cold. I lost my gloves and hat in the bank back down the street where I stopped to get warm and a drink of water,” she continued.

John cut in, and in astonishment said, “That is more than a mile up the road! Where did you come from?”

“Standards Street, by the park,” she replied.

“That’s two miles back down the street!”

“Yes, I’m cold and I wonder if I could get a cup of coffee to warm up,” she asked.

John said, “Just a moment.”

He paused and shut the main door a bit. He had to take stock of this story, considering the nearby home invasions during the past month, coupled with his diminished physical capacity to fight off any intruder. Questions raced through his mind at warp speed. He ran up the second flight of stairs as fast as he could, pulling on the double handicapped railings. He raced into the second-story bathroom and looked out the window to see if he could notice anything out of the ordinary. All seemed quiet; no strange cars lurking down the street. He skipped down the stairs holding on to the railings on the way down. He opened the door with some hesitation and anxiety.

He said to her, “Come on in. I have coffee in the pot.”

She said, as she walked in the door, “Oh, thank you so very much. My name is Eunice.”

“Have a seat by the side table and I’ll get the coffee.” he replied. “My name is John.”

He fetched a large mug and filled it with half coffee and half cream, then picked up the sugar bowl. He thought for a moment, then hustled to the bread cabinet and pulled out a box of twelve donuts. He made his way over, careful not to spill her coffee. Eunice was sitting in the chair so John went and turned up the heat a few degrees. She began adding sugar to her coffee. He could see her fingers were still shriveled with cold as she began to sip on the coffee.

“Oh, this is so good, John,” she said in a voice that sounded like she’d known him for years.

John replied almost apologetically, “You’re welcome. Have a donut or two.” He studied her for a moment—no hat, no scarf. Still weary from the bitter cold.

“Why are you walking? Don’t you have family? How about the bus, or a taxi? Do you own a car?” he rattled off, giving little time for her to respond.

Eunice calmly responded: “My family is in Ohio, and they are coming down to visit on the twenty-third for Christmas week. They always come down Christmas week. Although, it has not been the same since my husband, Samuel, died two years ago. My son seems so changed and so distant from me now.”

John cut in, addressing his other concerns, “A bus, a taxi—do you have a car?” he asked again.

“Yes,” she said, “I do have a car, but it stopped running, and Samuel took care of things like that. Besides, I have no place to go.”

“Yes, but it’s three miles from where you started and where the urgent care clinic is, and it’s winter, and snowing. You must be freezing.” John pressed his concerns.

“The bus only runs to the clinic at eight a.m., noon, and at seven p.m., and a taxi just costs too much—twenty dollars, you know,” Eunice said with a smile, not concerned at all about the outcome of her journey. “I’m very capable of walking; it’s good exercise.”

“Why are you going to the doctor?” John asked, still baffled by her optimism.

“I’ve developed a bad cough, and it’s gone, but my chest hurts so much that I cannot sleep, and I seem to be short of breath, and wheeze a lot.”

By this time she had finished her coffee and three donuts. John finished his coffee, and Eunice was up and getting ready to go.

“Wait a minute,” John said. He once again went up to the third floor, limping a bit more. His legs were beginning to get sore; the metal hurt a lot more in the winter. He came back downstairs with a pair of his wife’s gloves and one of her ski hats.

“Here, put these on.”

“Thank you so much. I’m much warmer now. The donuts and coffee helped, and the hat and gloves will make the walk much easier now.”

John looked out the window. He hadn’t noticed, but the snow was falling even faster now.

“How about I just give you a ride up there?” John asked. His words were a question but the tone and meaning were an assertion.

“Oh, that would be wonderful. You sure it’s no trouble?” Eunice asked.

John still couldn’t comprehend this woman walking three miles in the snow and then the same distance back again. Not in the America he lived in.

He replied, “You wait here. I’ll pull my car out. Come out to the garage; it is not slippery that way.”

He went into the garage, and pulled out the car into the driveway. He got out and helped her to the passenger door. She thanked him again and again and said, “My Samuel was right; Vietnam veterans do look out for each other.”

She entered the car and sat down. When John had gotten back into the driver’s seat, she asked, “John, why do you think that’s so? I mean, I know my father had a bond with the men he served with in World War II, but not like my Samuel had; he went out and looked for people who served in Vietnam to give them help. He would just go out and not tell me where he was going until he came back, and then he would only tell me a little. My Samuel would just say, ‘I just went out with some guys for lunch, or breakfast,’ and then would just go into his room and brood.”

She looked at John and said, “Why do you think he wouldn’t tell me? He just kept things bottled up inside him, like he was afraid. I can tell you now, my Samuel wasn’t scared of anything but when it came to Vietnam his eyes would water and his face would get a bit flushed, and he would go to his room, get a book, and just read for hours until he was fine again. What was wrong with my Samuel, John?” Eunice asked again.

By the time she finished her questions, they were at the urgent care clinic. John walked in with her and she talked to the nurse. John sat with her and talked for a few minutes, then she was called into the doctor’s inner office. John went to the window and asked for an envelope. He took forty dollars out of his wallet and put it in the envelope, and then took one of his old business cards and put it on the envelope with a paper clip.

He gave it to the receptionist and said, “I’m not a relative of Eunice’s, and I have to go. Can you please call her a cab when she comes out, and give her the envelope? There’s enough for the taxi. I have to go; my wife will be calling me at home, and I don’t want to miss her call. If for any reason you can’t get a taxi, call me; don’t let her try to walk home in this weather.”

The woman nodded and said she would do her best, but they did not take responsibility for patients coming or going. John walked out, drove home, and got indoors just as the phone was ringing. It was his wife. They talked for a few minutes; she told John what a great time she was having with her family and how good it was to see them. John feigned pleasure and interest. In reality, he did not like being alone in the winter, or over the holidays. She said she’d be home on the nine thirty a.m. flight on the twenty-third. Good, John thought, only two nights. Normally John would be ecstatic to be home alone, with the TV and the refrigerator all to himself, but since he’d stopped working, he was now easily haunted by nightmares of Vietnam. He told his wife he loved her and couldn’t wait until she was home for Christmas, as if she had been gone for months instead of days. They said their good-byes and he hung the phone up. Not more than a few seconds passed—he had taken maybe four steps away from the telephone—when it rang again. John thought it was his wife calling again saying she forgot something.

He answered the phone and was surprised to hear the voice of a woman saying, “This is the administrative assistant from the Urgent Care Clinic,” and she sounded somewhere between panic and total frustration. “The woman you brought here is on foot and walking out the door. We called in a prescription for her at the drugstore nearest her address, but she just took the envelope and said it’s not far to walk home. The doctor said she had a mild case of bronchial pneumonia and for her to take the medication, have some food, and lots of rest, and that would help her illness, but she certainly shouldn’t be walking home!”

John said calmly, “I’ll take care of it”

He put on his coat and hat, jumped in his car, and drove down the street toward the clinic. He soon spotted Eunice who was about a hundred yards from the clinic. She was struggling to keep her balance on the snow-covered sidewalks.

He pulled the car over and shouted over the wind, “What in the world are you doing!”

“Hi, John,” a cheery Eunice replied.

“How about I give you a ride home?” John said sternly.

“OK, John, nice of you to come out and get me. I knew you would get here,” she said as she sat in the car, smiling.

John laid out the plan: “Eunice, first we stop at the drugstore and get your prescription. You’re covered by Medicare and your husband’s insurance. Second, we’ll stop at the restaurant for an early dinner, and then you’ll go home and get into bed, rest, and take care of yourself.”

Elderly Eunice just said, “Okeydokey, whatever you wanna do.”

John thought, This woman doesn’t have family; she’s going to be alone for Christmas. What can I do? He was accompanying his wife to his family’s house, a two-hour drive, and they already had an overloaded houseful. He would deal with this, one hour at a time.

The drugstore was uncomplicated. The restaurant was a bit crowded but the server immediately seated them since they were only a twosome. Although John felt it was more likely caused by John’s green down flight jacket, Vietnam combat vet hat, and by the fact that Eunice was dressed in a ragged coat, over-sized gloves, hat flopping over her head, which, taken all together caused them to appear as quite the eccentric couple. Whatever the reason, John was pleased.

They sat, and soon the waitress brought over the menu, on which was a notice: “CHRISTMAS SPECIAL, TURKEY DINNER, ALL THE TRIMMINGS.” John smiled at Eunice: “A Christmas dinner, Eunice?”

“Yes, John, that would be nice.”

“Two Christmas dinners,” John said to the waitress.

“This is great,” Eunice started, “I can have one Christmas with a friend of my husband’s, and have one again when my family comes down for Christmas Day.”

John still didn’t believe her story about her son. She was too poorly dressed, seemed to have little money on her, and was always talking about her son as if he was wealthy. If he did, why didn’t he take better care of her? John thought. Well, the waitress must have thought they looked like quite the pair because the meal she brought out was wonderful, a veritable feast–much more than what the menu prices had dictated.

John ate his meal with a hungry man’s appetite. Being home alone, he surely did not want to cook anything just for himself. Eunice ate slowly and modestly, there was no way she was going to finish all the food—and she didn’t—but she was quick to ask for a container to take the meal home.

They left the restaurant and John drove her home. He asked if she wanted him to walk her inside. She said no, the place was a mess, and she had just begun cleaning for her son and his family. John just smiled and was sure she didn’t want him to find out she was all alone.

“Make sure you have my card and my number if you need a ride again to the doctor’s office,” John said.

“Of course I do, right here,” she answered as she pulled the card from her pocket.

She began to take off the gloves, the hat, and give back the envelope with the forty dollars in it.

John just remarked, “You keep all that; it’s my gift to you for being so nice and having dinner with me while my wife’s away.”

“Oh, thank you so much, John. I’ll tell my husband all about today when I say my prayers, but I guess he already knows, don’t you think, John?”

“Yes, I guess he does,” John replied.

He watched her go in through her apartment door. Five-thirty in the winter meant that it was already cold and dark. The days didn’t last long and John wasn’t looking forward to another long night alone without his wife. He thought about Eunice, and couldn’t even imagine how she’d lived alone for the past three years.

Back home, John puttered around the house doing chores. Then at about seven-thirty he decided to watch TV. He had just settled down, with his shoes off, jeans and shirt on, lying in bed, when the phone rang. John knew it had to be his wife checking on him. He answered the phone, and the voice said;

“John, this is Eunice. Can you talk to me a little while?”

“Yes,” John replied, “What do you want to talk about, Eunice?”

“Well, John, my husband never talked about Vietnam, and he was frequently moody, and crying or fretting about something. It seemed to come on fast and last for a day, but sometimes would last for weeks. If you could tell me what happened to you in Vietnam, maybe I can understand my husband Samuel better. I always loved him, but he would not let me inside his fears. It’s been hard to cope with his death with that burden on my mind. I think that’s why my relationship with my son is so strained.” Eunice continued, “My son never seemed to be able to understand my grief, or my reason for not wanting to leave our apartment. This was the last thing I shared with my Samuel.”

John had some quick second thoughts and almost said no, but no one had ever asked him to talk about Vietnam, what happened, or how he’d felt when he was at war. He then said, “Yes, Eunice, what would you like to know?”

“As much as you can tell me,” she responded.

So John began to tell her about the Army: basic training, AIT, and his months in combat, patrols, the villages he went to, the people of Vietnam, the battles with the VC and NVA, the feelings of being alone at night in Vietnam, and a multitude of additional details. The conversation went on, with John talking and Eunice continuously cutting in with question after question, with the eagerness of a child opening Christmas presents. As the questions and answers continued John felt some weight lifting from his shoulders. Eunice’s voice seemed to perk up as the hours passed. John looked at the clock on the wall and had to look twice—it was one in the morning.

He paused a moment, and said, “Eunice do you know what time it is?”

“No,” she responded, “what time is it?”

John said, “One in the morning. We’ve been talking for over five hours.”

“Oh my, John, I have to get to sleep,” Eunice whispered.

“Yes, you do, Eunice. Did you take your medicine? Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine, John. Thank you for telling me so much. I’m beginning to understand what my Samuel went through, and why he was so somber at times. I didn’t realize how bad it was for him in Vietnam.”

“OK, go to bed now. You need your rest for Christmas,” John gently told her.

“Yes, my family will be here in a few days. Good night, John.”

“Good night, Eunice. Take care of yourself,” he said as he hung up the phone.

John still didn’t believe her story about her family and Christmas, and fell asleep thinking of what he could do for her.

The next day he woke to a solid ten inches of new snow that carpeted the entire Northeast. He just groaned; he had to get out the snowblower. Years ago John would have loved the challenge and the exercise, now at sixty-two, with the steel rods in his legs already hurting from the cold, his mind returned to the depression of the previous day. He looked in the mirror as he shaved and said to himself, “You got to do what you got to do,” and he dressed, powered up the snowblower, and slowly and carefully cleared the driveway and the three hundred feet of sidewalk in front of his house.

He finished, came in, and had a can of fruit for breakfast. He didn’t want to cook, and he decided to take a drive up to the military base by his house, just to see if they had anything for sale in the Base Exchange. He was looking for a heavy winter coat. But it was a wasted trip; they were almost sold out of everything. Heck, it was December 22nd—what did he expect? On the way home he stopped at the supermarket and picked up some ready-to-eat fried chicken, as good as homemade—well, not really, but for the moment it was fine.

John finished eating and thought, one more night. His wife would be home in the morning. He finished eating, turned the TV on, grabbed his favorite pillows, and began to channel surf. Moments later, at almost at six, the phone rang. He answered it; it was Eunice again.

“Hi, John, could you tell me more about Vietnam and what it was like there, and about when you came home, especially about when you came home? My Samuel became very upset when I wanted to talk about how good it must have been to come home from Vietnam,” she asked.

John said, “Yes, I’d be fine with that, but understand that this was hard for me also. It was not just hard on me and Samuel, but on all veterans, and more so for Vietnam veterans.”

He went on to tell her how they felt coming home to a country that just wanted to forget about them and the war, and he talked about how sometimes he felt he would rather have stayed in Vietnam than deal with the disdain the country showed him on his homecoming to the United States. They talked for hours again about the days and nights in Vietnam, the small firefights, the large battles, and the friends that were killed.

Eunice cut in on one sentence to say, “My Samuel would only tell me about one time—he called it the Battle of Butterfly Hill.”

John just felt the air rush out of him. The anxiety and panic started to overtake him, and he became silent.

“John,” she said, “John, are you all right? John, are you there?” A bit of panic crept into her voice.

“Yes, I’m here,” he finally answered. “Eunice, I was at Butterfly Hill.” He continued, “Eunice, it was not an easy time.” He recounted the days before the battle, the days of the battle, and the days and weeks after. At the end of four hours, he was emotionally drained, and Eunice had been quiet for hours.

“I have to go now, Eunice,” he said.

“I know, John. You now sound exactly like my Samuel did when he would go and read a book for hours.”

“You take care of yourself,” John wearily said.

He hung up the phone and drifted off to sleep. The next morning he was up, and his positive attitude was back. He went to pick up his wife from the airport and get things ready for their Christmas trip. All went well. His wife was fine, her trip had been a great boost for her, she saw her family for Christmas, and now they would get ready for a joint Christmas with their families. They were packing gifts, food, and getting things ready. It was the twenty-third of December, and they would leave at five in the afternoon of Christmas Eve for the big Christmas party. They had plenty of time—it was only noon, no rush.

As they were getting ready, the doorbell rang. His wife answered the door.

“John,” she said, “John, I think you better come here. This man and his wife want to know if this is where John lives. I asked them John who, but they didn’t know.”

He walked to the door and found a large, well-dressed man of about thirty-five, his wife beside him, equally well-dressed. He cautiously asked: “Can I help you? My name is John.”

“Do you know a woman named Eunice?” the man asked.

“Yes,” John said, his stomach clenching in fear. “What’s wrong?”

“My name is Samuel, and this is my wife. May we come in?”

John was shocked. Could this be the long-lost son of Eunice’s? John’s mind sarcastically thought. If he was, where in the world had he been all year? He should make sure she has more money, and is better taken care of.

“Yes, come in,” John said.

“I want to thank you and give you the money back that you lent my mother a few days ago. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but she’s a different woman. She told me she was ready to come back and live with us. We’ve been asking her for three years and she has steadfastly refused. You have no idea how difficult she’s been, and how worried we’ve been for her. She said she had to be here with her Samuel, in their apartment. We arrived this morning, and she told us about your help and your Christmas dinner at the restaurant across from her house. She told us a lot about your talks and how much you knew as to why our dad had been so moody all the time. The last few years after his death she would sit and look at albums of her and him, and albums he had of the Vietnam War that he would look at for hours. Now she just sits for hours and looks at them. She told us last year she would not leave here until she understood why my dad was so hurt inside. She told us today, just a few hours ago, she now knew that Dad was finished with what he had to do.”

John frowned, “I certainly don’t want the money back. That money’s for your mom, Eunice, and it’s hers.”

“That’s what she thought you would say. However, she sent us out to find you, and get you and your wife. By the way, she doesn’t believe you have a wife; she thinks you made her up. She wants us to have you and your wife come and join us for an early Christmas dinner, at the same restaurant you two ate at a few days ago. She wants the seven of us to go—me, my wife, you, your wife, my two children, and of course, Mom.”

“Now?” John asked.

“Yes, right now,” Samuel said, “She’s waiting in the restaurant with the children, so we better hurry.”

John’s wife asked, “John, what’s going on here?”

“I’ll tell you on the way,” John said, “Get your coat and hat.”

They drove to the restaurant and went to the table, Eunice was there with two sweet-looking children.

Eunice said, “John, meet my family.”

John said, “Eunice, meet my wife.”

John gave Eunice a big hug. She looked at him and said with determination, “Christmas dinner, John,” and motioned for them to sit down. The waitress came over and asked what they wanted. Eunice answered, “The Christmas dinner special.”

The waitress came by to take their order. Looking puzzled, and while motioning toward John and Eunice, the waitress asked, “Don’t I know you two?”

“Yes,” Eunice said, “we’re here with the rest of our family.” Eunice looked at John and said, “My Samuel would have been proud of us, John. After our long conversations I now understand his moods, for better or worse. I think I understand his troubles from his time in Vietnam also. I hope we all understand you and all the other veterans better after tonight,” she finished. Her son looked at John and thanked him again for taking care of his mom at the doctor’s office.

Eunice looked at her son and said, “See, that is what your father was doing all those times he went out—he was just helping other people. It made him feel better about himself, and made the hurt he felt inside from the war go away.” She continued, “Am I right, John?”

John said, “Yes, Eunice, I’m sure that’s what he was doing.” But he was really unsure.

“John, I have one big favor to ask of you before dinner starts.”

“Yes, Eunice—what is it?” John was a bit baffled at her asking, as if it was a favor.

“My Samuel is buried here at the veterans’ cemetery; he wanted that. I’ll be a thousand miles away. Will you go and visit him three times a year, on his birthday, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day?  Would you do that for me, John?”

“Eunice, I would be honored. Of course I will,” John replied

It turned out to be a very special Christmas dinner for them that year.

In the following years, every December 20th, John received a Christmas card from Eunice and a long letter. Each year on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, the Fourth of July, and August 15th—Samuel’s birthday—he would go to the Veterans cemetery and put flowers on Samuel’s headstone. He’d bring a chair and a book of poems and sit for hours and talk to Samuel—about Eunice, and how John’s life was going. It would be a good day for both of them.