More Esther and Mike…
Esther tightly gripped her cup of hot, black coffee as she surveyed the area around her from the front porch of the house they were staying in with Mike’s old Marine buddy Matt. The neighbourhood, like the man, was not what she had expected.
Over a decade before the whole world had watched in horror as bodies floated down these same streets. Not that hurricanes and floods were not common place. Man despite his vast knowledge still could not stand toe-to toe with Mother Nature when she unleashed her fury.
But what had shocked the nation and the world was the seemingly complete lack of warning, poor preparation and slow, inadequate response that this one had brought with it. Hurricane Katrina had highlighted that even in America natural disasters could be catastrophic.
It had been dark when they finally rode up to the one-storey wooden frame home that was headquarters for former Marine Private First Class Matt Dwyer’s charity, Homes for Heroes. Like the mish-mash and hodge-podge of home and businesses around her, the man was not what she expected.
Little more than thirty, the wheelchair was not what you first noticed about him. Nor was it the long blond hair or bright blue eyes that danced with laughter in a mid-western All-American good looking football heroes face. Not even the disparity between an upper body that was honed to body-builder perfection from not just some serious gym time but long days working with his calloused hands could distract from that smile.
No, the man’s smile was truly special. Something that drew you to him immediately, while it comforted all your woes and made you more than willing to share your deepest secrets and pledge your support to a virtual stranger.
His story was just as remarkable as the work he did. He had been shot early during the Second Battle of Fallujah, his spinal cord severed. After being airlifted first to Landstuhl Army hospital in Germany and then Walter Reed for months of recovery and rehabilitation, he barely returned to his small hometown in Nebraska when Katrina had hit.
As he watched cable news coverage of strangers struggling to survive in what for all appearances was a war zone on American soil, Matt had found new purpose. He had used his mini-celebrity status as a high school football and war hero to rally family, friends and his church at first and eventually the whole town to collect clothes, blankets and food for total strangers a thousand miles away.
Then he, his father and best friend had rented a moving van and hit the road. They had arrived just as the Red Cross and FEMA were abandoning their efforts to serve those stubborn few survivors that refused to leave their homes for the safety of temporary housing elsewhere. They had taken over the long term efforts of helping to clear and rebuilding the devastated area alongside those stalwart residents.
Matt had never left. During that first couple of years, he would receive periodic reinforcements of supplies from back home. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Memorial Day, the church sent truckloads of supplies including boards, nails, concrete and other building materials as well as the usual food and clothes.
He had stayed, becoming as much a Nurealns hero as he had been a hometown one. How many of this array of refurbished and new homes had the man helped to build? Esther looked at one two-storey one on stilts with solar panels on the roof. She smiled as she realized how prepared those people had become for whatever came next. But it was an oddity in this neighborhood where most people had struggled just to remodel their old homes.
There were lots of vacant lots too. Too many. Places where homes once stood. But no longer. There were a fair share of boarded up vacant houses too. Those were why they were here. After the final stages of rebuilding were almost complete, Matt had struggled and prayed he said for guidance. This place and these people had become home and family to him.
Esther supposed that made some sort of sense. Back in Nebraska he would be the quarterback who became a ‘cripple.’ But these people never knew that boy, who had thrown winning touch downs or scrambled on lithe feet away from sacks. Here he was the man who had used his still fully intact brain to solve problems, whether that be putting bicycle chains on his wheelchair to make it possible for him to get through the mud that seemed to linger for weeks and months or how to make do with the supplies that strangers donated.
He had become a hero of a different sort to these people. An outsider that refused to abandon them or their neighborhood, that fought beside them to save it when politicians tried to wipe it and them from the map and memory, that broke his back alongside them to pound nails and drill holes.
And those same people had taken up his new cause when it came. Those abandoned buildings and vacant lots could become homes for others like him. Men and women who had faced battles of their home. Who had like these people lost everything they held dear. Who refused to give up or give in. Who fought back and through because that was all they knew. Homes For Heroes…soldiers, sailors, airmen and of course Marines. Those who had given their all…and lost it…for their country that all too often forgot them. Just as it had this place in those dark days and since.
She lifted the cup of steaming coffee to her lips and savoured the flavor in the crisp morning air. She fought to swallow it past the lump in her throat. Her heart went out to Matt’s mother. Her son was a thousand miles away when she was certain all the woman would want to do was love and care for him. She sighed, still what she would not give to be in that woman’s place. At least her son had come home…and not in a body bag.
She shook her head and swatted at the fresh tears that threatened to spill from the corner of her eyes. This was why she had come on this trip with Mike….to get away from these pointless and pity thoughts. To begin anew…fresh…or as much as she could anyway.
Just like these people had. Just like Matt was. She forced a smile and promised herself that she would dig into whatever back breaking work lie ahead…and learn from these indomitable people…how to start over again from nothing.