It had been a few weeks since I called up my local Airborne Ranger Veteran friend, Danny Stein. It was time to check in.
“What have you been up to?”
“What did you do yesterday?”
“Sat and stared at the walls.”
“OK. I’m coming to town. I’m picking you up. How about a walk?”
Danny asked if I could take him to the trail along the Tulpehocken Creek. There is a bridge there that he remembers from his childhood. His mother took him there when he was about eight years old and he would really like to see if he could find it again. I knew just the covered bridge. Ride my bike there all the time in nice weather.
I picked him up and bought him to the parking lot. We could not see the bridge but I knew it was around the corner. Danny sees a red roof off in the distance and said disappointed, “It must be somewhere else.”
But when we went around the corner, there loomed the long-span of the Red Bridge. “That’s’ it!” he said excitedly.
We walked through the dark recesses of the bridge, seeing the dancing light of the water coming through the cracks. Once we surfaced, we went down on the bike trail and Danny positioned himself exactly where he stood thirteen years ago, before he went to war, before he jumped out of the plane and his chute got tangled and he hurt himself, before he got in a motorcycle accident and hurt his head putting him in the hospital for 3 (or 300) years. Back when life was simple. He asked me to take his photo in the same spot he stood as an 8-year-old.
We walked in the snow. The sky a brilliant cobalt blue, the strikingly white limbs of the sycamores in sharp contrast. I made him stop and look at them up in the sky. We said they looked like capillaries and the main artery was the trunk; or a river and stream tributaries seen from above the planet. I don’t think he ever looked at trees like that before. I know he didn’t know what a sycamore was. He couldn’t stop taking photos.
I used to do this with my children. Point out things in nature. Listen to bird songs. See shadows. Learn to use their senses. These kinds of experiences can’t happen sitting indoors with the blinds pulled tight, staring at the walls or even the large screen monitor. There is life out here.
After our walk, I needed to stop in and see my Aunt Dot, an 82-year old power house whom just celebrated a birthday. She was babysitting my cousin’s very lively triplets- three, 8- year old identical boys. I hoped it would be okay. My aunt recently jumped out of an airplane in a tandem jump. Her and Danny have something in common.
When I asked Danny if he wanted to spend the day with me (and overnight at our home), I listed all the things we would be doing and asked him if he wanted to. He definitely did, but he only had so many anxiety pills.
Purposely creating potentially anxiety-causing activities? Really? This was a good thing? Danny assured me that it was and he wanted to do it all. He unscrewed his pill bottle and downed one without water.
The boys engaged Danny as soon as we walked in the door. They are affectionate. They love to hug and show you things, get you to play games, ask you questions.The triplets loved Danny and vice versa. They weren’t too much for him and my wonderful silly aunt teased the hell out of him and loosened him up considerably.
“Was that okay?” I asked after we left.
“They were great,” he admitted, “No stress at all.”
Next stop was my farmer friend, DJ’s home. We were having dinner with his family (Todd would join us after work), snow mobiling by the full moon was next on the activity agenda, followed by a hot tub soak.
But shortly after we arrived at the huge Robesonia dairy farm , Danny informed me that he had never seen cows milked before.
Into the milking parlor DJ led us. But first we had to get through the cow traffic jam. The 1500-1800 Holsteins were crammed together in a haphazard line, wanting their turn to get milked. We had to wade through their wide high bodies, shooing them aside and squeeze our way through the slimy slippery concrete-covered manure. I think to myself , “will this cause Danny anxiety?”
Danny sloshed into the parlor and is amazed to learn that a suction contraption pulls the milk out of their teats and sends it along a hose to the cooler. And, that it pops off automatically when the milk has been drained. DJ squirts some foamy bright green soap all over Danny when he asks what the colorful pools are beneath the cow’s feet. Uh oh, will this create anxiety for Danny? DJ instructs Danny to stick his finger into the udder sucker and it grabs and squeezes his index finger. I watch him like a mother hen.
After dinner, we get dressed up and go into the moonlit snow to climb aboard the snowmobiles. First Danny has to shove an extremely tight motocross helmet over his face- DJ’s daughter’s pink helmet at that. Anxiety?
DJ announces that there are two snow mobiles a new one and an old one that has no brakes.
“No brakes?” I yell. I just recently wrote a story on a bike shop owner who caters to handicapped cyclists- one is paralyzed from his nipples down resulting from a snowmobile accident.
“I’ll go on the snow mobile without the brakes, Cindy” Danny offers. “You know I like to live on the edge.” I jump on the machine behind Loretta, DJ’s wife, and Danny hops on the old machine behind DJ. The moon is brilliant, filling the hillsides around the farm with white light, as bright as daylight. We fly over the icy covered snow, bounce over bumps. I circle Loretta’s waist and hold on and I look ahead and see Danny with his arms high in the air, above his head, as though he is going down a hill on a roller coaster. No anxiety there.
Never seen a milk cow. Never been on a snowmobile. Had been in a hot tub but that was all pre-war, pre-accident. The hot tub was crowded. Five person’s legs intertwined amongst the others. We were definitely in each other’s space and we were all naked. I watched Danny. He was having a great time.
After our action-packed day, Danny says good-bye to the Duncan’s and offers his services to help out on the farm, once he gets his wheels again. I said, “Bad move. There’s always tons of work to do on a farm. Be careful Danny. He’ll take you up on that.”
But seeing Danny extend himself like this gives me great hope. It is the alternative to sitting in his room staring at the walls. Here he is engaging in life, meeting new people, placing himself in strange and potentially anxiety-creating situations, and he wants to. He sees the value of it and it makes him happy, it makes him feel alive.
Danny helped me the next day prepare for my non-profit River House PA’s Veteran’s Benefit on Valentine’s Day. He helped untangle strands and strands of white lights that we’ll use to decorate the American Legion hall- measured them and wound them efficiently. He found a cracked mug and asked for Crazy Glue to fix it. He noticed a wobbly stool and asked for a screw driver to tighten it up. Another visit he sharpened our knives down in Todd’s shop. Everyone needs to feel useful and necessary. The lovely thing is I don’t pick up Danny and bring him into my busy active life to necessarily help him. He is our friend. He is my whole family’s friend. My son loves him, thinks he’s a crack up, and loves his dry humor. My husband finds him entertaining. I find he’s a constant source of amazement and presents countless opportunities to show him the world. I forget that he is young- only 25, because he says he feels like he is an old man, in body and in spirit. And he has spent years in a hospital and years before that in a war. Before those two major events, he was pretty much a boy.
So I find it is a great privilege to dream up “potential anxiety-producing experiences” in Danny’s life. I have learned from my Veteran friends that although it can be scary and their feelings unpredictable, the alternative is numbness, staring at walls. Maybe someday in the near future, Danny will be able to keep that anxiety pill bottle closed, and embrace all life has to offer with confidence and joy. That’s what we’re working towards, one cow, one snowmobile, one hot tub, one experience at a time.