The military can be a lonely place when you’re 18, far from home and injured. Lance Dillon fit that description. I met him about 25 years ago, when I was a nurse in the hospital on a small military base on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where my husband was stationed with the Coast Guard.
Lance was a nice kid from Pennsylvania who had broken both ankles in a rock climbing accident. He couldn’t do his job in the helicopter hangar or stay in the barracks. Casts on both feet confined him to the hospital for three months.
The hospital was very small and seldom busy, so we could devote a lot of time to Lance. We played Risk and card games. He taught me several card tricks as we’d sit in the solarium. He was fun to be around, but as time passed he became restless.
Winter was fast approaching. The days were almost too short now for Lance to wheel himself outside for a breath of fresh air. Television reception was poor in the bush, and we didn’t have a VCR.
He wrote letters home, often writing to his girl in New York. Her name was Sarah, and as soon as she graduated from business college, Lance hoped to bring her to Alaska.
Close to Halloween, Sarah wrote him the classic “Dear John” letter. It was not a good time. We all worried about Lance and could see the dark shadows thickening around him.
He had two friends who came by in the evening to play cards and talk with him. Rory and Kal were cowboys and very unlike Lance. But they were there for him and made him laugh.
As Thanksgiving approached, the clouds began to form around Lance again. He’d sit for hours staring out the window into the snow and cold. We knew he desperately needed to get out of the wheelchair and out of the hospital, but it was too early for him to walk on those broken feet.
When I was growing up, Thanksgiving always meant lots of family, lots of noise and plenty of food. Since marrying a man in the military, holidays had been a time for friends who were also a long way from family.
That Thanksgiving, I vowed to bring some sunshine into Lance’s holiday. I told him I would take him to my house for turkey. Rory and Kal would be there, along with our neighbors, my husband and our two boys.
Making a chair with their arms, Rory and Kal carried Lance into the house. He took the children on rides down our hallway and let them write on his casts with colors. The dog even got into the act by yipping at the turning spokes on the wheelchair.
Yes, that was a noisy, hectic Thanksgiving—just the way I thought it should be. We started mid-morning and didn’t take Lance back to the hospital until after midnight. He smiled for days afterward.
A few weeks later, Lance’s mother wrote to thank me for caring for her son during his Thanksgiving away from home. I still have that letter. Someday I may have to write a thank-you letter to some woman who will care for one of my sons when he’s far from home and needs a home-cooked meal. This is the worst time to travel on Thanksgiving.