Reluctantly, I return to the 14th Evacuation Hospital, this time to patch up the hole in my hip from the grenade blast on the road front. When I enter the hospital, I think of Lester, who, in a malaria-induced delirium, picked phantom bugs off his skin with ferocious intensity until blood trickled down his arms, determined to “kill the bastards.” Instead, they got Lester first.
Stitching me up, the doctor says my wounds will mend and instructs me to put on some weight. I may be getting lean from the long work hours, but I’m not complaining after what some of these guys have been through. And so, as much as I want to run out of the place, I drop in on Alabama Earl.
He’s sitting upright in bed, looking off into another space, another time. His once- muscled body looks soft and vulnerable, and his will to live seems uncertain. Next to him, in the bed where Lester died, a soldier lays motionless. His entire head and most of his body are bandaged. I’m nauseated by the smells of thickened blood, anesthetics, and diarrhea. Pointing to the end of the hospital bed, I break Earl’s trance and ask, “Are you saving this spot for Maran Lu, or can an injured buddy take a seat?”
Earl shakes the cobwebs out of his head. “That girl is goin’ be the death of me. I’ve been waiting for her all morning, and all I get is, ‘You not sick. I busy.’” A broad smile lights up Earl’s face. “I sure am going to miss my little honey when they send me back to the road front, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”
Earl watches the men around him suck in air, and his body sags again. “That tuberculosis is like puncturing a man’s lungs with a meat cleaver. And these poor boys with malaria get plumb wore down fighting off demons more real than life.”
I ease myself down on the corner of Earl’s bed. “I wanted to stop by and give you this before I head back to road headquarters tomorrow.” I pull a sheath of paper from my pocket and hand it to Earl. “It’s the letter for Lester’s family.”
“Read it to me, my good man. You do a fine job of writing pretty words.”
I hesitate, wondering whether a hospital full of dying men is the best place for this. But then I recognize the message is for them, too.
We are so sorry for your loss. Life does not come to us tied up in a bow, but it is a gift just the same. Lester gave his life so that we may live. What greater honor can a man give?
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