Today was Phase Two of Soldiers Home re-entry, also known as Bill Day. That quick, astonishing glimpse I’d gotten of Bill on Tuesday haunted me the rest of the week—I’m not sure he even recognized me, but the simple fact that he was still alive made me realize I shouldn’t let much more time pass without checking in.
My photographer friend Brady came out with me—I had lured him with the promise of a lively Bluegrass Jam in Chilson Hall, but I also really, really wanted a picture of Bill and me. And possibly a hug.
To our surprise, there was no Bluegrass Jam in Chilson Hall. In fact, there was no one at all in Chilson Hall—and really not many signs of life anywhere.
We walked through Roosevelt Barracks and, increasingly desperate for human contact, knocked on Dorothy’s door. She answered immediately and seemed happy to see us. But she was watching a movie, so we stayed just long enough to ensure that now everyone at the Soldiers Home will know that I brought A Man out there with me.
Brady and I walked over to the Nursing Center in hopes of finding Bill in his room. But first, we ran into Doug in the hallway. Doug shook hands with Brady—“heartily” would be an understatement—and kind of refused to let go.
“That’s quite a grip you’ve got there,” Brady said.
Bill was not in his room, but an aide told us we probably could find him in the Activity Center.
I told Brady I was going to peek around the corner first to see just how active the Activity Center was. As much as I needed to connect with Bill, I really wasn’t prepared to do so in front of a lot of people.
I took a furtive look, and there sat Bill, alone, adrift, away from everyone else—and staring right at me. Guess we were going in.
I wheeled Bill to a quieter place and introduced him to Brady. Bill smiled and launched right into talking, but his speech has deteriorated even further, and I found myself uncertainly smiling when he smiled and trying desperately to understand even one word.
And then Bill said something familiar: Looking at Brady, Bill retold that baffling story I’ve heard for years, about him seeing me in the back seat of a car with someone some night, somewhere. Of course, that wasn’t Brady—it wasn’t anybody—but I was so happy to finally get something, I glommed on to it.
I asked Bill whether it’d be OK for Brady to take a few pictures. Bill said he still has the picture of us from our Valentine’s dinner, but I don’t think he does. I showed him a picture from a long-ago Family Picnic at the Soldiers Home, and he asked how much my phone cost. I asked him about a chain around his neck, which I don’t remember seeing before, but I didn’t understand his answer.
I felt unusually awkward, which made me feel guilty, and I told Bill I would put him back where he’d been—but at least pointed toward the TV instead of outer space.
I hugged him goodbye and told him I would not stay away for so long this time.
On the way out, I asked Brady whether that not-quite-comfortable encounter had served any positive purpose at all for Bill.
“He smiled when he saw you,” Brady said.
I’ll take that.