Christmas: Mi Casa, Su Casa

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This December 24 — Christmas Eve day — I had the opportunity to sit in the VAMC La Jolla Emergency/Urgent Care waiting room. No broken bones protruding from my appendages, no deathly cough and sneeze that would not go away, nothing that actually needed medical care. I have been a patient in a hospital over various holidays, including New Year’s Eve and day. On December 26, 1977 I flipped a motorcycle on the island of Okinawa and spent the next two months in Kuwae Naval Hospital getting repaired.

Tim Forkes as a young Marine

The hospital has since been renamed, U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, and moved to Marine Corps Base Camp Foster — as if the base wasn’t crowded enough. I’ll try not to let the tangents drag this post too far off the rails here.

On a Sunday the VAMC in La Jolla, CA is fairly quiet. The Patriot Store is open until 2 p.m. and there are more than a few people inside shopping. They have good deals on name brand clothing, electronics, fragrances, snacks and soft drinks. I got myself a Diet Mountain Dew as my wait to get the prescription filled would be about 45 minutes.

That was the reason I spent about an hour at the hospital on a Sunday, Christmas Eve day: pick up a refill on a prescription because I had misjudged how many of the pills I had left and ran out that morning. Poor planning.

Also in the waiting room were about 20 other veterans, some with family members or friends, waiting for medical care. From treatments for the flu to serious pain that was severe enough to cause one man to groan every once in a while to another who cried in agony for most of the time I was there.

Back in the day I would have thought, “Suck it up, Dude,” as if crying was a bad thing. This year I surprised myself, feeling compassion for both men and feeling sad there was nothing I could do to help.

Compassion seems to be out of place in today’s society. Certainly in my case it’s been in short supply, but there it was: compassion for someone in pain. How often do we look at the homeless and judge them for not being “normal,” and then an hour later complain about the holidays, saying we wish life would get back to normal.

Remembering our friend Curtis who was homeless in the last years of his life.

Granted, homelessness is not a normal lifestyle, but it isn’t a chosen lifestyle either. No one grows up thinking, “Hey! I think I’ll live out my adult years on the streets!” There are children growing up homeless and for them having a home is a foreign concept, but I doubt they want to live like that forever.

The veteran crying in the waiting room was compassionately cared for by the nursing staff who moved him to the intake area and then into the emergency room. I was happy for him — and his wife, who was pushing his wheelchair — as a nurse took over the wheelchair duties and moved the man to the intake.

Hospitals are sad places on the holidays. Patients don’t want to be there, but circumstances put them there. Many of us feel a little sadness when we visit someone who is in a hospital over a holiday. We’d rather be sitting around a rib roast dinner, laughing and smiling, telling embarrassing stories about each other. “Remember the time Carl scared the crap out of Rick?” “Remember the time Tim and Carl drove to Colorado for Thanksgiving and Tim forgot to bring shoes?” “Remember the time Mary Lou and Dottie were running across 60th Street?”

Those are the holidays I like to remember, when we can be together, exchanging gifts and appreciating the love and happiness we have given one another over the years. Elaine used to make that Yule log out of 19 different flavors of ice cream, at least 10 of them from Ben and Jerry’s.

Christmas in a snow-covered state, like Colorado or Wisconsin made being in a warm house all the cozier.

Deer in Parker, Colorado

Winter in San Diego is pretty cool too, with its temperature of 70°f at 2 p.m. But, like a true San Diegan I need to wear a long-sleeved shirt at the beach.

Yes, Christmas here in Southern California — and Florida, Texas, Colorado and Wisconsin — is wonderful as long as we have loved ones to share it with, at home — mi casa, su casa — with a nice meal and pleasant conversation. Maybe a Holiday movie on the TV.

But like every year I remember the people who are in a hospital, or a shelter, or sitting on a street somewhere, who don’t get to enjoy the blessings I have received. May they get a blessed moment, some holiday cheer and unconditional compassion today as well.

Maybe we should kick “normal” to the curb and be compassionate every day, starting with Christmas. There are a lot of people in this nation who do not need to be reminded about compassion. They just are. I’m not one of them. My Godmother (and cousin) Jeanette is one of those people and I learn a lot from her. But every now and then I need a reminder, like a trip to a hospital waiting room.

Merry Christmas.

Photos by Tim Forkes
Top photo: The Crystal Pier in San Diego at Christmas