The two bronze medals hung from a gold chain around his neck on the outside of his dingy off-white turtleneck. Thick-lensed, clear plastic glasses on his swollen nose gave the otherwise chiseled face an almost comical appearance. His smile was the most prominent feature of all, however, matched only by his warm hands that grasped mine as I entred the room.
My eyes were immediately drawn to his necklace which I recognized as service medals. He had removed them from their ribbons and hung them proudly on the outside of his sweater for everyone at his new assisted living home to see. I reached for them to feel their heft between my own fingers. Holding them, I somehow felt secure in this man’s presence and I resisted letting them go. His daughter said that all the residents wanted to touch them, to the point he had to hide them at the home. I must have blushed somewhat as I let go and got back to his facial injuries.
Quickly, I conducted a thorough exam with all the professionalism and competence I could muster. I wanted to make him proud of me, to show him that I was as good a doctor as he was a soldier. I wanted him to know that he was appreciated and that I was listening to his story.
But most of all, I wanted to know what he received the medals for. His aging mind recalled his youth with sharp precision, but the present was cloudy. “Tell her about feeding your men in Munich,” his daughter prompted, “that’s the best story of all.” He told me many stories, and I’m not sure which ones to believe, or which ones he was awarded a service medal for. Was it for cleverly feeding his men in Munich by throwing a grenade into a small pond? Was it for landing on the beaches of Normandy the second day of the invasion?
Regardless, he was now on a different battlefield. He smiled the entire time, and was embarassed that he was now in the hosptial with cuts and scrapes that didn’t amount to much at all. But I was glad to have encountered him. He brighted my night and I think I did the same for him. His ice cream is waiting for him back at his new home, the container slightly smeared with blood from his nose…but that didn’t seem to bother him at all.