Carl leaned back in his easy chair and waited. It was at times like this when he missed the relaxing pleasure of his pipe, but at his daughter’s persistent urging, he had given up smoking years ago, and it had paid off. He had now achieved the distinction of being an octogenarian, and, thankfully, his lungs were not among the ever-growing list of ailments that typically afflicted those approaching their ninth decade of life.
Drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair, he felt a keen sense of anticipation because this was a big night, and he was eager to hear all about it. His grandson Jay would soon be returning home from his first night of volunteering at an assisted living center.
Carl’s daughter, Renee, had left a few minutes ago to pick him up. Her son had Down syndrome and did not drive, and Renee, an inveterate worrier, did not feel comfortable having him ride the bus alone in the dark. Although Jay had strongly protested that being 27-years-old made him perfectly capable of riding the bus after sunset, as so often happens in the eternal test of wills between mothers and sons – mom won.
Pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, Carl squinted at his watch and saw that it was 8:15. Jay’s shift was from 6:00 to 8:00, so he knew it wouldn’t be much longer. As he thought about how much his grandson had been looking forward to this night, his mind drifted back to the day his daughter’s prenatal test came back positive for Down syndrome.
Although initially, the diagnosis was a surprise to the family, they quickly adjusted to their new reality and when he was born, they lovingly accepted Jay for who he was. To Carl, the fact that his grandson had an extra chromosome made no difference. He was delighted to be a grandfather, and Renee was thrilled to be a mom. But the same could not be said for Jay’s dad. He had no interest in being the father of a child with a disability, and six months after Jay’s birth, he was gone and had no further contact with his wife and son. To say that Carl despised the man would be charitable indeed. In his opinion, anyone who would walk out on their family was worthless and did not deserve an ounce of respect.
In his unforgiveable absence, Carl had stepped in to fill the void, becoming more of a father than a grandfather to Jay. Their bond was unbreakable, and Jay thought his grandpa was the most wonderful man in the world.
As her son worked hard to reach the milestones that came naturally to others his age, Renee never stopped being supportive and encouraging. And Carl was tremendously helpful in guiding Jay through the endless maze of academic and social obstacles that litter childhood and adolescence. With perseverance, determination, and the love of his family, Jay grew up and made a life for himself that he thoroughly enjoyed, which was more than many people could claim.
Leaning forward and gripping his walker for support, Carl grimaced as he awkwardly shifted his weight to take the pressure off of his aching right leg. He had been seriously wounded during the Korean War, coming as close you could to death without actually crossing over into eternity. His injuries had led to a lifetime of pain, and, unfortunately, the recent bad weather had only made matters worse. The current cold snap had increased his stiffness, limiting his mobility, and intensifying his discomfort – but Carl believed he had no right to complain. Although Korea had physically changed him forever, thanks to the bravery of others, he had been blessed to come home when so many others had not.
After witnessing the horror and degradation of war, he knew he wanted to help people instead of hurting them, so when his military service was over, he went to college, got his degree, and became a high school teacher. Carl went on to enjoy a rewarding career that spanned four decades. He was passionate about educating young minds and helping them to understand their place in the world. He pursued his career with dedication and commitment, and watching his students succeed was extremely gratifying.
But in so many ways, that seemed like a lifetime ago. After losing his wife of 62 years, Renee had insisted he come and live with her and Jay. At first, he was reluctant to accept her offer because he didn’t want to be a bother, but his grandson was elated at the thought of having his grandpa permanently in their home, and Carl had to admit that with the deteriorating condition of his leg, it was getting more and more difficult for him to get around. Finally, after resisting as long as he could, he agreed to make the move. The three of them had quickly settled in and become quite content with their living arrangement.
Carl had just gotten comfortable in his new position in the chair when he heard the car pull into the driveway. It only took seconds before the front door was thrown open, and Jay burst in.
He smiled at his grandson’s excitement and asked, “What did you think of it?”
Jay raised both fists in the air and exclaimed, “It was fantastic!”
His mother followed in behind him and winked at her dad. “Jay was a little animated on the drive home.”
Jay turned to her. “What does ani-ma-ted mean?”
She reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “It means you are happy.”
“Yes! I am happy!”
Carl pointed to the couch. “Please, sit down and tell me about it.”
Jay dropped down on the corner closest to his grandfather. At only 5’7” and 120 pounds, he hardly made a dent in the cushion. Sadly, the combination of his slight build and the fact that he had an intellectual challenge had made him a frequent target for physical bullies and emotional tormentors as he was growing up. On multiple occasions, his mother had confronted the school’s administration over her son’s treatment. Of course, as an educator, Carl was fully aware of just how cruel teenagers could sometimes be.
“Look, Grandpa!” Jay proclaimed proudly. “I even got my own ID badge.”
“Can I take a look at it?” Carl asked.
“Oh, sure.” Jay handed it to him. “This badge makes me official.”
Carl read it out loud. “Jalin Davis Chadwick. Volunteer staff. That is impressive.”
His grandson’s face wrinkled into a look of displeasure “I asked if they could just put Jay Chadwick on there, but the lady said no. It had to be my full name. That is the rule.”
His grandfather smiled. “I’m sure they have their reasons, and you should always follow the rules.”
“Yeah, and everybody there knows to call me Jay, so it’s okay.” Then lowering his voice as if the wrong person might hear, he confessed, “The tag is not supposed to leave the building, but I forgot I had it on. They said that if I ever accidentally took it home, I could just bring it with me next week.”
Carl said reassuringly, “I’m sure you’re not the first person to accidentally wear your badge home.”
Jay nodded. “You know, when I was first thinking about working at the retirement center, I wasn’t even sure what the word volunteer meant.”
Carl was curious to see what his grandson thought. “What does it mean?”
A little surprised that his grandfather could be in his 80’s and not know such a thing, Jay was pleased to fill him in. “Volunteer means you do something because in your heart you care, and you want to help people.”
That was perhaps the best definition of volunteering Carl had ever heard. “I believe that is the perfect answer.”
“I’m glad I get to go every Wednesday. It was so much fun that the time went by really fast.”
“So, what was your favorite thing about tonight?”
Without a bit of hesitation, Jay said, “I got to meet Sam! He’s great. He reminds me of you, Grandpa.”
“Yep. He’s at least as old as you are. Lots of wrinkles. He can get around okay, but he moves very slowly. He’s funny though, and he made me laugh. We talked for a long time. He was nice to me.”
Carl laid Jay’s ID badge on the end table between them. “He sounds like a good fellow.”
“He is! I even helped him with his bingo card.” Jay hastened to clarify, “His eyes aren’t good, so it’s hard for him to see the numbers. And guess what else.”
“I don’t know.” His grandfather tried to hide his amusement at Jay’s excitement.
“He likes baseball just as much as me! And he loves Mexican food and he likes movies, especially westerns, just like me. Can you believe it?”
“That is terrific.” Carl was relieved that Jay’s first night had gone so well. “When you have something in common, it makes it easy to spend time with that person.”
“Yes! It was easy to talk to Sam – and he really listened to me.”
Carl beamed. “I am so happy for you.”
“And guess what else, Grandpa.”
“I don’t know. What?”
“Sam was in a war just like you.”
“He was? Which one did he serve in?”
“Don’t know.” Jay thought about it for a second and then asked, “Does it matter? Aren’t all wars bad?”
Carl’s grandson had a particular ability to get to the simple truth of any subject. “Yes, they are, Jay. You are sure right about that.”
They talked for a little while longer and then Jay went upstairs to his room. After he had gone, Renee sat down by her father. He could tell by her expression that, even though the first night at the center had gone well, she had managed to find something to worry about.
Wanting to put her mind at ease, Carl asked, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
She didn’t waste any time coming to the point. “I’m not sure I made the right decision letting Jay volunteer at the center.” Renee had spent the last 27 years worrying about her son, and she wasn’t about to stop now. After three decades of motherhood, she had raised her ability to become anxious over almost anything to an art form.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just afraid he’s going to get attached to someone like this Sam, and because of the person’s age, there is the chance that he might lose them. You remember how it affected him when mom died. He was so heartbroken, and it took him a long time to come to terms with it.”
Carl sighed because he knew his daughter was right. The death of his grandmother had been rough on Jay, however, the possibility of losing those you care about was an unavoidable fact that everyone was forced to deal with. “I understand how, as a mother, that would concern you, but you can’t protect Jay from everything.” Carl paused, smiled, and said, “Besides, I’m old, and someday you will have to face that issue again.”
“Oh, Dad! Don’t talk like that.”
“I’m just saying that Jay is going to lose more people who are important to him. It is inevitable.”
Renee’s shoulders slumped. “That might be – but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
“Well, you can take comfort in the fact that he seemed to have a good time tonight, and I’m sure the residents will appreciate having him there.”
Her dad’s upbeat attitude was slightly irritating. “Yes, I know that. But it’s my job to worry about him.”
There was a twinkle in Carl’s eyes as he said sweetly, “And as they say, practice makes perfect, and that has made you very good at your job.”
Over the next six months, Jay became a beloved figure at the center. His easy-going nature and his desire to be as helpful as possible endeared him to both the residents and the staff. But no one was more affected by his kindness than Sam, and they quickly became good friends.
Their relationship did not escape the notice of the nurses either. Sam seemed like a different person when he was with Jay. His personality transformed, and the heavy despondency that often enveloped him dissipated away. The nursing staff marveled at the way the young man was able to bring out a side of Sam that no one had seen before, and it was obvious that both men mutually benefited from their time together.
Jay was not aware of the positive effect he was having, but he was aware of how Sam treated him. He didn’t talk down to Jay or treat him differently. He accepted him as an equal, and although Jay couldn’t put it into words, he knew how good it made him feel.
Both Carl and Renee were pleased that Jay had a passion for helping others, and his weekly visits to the center became the highlight of the week. After growing up enduring the torment of bullies who had robbed him of his sense of self-worth, he gradually became more confident and his self-esteem increased. Jay had found a place where he belonged.
But always lurking in the back of Renee’s mind was the disquieting thought that her son risked facing the grim realities associated with advanced age.
Six weeks later, on a rainy Wednesday evening, Carl had just sat down in his easy chair, when he heard the car pull into the driveway. He eagerly waited for Jay to rush into the room and begin telling him all about his shift at the center – but when the front door opened, Carl took one look at his grandson, and he knew that something was not right.
He glanced at Renee who looked at her dad and shook her head, indicating bad news was about to come.
As cheerfully as he could manage, Carl asked, “How did it go tonight?”
Jay slumped down on the couch. For a few seconds, he just stared off into space and then he said shakily, “I didn’t get to see Sam tonight because something is wrong with him. They had to put him in the hospital, and he is really bad.” Jay stopped as he tried to steady his voice. “I heard some of the residents talking, and they said he might even die.”
Carl looked again at Renee who couldn’t resist giving him her best I told you so look.
Turning back to Jay, his grandfather said, “I am so sorry to hear that.” He wanted to be reassuring, however, having no idea about Sam’s condition, he didn’t want to give his grandson false hope. “I’m sure the folks at the hospital will do everything they can to make him better.”
To Jay’s way of thinking, it didn’t add up. “Hospitals are where people go to die.”
Renee sat down next to her son. One of her strengths as a mother was her willingness to try to see the world from Jay’s perspective. Instead of just telling him he shouldn’t feel that way, she decided to use a positive example. “Yes, that is sometimes true, but many other times people get well. Hospitals are good places. It’s where I had you, and that was the very best day of my life.”
“Yeah, but when grandma went to the hospital, she never came home.” A look of resignation crept over Renee’s face. She realized they could talk in circles debating the role of hospitals and never get anywhere, so she chose not to respond. It didn’t matter. Her son was just thinking out loud, trying to make sense of it all. He wanted to believe he would see his friend again, but he wasn’t sure that was possible.
Jay looked down at the floor and said, “Sam is old, and the other people think he is so sick that even if he doesn’t die, he might not come back to the center.”
Carl knew that was a real possibility, so it would be good for Jay to focus on the other residents. “I suppose you’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, there are a lot of other folks there who need your help and attention too.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Jay said with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. “But it won’t be the same without Sam.”
And so, with no other choice, Jay waited – impatiently. Week after week, he looked forward to his shift wishing with all his might that Sam would come back, and everything would be like it was before.
Finally, after two long months, his wish came true. His friend returned to the center – but Jay was not prepared to find him in such a vulnerable condition. He was crushed to discover that for Sam, nothing would ever again be the same.
They spent an hour together on that first evening, but Jay found it unsettling and disturbing. Later when he and Renee came through the front door at home, it was obvious it had been a bad night.
Carl waited for him to say something, but instead, Jay surprised his grandfather by walking over, leaning down, and hugging him as tightly as he could. The embrace lasted for several seconds.
When he stood back up, Carl asked, “What is it, Jay? What’s wrong?”
Dropping onto his usual spot on the corner of the couch, Jay blinked back tears. “I saw Sam tonight.”
Confused, Carl thought that would make his grandson happy. “Well, he must be doing better if he’s back at the center.”
Jay shook his head. “No. It was terrible.”
Unsure if he wanted to talk about it, Carl thought he would at least give him the opportunity. “Do you feel like telling me what happened?”
Struggling not to become even more upset, Jay whispered, “Sam didn’t know who I was.”
Carl frowned. “What?”
Renee interjected gently, “I believe Sam had a stroke, and that’s why he went to the hospital.”
Carl leaned back in his chair as all the air seemed to drain out of his lungs. A stroke. Among the myriad of health challenges that could unexpectedly occur, that was surely one of the most dreaded. Searching for the right words, he said, “I’m sorry, Jay. I’m sorry for both you and Sam.”
Jay was perfectly still as Renee sat down next to him and took his hand in hers. He looked up at his mom. “Sam wasn’t able to talk. It seemed like he tried sometimes, but I couldn’t tell what he meant. It was just sounds.”
Renee leaned over and kissed her son on the forehead. “Sweetie, I know it’s not easy to see someone you care about going through a thing like that.”
Jay’s voice ached with sadness. “He just sat the whole time covered up with a blanket. I never saw him get up or move around. It was almost like he didn’t know anyone else was there…… He wasn’t Sam anymore.”
“Oh, Honey, that’s not true.” Renee knew there was nothing she could say that would ease her son’s despair, but she wanted him to know that his feelings for someone should not change just because they were sick. “Sam’s illness may have affected his thinking and his memory, but he is still your friend. Nothing can change that.”
Jay sat for a long time before he said, “It scares me to see Sam like that.”
Carl could understand why it would upset him to see a person dealing with the effects of a stroke, but he didn’t necessarily see why it would frighten him. He didn’t want to embarrass his grandson over his fear, but he was curious, so he asked, “Why does it scare you?”
Jay bit his lip as he tried his best not to break down. He looked at his grandpa and in a tone of voice almost too low to hear, he said, “It scares me because I’m afraid it might happen to you.”
His answer caught Carl by surprise, and it touched his heart. He looked over at his daughter who sniffed as her eyes began to blur with redness.
Still fighting back tears, Jay said, “It could happen to you, couldn’t it, Grandpa.”
Carl took a breath and weighed his words carefully because he wanted to be honest without being alarming. “Yes, there is a small chance that something could happen. But it’s not likely.”
Glancing at Renee, he added, “The thing is, none of us can know what the future holds, so we should not let it worry us.”
With concern clouding his face, his grandson looked at him and said, “I can’t help it. I love you.”
Carl smiled and said, “And, of course, I love you, Jay. That’s why a person should always make the most of the time they have with those who are important to them – just like you’ve done with Sam. You’ve brought him happiness, and that is a wonderful thing. There is not enough happiness in the world, especially for some people, and anytime you can make them feel better, you should.”
“But Sam is not the same now.” Jay protested. “Before, he was strong, and he was able to do stuff. Now he’s sad, and he’s all alone and maybe even scared.”
In a soothing tone of voice, Carl said, “That is why he needs you now more than ever. It’s called unconditional love. And it means that you continue to care about someone even when they can’t always respond…… I know you still care a great deal for Sam or you wouldn’t be upset after seeing him. It won’t be easy, but I hope you’ll continue to be his friend.”
“Okay.” Jay rubbed his eyes and said, “Even if he doesn’t know who I am, I can still help take care of him. I want him to be as happy as possible.”
His grandfather nodded. “Jay, you just described what friendship is all about. It may not seem like it now, but Sam is fortunate that you are there for him.”
For the next several months, Jay did his best to remember his grandfather’s words. Every Wednesday, he would spend as much time as possible with Sam. Although he never again recognized Jay, it didn’t keep the young man from being the best friend he could be. They would sit together, and Jay would talk a blue streak, hoping that Sam could hear what he was saying. He would tell him the latest baseball scores and talk about their favorite movies, always hoping for a response – but never getting any.
Slowly over time, Jay began to understand what his grandfather meant by unconditional love. Just because Sam couldn’t interact with him, didn’t mean that Jay’s efforts had no meaning. It felt good to try to help him no matter what the circumstances.
But, tragically, Sam’s condition worsened, and he was once again admitted to the hospital. Although he didn’t know it, Jay had seen his friend for the last time. The following Wednesday when he reported for his shift, the nursing staff took him aside and broke the news that Sam had peacefully passed away in his sleep.
That night back at the house, Jay was grief-stricken but not shocked by his death. He had come to realize that Sam was not going to get better and that it was only a matter of time before this happened. That’s why he had tried to appreciate every minute he got to spend with him.
After he had been home for a while, Jay asked his mom a question. “People at the center said that they wrote something about Sam the way they always do when someone dies, but I can’t remember what that writing is called.”
“It’s called an obituary,” Renee answered. “It’s where they tell a little bit about the person.”
Dejectedly, Jay said, “I wish I could have known what they said.”
Renee looked at her dad. “I bet I can find it online.” She sat down at her laptop and asked her son, “Do you remember Sam’s last name?”
It was hard for Jay to think clearly at a time like this, and the only thing he could recall was that it started with the letter M.
Renee’s fingers flew over the keyboard as she searched. It didn’t take long until she found it. “Okay. Here it is. His full name was Samuel Lee Mason.”
When he heard the name, Carl sat straight up in his chair and stared at her in disbelief. Thinking that couldn’t be right, he asked his daughter, “Are you sure you’re looking at the correct obituary?”
Renee double-checked. “Yes, this is it. Why?”
Carl thought the name had to be some kind of incredible coincidence. Trying to steady his voice. He asked, “If you don’t mind, please read it to us.”
Jay joined in. “Yeah, please, Mom.”
“All right.” Both men sat still and paid close attention. Renee cleared her throat and began.
“Samuel Lee Mason, 87, passed away peacefully on December 3, 2019, in Indianapolis. He was born on August 19, 1932, in Muncie, Indiana. Sam was preceded in death by his beautiful wife, Gloria, and their beloved son, Raymond. Survivors include a younger brother, William.
Immediately upon graduation from high school in 1950, Sam joined the United States Army. He served with distinction during the Korean War and was highly decorated. Displaying tremendous courage and valor during combat at the Battle of Triangle Hill, Sam saved the lives of two fallen comrades. Although –”
Carl interrupted and with his voice breaking said just two words. “Stuart Paxton.”
Having no idea what he was talking about, Renee asked, “Who is Stuart Paxton, Dad?”
Carl gulped hard as a torrent of emotion swept over him. “It was ME and Stuart…… We were the two soldiers that Sam saved.”
For just a moment, his daughter was speechless. Then wanting to make sure she had heard him right, Renee asked softly, “Dad, are you saying that Sam Mason saved your life during the Korean War?”
Carl nodded and said, “Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. Please continue, and then I will explain.”
Jay was having difficulty making sense out of what was going on, but he wanted to hear more.
Renee started again.
“Although shot multiple times himself, Sam managed to move the seriously wounded soldiers to safety while braving intense enemy fire. For his courageous actions on the battlefield, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
“After his discharge from the military, Sam returned home, married, and eventually had one child. He then started a successful construction business which he operated until his retirement.
“Sam was a respected community leader in the Muncie area and was known for his charitable work. He was particularly interested in assisting wounded veterans, and his company built many facilities at a reduced cost that delivered medical services to the men and women of our armed forces.”
Renee paused before adding, “The rest is just the date and times of the viewing and the funeral. Sam passed away six days ago, and he was taken back to Muncie and was buried next to his wife and son.”
The three of them sat in silence for a few seconds each lost in thought before Renee said, “Dad, you said you would explain.”
The sound of her voice jolted Carl back to the present. “Yes, yes. I will.”
After hearing all of this, Jay didn’t know what to think. He could hardly believe that his grandfather and Sam had even known each other, let alone that Sam had saved his life.
After regaining his composure, Carl began the account of his experience in Korea by describing the third individual involved. “Stuart Paxton was a fine man, and a good soldier. When he returned to the states, although he could barely pass the physical because of his damaged lung, he became a police officer. I believe he served for 20 years if I remember right. We stayed in touch off and on after the war, but, eventually, we lost track of each other. Unfortunately, just like with Sam, I didn’t learn of his death until several weeks later. Otherwise, I would have gone to his funeral. I had nothing but respect for him.”
As the memories of the horrific events of 1952 came rushing back to him, Carl was forced to pause and take a deep breath. This wasn’t going to be easy, but he wanted to honor Sam Mason for what he had done.
“Other than when we lost your mom, it was the worst day of my life. All afternoon the battle had raged. Our unit ended up trapped in a valley, and the PVA held the high ground.”
Jay broke in and asked, “What was the PVA?”
Carl answered, “PVA stood for the People’s Volunteer Army. They were Chinese soldiers. They had the advantage of their high position, and they rained down intense machine gun fire on us. It was brutal. Men were being struck down all around me. I noticed Stu to my left about 20 feet away. I was looking right at him when he got hit in the chest.
“I immediately started trying to work my way over to where he was laying, but before I could reach him, I was hit in the left shoulder. It wasn’t too bad. The bullet just tore up the flesh, but it didn’t damage too much bone. I was able to stay on my feet, and even though I couldn’t lift that arm, I continued to try to get to Stu because I knew how badly he was hurt.”
Renee could hardly believe what she was hearing. “My God, Dad.” Her father had never told his family exactly how he received his wounds. “I had no idea.”
Carl just shrugged and continued. “Just as I got within a couple of feet of Stuart, I was hit twice in the right leg. The first bullet took off the knee cap, and the second went through my thigh. The force of being hit knocked me flat on my back. Desperate to get up on my feet, I tried to stand, but I couldn’t put any weight on my leg, and I collapsed. I knew I couldn’t stay there because I would either bleed to death – or get hit again. However, because of my injuries, I couldn’t even pull myself along the ground. I was just lying there unprotected, an easy target.”
With his grandson hanging on every word, Carl began to describe what Sam did. “Suddenly someone came up behind me. With bullets hitting all around us, a soldier started dragging me out of the line of fire. As the pain soared through my shoulder, I looked up and saw that it was Sam Mason. I shouted at him to leave me and to get Stu instead because he was in worse shape. He looked over and saw how bad Stuart was. I remember Sam let go of me, tapped me on the helmet, and yelled through the deafening gunfire that he’d come back for me – but I never expected to see him again because I thought we were all going to die.”
Jay was mesmerized. “Were you scared, Grandpa?”
“Yes, I was. I was terrified. We were all scared.” With the pain of the experience etched on his face, Carl finished his story. “What I will never forget about that day were the screams and cries for help from all the wounded and dying. I didn’t deserve to live any more than they did, but I was lucky because Sam Mason was my friend.
“I’ve replayed that afternoon thousands of times in my mind, and I still don’t know how Sam managed to get Stu to safety and then return for me. The entire time, the Chinese never let up with their machine guns. It was just constant withering fire. I know it was just a minute or two, but it seemed like I laid there forever. But then through the heavy smoke that had settled over the valley, Sam appeared. He was like a ghost coming through a mist. I could not believe he had really come back.
“He had no choice but to drag me out by pulling me by my arms. The agony in my shoulder was indescribable, but for the first time, I thought I might actually survive. When we got to cover, I got my first clear look at Sam, and I saw that he was bleeding profusely. He was only able to stagger a few steps before he fell to the ground unconscious. I saw then why he couldn’t lift me. He had been hit a total of four times. It was a miracle that he even survived, let alone had the strength to save me and Stu.”
Renee was stunned. “It’s hard to believe you all made it out alive.”
Carl took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I just don’t know what to say about such bravery. Without any hesitation, he went up against impossible odds. Sam willingly risked his life to save ours, and in doing so he paid an awful price. That kind of courage deserves to be rewarded in every way possible.”
Jay could hardly imagine what his grandfather had been through. “Being in a war must be so terrible.”
“It is.” Carl tried to put it in a way that his grandson could understand. “That kind of fighting means you have to try to hurt another person intentionally – you try to kill them on purpose. That is a sickening thing to have to do. But the frightening part is that after a while you become almost numb to the death occurring all around you. I guess that is what allowed us to keep going in such awful conditions.”
For just a second, Jay thought about asking his grandpa if he had really killed someone, but then he decided it didn’t matter. Whatever happened back then, he knew his grandfather was a good person. Instead, Jay said, “I’m sorry that you had to do that for our country, but I’m so happy you made it back to America.”
Carl reached over and patted his grandson’s knee. “Thank you, Jay. But even though we were all grateful to be home, many of us felt bad about what we saw and what we had to do. Sam was one of those who struggled with that, and it made him sad, so sad that he didn’t want to be reminded about it.”
He turned to his daughter and said, “In the beginning, I saw him a few times at some reunions, but he was extremely uncomfortable. He wanted to put it all behind him, and I could appreciate that. So after a decade or so, we lost touch. But believe me, I’ve thought about him every day since Korea. What he did for me and Stuart – there is no way to thank someone enough. I just never dreamed that Jay’s friend was the same person.”
“There’s no way you could’ve known,” Renee said. “But I’m glad you told us about that day.”
Carl looked at his grandson and said, “War brings out the best and the worst in people. For Sam, it brought out the best, and what he did that day had a profound effect on the future.”
“The future?” Jay asked.
“Yes.” Carl wanted to emphasize the magnitude of what Sam had done. “Think about this. He didn’t just save my life, in a very real sense, he also saved yours.”
Confused, Jay asked, “What do you mean?”
“If he hadn’t rescued me in Korea, I couldn’t have married your grandmother, and your mom wouldn’t have been born. That means you wouldn’t be here either. Over time, everything is interconnected in astonishing ways. What Sam did in 1952, had an impact 40 years later in 1992 when you came into the world. So you see, Sam made all three of our lives possible.”
Jay could see that his grandfather was right, and that made the story even more amazing. “I knew Sam was in the army but I didn’t know he was a hero. He was so old, and at the end, he couldn’t do anything. I felt sorry for him. It makes it hard to believe he was once a soldier who did something so great.”
Carl sensed this was an opportunity to share a valuable lesson, and he didn’t want it to slip by. As the teacher in him took over, he said gently, “Jay, please listen. When you meet an older person, like those you work with at the center, remember that they always deserve your respect. Today they may seem unhappy or weak or confused, but you have no idea what they did, what they accomplished, or what a difference they made. But here is the thing. Their life matters just as much now as it ever did. They still deserve to be treated with dignity. I think you agree.”
“Yes, I do. But seeing how sick Sam was, it’s hard to imagine that he was once brave.”
“As you said, at the end, Sam was overwhelmed by health problems – but I’m sure that he was just as brave facing those as he was facing enemy fire on the battlefield when he saved my life. Courage comes in many forms, and sometimes it happens out of sight where it can’t be seen or appreciated by others. But it is just as real. The men and women you are working with at the center are each courageous in their own way. They face physical and mental difficulties, and they do it quietly without drawing attention to themselves. I have lived a long time, and I’ve seen many things, and I know that it’s often people you would never suspect who are the most courageous of all.”
Jay said, “I guess that’s right. I try to be nice to everyone there, but Sam was special. He was the first person who liked me. From the day we met, he was nice to me. I’m going to miss him so much.”
Carl smiled and said with great sensitivity, “Of course you will. Losing someone you care about is one of the most difficult things there is. But even while you miss him, try to be thankful that, no matter how briefly, you at least had the chance to get to know him. Not every person will be in our life for a long time – but that doesn’t mean they can’t have great meaning to us.”
Jay agreed. “I do feel lucky that Sam was my friend.”
Carl looked at his grandson and daughter and said, “Yes, he was truly an inspiring man. Because of his incredible bravery, Sam has given me 67 additional years of life – but, more importantly, he gave me both of you.