Friday, January 22, 2010
GRACIE - THE SOLDIER'S ANGEL
Kevin is from Nashville and loves country music, the historic Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry and is father to a five year old little girl. He is a quiet young man, who answered the call when his country went to war. It was a struggle for him to talk as he had only three days before had graft surgery that had temporarily connected his cheek to his upper shoulder. He had severe burns over his entire body and had lost both legs just above his knees.
The first time I had met Kevin was as he wheeled off the elevator at the Fisher House. He stopped his motorized wheelchair to watch little Gracie playing with me on the floor in the formal living room. He seemed reluctant to come in, so I took the initiative and asked if he would come help Grace relax after she had worked all morning. He seemed intrigued. I felt he was relieved that he had an excuse, but I sensed somewhere inside he was apologetic for his appearance. Gracie’s playtime proved to be the perfect catalyst for conversation with this soldier.
I told him Gracie was a therapy dog and showed him her badges and pins on her vest and told him of her vision problem. “I couldn’t tell; I think her eyes are beautiful.” Kevin said. He told us that he had been in the hospital for 793 days, had been allowed to go home and then returned to BAMC (Brooke Army Medical Center) for another surgery. Because of scar tissue, thin skin and the potential for infection, there were few places where Gracie could touch him, or for him to find a way to be able to touch her, from his discomfot and lack of mobility. So I lifted her onto a chair and moved her close to his wheelchair. It was difficult for Kevin to to navigate to pet her. But his eyes never left her. Being with Gracie allowed him to focus on her and not have to make eye contact with me. We talked for a while, about his daughter, his hometown and the reality TV talent competition where country singers compete for a recording contract, “Nashville Star.”
I told him I would be happy to bring him anything he might need and to call me if he thought of anything. He assured me he would and that he would also be happy to attend Gracie’s birthday party in a few days. As I thanked him for his service and his sacrifice, the words felt quite inadequate. And then I remembered being told by another soldier, that they don’t hear that very often. Kevin simply said, “Not a problem.” And then as quickly as Kevin had entered my life he had left.
Leaving my heart was another thing. I felt like I had held my breath the entire time he was here. The moment he left the room my eyes filled with tears. Tears for him, for others like him, for the future he might have had, for his pain and struggles and sacrifices and for those who can’t see beyond outward appearances to what is real. A weekend lead volunteer came in and asked who he was. She had wanted to come in and meet him but found she needed time to collect herself first because his appearance was so distressing. She and I just sat for a while, holding hands, and shaking our heads. There wasn’t a need for words.
I silently turned to see little Gracie intent on searching ‘her’ bag for any more treats. Another lesson of huge proportions learned from a little dog. To Gracie, Kevin was just a new friend whose appearance simply was not important. I was, and will always be, filled with wonder at what a member of another species teaches us about unconditional love and the interconnectedness of all living things on this earth. To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, Antoine de Saint Exupery, “Here is my secret. It is very simple. The essential things in life are seen not with the eyes, but with the heart.”
On this beautiful day I had been given a glorious blessing. And this blessing was named Kevin. He served for America. The words written for Operation Gratitude’s publication by a little girl named Katie sum it up.
“Serving for America, what better could you do?
Everything around me, and everything that’s new.
Couldn’t have been possible, unless there was you.
Being safe at home, and being safe at school.
All because of all you guys. You guys rule!”
I felt immeasurable pride and impassioned humility to have just been able to spend a few moments with Kevin. He represents the gift and blessing of freedom that will never escape my being. His sacrifices will never be forgotten and will find enduring gratitude in many, many hearts, not the least of which is mine.
Marjorie Williams in her children’s storybook, The Velveteen Rabbit, tells the story of a stuffed toy rabbit that lives in the nursery waiting to the day when the boy will choose him as a playmate. The shy rabbit befriends the tattered Skin Horse, the wisest resident in the nursery, who reveals the goal of all nursery toys is to be made ‘real’ through the love of a human. The Skin Horse tells the Rabbit that, “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.” “Does it hurt?” asked the rabbit. The Skin Horse says, “Sometimes. When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt. Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.”
This has been written for you to honor and applaud extraordinarily handsome and ‘real’ men like Kevin who sacrifice and exemplify the meaning and lessons of patriotism. Their strength, their skills, their wisdom, their bravery and their courage was put to the test. They are the reason we are free.
Kevin may never know what he signifies and exemplifies. But to me he is probably the most ‘real’ person I have ever known. In less than fifteen minutes he and Gracie had taught me about growth, authenticity, pain, suffering, acceptance, relationships, and love. We all look ‘out there’ for that someone who reflects back to us those qualities we admire and most often lack. Physical appearances don’t make us who we are. They don’t make us real.
Gracie and Kevin brought life into perspective and showed me the special grace found in one of the hardest, best things I ever did.
God bless you Kevin!
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