The Price of Freedom
Veteran's Hospital Entrance
It was a sweltering summer day in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I strolled through the automatic doors and was greeted with a rush of cool refreshing air. On my way to report to the volunteer coordinator of the hospital I wondered, What will she have me do today? Bedpans? Change sheets? Stock supplies? I didn’t know.
“So, what is my assignment today?” I asked as I approached the nurse’s station.
She studied me from her chair at the nurse’s desk. Lowering her clipboard, she looked me up and down like a thoughtful judge just before issuing a sentence.
“You are in for a real treat,” she said with dramatic sarcasm.
Bedpans…I knew it!
“I’m assigning you to visit “Wild Bill” in room 314.” She leaned over the desk and touched me softly on the arm, “He’s ornery. He’s angry. And he swears like a sailor!” She removed her hand and pointed at his door with her eyes and added, “Don’t take it personally.”
“What does he need?” I asked.
“Love,” she whispered. “Lots of love. He hasn’t had a visitor for three weeks.”
As I walked to room 314, I imaged myself running out of the room with a patient screaming obscenities and throwing a tray or hospital mug at me as I tried to escape. I took a deep breath and gently rapped on the door as I opened it. “Hi Bill, how are you today?” I said in a soft voice as if I had just entered a chapel. Bill looked at me from his bed, which had been raised up in a sitting position.
“I don’t know you.” He grumbled.
“My name is David, I’m a volunteer here.” I answered as I approached his bed with an outstretched hand. He glared at my hand and then sneered at me as if to say, “What are you kidding me?” It wasn’t until then that I realized he couldn’t shake my hand. Bill had no arms.
What an idiot I was. Had I already forgotten I was in a Veteran’s Hospital? I should have known better. “I’m sorry,” I stuttered. “I didn’t realize.” “What? They didn’t warn you Wild Bill didn’t have any !@#* arms?” He spat.
I was caught off guard. I didn’t know what to say. My mouth opened but no words fell out.
“I need a shave!” He demanded.
I was caught off guard again. I hate shaving. Shaving is one of those monotonous necessities I do over and over and over again but never with any amount of anticipation. But at least I could shave. No wonder Bill had a week’s worth of salt and pepper scruff.
“Sure. I’ll give you a shave.” I said through a forced smile. “Do you have a razor?”
“No!” He bellowed. “Get one from the #!@* nurse.”
I walked out into the hall and back to the nurse’s station. “You were right about the sailor part,” I said as I pursed my lips and cocked one eyebrow. “But you left out two important details.” Although she knew what I was referring to, she just smiled at me.
“He wants a shave. Do you have a razor?”
The nurse handed me a blue, double-bladed, Bic razor, a red and white can of Barbosol shaving cream and a Dixie cup. “This’ll do the job.” She smiled. As an afterthought, she added as I walked away, “His daughter is coming to see him later today for the first time.”
I walked back into the room with my new surgical equipment for the wiskerectomy and Bill sat up a little straighter and leaned his chin forward. I half-filled the Dixie cup with warm water from the sink and placed it on the tray that straddled his bed. I then made a cream blob in my palm and started to dab it on his thin face and neck. His whiskers felt like my grandma’s old bristly hairbrush.
Raising the Bic to his face, I added a slight amount of pressure and started a down stroke just below his left side burn. I was more tentative and gentle than I would have been on my own face being careful not to cut him. I wondered if I would trust someone else to shave me?
Scrape, shake and rinse. Scrape, shake and rinse, until I had completely shaved his face. Neither one of us spoke a word to each other during the “shave.” We didn’t need to. The very act of shaving him had its own form of intimacy. Flecks of anger, hate and fear were scraped off with the shavings.
After the last stroke of the razor, I took a towel and carefully wiped off a few extra dabs of cream on his earlobe and nostrils. He had “turned up the handsome” and looked presentable to his daughter.
“There you are.” I said as I stepped back to examine my handiwork.
He looked me in the eye and asked in a whisper. “Is it a good shave?”
I realized he couldn’t caress or cradle his cheek with his hands to feel his new face. I took his face in both of my hands. Slowly and softly I let my fingertips and palm feel his cheek from his sideburns to his chin. Then I leaned in and put my right cheek against his right cheek, so he could feel my warmth on his face without the barrier of his beard.
“It is a GREAT shave.” I whispered in his ear and I pulled away and looked and this gentleman before me. He tried to thank me, but his tears won over his fight to speak. He choked on the words. So he didn’t speak. I didn’t speak. We just looked at each other. He couldn’t reach out and touch my hand, but he did touch me. He touched my heart. I felt it. LOVE. Love for a man I didn’t know fifteen minutes earlier. Love for a man I was afraid of fifteen minutes earlier! I LOVED him. I LOVED him because I served him. I LOVED him because he let me serve him.
I LOVED him because I realized that HE HAD SERVED ME. Many, many men and women have sacrificed so I could enjoy the freedom my country provides. Some have paid the ultimate price and have given their lives. ALL of our veterans, like Bill, had given a part of themselves. Bill has a physical reminder of his sacrifice, but everyone who served in a war has made tremendous sacrifices. On this Memorial Day, I remember you. I applaud Bill with my two healthy strong arms. I applaud ALL who sacrificed for our freedom, who sacrificed part of their lives, sacrificed birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, Christmas Eve’s, Christmas mornings and barbeques in the back yard. Thank you. Thank you and thank you. The freedom I enjoy was NOT free. Bill reminded me of that. I had forgotten.
As I walked out of the Veterans Hospital in Muskogee, Oklahoma on that sweltering summer day, I noticed a sign at the entranced I had missed on the way in. These same words are inscribed at the entrance of every Veterans Hospital. They read, “The Price of Freedom is Visible here.” I nodded my head in agreement as I walked away. Bill had opened my eyes…and my heart.
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