The vets staying at the Veterans Hospital in town hang out at the local strip mall. We see them every time we stop for milk and a five dollar bunch of flowers. Often, there will be one or two vets smoking on the corner, leaning heavy into a cane or crutch. They call to one another across donuts and coffee, or chat in the aisles of the Rite Aid. Sometimes their wounds are obvious–lost limbs, disfigurement, a limp. And other times, it’s the faraway stare, the nervous glance over their shoulder, the war-weary eyes that hint at invisible damage.
I pulled into the parking lot last week, and an older veteran stood on the corner of the Stop and Shop and followed my car with his eyes. I got out, grabbed my bags from the trunk, and he continued to stare. His face told a thousand stories, and his leg, permanently damaged in one skirmish or another, told a story too. I tried to look away.
Minutes earlier, I’d huffed my way out of the house after hours of household chores, while my husband lay prone on the sofa with a cold drink and an ipad in his hand. My annoyance led me to speed my way to the store, slam the car door, and attempt to sneak by the man without so much as a nod hello.
He called out to me, “Hey there! I used to drive a car just like yours. Do you love it? Is it a stick shift?” For a split second I wondered if I could walk by and pretend not to hear him. His left leg held all of his weight, and my polite, fake, smile held mine. I turned to face him.
We chatted cars for a minute, and while I considered how much time this conversation would cost me, he considered sharing a piece of his history. His story tumbled out. He spoke of the years he was stationed in Germany, the multiple languages he speaks, and his love for European travel. He told me of a car just like mine that saved his life in a head on collision with two other vehicles on a German highway. He told me a story of near misses, something akin to salvation.
After we chatted for a while, and I turned to enter the supermarket, he called out a blessing on me and then again on my family. I mumbled a brief thank you, and I walked away thinking I should say something to bless him too, but the words buried themselves in my own discomfort. The conversation was as awkward as you imagine it to be between a war vet and a harried housewife, but I walked away feeling as if I was richer for this chance meeting with a stranger. Near misses can cause one’s fake smile to transform into a real one, and one’s harried heart to enlarge in size.
I am so quick to dismiss the gift of a timely conversation. I almost missed out on a opportunity to see God in the face of another human being that day. I almost rejected the gift of a blessing from a stranger. When the man reached out in conversation, I wondered what he wanted or needed from me, not realizing I was the one with the greater need. I needed to stop tending my small wounds, exit my own story, and receive the gift of another’s.