A Lasting Loving Christmas
A Rick Beck Story
My Christmas card to you.
Tom sat reading near the bookcase with the other two books he’d brought home from the library. He loved the look of the bookcase. It was built into the wall. It was empty. He owned no books, but he had plans to buy 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 twice 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 Friday afternoon for the meal and the company of men like themselves. There were no vets living in the small row of attached residence where Tom lived two miles from the VA hospital. He was first to move in and he was sure more vets would join him in the convenient new housing. It had been built by a contractor for ‘wounded warriors.’
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 during his long rehabilitation. The books lifted his spirits and transported him to worlds far away from the difficulties he was experiencing.
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.
He was sure the pain would subside one day and car trips might once again be enjoyable, but not yet. It was getting better but not good yet. He turned down anyone who was willing to lift him into the front seat of their car. They’d store the wheelchair in the backseat. 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. Maybe when he got stronger, but not yet.
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 he spent more time alone than he had to. Reading made this time the best time each day.
The residence 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 easy reach of a man in a chair. His long arms made it even easier to reach things. He’d been working on holding things in the hand at the end of the damaged arm, but nothing that would break when dropped. He still dropped things with that hand.
He found it easy to pop frozen dinners into the microwave rather than risk eating his own cooking. There was a nice variety so he wouldn’t get tired of them for a while. He could cook and he’d thought of taking a cooking class offered at the Community Center, but not yet. He wouldn’t try to cook yet.
Then there were the ladies who came by with a freshly made casserole, just for him. They’d stand at the door and refuse his offer to come in for a visit.
“No, I just wanted to bring this to you. I hope you enjoy it. Do you want me to set it in the kitchen for you? It’s still warm.”
People were nice here. There were opportunities to be more social, but not yet. He liked having enough room to deal with his challenges on his own terms. He didn’t want someone rushing to his aid every time he had an accident. He had to learn to deal with what his body would and couldn’t do.
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 once played baseball in school and he liked keeping up with major league teams. His prosthetic legs might allow him to walk again but not yet. His damaged left arm would Probably not field a ball as it once did.
At one time he thought he might play ball again, but the going was slow. It was strengthening a tiny bit at a time. He didn’t doubt he’d be able to do almost anything with that arm in time, but not yet, and not athletics.
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. The doctors were surprise he could use it at all. He wasn’t going to be beaten by the damage done to him.
“It may regain strength as time goes on but it’ll never be a fully functioning arm,” the doctor said. “You’ll find prosthetics do amazing things today.”
Yes, a prosthetic arm was amazing but it wasn’t his. It would be almost like having a real arm, they said. Tom had a real arm and he wasn’t giving up on it. He 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 his hand. He had no illusions but they hadn’t convinced him. They told him that wouldn’t happen. They were amazed when he could take a doctor’s hand and squeeze it with his damaged hand. He couldn’t possibly do it, but he did.
Tom would never be an athlete again and he understood his life was forever altered. He had challenges that were something like athletic pursuits. He’d live within the restrictions he now had, but he didn’t believe anything was permanent. He’d will himself to recover all and any motion it was possible for him to achieve.
He was lucky. The other three men in the vehicle with him didn’t get to decide to keep his parts. The other three men were dead and Tom felt an obligation to lived for four men now. He wouldn’t give up and he’d never quit reaching for more. He wouldn’t cry when he failed. He’d keep trying with six other hands helping him every step of the way.
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.
He refused to feel sorry about losing some odds and ends off his body. He would be okay. When he got down, he felt the presence of the men who were closer than brothers to him. It never failed to give him hope and encouragement.
As Christmas came nearer and families and friends spent more time than usual with their wounded soldiers at the hospital, Tom read to the soldiers who he was told didn’t get visits. He was surprised that some soldiers either didn’t have families, or if they did, they were unable to visit.
Money was scarce and times were hard. The price of gas had soared beyond what many families could afford. The soldiers who weren’t lucky enough to be close to home had to settle for phone calls and letters.
Gas and motel rooms were not in the budget. Tom wanted to be there to keep the spirits up on these men. He knew it made a big difference to them. He was going to be reading anyway, reading out loud was capable of taking him away from the difficulties as quick as he opened a book.
He was happy to read to these men. Tom’s family was far away and not planning to visit him either. Once he’d read the book he brought, he stayed to play chess or checkers to help pass the time. The gratitude in fellow soldier’s eyes, or in their handshakes, was enough to keep Tom coming back. This had become his newest duty in the military.
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 became accustomed to the idea his life was changed. He wasn’t in the army anymore.
The week before Christmas, Tom had an appointment to be fitted for his prosthetic legs. The several operations on his legs had kept him from having the artificial limbs fitted earlier. He’d kept the idea of walking again out of his thoughts, but it was time to dust off that dream.
They started before 8 a.m. and it was after noon when he was finally finished at the hospital. It was more tiring than his typical day. There was a lot of talking. There was a lot of encouragement to take the next step toward independent living.
Tom wasn’t in the mood for the Community Center, when the van came for him at the hospital. 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. He often couldn’t eat before going to the hospital.
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.
Tom always liked Christmas. For the first time it felt like Christmas to him. He stopped to look at all the Christmas cards that were slipped over the garland to surround the room with the wishes of friends and relatives for the recipient to have a wonderful Christmas and a most Happy New Year. The seniors brought them in to add colorful scenes to the already festive holiday spirit.
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 he wanted, and glorious pumpkin pie and not just one slice. It was hard not to have his spirits lifted by all the well-wishers and smiles.
The vets tended to sit together to talk, laugh, and share what had made them become soldiers. Each man missed the army and the friends they’d left behind. After admitting to it, it grew silent as each man thought of belonging somewhere with other guys just like them.
No one mentioned their wounds or asked about the wounds of other men. These were battle ribbons worn to attest to what they gave for their country. Pain came with the job. They would beat it and move on, but not yet.
These men were vets. They’d traveled halfway around the world and fought for their country and they’d endured hardship and the lack of creature comfort. They were hardly more than children, when you saw them. Men barely out of their teens, battle tested and tempered by war.
They might look too young to go to war, but each was as good a man as men can be. They’d put their bodies on the line and now they’d come home, and their elders served them coffee, asked them if they wanted more pie. It was respect earned, given by people who were respected.
. What could be a difficult challenge for anyone was endured in silence. Their lives were filled with obstacles that reminded them of before they went to war. It wasn’t easy but it was what they faced and so they faced it. No, the vets didn’t complain, being grateful for the bounty the Community Center offered and it came wrapped in a smile.
Once Tom heard the elevator lifting him into the van, he smiled. If he’d been tired before getting to the Center, he was exhausted now. Oh, it was the most fun he’d had since…, but he was ready to be home.
It was getting dark, as the van crossed the highway, going toward his residence. If not for having to cross the highway, he could probably get back and forth in his chair. Soon he hoped to be able to walk.
All that turkey had made him a little sleepy. Vance, the big van driver, came around to push Tom 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. The ramp wasn’t steep.
“Look, Vance, someone put up Christmas lights. Oh, I do love Christmas. I can take it from here,” Tom said. “You want to get home to your family.”
“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. Everyone at the Center is so nice.”
Tom’s key turned the latch and he pushed the door. His eyes opened wide and any thoughts of exhaustion left him. The inside of his residence 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. He only had two Christmas cards to hang on it, he thought. The red garland ended at the empty bookcase, except the bookcase was filled with books now. Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and other lesser known names lined the shelves. Tom no longer had to depend on the library for all his reading needs. It was turning into quite a nice Christmas.
“Thank you. This is about the best present anyone could 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, while you were out. 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 on the long journey back to the States. Once stateside, he’d moved three different times. Harmon’s enlistment was up at the end of the year and Harmon might find him then.
Tom had 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.
“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 in the dark.
Other people looked at Vance, wondering what had his attention. It was then that Vance stepped outside, holding the door open for a man in an army uniform. Harmon Cobb stepped inside the door. He saw 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. This surprise was overwhelming. It was the perfect gift.
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 was never a better hug than that one.
The people from the Center were surprised too. They hadn’t expected to be in the middle of a reunion, but their desire to see Tom happy was fulfilled by the look in Tom’s eyes when he saw Harmon at the door.
Harmon was what Tom wanted most of all. Tom’s dream had come true and he felt like his life was blessed.
“I love you, Tom,” Harmon said, after he wiped away his tears.
“Not half as much as I love you, Harmon Cobb,” Tom said as they held hands and beamed.
Applause of approval reminded the boys they weren’t alone, not yet. Each laughed at his oversight.
They were together again. Harmon’s discharge was coming early in the New Year. He was home to take care of Tom. After a long separation, they were together again and it was the best Christmas ever for both of them, not to mention for the wonderful people from the Center.
& Merry Christmas to you.
“God bless us every one,” TT, A Christmas Carol
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my work and it’ll brighten my world. If you tell someone About my stories, and ask them to read me too, that brightens things even more.
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