It was Sunday morning, early. Old Joe was up before daybreak, shaved, showered, and dressed in his treasured, worn, khaki shirt. He reached into the top dresser drawer and carefully withdrew a small box imprinted with the Marine Corps insignia. Joe tucked the box into his pants pocket and affectionately patted it into place. He limped down the hallway to the kitchen. His knees and hips were “shot to hell” he would say. Getting old was a bitch. Being old was worse.
Joe creaked into the kitchen chair. “Good morning, Mother” he smiled to his wife of over fifty years.
She kissed him on the top of his head and rubbed his shoulders. “Sleep well, my darling?” she asked with loving concern. Joe and his dear wife, Sarah, had been married for so long they did not care to remember how many years. They did recall the “I do” day at the court house with Sarah’s cousins as witnesses. It was two days before he shipped out overseas. They decided over the objections of family to get married before Joe left. Sarah insisted they do so and it was done.
Sarah never knew until months later that Joe and his brother Marines were part of a massive assault group targeting the Viet Cong in country; steamy jungle, snake ridden rivers, malaria, and all. Many never came home. Joe did and always claimed that only Sarah’s love had saved his ass on many occasions. She countered with, “You were too stubborn to die.” Both things were probably true. Three sons and two daughters and fifteen grandchildren later they were still in love and stubborn!
Joe enjoyed his usual bowl of oatmeal and strawberries, cup of coffee, and morning Times. “Looks like rain today, my darling. I’ll bring a raincoat with me. I’m not afraid of a little rain.”
She laughed and shook her head. Sarah continued to prepare a small take-along lunch for Joe, thermos of coffee, and two peanut butter sandwiches. One sandwich was for him and one other in case he met a friend.
Joe looked at the clock on the wall, the one set seven minutes ahead to allow for Old Joe’s slow steps. “Let’s get a move on, Mother.”
She always answered, “Right behind you, old man.”
They both chuckled and proceeded to walk down the street to the corner where Joe would catch the bus. The number 5 bus would take him directly to the mall in downtown D.C. The bus pulled up in front of them and the young driver, who had come to know Joe over these last years, stepped down and gave Joe a hand.
The driver winked at Sarah. “I’ll make sure he comes directly home, Missus. Not to worry.” He tipped his cap and closed the bus door. Sarah waved to Joe who sat in the first seat in the front, same seat every Sunday. He blew her a kiss and held up the lunch sack to let her know he had indeed remembered to bring it.
The forty-five minute ride, including several stops, finally delivered Joe at the north side of the mall. The bus driver stepped out first and helped Joe down the steps. “Behave yourself, Joe. I’ll be by at the usual time in a few hours.” Joe smiled and tipped his ball cap in the direction of the driver.
Joe paced the long walk to the bench he preferred, the one that gave him the best view. He sat in the quiet for several moments and watched the people slowly wander by perusing the exquisite looming wall of names. The air was still. Joe had not come to be with the visiting folks. He had made the trip every Sunday for years upon years to be with the names on the wall - the names of his brothers. There was always a hope that some old comrade would come by. That had not happened for quite some time, but he had a sandwich to share if someone did appear. He felt good about that.
Joe pulled the small box from his pocket and opened it. He pulled out a nearly pristine distinguished medal of honor attached to a blue ribbon and carefully draped it around his neck under his khaki shirt. He patted it into place, keeping his hand covering it.
After a long sit, Joe stood up and approached the wall. He could read the names of the brothers and hear the whispers of their voices. Some were laughing. Some were still screaming. Joe could also see the reflection of his own face in between the lines. He saw the tear-stained face of an old man etched with tells of age and memory. Places in Joe’s heart that were emptied of this brotherhood many years ago cried out to be filled again with the youthful laughter and bravado so endeared. Joe reached his arthritic fingers to the wall and caressed the cold stone imprints of names he knew so well. He was saddened that he was the only one he recollected who came and remembered and loved.
“Who will come when I am gone?” Joe spoke the words out loud and wept without shame. “Who will keep them company? They’ll be lonely.”
Joe began to buckle at the knees. His grief overcame him. Before he fell to the ground, two strong hands lifted him under his arms and guided him back to his bench. The hands were familiar, real or ghostly? He turned to look, expecting to see an angel. The owner of the strong hands was his young bus driver.
“I am here, Old Joe. I’ve got you.”
Joe was relieved and grateful. Little did Joe know that the driver had been coming back on his own time every Sunday afternoon to return Joe safely home. He would stand off to the side to keep an eye on the old man. Joe’s dedication to his fallen brothers had intrigued the young man. Somewhere over time, the young man’s heart had joined the old man’s spirit.
The young driver looked Joe in the eye. “I promise I will be the one who comes to keep watch over your brothers, but only when your time is over. You are not done yet. Look, Joe. Look at all of the people who watch you every week. They come, often, because of you. Be strong...for them and for your brothers. The future will take care of itself.” With that, the old man wiped his face and heaved a sigh of tempered relief. The young man smiled and inquired, “Still got that extra sandwich?”
The two sat in silence eating their lunch, listening to the wind and the birds and the whispers. When Joe was ready, the young bus driver escorted him back to the bus for the trip home. Two Marines and a sailor who had been watching all of this unfold stood at attention as Joe walked by.
“Atten…hut! Medal of Honor on deck! Hoorah!” They barked the announcement for everyone to hear. Indeed, eyes turned in Joe’s direction with respect and admiration. Joe straightened up and walked tall.
When he returned home, Sarah was there with a cup of hot soup, a kiss, and a love that had healed Joe’s heart many lifetimes. He felt “blessed to be a blessing”.