He was a Vietnam vet with more than a few miles under the hood. The deep lines of his stubbly face and the sad, saggy eyes bespoke a hardscrabble life and many nights of facing off against Charlie in his dreams.
His vest, with its sleeves shorn from a regulation BDU, was festooned with a motley assortment of buttons, patches and pins:
“God Bless America”
“God, Duty, Country”
“POW*MIA–You Are Not Forgotten”
His automated wheelchair, likewise, was tattooed with various Marine Corps and patriotic stickers. There were two small American flags, one on each armrest, flying proud and strong.
The cigarettes that had helped keep Charlie at bay all these years had left deep and debilitating scars on his lungs, and the nicotine stained tubing from his supplemental oxygen tank looped around his chair, across his weathered face, and into his nostrils, allowing for short, labored breaths. It was with great reluctance that I prepared to give him yet more bad news.
“You have glaucoma,” I pronounced. “But we’ve caught it early, and if you use your drops faithfully and come to see me when I ask you too, you most likely won’t go blind. The smoking makes it worse–you should stop if at all possible.”
I say “if at all possible,” these days, having seen the effects of a wide variety of addictions, knowing full well the futility of even bringing up the subject. My words are perfunctory and dutiful.
He took the news calmly; just another chapter of trouble in a storybook of failure, lost hopes and dreams gone bad.
He smiled thinly and said, “Doc that sounds fine. But even if I was goin’ blind, that would be okay too. You see, I’m in the hands of The Man Upstairs.”
Oorah and amen, I thought.
He appeared upbeat as he sped off, nearly popping a wheelie and leaving a little bit of rubber on my freshly-waxed floor. A few minutes later, I glanced out the window and spotted him racing through the parking lot.
As he neared his van, he paused and pulled a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his vest. His hand reached for the lighter in his pants pocket. As he placed the smoke in his mouth and brought the lighter toward its tip, I braced myself against the windowsill for the immolating blast that was sure to follow.
I’m in the hands of The Man Upstairs.
Indeed you are, my friend. Indeed you are.