by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
The man crept down the long hall. Passing doors, he tried not to look in, knowing how much he guarded what little privacy he had. The hospital in Los Angeles was too far away from his home in Georgia for any of his friends and most of his family to ever come visit. This was one of the largest military hospitals in the country and, in 1944, was full of combat injuries or mental problems. He knew he was getting the best of care and wondered if it would be enough.
His wife and son had taken a small apartment downtown and tried to come visit every day. His son was seventeen and loved his dad, but he hated going to the hospital. The hospital smelled funny; people were coughing or learning how to walk with crutches or any number of injuries that a young person didn’t want to think about. He bowed out of the daily visit and would only go on Wednesday when his new friend from school was working. The man understood. He, too, would rather be anywhere else but here.
He avoided walking down any halls where he might ‘accidentally’ go by a mirror. He knew he was a monster. At least the abominable face and hands were covered by bandages. A nurse was coming toward him, one he knew.
“Afternoon, Major. Do you need anything?” she asked as she approached.
“Afternoon, Susan. No, I’m fine,” he answered.
Before he realized it, he had reached the end of the hall and either way, meant he would have to pass by a mirror. He looked away, but not before he had seen himself in the long mirror. A tall, slim man in striped, blue and white pajamas. His face was covered in in white bandages as well has both his hands. Around the wrists, where the burns had been the least, he had begun to heal, and his skin was visible at the edges. It was ugly. Dry, shinny, and scars pulled together in a thin web of violence.
He shook his head. Why didn’t he just end it now? Tell Ann and Bobby how much he loves them and find drugs, or a knife or, at the very least, walk out the door in front and down the long drive to the freeway. He didn’t want, no he wasn’t going, to go back to Atlanta with them. He wouldn’t do that, watch his friend’s reactions. He knew he couldn’t go back to work at the bank. How could he meet new people? How could the bank even consider taking him back? No. His mind was made up. Maybe not today, but he’ll start letting Ann know that there was no future.
As he walked by an open door, a small little girl came running out. She hit his legs and her head bounced against his genitals. He gasped and reached down to move her head. As he touched the small head, she looked up with a look of horror. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. Please forgive me. Oh mister, don’t tell my nurse or my mother. Please, did I hurt you?” Her face was screwed up to begin crying.
“No, No. You didn’t hurt me. Did I hurt you? I wasn’t paying any attention. Can you ever forgive me for walking into you?”
She looked up, her eyes locking onto his and the tears melted away. She smiled at him. “Oh mister. I promise I’ll watch better in the future. Are you staying here in the hospital? I’m staying in this room until they find an aunt for me to stay with. I’m too much for my mom. She has me and my sister and my grandpa to take care of and then my dad’s brother’s wife came to live with us and they have kids so for now I can’t go home with them when I get well.” She gushed all the words out as if they had been held prisoner inside and she finally had someone to listen to her. One hand wiped her eyes, then her nose and the other little hand reached for his. “Are you walking this way? Can I walk with you?”
He nodded, took the little hand, and they walked down the hall. All the way down, the little girl was babbling at him. He could tell it was very important to her, so he listened very carefully.
“Now, this room is where they keep the pills. They don’t let us keep them by the bed, but the nurse will bring it to you when you need it. Do you need any pills?” She looked up at him so he nodded. “There are two different nurses here, sometimes three. In the morning, in the middle of the dark, and sometimes before you go to bed. If you ask really nice, they might bring you some ice cream in the night before you go to bed. Do you say your prayers, or do you need help? If you need help, there is a man. I don’t think he’s a nurse, but he’s here all the time. He wears a black shirt and pants and a white collar, and he can come and help you. I don’t need him, but I’ve seen him helping grown men and women. Are you here by yourself?” He nodded when she looked up. “I have never seen the men and women here go into the same room, but there are so many there must be some that love each other. Do you see that room? Well, they have hot coffee in there. And that’s where they keep the ice cream if you need it. And that room down there, they never let people just walk in. My nurse told me it’s where they operate on people. I don’t know what that is, but one time my sister broke her shoulder and they needed to operate to fix it. When she came home, her shoulder was bandaged in hard stuff like cement, and then, they had to cut the hard stuff away when her bone grew together. Now it’s soft like your hands.”
He looked down and felt the hot tears in his eyes. He wiped them away and they kept walking. “What is your name?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. Where are my manners?” When she said that, he could see an adult in her features, saying that somewhere else. “My name is Mary, and I’m almost four. I’m not sick now, I just need to heal my chest. I can help you if you want. I think I know where everything is but only on this floor. They don’t want me bothering people who are sicker. They are trying to sleep and don’t want a pest going in the wards.” She was very serious as she talked.
The Major was getting tired. “Do you mind if we find a place to stop and rest for awhile?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Here, there is a bench down here where we can rest.” She took his hand and was pulling him down the halls. “Okay, Okay, let me lead. I don’t want to fall down, and I don’t want to hurt you.” Together the little girl and the tall man made it to the bench and sat down.
The two sat there for another half hour and finally the little girl left, but not before they had made a date for the next day. He watched as she skipped away. Such ignorance, pure joy. If only he could find some of that again.
Over the next six months, the two met almost every day. There were days when he had to go to those rooms where no one was allowed and the burned skin removed, new dressings put on. For the next few days, he guarded his hands from her eager grabbing. Ann met her and thought she was wonderful. They talked about why and how she was in the hospital, but no one would ever answer.
One day she announced that she would be leaving next week to go and live with her favorite aunt and uncle. The Major felt a stab of pain as he heard the news. Ann reached over and patted her hand. “Good for you. I know you’ll be happy. The Major and I will miss you and even Bobby will be sorry you’re gone, but we’re glad.”
As Mary and Ann were talking, the Major went to the restrooms. He knew he was going to hurt when the little bundle of sunshine left. As he got closer, he heard Ann ask, “What do you like the most about the Major?”
The little girl’s face broke into a smile. “Oh, that’s easy. He sounds just like my father, and I miss my father so much. Talking to the Major lets me fall asleep without crying. He makes everyday fun to wake up. I love the Major so much and will miss him, I wish I could take you and him with me forever.”
She looked up to see him returning, and she reached up toward him. He bent over and the girl wrapped her arms around his neck. His arms circled the child and together the two injured beings, shed tears of love.
A lady came toward them. “Ready, Mary. Kiss your friend’s goodbye. We have a long drive still.”
Mary stood on the bench and kissed the hands, then the edge of his eyes.
Ann stood, watching as Mary bounced down the hall with her aunt. As they reached the end of the hall, she turned and blew a couple of kisses toward then, then turned and walked out of sight.
The Major sat, crying as hard as he could. It was as if all the past four years, the horror of war and his injury, his burns, his future, were walking out that door. Ann was holding him and patting him on the back. For the first time, he could see that maybe what he saw in the mirror wasn’t what others saw. Ann was holding him tightly, letting all the pain out with the tears. A nurse walked by and smiled at the pair. “We were hoping he’d let it go. Good to see,” as she walked on.
Ann wiped the tears away from his eyes. He suddenly felt as if the future might hold more than horror. At least, he could give it a chance.