Hero in Aisle Six
By Hana Haatainen Caye
Wandering through the aisles of overly processed foods and enticing goodies, I can't help noticing the seemingly broken figure of a man gathering his bits of nourishment for the day. Somewhat hunched, he appears to be the shadow of the man he once was and I imagine him with a full head of brown waves, broad shoulders, a proud stance. Certainly not this thin man with the extra holes punched in his belt to keep his trousers gathered around his waist. I want to touch him, but fear that his skin would bruise by simple contact. I want to take him home with me, like a stray kitten or a lost puppy, and feed him chicken soup and a grilled cheese. I want to take care of him.
How long has it been since someone wanted to take care of this lonely man? I glance in the red basket he clutches, like a lifeline. He has meat and cheese from the deli – 1/8 of a pound each, a small package of ground beef, an onion, a stick of butter, one quart of 2% milk. I want to say, "Here, let me carry that for you," but I keep my distance, trying to imagine what it must be like to be old and alone. I wonder where he lives and visualize a diminutive apartment, sparsely decorated, with the heat turned down to a chilling 58 degrees.
As he makes his journey toward the registers, I notice a slight limp, one that seems familiar to him, as if it's been a part of him since the war – the big one. Back in the imaginary apartment that I have created, I see the signs. Yellowed paper framed so many years ago with a headline that announces victory. Beside it, a wedding picture – a beautiful glowing bride standing beside her proud groom with curly brown hair and broad shoulders. Another frame catches my eye. A simple frame housing a purple heart. I start to cry.
Approaching this hero, I say, "Excuse me sir, I just wanted to thank you."
He tilts his head to turn his gaze from the floor and meets my eyes, still wet with tears. "Miss?" he replies.
"For the war. You fought to keep our country free, didn't you?”
"Why yes. It was my honor," he softly states. We both are silent for a moment. His eyes revealing that he's traveled to a distant land.
"May I?" I ask, offering to carry his basket.
Thanking me, he allows me to take it. I feel privileged as we slowly make our way to the front of the store in silence. I am carrying the basket of a giant. I don't offer to pay, or to buy him anything more than what his immediate need dictates. That would be cruel, for this is a man whose pride is intact, despite the brokenness of his body.
"Would you like to join me for lunch?" I ask, telling him that I would love to hear his stories.
"It's been many years since anyone wanted to know what I have to say."
"I want to know," I state emphatically as we head to our cars.
As I slide in behind the steering wheel, I feel humbled. In a few minutes, I will be sitting across the table from a man who knew the secrets of honor, of sacrifice and of courage. Following him out of the parking lot, I notice his license plate. There beside the numbers and letters is the distinguished Purple Heart. I am having lunch with a hero.
Have a safe and happy Memorial Day weekend. And don't forget to thank God for the heroes who sacrificed all.
Sharing my gratitude,