How a conversation starts with a stranger never seems straightforward.
My friend Kelly and I, and her two boys, had gone downtown for a festival, and as we were leaving, we decided to stop at the Subway sandwich shop to buy bottles of water. While we were there, Kelly asked the boys to wash their hands and faces. They were going in and out of the men’s room looking for paper towels, being asked to rewash, when I caught her eye, the young woman in a wheel chair eating at a table alone.
“How are you this evening?” I asked, when she looked my direction.
She smiled, putting down her sandwich, that one long piece of hair in the front falling over her eyes. “Good,” she said. She looked strong, not like I imagined someone in a wheelchair, and defiant. The blunt haircut and the various ear piercings screamed look at me.
“They are so dirty,” I told her, gesturing toward the boys who were talking loudly and splashing water. “We were over at the First Friday Festival, and they played corn hole with dusty bean bags for about an hour.”
“I heard the band from my apartment,” she said. “I didn’t even know we had a First Friday Festival until I heard the noise and thought, ‘what’s that?’”
I leaned against the table while I was talking, trying to lower my frame so that I wasn’t looking down on her sitting in her rolling chair pushed close up to the table. When I had walked over, she rolled back a bit; I saw that she had on a Wheelchair Tennis tournament shirt. Without really knowing why, I asked, “Are you on the Wheelchair Tennis Olympic Team?”
In hindsight, it was a silly question; after all, what were the odds? But maybe I asked it because I wanted something big for this young woman’s life or maybe because I didn’t want to ignore the fact that she was in a wheelchair. Likely, it was because I was nervous and just said the first thing that came to my mind. Regardless, I asked it and she looked a bit surprised.
“No, but I am going to be on the Olympic Team in four years,” she said. “Wheelchair water skiing and downhill skiing.”
We talked about the sports a bit, where the games might be in four years, how she had been scouted at a ski resort in Idaho. I told her I thought it was an amazing opportunity. She smiled proudly and agreed.
“I’m a vet, so it’s better than sitting here unemployed,” she added.
“Iraq War?” I asked. She nodded.
“Thank you for your service to our country,” I said, meaning it.
“I miss it. No one here understands what I’ve been through,” she said.
“I can only imagine.”
She told me she was a mortician, explaining that there are morgues set up in each of the theaters in the Middle East, including Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. She told me that her unit is currently in Kuwait, and she wishes she were with them. She also mentioned the work she did stateside, talking with families of dead soldiers, marines, and sailors. That part she doesn’t miss.
About that time, the boys had finished washing up and came skipping over with their bottled waters, followed by their momma. The conversation with the stranger was over, and we wished each other well.
I left not knowing about her injury, her life now, her home. I had a million questions I wanted to ask. But the greatest disappointment was not getting her name. I had told her mine as we were leaving. “I’m Charity,” I had said. “It’s been nice talking with you.” But she had just responded with, “Same here. Have a nice evening.”
Was it that a casual conversation was fine but really getting to know someone, telling them her name, was too much? Of all those bodies she had touched, each one with a name and a family and now a coffin, none of them had known her name. When she talked with me, did she see their faces? Would telling her name to me be like saying it to the hundreds of strangers whose pockets she had emptied, whom she had undressed and washed and dressed again?
Maybe not knowing her name has kept her with me longer, kept me asking those unasked questions, and seeing the faces of all those soldiers myself, the ones with names I do not know, either.
So, to the unknown soldier who lives in my city, you will not be forgotten.
Photo by Keoni Cabral, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.