96: My Soldier

96: My Soldier

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

My Soldier

I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.

~Clara Barton

While in nursing school I always pictured myself working in the ER. I loved the fast-paced environment and the quick decision-making. To my surprise, I landed on the Oncology/ Palliative Care unit at the VA Hospital. There could not have been a place more opposite of where I had pictured myself. Instead of fast-paced, I was in an area that was quiet and slow, one of impending closure.

For many of our veterans this is the last step, the last battle they will fight. There is no greater reward than to be with someone as they transition from this life to the next.

I met one quiet hero on an evening shift. He had suffered greatly throughout his life. Being a gay man in the military in the 1960s and 1970s was a hard road to travel. He developed HIV in the 1980s and had expected he would die from that disease, but surprisingly that was not the case. Instead he developed cancer.

When I first met him he came strolling down the hallway with his walker. He was a rather large man who had led a very sedentary lifestyle. Just getting around his home stressed him. We spent hours visiting throughout his stays. He shared his life and I shared mine. We laughed at the funny times and cried together during the low ones.

One night we were sharing our “bucket lists.” I told him the things I hoped to do one day, but said I was waiting until the time was right. Sitting in his darkened room he shared how he had done the same thing. Unfortunately, when he finally felt the time was right, he had cancer and was unable to do all that he had waited for.

“Don’t wait,” he told me. “Get out there and do the things you want to do.”

While I sat talking and watching this once-strong solider crying because of what he had lost, I decided to start living my life at that moment as if it were my last.

The next summer I skydived, raced cars, went whitewater rafting, and ran my first half marathon. I came back after each activity and shared my adventure with him. He was living through me. After I ran my first half marathon, we talked about the importance of exercise, healthy lifestyles, and getting out there doing whatever you could do.

I began running in various races for charities. After each one, I shared with him the highlights, the training before, the cramps during, and running in the rain and in the heat.

After every race he got more excited until one night he told me, “I want to do a race with you.”

I loved the idea but knew realistically that would never happen. How could an overweight, sedentary man dying from cancer ever be able to do a 5K?

Over the next year I watched in awe and admiration as he transformed himself. He started by doing one lap around the unit, slowly taking each step with his walker. Soon he was doing several laps. He lost weight and became more active. Each time he was admitted, I could see his spirits increasing. He was happy again, smiling and encouraged. He had a new goal and couldn’t wait to achieve it. At home, he had finally worked up to walking a mile, always with his walker. He was never going to be fast, but his determination was inspiring.

It was fall when we decided to participate in the upcoming breast cancer walk the next spring. I had lost my mother to breast cancer when she was fifty-four years old and had shared with him how important breast cancer research and awareness was to me.

“Let’s do the breast cancer walk in memory of your mom,” he insisted.

Over the next several months we planned our outfits, our pace, and even our snacks. He would bake his wonderful cookies. His mom became involved in the excitement and the planning, as did his son. We worked so hard on our plans that we actually looked forward to his hospital stays so we could continue with our strategizing!

He designed the T-shirt we would wear, one that represented past and present warriors fighting cancers of all types.

Everything was lining up just perfectly for our walk in April. That was until March, when my soldier took a turn for the worse. Life changes on a dime and this was never more evident to me as I watched my friend slowly slipping away. The week before the race he was admitted for his last time. His hard battle was nearing its end.

One day his son told me they were taking him off the ventilator. I just couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t fair! His son asked me to come and say goodbye and through tears I told him I just couldn’t do it.

“I understand,” he said. “Just know how important you were to Dad and how happy you made him these past months.” He hugged me, then cried as he walked away.

I struggled for the next few minutes and finally decided I had to say goodbye. This man had done so much to change who I was. I had to see him off as I had done with so many other veterans. I ran down the two flights of stairs, down the hall and as I approached his room, I heard the doctor pronounce the time of death. I was too late. I had missed my chance to say goodbye.

His mom came out and told me he had gone peacefully. We hugged and cried. There were no words to share. Our soldier fought the battle hard but wasn’t able to win this war. Cancer once again was the victor.

At work the following Friday, the night before the race, I was surprised to see my soldier’s mom and son come to the floor.

“We came to do the race with you,” they said in unison.

Astonished, I shook my head and admitted, “Without him I lost my desire to compete.”

“Oh no,” the son said. “Remember what Dad said. ‘Get out there now and do the things you want to do.’ ”

He reached into a bag and pulled out the shirts his dad had designed and made for us to wear. “We will walk in memory of your mom as planned, and now in memory of Dad.”

~Jacqueline K. Brumley

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