Do you have a member of your family who fought in World War II? Maybe you’re old enough to remember waiting for the mailman to come walking down your walkway to the front door in anticipation of receiving a letter from a loved one deployed overseas at that time. Do you remember not getting mail for weeks, wondering if he was okay in fighting for your country and giving his all to protect America from harm?
We still have many WWII veterans who are aging in nursing homes, hospice facilities or living at home – perhaps alone, or maybe with a family member. Though it has been more than 65 years, many of these veterans still find it very difficult to discuss their memories of the war, the loss of their friends and the loss of their own identity.
Let me tell you a story of one veteran I met on March 29, 2011, during one of my visits as a volunteer at Joanne’s House at Hope Hospice in Bonita Springs, Florida. I was on my way out of the unit when I noticed an elderly man sitting in his chair by the bed with his head in his hands. I felt led to knock on the door and to ask him if he would like a short visit. (I always say “short visit” because it’s a good way to get in to talk to the patient.) I introduced myself as a volunteer and said, “Is there anything I can get you? How about a cup of coffee? How about some chocolate ice cream?” That put a smile on his face as he raised his head and said, “My name is Bill, come on in. I’d love a visit, and stay as long as you like.”
Our conversation was pleasant, even though it led to some current events and the dangers our soldiers are encountering overseas. I asked him if he served our country in his younger years and he said yes, he was in the Navy and fought in the Pacific theater in WWII between 1942 and 1945. I asked him if he had kept in touch with any of his buddies. He thought for a moment. “Well, there was one guy. We saved each other’s lives and we were very close. His name was Eddie Miller, but when the war was over, he went back to New Jersey, I headed back home to Ohio and never saw him again. It’s bothered me ever since, always wondering where he was, what his life was like and what he may be doing today.”
That’s all I needed. With my love for investigative intrigue and being an avid Ancestory.com person researching my own family, I told Bill I would try to locate his long-lost friend Eddie. I don’t think Bill thought it would be possible because the look on his face said this was just a nice gesture from a volunteer. Well, when I arrived home that noon I decided to check out this guy Eddie Miller and got onto Google. I typed in “Eddie Miller WWII.” Lo and behold, the very first name that appeared was Bill’s friend, Eddie. Unfortunately, it was Eddie’s obituary. He had died in Clark, New Jersey on November 22, 2010 at the age of 85. The obit even provided a recent picture of Eddie. I think the Lord was in on this one! I printed out the obituary and later that afternoon headed back to Joanne’s House. I couldn’t wait to show it to Bill as I was so excited that I would be able to give him the information about his war buddy that he so longed to know about.
When I knocked on the door, Bill was resting in bed watching TV. I told him I had some good news and some not-so-good news for him – that I had located his buddy Eddie Miller. You should have seen the look on his face, a look of utter disbelief. I showed him the picture of Eddie and he confirmed it was the same man who saved his life. I read the obituary to him as the tears flowed down his cheeks. He could barely see the piece of paper. He took my hand and said, “I can’t believe you did this for me! No one has ever done anything like this for me before.” He began to cry visibly, wiping his eyes and shaking his head back and forth in disbelief. After all these years he finally was able to learn what happened to his friend and to know he had died only four months earlier. How sad I thought, how very sad. What a lonely, empty feeling his soul must have felt at that moment, reliving the horrors of war, yet also remembering being saved by this man.
I must say, I joined Bill in tears. As a volunteer, it’s okay to cry with a patient. This gives them the knowledge that you care and have listened to them and felt their pain.
I knew that Bill was only going to be staying with us a few more days because he was in respite care and then going to Ohio to live with his daughter. I wanted to do one more thing for him before he left to show him that we as volunteers – we as American citizens – appreciate the sacrifice our veterans made when they went to war to protect our country. So on the way home that afternoon I stopped at the hardware store and bought a small American flag.
The next day I stopped in to see Bill once again, and as I arrived at his room the door was closed. I checked with the nurse. She said he was resting, but knowing he may go home that evening or early the next day, I knocked and entered the room. Bill was sitting in his chair, just as he was the day before when I first met him. He may have been just resting his head or he may have been trying to relive those endearing memories of his buddy Eddie, I don’t know. When he saw me he smiled and invited me in for another visit. I handed him the small American flag and said, “I just had to come back to see you again and to give you this and thank you for serving our country and keeping us safe.” He looked into my eyes with more tears and compassion and said, “Thank you for recognizing what so many of us did so many years ago. We all thought you had forgotten.” I gave him a hug and he kissed me on the cheek. I nearly broke down again! I can’t remember ever being so touched and blessed by any other visit I have ever made as a volunteer and I have been visiting patients for 16 years.
Sometimes we just don’t realize the impact one little kind gesture can make to someone who has a short time to live. This is why I volunteer with end of life patients. So many people have asked me how I can work with patients who are dying. I say to them that it’s an honor to be part of the lives of those who are living their last days. We learn so much and gain much wisdom in seeing how fleeting life can be.
Bill left us and went back to his daughter’s home in Ohio. I know I will never see him again, but the moments I spent with him were filled with an everlasting joy I will remember the rest of my life.
Pat Russell is a hospice volunteer who is certified in Clinical Pastoral Care. She is a member of the Aging with Dignity Board of Directors.
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