The year was 1989. The setting – a small 4th floor dorm room off the quad on an idyllic New England college campus.
No surface was immune from the chaos that represented my life in that moment – a hopeless jumble of papers, assorted ashtrays gagging on charred cigarette butts, empty cans, bottles and half burnt incense cones.
I was completely overwhelmed. By my own hand, my prospects for staying in school were quickly unraveling. I had spent the preceding semester drinking in the extracurriculars of the college experience (often literally) while all but ignoring anything remotely related to academia.
By the time that finals rolled around in that first semester of my junior year, I was in a full fledged, self-induced panic. I was trying desperately to cram four months work into a matter of days, a vain attempt to salvage my flailing college career.
My friend Paul sat on the edge of my bed surveying the damage and shaking his head. He never quite understood how it was that I got myself into these situations, but nonetheless, he always seemed to be there to help me pick up the pieces when I did.
My dorm mates were all ensconced in their own rooms, emerging for meals or to blow off some steam before returning to their (more productive versions of) studying and paper writing. Once a day, the mail would arrive and someone would yell the good news throughout the hallways. A few lucky girls would go running off with care packages from home, friends excitedly trailing behind, eager to share the loot.
Paul opened my door as a girl breathlessly shouted my name from the hallway. He took the big brown box from her and handed it off to me. As we tore into my mom’s careful lettering, I wondered what we’d find inside. Oreo cookies? Peanut butter? Fluff? Three Musketeers bars? I could barely stand the anticipation.
Paul cocked his head as I pulled everything out. He looked confused as I removed the contents of the box and spread them on the floor around me. He didn’t ask why when I started to cry.
I had gained weight in college. Nothing overly dramatic, but at 5 foot nothing, the ‘freshman fifteen’ was pretty significant. Working at the local pub and subsisting on a diet of potstickers, hot wings and beer certainly didn’t help my cause. I had gotten rounder, softer.
My mom was concerned about my weight. She mentioned it every time we got together and often asked how my diet was going, whether or not I had said that I was actually on one. Her maternal concern was perfectly natural and understandable, if not accepted particularly gracefully.
My mom had meant well. She had no doubt sent the package with a lot of love. I’m sure that when she picked out the rice cakes and the diet lemonade mix she did so with the best of intentions. She chose my favorite flavors and hunted down things she thought I’d enjoy.
And I was crushed.
Paul stayed with me for a while and then said that he had to take off. He said that he had a few things he needed to take care of and told me that he’d catch up with me later.
I did my best to focus on keeping myself in school. I attempted to devour Rousseau and make some sense of Hobbesian theory in a matter of hours. I finally nodded off somewhere in the middle of Plato’s Republic.
A couple of hours later, I stumbled out into the hallway. I nearly tripped over the new box that had been freshly deposited in front of my door. Resting on top of the box was a sheet of loose leaf paper, obviously torn from a notebook on my desk. The note read:
This is what a care package is supposed to be.
The box was a veritable treasure trove of my favorite things (and guiltiest pleasures!). There was not a single thing in the box that was even remotely good for me.
Oreos (double stuff!), Slim Jims (extra spicy!), Diet Coke (in cans!). An elaborate assortment of the makings for the best Bloody Mary bar this side of the Mississippi - Absolut vodka, Clamato, spicy horseradish, crushed pepper, Tobasco, Worcestershire sauce, green olives stuffed with garlic, even fresh celery.
He worked for every dime he ever had. That care package represented nearly a full night’s work at the bar where we slung drinks together four nights a week.
All these years later, I still cherish my friendship with Paul, and now with his wonderful wife and two beautiful little girls. I think of him nearly every day.
I think of him on days like yesterday when I walk through DFW airport and see soldiers heading to or returning from war. I think of him when they are on line behind me at the airport Dunkin’ Donuts and I insist on buying their breakfast. I think of him when they look momentarily confused when they try to thank me and I well up and say that it’s the least I can do.
I think of him when I stand for the national anthem or listen proudly to my girls reciting the pledge of allegiance. I think of him when I read about the political struggle to bring the soldiers home, when I hear about the ill-funded VA hospitals or when I hear the heart wrenching stories about children (like his) whose parents are oceans away. I think of him when I hear the tales of all of the heroes who live by their oaths to protect their fellow countrymen at any and all personal cost.
I think of him with my heart in my mouth when I hear about helicopters going down in unforgiving lands halfway across the world.
And of course I thought of him last week as Katie and I pieced together a care package to send to him in Afghanistan. As we scoured the shops for the best dark chocolate we could find (his favorite), I was right back on my dorm room floor all those years ago. As we headed to Starbuck’s for the coffee beans that he loves (his only request), I thought of the Oreos and the Bloody Mary bar. As Luau put together a library of DVD’s to help him while away the hours in the mountains (the only other thing he finally admitted to wanting) I thought back to the Slim Jims and how they made me smile at (what I thought was) such a tough moment in my life.
And when Luau headed to Mailboxes Etc to send the package overseas, I thought of the selfless love and boundless generosity of my dear friend. Eight different kinds of dark chocolate, six pounds of coffee, ten DVD’s – we knew it wasn’t going to be cheap to package and send. It should have cost approximately $50 in supplies and postage. But this wasn’t a time to skimp.
The owner of the Mailboxes Etc franchise was at the counter when Luau arrived. They began to chat and he noticed that the box was being sent to an APO address. He asked where it was headed and Luau proudly told him about Paul – Blackhawk commander, soldier, patriot, friend.
The straight postage was $18. He charged us for nothing else.
It’s contagious – generosity, selflessness, CARING.
This is what a care package is supposed to be.
(P.S. A grateful nation thanks you and your precious family and prays for your safe return.)