Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dying, Part Three: The Hero

            Bridget led us between stretchers and past harried looking nurses to the elevator and hit the button for the seventh floor.  Scott slumped against the wood paneled walls looking weary, but still curious.  Neither of us had any idea what Bridget had planned.  I would normally have been uneasy being led by a relative stranger, but today was different.  My usual trepidation toward the unknown had been blunted slightly by Scott’s constant insistence on confronting it, but mostly, my apprehension had been lulled to sleep by the way Bridget’s pink nurse scrubs set off the rosiness of her cheeks.  At the risk of growing repetitive, I found the young woman very attractive.  It was extremely hard not to.
            When the elevator doors opened, Bridget turned to us and walked backwards into the hall.
            “Ok,” she said, brushing her cherry hair back behind her left ear.  “Take it easy on this guy; he’s been through a lot.  I wouldn’t even take you to him after that disaster with Roger, but he’s being discharged tomorrow and I thought he might be a help.”  Scott shrugged and nodded as we walked down the hallway.
            “So who is this guy then?” he asked, grasping the wall rails for extra support. 
            “Corporal Charles McGreevy,” she replied.  “He was shot five times by insurgents while covering the retreat of three of his fellow soldiers.  In other words, he’s a hero.”  Scott coughed into his hand and looked over at me, eyebrows raised in suspicion. 
            “Trying to teach me not to be afraid of death by introducing me to a man that put his life on the line?” he said, his voice taking a sour tone.  Bridget stopped by room R12 and turned around to us.
            “I just thought you should talk to him,” she said, very matter-of-factly, and led us into the room.  Corporal McGreevy was lying in his bed, finishing the last of his hospital pudding.  As we entered, he put his empty cup down and pushed the rolling meal tray away.
            “Nurse Walker,” he said with a winning smile.  “And friends, I see.”  McGreevy was a young man, about our age, and he looked like every Hollywood portrayal of the gallant warrior coming back home from defending hope and freedom overseas.  His Mount Rushmoresque chin sat rigidly below his high cheekbones that gave way only to his tall, regal forehead.  His eyes were as blue as happiness, and his broad torso spread out into muscular arms that were propped up on his hips like George Reeves in the Adventures of Superman.  Beside him, a tiny American flag waved obediently, propelled by wind from a nearby air conditioner.  The entire scene would have been comical if it were not so awe inspiring.
            “Corporal McGreevy,” Bridget said, gesturing toward us.  “This is Scott Meyers and John Henk.”  McGreevy turned to us and nodded curtly, then turned his attention back to Bridget.
            “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he asked, his unflappable charm beginning to dig a hole in the pit of my stomach. 
            “Well, Mr. Meyers here is terminally ill and he’s determined to find out as much as about death as he can before, well…”  McGreevy frowned a bit and looked Scott over for a moment, before shifting in his bed with a trace of uneasiness.  “I thought, maybe, you could tell him what happened to you; what it’s like to look death in the face.” 
            “Oof,” the Corporal responded.  “That’s a tough hand you’ve been dealt there, Scott.  I’m not sure I’d ever want to face something like that.”  Scott raised his eyebrows skeptically. 
            “Seems like it wouldn’t be that big a deal for a man like you; someone who gets in harm’s way all the time,” he said.
            “Oh, sure,” McGreevy replied.  “But I at least know there’s a chance I can get out of it; usually a pretty good one.  To know I’m going to die for sure with no way to prevent it?  I think that would be tough to swallow.”
            “I guess that’s why I’m doing this,” Scott said with a shrug.  There was a pause for a few seconds while we all tried not to consider our own mortality before Scott continued.
            “So um,” he said, shifting awkwardly.  “What did you, er…what happened?” 
            “Well,” McGreevy said, clearing his throat.  “My unit was ambushed on patrol a few miles outside of Kandahar.  It wasn’t a big force but they got the jump on us and we had to fall back, only me and three of my fellow soldiers got separated and pinned down.  We had to break from cover because it was gettin’ a little too hot.  Three of us got out but Sergeant Geary was hit.  You know we don’t leave a man behind, so I laid down some cover fire while the other two guys went after the Sergeant.  Anyway, I guess I did a pretty good job of coverin’ them, but not so much coverin’ myself, because I got hit a few times.” 
            “Wow,” I said after a moment.  “That’s somethin’.  How did you end up here though?”
            “They shipped me stateside to recover ‘cause my first tour was almost up anyways,” he replied. 
            “Oh, that was nice of them,” I said, not really sure how to respond.  “But why Chester County?  Shouldn’t you be in an army facility?”
            “I’m a war hero,” he said with a winning smile.  “I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to do whatever I want.”  Bridget giggled a little and I felt my stomach drop.  She liked him. I wasn’t happy about it.
            “Well, that is pretty impressive.  I don’t think I could ever do anything like that.”  McGreevy looked a little embarrassed and I could tell by the look on Bridget’s face she was taken by his modesty.  I regretted my next words almost immediately.
            “Well yeah,” I said, smothering the indignity in my voice.  “Of course you and I couldn’t do that, but he’s a soldier.  That’s what a soldier does.”  McGreevy looked at me through slightly narrowed eyes.
            “That’s not the way I look at it.  Sure the army prepared me for a lot of things, but I didn’t just do what a soldier does.  I did what a man does.  I kept fighting until it was over and there’s no man on earth that doesn’t owe it to himself to keep fighting.”  His voice was strong and assertive and his point painfully valid.  I sheepishly faded into the wall, utterly downcast and certain that Bridget hated me.  Scott, on the other hand, had suddenly taken great interest in the conversation.  He leaned on the end of the bed and leaned in towards the Corporal.
            “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I owe myself lately.  I mostly just feel like I owe myself answers, you know?  I don’t want to go out not knowing why I came in or, really, what was the point of what I did while I was here.”  McGreevy, shifted a little with uncertainty and shrugged.
            “I don’t know, I guess I couldn’t really speak to your situation.  For me, it’s always come down to being the best I can possibly be.  Whatever that means for each situation, that’s what I need to do.  It seems pretty obvious, but if everyone just tried to be the best person they could be, things would be a lot better.  “
            “So how do we be the best person we can?” Scott asked, smiling.  “Should we all join the army?”  McGreevy chuckled. 
            “I don’t know about that,” he replied.  “The military isn’t right for everyone.  Personally, I didn’t join because of some overdeveloped sense of patriotism or a desire for action.  It was just something that felt right for me, but the army has taught me a lot.  I may not have learned all the same things as a lot of other people I served with, but I guess that’s how it goes.  We all take away something different.”
            “So what did you take away then?” Scott asked, a bead of sweat running down the side of his face.  McGreevy smiled and looked out the window for a moment before answering.
            “Well, you can stand by a lot of things; your country, your beliefs, your faith, but the most important thing to stand by is always the truth.”
            “So what’s the truth?” Scott inquired, a mischievous smile creeping across his face.
            “There are lots of kinds of truth, Scott,” Bridget interjected.  Scott turned to her and wobbled a bit on his feet, as though surprised she was still standing there.  “I think what he’s saying is, you have to carry yourself with integrity and stand by what you know is right.  Yeah?” she said, turning back to the Corporal.
            “I don’t know about all that,” he said.  “The way I see, there’s only one real truth in this work, barring that of the Almighty.  The best people in this world have always needed someone else.  It’s just the way it is.  It’s why we make friends in elementary school, it’s why even the greatest minds in the world work with someone else, and it’s why I took five bullets in a desert outside Kandahar.  Life takes teamwork.”  Scott nodded and pushed back from the bed a few steps.  He looked beleaguered, his face paler than usual. 
            “Well, that sounds great and all,” he said, taking a few heaving breaths.  “But I guess it doesn’t really help me all that much.  Don’t get me wrong, I do agree.  I’m glad I’ve got people by my side right now.  I just don’t know how any of it really prepares me for what’s next.  How do I get ready to face death?”  Scott’s breathing was becoming heavier and shadows were forming under his eyes.  He looked as though he had better get back to his room, but I knew what would happen if I suggested it.  Corporal McGreevy could see this as well, but he also knew Scott was looking for something he still hoped he could provide.
            “I guess that’s the beauty of being the best person you can be.  If you’re already doing everything you can, is there a need to change yourself just because you’re faced with something like death?  Especially in your case, where you know you can’t avoid it.  Look, I don’t know what death actually does to a person and I don’t pretend to.  All I know is dying doesn’t necessarily have to change you.  If what you’re going through leads to some sort of revelation about yourself or the world, then yeah, that’s a wonderful thing.  All I’m saying is don’t hinge the remainder of your time here on the idea that you need one.  For lack of a better way of putting it, dying doesn’t have to be a life changing event.  Sometimes if you don’t know your destination, you just haven’t noticed that you’re already there.”  He finished with a concerned look as Scott’s appearance continued to deteriorate.  Bridget had noticed as well and was rising from the chair when Scott slumped back against the linen closet.
            “I…” he said, struggling to keep himself up straight.  I took two steps towards him when, trying to push himself away from the closet, he stumbled on his own foot and went crashing towards the bed.  Bridget and I got to his side just in time to stop him from falling to the floor.  McGreevy was up in a flash, running to get the Nurse on duty.  I could hear Scott whispering to himself deliriously as the other nurses came in with a wheel chair.
            “He just fainted,” Bridget told them.  “But he might be going into shock.  We’d better get him back to his room as soon as we can.”  She felt his forehead for a moment and then looked up at me.
            “I hope that was worth it,” she said, more to herself than anyone else.  “If anyone asks, it was his idea, yeah?”  I nodded.  We helped the other nurses load Scott onto the wheelchair and Bridget took charge of pushing him back to the room.  He came to as we were lifting him back into his bed and he looked at me, confused at first.  Then, realizing what had happened, he looked at me and let out a long sigh.  He would never leave that bed by his own power again.

End of Part Three