“Fighting my own battle”
I was warned. Two adult daughters called me on speaker phone to prep me on nearly 90 year old father. “Do you have any suggestions on how we can get him to tour the building? Tape, a stun gun?” They suggested. I laugh. They didn’t. I knew they were serious. I assured them that all they had to do was bring dad into the building and I would work my magic. “I have a gift. I promise you. He will love it. I will make him feel at ease.” They laughed thinking “Yea, right.” I didn’t know what I was in for.
I told them getting him through the front doors will be the hardest part for him. I can do the rest. “A lot of people have a misconception of what Independent Living & Assisted Living really is. It is not the “nursing home” that they remember bringing their parents to. In fact, he will have MORE Independence going into this community than he has now at home. He will no longer have to rely on you guys, his neighbors or his aide. It is like living on a cruise ship or an all-inclusive retirement community. There is a full service bar with a liquor license, live entertainment until 9 or 10pm. He will have his own chef who cooks for him. A personal driver who takes him anywhere he wants to go, and someone to clean his apartment on a weekly basis. And friends…. My goodness, the amount of friends that he will make. It will be such a great experience.” One of the daughters interrupts me, “I WANT TO MOVE IN!” I laugh, “Me too, trust me. This place reminds me of my honeymoon. It’s incredible.” We set up a time to bring dad over. “Remember you’ve been warned.” They say one last time.
The car pulls up. One daughter exits the driver seat. The other daughter gets out of the back seat. They did not exit gracefully. They pop out like ninjas. They corner their poor dad so he has no other choice other than to exit the car and go with them. I am watching this from the window feeling sorry for this sweet man. I walk outside to see if I could help and as soon as the doors opened and I walked outside, I heard all of the yelling. It reminded me of that one child in Kindergarten who did not want to go in. Each daughter had a death grip on one of his arms. “Get the heck off of me you monkey kids.” I couldn’t help but smile. Monkey kids. I think I love this man. I extend a hand, “Mr. Weitzman. It is such a pleasure to finally meet you.” The monkey kids release his arms and nudge him to shake my hand like he is a child. He has a grumpy look on his face. His hair was a mess. Polo tucked into sweat pants. I imagined that they kidnapped him in his sleep, and removed the duct tape on the car ride over. “It is not a pleasure to meet you blondie. What, are you like 18 years old?” “No sir. But I love you for that.” “Who are you calling sir? You stupid kid.” He says as he hit the heel of my shoe with his cane. I jump a little. He caught me off guard. Then he did what none of us expected. He started to run. Well he thought he was running. He was walking briskly with his cane. “Dad what the heck do you think you are doing?” One of the daughters called out. “Don’t be THAT guy, dad!” Oh He is already THAT guy I think to myself as I smile. He was THAT guy the minute he hit me with his cane.
After Mr. Weitzman realized that he wasn’t going to travel very far by running. He agreed to come in. I could tell within seconds that he was pleasantly surprised by the ambiance in the community. His body language told a story. Of course he was too stubborn to admit it but he liked what he saw. I could see it on his face. He knew he was wrong about what this community actually was. We sat and talked. He was still angry, grumpy and had no interest in uncrossing his arms anytime soon. He has his back to his daughters. I don’t think he planned on forgiving them anytime soon. He was facing me but wouldn’t even look me in the eyes. I wanted to know more about his life. I didn’t want him to feel that he had a spot light on him. I wanted him to be comfortable. I slid my notepad away from me, crossed my legs, leaned back and just talked. Not about the building, not about what his aide does for him. Not about how long he had the cane or how often he used it. That stuff was important but not as important as making Mr. Weitzman feel as comfortable as he could have. I noticed a Veteran pin on the collar of his polo. I leaned in to get a closer look. “Are you a Veteran, Mr. Weitzman?” I asked already knowing the answer. He looked at me with sadness in his eyes. He certainly did not want to talk about it & I was not going to ask further. I wanted him to feel comfortable. I wanted him to talk openly about anything he wanted to. I realized he wasn’t going to say anything anytime soon. He hugged his arms a little tighter around his body. “My dad is a Veteran. He was in Vietnam.” I continue. “My favorite story my dad ever told me was about when he came face to face with his enemy. They stumbled across each other by accident. My dad was training a new guy named Boston. He said that they were in an area where there were these rubber trees planted at a 45 degree angle. Under the trees were man made buckets that used to collect the sap. At a 45 degree angle, all you saw was rows of trees that looked like a forest. If you stood straight up, Therefore, learning what”s in your report, understanding your score, and monitoring your has never been more important. you could see the enemy if they were there. He said it was right before dusk. They were setting up for the night. Out of nowhere, his new guy Boston hit the ground. He hit the ground so hard that he knocked the wind out of himself. He wasn’t able to speak, but he pointed with a look of terror on his face. My dad called out to his machine gunner Bergie. Bergie had an M-60, my dad an M-16 and 9 of the Vietnamese guys had AK-47s in their faces. They were trained to start shooting each other in that situation. They all knew they would be killed. Then a miracle happened. My dad looked into one of the eyes of his enemies. He saw a scared 19 year old Vietnamese boy. A soldier yes. But he was just like him. I am not sure I will able be able describe the thoughts that passed through my father’s head in that moment. No matter how many times I have heard the story. I will never be able to describe the adrenaline that was pumping through his body as he was about to kill a man and get killed himself. My dad said that in that moment, he realized that neither of them wanted to die. He didn’t speak Vietnamese and the enemy didn’t speak English but they had a whole conversation with their eyes. My dad took his hand to his own chest trying to communicate the best he could. He hit his chest and said, “Me. This way” Pointing behind him. “You. That way.” Pointing behind the enemy. The enemy understood. Nodded in agreement and breathed a sigh of relief. They both went their separate ways. Not ever looking back.” My dad always said “Wouldn’t it be great if all battles were fought that way? Not a shot was fired. Not a life was lost.” I went on to tell him that I always loved that story because it made me realize that he was drafted so young. He had the same fears as the enemy himself. I told him that by communicating with someone he was never able to communicate with, he overcame his fears and lived a long life because of it. I told him that ever since I was a little girl I would make my dad tell me his war stories over and over. And I still do, today. I learn something new from each story that carries with me throughout my life.
Mr. Weitzman opened his mouth as if he had so much to say. For seconds that seemed like hours, we sat in silence. Then he spoke. The words kept pouring out. “I can relate to your father’s story. I have been fighting my own battle for quite some time….” He talked and talked and talked. By the looks on his adult daughter’s faces, I could tell that they were hearing their father’s war stories for the very first time. There were times we all laughed in unison as he described such events. But most of the time we were all leaning in, closer, to hear every word… To cherish every word… that was coming out of his mouth. It was the first and only time Mr. Weitzman ever spoke of his time overseas. As the memories came pouring out of him, the wall that he had around him for all these years was slowing tumbling down with each word that he spoke. There were moments that I studied the looks on his daughter’s face and those looks I will have embedded in my mind for quite some time. There were a lot of tears shed that day. After about 3 hours, he said to me. “Will you tell me more about the Veterans club you had mentioned before?” I smiled and said, “Gladly.” As I grabbed slid my notebook back closer to me and we went over everything about the clubs that we offered, the food, the entertainment. His questions kept coming. When he excused himself to the restroom, his daughters looked at me and said, “You really do have a gift, huh?” I smiled and said, “No, I just really love what I do.” She said, “No, honey, you have a true gift. I could never thank you enough for what you just gave my family.” She said as she hugged me. The rest of the tour surprised me. He was enthused, excited and emotional. He also ran into someone he hasn’t seen in decades. He was having such a good time, I asked him to stay for dinner as my guest. He grabbed a cocktail at the bar, sat down at dinner with his friend and daughters and his laughter took over the dining room. He said, “I could get used to this!” Later on that evening, when I had a minute alone with Mr. Weitzman, he said to me, “You know Kid, I didn’t mean any hard feelings earlier. I underestimated you. You are a wise, wise young girl.” He then said, “That felt good!” “What did?” I asked. “Talking.” I asked him what made him share his story after all of these years. “ He said, “The joy on your face as your spoke of your father and all of the lessons you learned from him. I wanted to give my girls that. They deserved that.” I told him that he raised amazing women because I see the love that they all share. I also told him that they only want what is best for him because they love him very much. He said, “I love them very much too!” I said, “It was apparent today.” I walked him to the car. Unharmed as I told him he was to keep his cane far away from my feet.
What I learned from Mr. Weitzman is that sometimes people have fears that are masked into other emotions. He wasn’t grumpy or mean. He was scared entering a new phase of life without dealing with his past phase of life. He had battle wounds from the war, but he also battled his own insecurities for a very long time. Do I think that I cured him? Absolutely not, but I helped shed some of the fears and helped him realize that he is not alone in his battle.
He called the next day asking to sign a lease. That was a pretty big battle he just won! I couldn’t have been more proud of him.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the residents.