I should have known when I saw the Oregon plates on his car that we'd have a connection. But, truth be told, I didn't even notice that we shared a common bond with Oregon until he asked me where I was from. The job we'd gone there to do was fairly simple—replacing a grab bar in his shower. Jobs with CHRPA aren't always about the repair work though; this trip would be more about the person than the house.
It turns out he had spent a significant amount of time living in Bandon, Oregon, the same small southwestern oceanside town that my grandma has lived since the 1970s. Mike served with the coast guard in WWII, and simply loved spending time near the water. After retirement, he'd owned and operated a lobster boat out of Maine, gone to Chinese cooking school, and lived out west in Oregon for health reasons. He had quite a story—the kind of story I hope to tell when I reach that point in life.
We finished up the grab bar without problems and went to work trying to fix his screen door. It was exciting for me, as my family had screen doors back home and I knew exactly what to do, at least in theory. As we worked, he chatted with us about his incredible life, laughing with us as we struggled to implement the plans I had in my head to fix the door. He even asked us at one point if we were more than “work partners,” because “you're just both good-looking young people with a natural chemistry.” We laughed pretty hard at that.
Things got a little more serious after we'd finished repairing the door. He was really grateful for us doing more than he'd anticipated, and really wanted to show his gratitude. He offered us a cup of coffee, despite the fact that we were working in at least a 90 degree day. My philosophy on a client offering me something, no matter what it is, is to take it, because that makes our relationship more reciprocal, rather than me being someone providing something for them without them in turn somehow providing something for me. It builds mutual respect, rather than a dependent relationship. Plus, as Mike said, “I can never make a pot of coffee for me to drink one cup. If you have one, I can justify making it.”
While we were munching on the biscotti Mike kept putting in front of us, and as I sipped my coffee, Mike told us about his summer, when a group supporting veterans paid the airfare for any living survivors of World War II to go to Washington D.C. for the dedication of the new WWII memorial. Mike spoke of the emotional experience he felt, the anguish he goes through thinking about his brothers that didn't make it through the war. And, when he said “Freedom isn't free,” for the first time in my life I didn't cringe at the overused platitude.
Mike had seen on my wrist that I wore many bracelets, one of which simply says, “Peace.” He looked at Amy and me and said, “I hope we have peace. And I hope you young people never have to experience what I did. I was hoping after our war we could have peace. I still hope for you.”
Then he looked at me and told me about a bracelet they gave to all the veterans who were at the memorial dedication. “I don't wear it, but you wear bracelets, and I don't have any children or relatives to give it to—would you want it?”
A million things passed through my head in that moment: I don't support the wars we're in, or think they're justified, nor do I typically endorse my country's actions abroad. I knew that my taking that bracelet was incredibly important to Mike, but I didn't want to take it without really grasping and accepting responsibility for the item I was about to receive. After a pause, I told Mike I would be absolutely honored to wear that bracelet for him. With tears in his eyes, he went to a dresser and handed it to me.
Before we left that day Mike showed us pictures from his computer of the dedication ceremony and the memorial itself. Mike didn't need to say much at that point. We were all in tears—the two young, idealistic young people, fervently anti-war, and the aging veteran, a peace-activist in his own right.
I left that day with a rubber bracelet of the stars and stripes on my wrist. It took some getting used to, especially in relationship to all my other bracelets, but whenever I look at it, I can't help but think of that passionate man living by himself, hoping for a better tomorrow. There are times just looking at it and thinking about the powerful way I received it brings tears to my eyes.
When we meet each other face to face, we find our humanity together.