Chapter 7: Discovery
As promised, Eddie Sanchez brought his father’s shoe box to La Vida Aureo the next day when he and Brit came to visit the elder Mrs. Sanchez. Despite their efforts to engage Mrs. Sanchez in conversation, she sat and simply stared out her window. Even when Eddie told her about meeting Larry Blackburn, she remained unresponsive. But, Eddie felt a sense of responsibility and would continue to visit his mother as often as he could. He took Brit’s hand as they exited the room and said, “I know this is very difficult and that my mother was never very nice to you, but I appreciate your accompanying me today. It is not necessary for you to come in the future. I will go with you to visit your folks as often as you like.”
Britney said nothing, but squeezed Eddie’s had a bit tighter as they continued down the hallway.
As they passed through the main lobby, Eddie noticed Larry Blackburn walking toward the main dining room with a large scrapbook under his arm and called out, “Mr. Blackburn, I brought my father’s shoebox.”
Blackburn accepted the box with a sense of respect. “Thank you, Eddie. I promise to call as soon as I’ve had a chance to sort through everything.” Blackburn smile and waved to Eddie and Britney Sanchez as they left.
Larry Blackburn had asked Matthew Dudley to join him this particular afternoon to review the progress on his scrapbook and to share in opening Eduardo Sanchez’s box of presumed Army memorabilia.
Blackburn had made considerable progress on his scrapbook and there were only a few remaining items to be incorporated, mostly newspaper clippings. “It always saddens me to look at these,” remarked Blackburn. “Most of the articles were very critical of the United Sates’ involvement in the Vietnam War and this general animosity was often directed at the returning GIs. This War wasn’t their idea and most of them were drafted into the service. People didn’t talk about PTSD back then, but a lot of the guys I served with were deeply troubled for many years after they returned home. At least in my small hometown, people were just glad to have their sons home and they were welcomed back into the community.”
“It was much the same here,” added Dudley. “There has always been a strong element of patriotism here and most people were proud of their sons.”
Larry put the scrapbook to the side and carefully opened the box Eddie Sanchez had entrusted to him. There were not many items in the box, mostly photographs. Under the photos, Blackburn found two medals, a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. “Wow!” whistled Blackburn. “I knew about the Purple Heart; several guys on that patrol were badly wounded, but I didn’t know about the Silver Star. I remember Eddie (Eduardo) carrying another soldier who was badly wounded back to base despite being wounded himself. The Brass must have decided to award him the Silver Star later. I think my tour ended a few months before Eduardo’s. “
“It looks like he put the medals at the bottom of the box,” observed Dudley. “I’ll bet he never mentioned them to anyone. It will be a very pleasant surprise when you share them with his son.”
As the two men continued to look through the box, they carefully took out Eduardo’s few photographs and tried to arrange them in some sort of order, from a print that looked like it was taken in Basic Training to one from some sort of farewell pose. “Look, Doc, I’m in this one. I remember gathering to say “good bye” to a bunch of the guys who were shipping stateside the next morning. There’s Eduardo and there’s me next to him.”
“Young Eddie certainly resembles his father, don’t you think?” observed Dudley.
At the very bottom of the box was a single photograph of four young people sitting in a convertible in front of what looked to Blackburn like a hamburger stand. “I’m not from around here,” he mused, “but isn’t that the same name as the hamburger OJ was eating the other day?”
“I believe you’re right,” smiled Dudley. “Blake’s is a New Mexico institution. This looks like a bunch of high school kids enjoying a typical sunny day. The kid behind the wheel looks like Eduardo and I guess those must be some of his friends.”
Dudley and Blackburn continued looking at the photographs and trying to put them in what they thought was the proper order. Blackburn happened to look up as JoAnne Elliott walked into the dining room. She was returning to La Vida Aureo from a day volunteering at the VA Hospital. That was apparent from the colorful vest she wore which was decorated with service patches given to her over the years by thankful soldiers. “Hey, that was my unit, The Big Red One,” exclaimed Blackburn when he saw the unmistakable insignia on the vest.
JoAnne was quite surprised that someone had called out to her and she stopped at the table where Dudley and Blackburn were sitting. “I’m sorry,” blurted Blackburn. “I noticed the patch on you vest. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s quite all right,” smiled JoAnne. “I am very proud of my vest. All of these patches were given to me over the years when I worked at various VA Hospitals. It was usually a service person’s way of saying thanks to me for talking with them. In the early years, there were a lot of guys who served in the First Infantry in Vietnam, so I’ve had this patch for a very long time.”
“Pardon me, I’ve neglected my manners,” apologized Blackburn as he rose. “My name is Larry Blackburn and I’m a resident here. This is Matthew Dudley who is actually on the La Vida Aureo staff.”
“Ms. Elliott and I have already met,” offered Dudley who also rose to greet JoAnne.
“We were just looking over my Army scrapbook,” said Blackburn as he pointed to the table where he and Dudley had been working. “If you’d care to join us, we were just trying to put some of these additional photos from a buddy of mine in sequence.”
As JoAnne moved closer to the table, her eyes fell upon the single photo that was lying apart from the others and the scrapbook. “Oh, my God,” exclaimed JoAnne. “Where did you get this photograph?”
“It came from a box of mostly Army memorabilia from a guy I served with who is from Bernalillo, a town near here,” offered Blackburn.
“I know where Bernalillo is,” said JoAnne anxiously. “I grew up there. I know this photo. That is me sitting in the front seat with Eduardo Sanchez, my first and only true love, who was killed in Vietnam.”
Dudley noticed the confused and very troubled look on JoAnne’s face and helped her into a chair between himself and Blackburn. “Let me ask Paloma to make some fresh coffee,” he suggested. “I think we have some very important things to discuss.”
With a fresh mug of coffee in front of her, JoAnne picked up the photograph with trembling hands. “This photo was taken just after we all graduated from high school and before Eduardo was drafted into the Army. That’s Eduardo and me in the front seat and our best friends Isaac and Nina in back. He was only in Vietnam a few months when his family received notice that he’s been killed and that the Army had not recovered his body. It was actually Nina, that girl there, who called me with the news.”
Things were very emotional for the next thirty minutes as the details came out with Blackburn and JoAnne contributing most of the information about Eduardo Sanchez. Dudley and Paloma together tried to guide the conversation into a coherent sequence of events. They were both deeply saddened when it became apparent that JoAnne had been horribly deceived, probably by Nina, and had spent her entire life believing that the one love of her life had been killed in combat.
JoAnne finally asked, “How did you come to have this box of photographs?”
Dudley could see how these revelations had also affected Blackburn so he took the initiative to relate the story of the chance meeting with Eddie Sanchez and the box of his father’s memorabilia. He also disclosed that Eduardo had died a few years previously and that Nina was a resident at La Vida Aureo in the Memory Care Unit with advanced Alzheimer’s. This information was a further shock to JoAnne and she began sobbing uncontrollably. The knowledge that Eduardo and Nina had had a son, which by everything she held dear, should have been HER son, was too much to bear.
After what seemed like a very long time, JoAnne gained control of herself and stopped crying. She looked at Blackburn, Dudley and Paloma and said, “Thank you. Thank you all very much. I know it has been difficult for you as well to relate these stories to me, but I am fine. I have learned over many years of working with veterans at the VA how to deal with adversity and stressful situations. I will direct my energies and emotions into my work. Helping others has always been a source of strength for me.”
“I also want to say that it gives me peace to know that Eduardo did not die and that he had a wonderful life. I don’t know if I am prepared to face Nina, but I would like to meet Eduardo’s son. I just want to see him. I do not intend to talk about the past and what might have been. You tell me that he is a fine young man and there was really never a doubt in my mind about that. I would just like to see him one time.”
Paloma and Dudley promised JoAnne that they would arrange that. Dudley spoke, “Larry has been through Eduardo’s box of memorabilia and discovered some important things that Eddie is probably not aware of about his father. If everyone agrees, I suggest that this one photo be given to JoAnne. I see no benefit in giving this particular photo to Eddie.”
A few days later, Larry Blackburn called Eddie Sanchez to tell him that there were a few surprises in his father’s box that he was eager to share. “Just let me know the next time you plan to come to La Vida Aureo to visit your mother. We can meet in the dining room.”
Matthew Dudley talked with one of the Supervisors in the Memory Care Unit to arrange an excuse for him to visit Nina Sanchez along with JoAnne Elliott. Dudley was on very good terms with most of the Supervisors and this would not be difficult to accomplish, even if Dudley neglected to mention JoAnne’s presence. One afternoon, when the Supervisor informed Dudley that Nina was having a “good day”, Dudley and JoAnne made their way to Nina’s room on the second floor. The premise of the visit was to inspect the air conditioning unit and would be limited to just a few minutes. JoAnne had mentally prepared herself for this encounter with Nina after so many years and with the knowledge of Nina’s deception. As they entered the room, they saw Nina in her rocking chair near the window. Nina barely acknowledged their presence and continued to stare out the window.
Dudley spoke softly. “Mrs. Sanchez, it will just take a minute to adjust your air conditioning unit. We’ll try not to disturb you.”
Nina slowly raised her head and gazed at her two visitors. JoAnne thought she noticed a sign of recognition in Nina’s eyes as she looked their way, but it quickly faded. Nina mumbled some that sounded like “Thank You”, but it was barely audible. With that, Dudley and JoAnne turned and quietly left the room.
“It is so sad to see Nina that way,” said JoAnne. “I was afraid I would be angry seeing her again after all these years, but I only feel sadness.”
“Many of the residents in this Unit have Alzheimer’s and it never a pretty sight,” suggested Dudley. “Let’s go outside for a change of scenery.”
That afternoon, as planned, Eddie and Britney Sanchez came to La Vida Aureo for a very brief visit with Mrs. Sanchez. Both were more eager to catch up with Larry Blackburn and learn about the surprises he had promised.
After showing the medals and some of the photographs to Eddie, Blackburn said “I have one more surprise for you. I’d like to introduce you to JoAnne Elliott who recently moved here to La Vida Aureo. She is originally from Bernalillo and she tells me that she knew your both father and mother when they were all much younger.”
JoAnne extended her hand to Eddie and then Britney and said simply, “When I saw some of the photos Larry was working on from your father’s box, it brought back some pleasant memories of my youth. I just wanted to say Hello and reiterate what Larry said about your father; he was a really great guy.” JoAnne felt many more things in her heart, but decided to keep the meeting short, as she had promised. But she could not help but notice that the blonde, blue-eyed Britney reminded her of herself when she and Eduardo were dating and how much Eduardo’s parents objected.
Much to JoAnne’s surprise, Eddie began talking about his parents in a very candid way. “Thank you for your thoughts about my dad. I’m sure Larry told you that he passed a few years ago. Occasionally, he would get talkative after we had finished a particularly difficult job, but he kept much of his youth bottled up inside. I always assumed that his time in Vietnam was something he preferred not to relive. When I first brought Britney home, he was very supportive, unlike my mother who was not very pleased. I guess he saw something in Britney that he liked. My mother lives here and it is sad to see her deteriorate with Alzheimer’s. But, my mother seemed sad to me most of her life, like she was carrying some terrible burden. They tried to have more children after I was born, but were unsuccessful. Anyway, I apologize for going on so. It was nice to meet you and welcome back to New Mexico.”
Eddie thanked Blackburn repeatedly as he held his father’s medals in his hand. He and Britney walked hand-in-hand out of the dining room toward the Guest parking lot.
It had been another emotional afternoon for everyone. Larry invited JoAnne to take a walk with him and Dudley noticed them sometime later, sitting under the Navajo willow in the courtyard as the sun set.