Sunday, March 2, 2003

A veteran's tale

Dignity, honor and dying


This is a complicated story, and Vivian Buller and I are trying to make sense of it. She has considerably more sense than I do, so I mostly listen. Her husband, John, is sick. She is surely willing to take care of him, but frankly it is beyond her. Not that she is afraid of a little hard work. Or a lot. It runs in her family.

Her father died after being gassed in France during World War I, and her mom washed dishes and scrubbed floors to feed the three kids. "I could cook by the time I was 5 years old," Vivian says. She took her specialty, sauerbraten, to John at the nursing home the other night. He tried to eat some, but couldn't.

A tormented tumble

His stomach hasn't been right since he got back from the Pacific in 1945. A Marine aerial gunner, John keeps a picture of himself with his goggles. Very proud, he was. Too proud, his wife says, to put in for disability when he came home with bouts of internal bleeding.

John told her he'd be ashamed to ask his country for money when he still had all his limbs. Now he has worse problems, which Vivian thinks began during the war.

"The doctor he went to is dead now, but I think it was the beginning of an immunity problem." Boils the size of quarters have popped up all over his skin, even between his toes. This is just the most recent torment.

It has been a hard downhill tumble since 1990, when he was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy. John can't walk, feed or bathe himself now. He's been in and out of the VA Hospital.

"I just can't take care of him right," Vivian says. John is at Wesley Hall, near their home in Western Hills. Vivian visits every day and is just about exhausted. So is John's IRA. "That's what's left of his retirement."

It's not like they've been living high on the hog. Vivian knows how to make a meal with cheap cuts. They have a two-bedroom ranch. They raised two kids, paid their taxes, signed up for insurance, tucked away money when they could. Vivian left the phone company with some of her retirement in stocks. "And you know what happened to that."

Here's the bottom line: John, a retired printer who worked since he was 9 years old and served his country honorably, is dying. In great discomfort. John and Vivian get Social Security and Medicare, which pay for a lot. But not pills. And, boy, does John need a lot of pills.

Vivian is terrified that she'll lose everything. They just got another property tax increase. And, well, have you looked at the price at the gas pumps lately? It's probably bad form to notice the plight of a war veteran just as we are about to embark on a fresh war with pre-war veterans. Still. This just doesn't seem right.

Vivian would like to be mad at somebody. But who? The government? Corporate scoundrels who plundered their companies and, by default, the rest of us? It just seems as though if you work hard, you should be able to exit with a little dignity. Right?

Vivian and I talk a while longer. And, try as we might, we just can't make sense of it.

E-mail, or call 768-8393.

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