“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother David Grant …”
David Grant awoke to the military chaplain giving him Last Rites.
“And we commit his body to the ground;
earth to earth;
ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The Lord bless him and keep—”
David’s hand shot out and grabbed the chaplain’s arm, freezing his words in place. He seemed caught between breaths before gently easing free of David’s grasp.
“Doctor!” the chaplain called out.
David’s vision cleared to the sight of an army field hospital layered with narrow cots, most of which were empty. Afghanistan, that’s where I am, he thought, his memory slowly sharpening. A pair of doctors were hovering over him now, clearly surprised he was still alive.
With good reason.
He’d been riding in a Humvee when the ambush outside of Mozul began with a series of IEDs exploding in the path of the supply convoy. David’s armored Humvee was reduced to a flaming husk of shrapnel and steel in a single flash, a dream-like quality rendered onto the scene by the concussion that had dazed him. Sounds registered in fits and starts; guns firing, men screaming, cries for help. He felt powerful arms dragging him from the Humvee’s carcass, his legs dragging like discarded sacks across the scorched pavement.
The arms laid David behind the cover of a sand berm just off the rubble-strewn road, left to listen to desperate orders struggling to rise over the heavy rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire. There were thuds and grunts and screams before his battle buddies’ fire grew thin and sporadic, then moaning and whimpering. David’s M-16 was long lost, but he managed to draw his sidearm, whatever was left of his legs inside his fatigues gone numb now. He ratcheted the slide back to chamber a round, wanting to crawl out and save what buddies he could, add his own bullets to the fight while they awaited reinforcements and close air support. But his body refused to obey, refused to budge, and all he could do was prop his shoulders as straight as he could and wait for the Taliban to round the berm before he felt himself drifting off.
David awoke briefly in the medical evac chopper and then again while he was being stretchered into the field hospital. He remembered the surgeons working on his legs, no sense of feeling from the pelvis down then and still none now with the shapes of thick bandages and splints visible beneath the bed sheets.
“Even if he lives, he’ll never walk again.”
Words from the past or present, he couldn’t be sure with his brain feeling all cottony. He heard voices, but the lips of the doctors and nurses suddenly surrounding his bed weren’t moving. A penlight shined in his eyes, blood pressure cuff wrapped around his arm. David heard the air being pumped in, the cuff tightening followed by the hiss of the air releasing. Then a morphine-induced fog overcame him, the world switching from video to still shots before darkness claimed him once more.
The fog brought his battle buddies back to life, returned him to the convoy before the IEDs ruptured steel and savaged flesh. He was screaming a warning to stop, that an ambush lay in wait ahead. But no one could hear him, as if he was the dead one and the rest of them were still alive.
The fog cleared next in a specially fitted cargo plane bound for Landstuhl Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, on a seven-hour flight into Ramstein Air Force Base. David knew this was the procedure for vets wounded in the Afghan field. But he wasn’t prepared for the sight of his own reflection in the ambulance’s window glass. His hair had grown out in wavy patches with the brittle texture of straw. He was unshaven and gazing briefly into his own eyes, left with the sense of an out-of-body experience in which he was gazing at someone he barely recognized.
Once at Landstuhl he was confronted at last with the enormity of his wounds. The field surgeons had saved his legs by affixing steel rods to the bones. The result left his left leg a full three inches shorter than his right, and the patchwork of scars and seared flesh kept him from looking down. The good news, the doctors told him, was that he had feeling and good blood supply.
They didn’t say anything about walking again.
“You stick with me, I’ll fix you up good as new,” his physical therapist, a big African-American man named Barney promised. He reminded David of one of his battle buddies left in pieces on the side of the road outside of Mozul.
They began his therapy with the simplest of motions, nothing more than learning how to bend his legs and flex his feet as the bones healed, fusing to the steel rods that would be with him forever. Even that brought on a pain greater than any David could imagine, though he resisted the painkillers now because he dreaded the return of the fog, and the pain, if nothing else, reminded him he was alive.
He’d broken up with his girlfriend just before shipping out. An orphan, David had been raised in the state’s care by a succession of kind enough foster parents who processed kids like a factory assembly line. No one missed him. No one was asking. No one cared about the reflection of the man who barely resembled his old form. Barney told him the first goal was to get him well enough to move to the Medical Transient Detachment houses on the Landstuhl campus as an outpatient. The second goal was to get him home.
Neither seemed anywhere near in reach.
Then a woman who called herself Captain Jane told him about a USO program for wounded vets that matched soldiers like David up with e-mail pen pals just to have someone to exchange messages. The pen pals were culled from volunteers, the toughest cases given to the most caring and compassionate. David’s pen pal was named Iris, and he read her first e-mail with his legs propped up on a wheelchair’s extension:
I’m so sad for the tragedy you have suffered in service to our wonderful country. I say this even though my own husband was lost to a different war. The Lord was merciful with him, and he didn’t suffer, although I would’ve given anything for him to have lived in any condition so I could have provided for him. With him gone, I’ve made it my mission to help those like you who’ve been given the chance he wasn’t. I’ve spent many hours volunteering at the local Veteran’s Hospital, and have witnessed firsthand the pain and frustration you’re experiencing. I hope you will take solace in the fact that you have been granted the opportunity men like my husband were not. I know your prognosis is dire, and prospects for recovery slim, but in spite of my own mourning which never ends, I have never stopped believing in miracles. And since my beloved husband was lost to me, I have made it my mission to see these miracles visited on others. I feel in his loss I have gained an appreciation for the value of life and I will be by your side, figuratively anyway, through the long hours of therapy and recovery you are about to endure. Even if you don’t have it in you to reply, know that there will be an e-mail from me waiting every day.
David was about to log off, but then hit REPLY instead and began to type.
I’m so sorry for your loss. I guess wars are all the same. I don’t know how much they’ve told you about my injuries, but I’ll be lucky to ever get out of a wheelchair. The best I can hope for, they tell me, is to walk with those steel crutches. But what bothers me the most is the fact that I was the only one in my platoon to survive. There should be something heroic about that, but the truth is I lived because the Taliban never found me behind the berm where my friends dragged me before going to their deaths. Maybe they were the lucky ones. Maybe I’d have been better off if I was still with them now.
He hesitated before hitting SEND but then the mouse clicked under his hand and the message was gone, whisked on its way.
Strangely, the next day’s physical therapy session had him running Iris’ words through his head, contemplating the men like him living their lives out in Vet’s hospitals like the one she visited near her home. He didn’t realize he’d finally put some weight on his legs, arms holding fast to the wooden rails on either side of him, until he caught Barney grinning ear to ear.
“Don’t know what’s gotten into you today, champ, but I sure do like it.”
The next day David was back at the computer at the same time, a new message from Iris waiting in his inbox.
You know, if my husband had been lucky enough to live, I imagine he’d feel the very same way you do. That was a different war, a different time, and there is no more shame in that now than there was then. I work in a library, and there is nothing I enjoy more than watching children read, losing themselves so much in the story that time, and the world around them itself, ceases to exist. If he had lived, I would’ve told my husband to surrender to the world of the child, to lose his pain in the wonder of a different and far off place. It’s your body that’s broken, but it’s your mind that needs a rest from the worry over that. Since you lived, I say that now to you and know that the words come from someone who has come to know a different kind of pain, that of emptiness, the side of the bed that lies empty next to me no different from a lost limb. I can’t go on right now. I must stop.
Today David didn’t reply right away. Instead he read Iris’ words over and over again, memorizing them until Barney’s powerful hands closed on the back of his wheelchair.
And ready he was, recapturing Iris’ poignant e-mail in his head to distract him from the session that proved even more agonizing than the last. Barney had warned him about that, said that with progress, as his muscles and bones learned to work again, came not less pain but more. David had thought he was ready for it, only nobody could be ready for this. By the end of the session, he was soaked in sweat and so exhausted that he actually forgot he’d made two lengths the distance of the rails without stopping and had managed to turn on his own for the first time.
The next day there was no e-mail waiting from Iris, so David decided to pound out the reply he’d avoided the day before.
You must think me a coward for not having the guts to reply to your message yesterday. The truth is I didn’t know what to say. I’ve become so lost in my own pain that I’m unable to feel much sympathy. But I guess your pain must be as bad as mine. People say you have to move on, start over. You have managed to do that spiritually as I must physically. I find no solace or relief in watching the wounded like myself making strides I can only dream of. The truth is I wish they would suffer as much as I do, I wish everyone would suffer as much as I do. What is it they say, that misery loves company? The truth is I don’t find myself worthy of your support and would understand totally if you choose not to write me again.
But write again she did. David had been staring at the screen for fifteen unbroken minutes when his inbox icon flashed. He moved the mouse and clicked.
If I bear you any ill will it is only for thinking I would ever abandon you. I often lie awake at night thinking of my husband dying alone with no one to comfort him and feel racked by guilt that I abandoned him. So I would never abandon anyone else in need. Today a woman came into the library and stayed until closing. I noticed she had trouble getting around and when I asked if I could help, she told me she’s going blind and wanted to read as much and as often as she could before her sight is stolen for good. Her words made me cry. My husband never had the chance to value those moments but you do and if you don’t take advantage of them, then his loss was for naught.
The message ended there, Iris having sent it without adding her name. He still had a few minutes before Barney came to fetch him, so David typed WHERE DO YOU LIVE? and hit send.
ST. LOUIS, came her simple response. LOVE THE CARDINALS, JUST LIKE MY HUSBAND. WE WERE HIGH SCHOOL SWEETHEARTS.
HOW OLD WAS HE?
OH, NOT MUCH OLDER THAN YOU WHEN HE DIED, I SUSPECT.
HE WAS TWENTY-FOUR.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
I WAS TWENTY-FOUR, TOO.
I MEANT NOW.
David’s inbox icon remained motionless. He was still staring at it when Barney came to get him.
He could think of nothing besides Iris. She was with him when he woke up and when he went to bed. Time that had crawled through his therapy sessions before sped up to the point where pain and exhaustion abated in a haze not unlike the one induced by morphine, except his mind was clear enough to realize each day brought more improvement to his legs, improvement he’d been told would never come. Barney pushed and pushed and when that was done, he pushed some more.
“Know what, champ?” he said after one session, grinning. “I think you might just walk out of here.”
Turned out his right leg made faster progress than his left, so walk he did, on standard wooden crutches to a room in one of the Medical Transient Detachment houses that lacked the smell of alcohol and cleaning solvent that so dominated the hospital itself. The staff wore those scents like a rumpled suit, and he came to equate them with the pain that otherwise dominated his life.
David asked Iris to recommend books for him and recognized almost none of them once the USO somehow tracked the titles down. There were novels like East of Eden by John Steinbeck, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway. There was Angela’s Ashes, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and a book about a young girl called Next to Normal. There was To Kill a Mockingbird, which he remembered but never really understood. All books about dealing with adversity David devoured more than read, practically memorizing some passages and then trading thoughts with Iris on them until the point where such exchanges came to dominate their e-mails. The characters became his inspi-ration, and he lost himself in their plights to the point where, however briefly, he forgot his own while drifting off to sleep in his MTD house room. And suddenly his sessions with Barney felt less laborious, the pain still there but tucked away in the same place where David kept the stories Iris had sent him. Then the most momentous day yet came, and he felt one with his new heroes:
I stood up on my own today for the first time. I thought you’d like to see a picture.
He’d already downloaded the picture one of nurses had taken while Barney stood by in the physical therapy center just in case, and attached it to the message before sending. Iris’ reply was even simpler.
I’m so proud of you.
There it was; she’d finally said what David had been feeling. Fingers trembling over the keyboard, he steeled himself to reply.
Could I have a picture of you? It would mean so much to me.
But no reply came that day or the next.
Undeterred, David wheeled himself up to Captain Jane from the USO when he spotted her in the hallway.
“I’d like to know more about my e-mail pal.”
“I can tell you her name,” Captain Jane said, forcing a smile.
“I know that already.”
“And it’s all I know. Such things are handled elsewhere. I don’t even know where she’s from.”
“St. Louis,” said David. “She’s a Cardinal fan.”
David’s mind continued to obsess through the therapy sessions that grew even more arduous as he continued to improve against all expectation. It got to teams of doctors, and nurses at the Landstuhl Medical Center would gather in awe to witness Barney put David through his rigors. They’d watch and shake their heads, whispering to each other and jotting notes down on their clipboards. Finally the wooden crutches were a memory, replaced by steel canes that made him feel truly functional again.
In his free time, David would go to the computer room in search of the Iris beyond the inbox. He never again asked for a picture, and the subject didn’t resurface. Instead, they resumed their exchange on books, his progress, her day at the library, always signing off with “love,” the word David kept coming back to when unable to lift his eyes from the screen. Meanwhile, he began researching libraries in the St. Louis area, searching for one that had an employee named Iris. Finding such personal information defied his best efforts, so he scoured the libraries’ individual Web sites for pictures that might identify Iris in a photo caption. When he found photos, but no captions, he began to fixate over trying to guess which of the women she might be, never to any satisfactory result.
“Well, champ,” Barney said to him one day, “looks like my prophecy’s gonna come true.”
David looked down at his legs now covered in gym pants and absent the awful swelling and lumps. “I’m gonna walk out of here,” he realized.
“Bound for the Intrepid Center for Heroes in San Antonio where they’ll finish the job we started. Best in the world at this,” Barney said, winking. “Second only to me.”
With the time of his departure looming closer, David summoned the courage to craft the e-mail he’d been compos-ing in his mind for weeks now.
The miracle has come to pass. In a week’s time, I’m shipping out on my own two feet I couldn’t even feel when I first checked in here. I’m headed for a rehab hospital in San Antonio, but I asked them to route my ticket through St. Louis. Please tell me we can meet so I can thank you in person for all you’ve done. I never could have come this far without you, and—okay, I’ll say it—I love you. More than I’ve ever loved anyone. Even though we’ve never met or spoken and I don’t even know how old you are or what you look like. Please tell me you’ll meet me. Please tell me you’ll allow me to buy you dinner.
David felt himself tense, fearing no response would come. But Iris’ reply came within moments.
I have come to love you as well, more than anyone since my husband. But you owe me nothing, and if we were to meet in person, we risk losing the wonderful bond we have formed. If I turn out to be beautiful, how could I ever know your love and devotion for me was not based on that? And if I’m not, how could I know your love was not based on obligation? I beg you to leave our love at this, as it will remain for all time, so neither of us need feel any disappointment or regret that might otherwise result. I could never live with that and trust you wouldn’t want to either.
I don’t care about appearance. I’m the last man in the world who should, based on what I looked like when I came in here. It is I who beg you for this meeting. If it is to be only one, fine. But perhaps it will be for a lifetime. If your answer is no, I will understand and you need not even reply. That will be answer in itself.
But Iris did reply. Immediately.
Very well. But here are my conditions so both of us can go on with our lives without forcing something that is forced upon us. E-mail me your flight information, and I will meet you in the terminal. You will know me by a red jade pendant I’ll be wearing around my neck. It was my mother’s and her mother’s before her. That way, if you don’t like what you see, if you’re disappointed by my age or looks, you need not approach and both of us can go on with our lives without reservation or regret. The choice will be yours. Just look for the woman wearing the jade pendant.
David could barely restrain his excitement. For the first time in longer than he could remember, he had something to look forward to, his life filled with meaning and purpose and hope. The army booked him on a commercial flight home, and he agonized over the stopovers and plane changes, fearing he might arrive late to find Iris and her red jade pendant nowhere to be found in St. Louis’ Lambert Airport. He’d e-mailed her his itinerary but heard nothing back. Perhaps this had been her way of letting him down easy. Perhaps there would be no woman wearing a jade pendant waiting for him in the terminal.
He couldn’t walk fast, but he could walk well enough with nary a limp now. Standing was actually just as hard, and he’d conditioned himself to lean on something for support whenever forced to stand for more than a minute.
And that’s what he was doing, single tote bag slung over his shoulder, inside the airport terminal after his flight into St. Louis had arrived right on time. Shoulders propped up against a wall next to an airport bookshop with clear view of all those approaching. He caught a glimpse of himself in a nearby glass wall, comparing it to the one he recalled from the ambulance that had brought him to Landstuhl. His hair was trimmed neat and short, his face clean-shaven and unmarred by scabs and stitches. As for his eyes, well, they looked filled with life again, bright and hopeful.
Seconds past, then minutes, with no sign of a woman wearing a red jade pendant. Just harried travelers rushing to get to this place or that, everyone hurrying.
Finally he spotted a blond woman approaching, a few years his senior and ravishingly beautiful. Seeing his uniform, she cast him a respectful, even flirtatious smile when she neared, and David felt his breath bottleneck in his throat. Could this be her, could this be Iris? Then she drew close enough for him to see her white blouse clearly, no pendant dangling from her neck. David was tempted to follow her anyway, but quickly reminded himself of his true purpose even though the woman held her gaze on him until the bustle of the terminal swallowed her.
Instead David waited and watched to no avail. The terminal crowd thinned and amidst it he spotted an older woman coming his way, spine slightly hunched from age and arthritis. Her gait was slow and uneven, her hair bright silver and thinning at the top. And, as she drew closer, the bright terminal lighting revealed a red jade pendant clinging to her wool sweater.
David steadied himself with a deep breath and, feeling no sense of disappointment whatsoever, pushed himself from the wall, angling his feet to intercept the old woman.
“Excuse me, Iris,” he said, smiling with warm hand laid upon her shoulder. Stopping was hard for him and the terminal’s slick tile made it even harder. “I’m David Grant, and I’m so glad you’ve kept our dinner date.”
But the old woman looked at him strangely. “Young man,” she said, her voice soft and scratchy, “I don’t have a clue who you are or what’s going on. But a few minutes ago a beautiful young woman with blond hair gave me this pendant and told me if a young gentleman stopped me, I was to say she’d see you for dinner at the restaurant at the end of the terminal.”
David felt his world wobble, legs suddenly even more unsteady as his eyes cheated into the distance where the real Iris was waiting for him.
“Oh,” the old woman resumed, looping the jade pendant from her neck and handing it him, “you’d better give this back to the young lady when you see her.”