Love is a symbol of eternity. It wipes out all sense of time, destroying all memory of a beginning and all fear of an end. ~Author Unknown
I stopped at the desk to sign in and explained to the receptionist I was a reporter from the local newspaper and was doing a story on a gentleman who lived there, a World War II veteran. As I made my way down the corridor to Mr. Walter’s room, I heard the receptionist behind me.
“Mrs. Dodson, you know Mr. Walter is practically deaf and suffers from dementia, don’t you?”
“No ma’am, I didn’t.”
His daughter, who I’d spoken with days before, failed to mention his condition, but because I was already there I decided to go ahead with the interview.
As I passed room after room, each one looked the same: a single bed, a dark wooden nightstand, and a shiny brass lamp. I smiled at the elders sitting along the wall in their wheelchairs.
“Mr. Walter?” I read his name on the plaque outside his door, but I would have never recognized him by the picture his daughter had e-mailed the day before. A soldier dressed in army fatigues, tall and thin, but with broad shoulders and an even broader smile. It looked as if the photograph had captured him in the middle of a hilarious joke.
He looked up from a sunken blue chair, a blanket covering his lap. I could tell he didn’t understand what I’d said. I sat down on the corner of his bed and introduced myself, stretching my hand out to his while he slowly shook it.
“Aw, you have soft skin!” he said hoarsely.
Luckily, he knew I was a reporter and that I’d come to interview him for a story on local veterans. We spoke for a few minutes, and although communicating was difficult because he was hard of hearing, he had a quick wit and made me feel at ease.
“Can you tell me a little about where you served in the army?” I asked.
The interview began like many others, I asked questions and he answered them. I’d learned over the years as a reporter to say as little as possible, allowing the person to do most of the talking. And Mr. Walter did.
He shared with me that he was a medic in World War II and during battles their battalion put crosses on their helmets signifying their position. Under the Geneva Convention, enemies weren’t allowed to bomb his area.
“But it didn’t always happen that way,” Mr. Walter said.
I sat quietly, writing and listening, but in the middle of one of his recollections of the Battle of Normandy he blurted out, “And I drove so quick to JCPenney I nearly ran over a pedestrian!”
And so it went for thirty more minutes. Talks of soldiers and battle wounds mixed with Yankees baseball and his daughter’s first communion.
Soon I put my notebook down and resorted to spending the rest of the visit talking with my new friend. I’d have to tell my editor we couldn’t use the interview. The longer we’d spoken, the more farfetched his stories had become.
“I took out an army of men, over one hundred of ’em with my own bare hands!” he said, laughing.
His face lit up as he spoke. It was clear he would fade in and out of conversations. I watched him closely and you could almost see it. He would answer one question precisely and to the point and moments later struggle to find the easiest of words. A nurse walked in during our conversation and she lovingly moved the blanket that lay in his lap to cover his legs. He thanked her by name but minutes later had forgotten she’d come at all.
Before leaving, I thanked him for talking with me, and made my way to the hall. Standing at his doorway, I wished we’d met years earlier.
“Did you see my postcard?” he asked.
“No, I didn’t; show it to me,” I said as I walked over to the framed card beside his bed.
As I picked it up, he told me it was from a woman named Emma.
“She was the most beautiful lady you’d ever laid eyes on. She sent me that postcard on her wedding day,” he chuckled. “She was all dressed up in a white wedding gown, about to say ‘I do’ and when the church doors opened for her to walk down the aisle to meet her groom, she slammed them shut! She ran back home, and sent me that card. She was my best friend growing up. She told me she’d be waiting ’til I got home from the army and we’d get married.”
It was another of his stories. I was sure the postcard was significant in some way, but that was pretty farfetched.
As I pulled out of the nursing home, I called Mr. Walter’s daughter from my car. I told her I’d visited her father and as much as I’d enjoyed talking with him, I couldn’t publish the piece because of his condition.
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She was kind and not surprised. She said her father’s dementia had worsened over the last few months. But before we hung up, I told her what her dad said about defeating an army of German soldiers with his bare hands.
“That sounds just like him,” she laughed.
I also went on to tell her about a postcard he’d shown me, and the story he’d shared of the woman, his childhood friend who’d stopped her wedding with minutes to spare and professed her love for him.
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “Hello?”
“That one is true,” she said, quietly.
She told me of the sixty-two-year marriage between her father and mother and how her mother waited for the soldier she’d always loved to return home from war.
“They had never even been on a first date,” Mr. Walter’s daughter said.
A week later I drove back to the nursing home and visited Mr. Walter again. He told me about Emma in great detail, never once trailing off as I’d witnessed days before. He recounted what Emma had worn the day he’d seen her upon his return, the address of their first home, their family pet, and Emma’s favorite flowers he’d planted along the front porch stoop.
We published his story on the front page of the newspaper a week later. I hand delivered a copy to him.
“Why do you think you remembered so much about Emma, but so little about the war?” I asked.
He sighed, thinking for a moment, then told me, “World War II was a big part of my life, but Emma was the best part.”
Author: Amanda Dodson
From the book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living With Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias by Amy Newmark and Angela Timashenka Geiger. Copyright 2014 by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Published by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Chicken Soup for the Soul is a registered trademark of Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.