Five days remain on my stay at the Soldiers’ Home. When I set up three weeks ago, I knew it was going to be an interesting experience given the contrast from the public library where’d I’d spent the previous four months. When John Paradis, the Home’s public affairs person first took me around the facility my initial reaction, once further into the interior, was surprise at the number of men in wheelchairs. For every resident walking, there were ten either in wheelchairs or using walkers. It was a shocking contrast to the youth and energy of the Amherst public library.
Once set up with my easel, in the lobby, one by one, residents trickled over to look at my paintings and ask questions about the work. Those who came down were a fraction of the three hundred-plus residents. After doing portraits of two of the veterans, there was more of a buzz. I had heard Eugene “Fitz” Fitzenry was bragging about his portrait, in his own words, “trying to drum up more business for you.” One by one, I met more residents. Some conversed easily. Some were suffering from some level of dementia, living in the loop of their ever-closing life.
Sam Lococo, a gentleman I’d met shortly after arriving pops by every other day. His short frame topped with a wonderful cap of white hair, waves whenever he catches my eye. Always full of praise, we chat for a short bit before he wanders off with the aid of his walker. “I’ll leave you alone,” he says. “Come back anytime,” I always answer. I”m glad he does.
What strikes me daily as I sit at the easel is the contrast of these residents to their former selves in painted form that hang on the temporary wall, six portraits facing my easel. How is it that these once vibrant warriors now exist as remnants of that long-ago war. I look into eyes that have lost their lustre. Today, for whatever reason, more residents stopped by to talk. One of them, Douglas Herring of Amherst, “eighty-six and a half years old,” he says, adding: “I have to make the most of the count” came by to talk. Moving his walker to the couch set against the temporary wall, he shifted and sat down. We talked about his life growing up in Amherst, in simpler times and what the war did for all of us. He is saddened by how the world has changed, angry by the lack of compassion in the world.
“We were lucky to be born when we were,” Douglas says. Gesturing toward the other end of the lobby, he adds: “It’s not a bad way to go being here. I’m not longing to stay. I’m not trying to break any records. I’ve had a good life.” His candidness is sobering. But I appreciate his honesty. The truth is that the Soldiers’ Home is a place where old soldiers come to die. Sadly they do fade away. Fitz had told me when we first met, he doesn’t try to make friends. “It’s too hard losing people you know.” In my short stay, I’ve been witness to several ceremonies in the lobby, honoring the flag-draped gurney wheeled into the lobby, honoring yet another fallen soldier, airman, sailor or marine.
I will face that loss when I depart on Wednesday. I didn’t think emotional attachments would happen in such a short time. I will be away from the east coast for the next six months. It saddens me to realize that in all probability, some of these friends I will never see again. What will carry me forward are the words Douglass Herring left me with, shaking my hand: “Keep doing what you’re doing. It would be a loss if you stopped.”