by Craig Velez
All I wanted was a quiet moment. I dragged my feet into the dark and dingy hole-in-the-wall that stands three blocks away from my parents’ house in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. One of the last vestiges of a population long gone, a throwback to the days when Friday night meant crooning on the street corner with the cheapest adult beverage one’s poor pennies could afford, O’Malley’s pub is surrounded by delicatessens and restaurants that advertise “Kosher” or “Halal.” I planted myself in a lonely, quiet corner at the far end of the bar and ordered a stout.
I drew unwanted attention to myself when I called for my third pint. A fowl-faced, chicken-legged barfly who introduced himself as Gallagher and his rotund, red-faced companion named Sullivan, stumbled to my end of the bar singing, “…and the Army goes rolling along!” I befriended the bartender because I spent that morning at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital with my father; I was tired of talking army and life served in blind faith to the Constitution. I needed to coat my memories with sauce, not listen to these two dipsomaniacs caterwauling. Gallagher pointed to the Army Veteran logo on my t-shirt and asked where and when I served. Drunkards love a good war story, so I tried to let them off easy by telling them that I served during peace time – the Clinton years. Sullivan raised his glass and yelled something about me having it easy. Ice chilled my veins. My facial expression must have changed because the inebriated duo shrank back and made themselves as small as two grown men possible could. They flinched when I stood up, raised my glass, and declared, “¡Viva La Gloria!”
Gallagher and Sullivan quickly realized that they had just bore witness a man tormented by memories. Inch-by-inch they slowly backed away from me. I caught a glimpse of my own reflection in the mirror at the other end of the bar; the fire and anguish in those eyes sought to exact pain and suffering upon these two wretched souls, compelling them to cower like terrified cats. I closed my eyes and downed the inky black liquid. I slammed the empty pint glass on the bar and opened my eyes – alone once again. Messrs. Gallagher and Sullivan, it appeared, suddenly remembered their promise to be home early.
The bartender delivered another full pint and introduced himself as a former Navy corpsman who now worked as a paramedic for the city of New York moonlighting as a pint-puller to make ends meet. I immediately felt a kinship with him when he explained that he too never saw combat. He served at the Navy hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, for the duration of his enlistment. Without going into detail, he told me that he still saw the faces of many of his former patients while he slept. I understood him completely. I divulged the meaning of my “Glory.”
On my first day at the physical therapy clinic at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center, Aurora, Colorado, I met a small, old woman who sat on a plinth doing leg extensions with one pound weights Velcroed to her ankles. I sat next to her and introduced myself as Private First Class Velez. Completely unimpressed, she smiled and asked for my first name. Upon telling her, she extended her right hand and said, “Pleasure to meet you, Craig. I’m Gloria.”
Gloria was the wife of a retired Air Force Master Sergeant. This seventy-year-old woman kept the home fires burning when her husband went first to Korea and then to Vietnam during those respective conflicts. She was the rock upon which her family depended during her husband’s twenty-two years of service. Gloria stood by her man, raised sons, played with her grandsons. Like a ripe mango, she was soft and sweet with a solid core hardened by experience. At this stage of life, however, she needed her knee replaced. Gloria put off seeing the doctor for too long; she now lived with the constant grinding of bone-on-bone every time her foot touched the ground. The orthopedic surgeon ordered Gloria to attend physical therapy to build up the strength in her legs and (hopefully) lose a few pounds.
We spoke for the duration of her exercises. Gloria never stopped talking. Her family, her knees, her travels, the weather, breakfast cereals: she flowed from one topic to the next without missing a beat. She finished her last set of exercises just as she finished telling me which restaurant in Denver served the best marinara. I bid her farewell and she promised we would meet again. She kept her promise – again and again. She came to therapy three days a week for a year followed by two days a week the year after that.
One cool, cloud-free October morning Gloria came to the clinic baring an official looking packet that had her name written in black marker emblazoned on it. Gloria placed the packet on my desk. She wore a strange expression: fear, excitement, apprehension, joy, all of these… I could not determine. Trying to maintain her composure, Gloria explained that the official looking packet contained her pre-op paperwork, and I had the task of performing her physical therapy evaluation and instruction.
I recorded her range of motion as well as her quadriceps and hamstring strength. I instructed her how to use a walker, negotiate stairs with limited knee joint mobility, and what protocols we would follow after surgery. When I signed her papers indicating she met the physical therapy requirements, she revealed her anxiety. Gloria did not understand the finer points of the operation. The surgeon warned her about the post-op pain she would feel, and that scared her. The surgeon also used a plastic model of a knee to demonstrate how the metallic prosthetics fit into the joint. Now, I understood her countenance. Information overload sparked a battle between the primal fear for survival against the desire for pain-free ambulating within Gloria. I assured my friend that some of top doctors around the globe sought her surgeon’s services. She had nothing to worry about. I hugged her and promised that everything would be fine. She had the best doctor performing the operation, and her favorite rehab specialist would take care of her afterwards.
The operating room schedule displayed a 0800 start time for her surgery. Keeping my promise that I would look after her, I made my way to the recovery ward after lunch. The patient list at the nurse’s station, however, did not have her name listed. I decided to login to the nearest computer to look-up which room number they may have transferred her. To my surprise, Gloria’s name was not listed. Confused, I asked the charge nurse where my friend was located. The nurse escorted me to her office and whispered, “Mrs. A. died on the table.”
I did not stay to hear her follow-up statement. My world collapsed onto itself. I ran into my clinic chief’s office and stayed there for the rest of my shift. For the next four hours, the only thought I had was, “but I told her everything would be okay!”
I looked up at the bartender. I felt like I was there again. The past twenty years erased, that day came back to the forefront of my mind. The pain of remembering a lie, a promise I could not keep. I wept as he brought me another pint.
I paid my tab and headed for the door. Forlorn, I stopped at the end of the bar, looked at the bartender, and asked him, “Why?”