JIM DODSON: Happy Ending Took a While
"Sometimes," Don Lee says quietly, "there are happy endings."
Lee, 62, sits at a table in the empty Pine Crest Inn dining room, a large file of official letters at his fingertips. An early-evening crowd has already begun filtering into the inn's popular bar. There is laughter and a buzz of friendly conversation.
Though Lee limits himself to one cocktail these days, he's a popular figure around Pinehurst's most beloved hotel and watering hole.
"I love this place," he says. "People make you feel like it's home."
For years, Lee helped take care of the Pine Crest's popular house cats, Marmalade I and Marmalade II. He carried both animals to the vet whenever they needed to go. He faithfully put thyroid medicine in MI's ears every day; he brought MII home from the clinic after she nearly died giving birth. The kittens failed to survive, but Don was there to comfort the mother when she came home from the vet and went searching for her missing babies.
"I was never much of a cat person," Don allows, "but it's funny how you can change -- or maybe how life can change you."
Don Lee has been in the Sandhills since 1990, when he moved here from Minneapolis after a divorce from his wife, Cathi. Up till then, he had been a good father to his sons Christian and Jeremiah, remembering how they once paddled in a rubber raft across Lake Minnetonka all the way to the Mississippi.
Don and Cathi were both teachers in those days. Don later went to work in the corporate travel business. He began to travel abroad, making good money, enjoying the good life probably a little more than he should have. His wife began to feel neglected, and their marriage unraveled.
"The whole thing was my fault," he says, waving his hand and shaking his head.
So he came to live with his aging parents, Sid and Ethel Lee, in Pinehurst Trace, commuting up to Raleigh for a job three days a week. Don's father was a retired paint salesman for Benjamin Moore, a tough Norwegian proud of his Minnesota heritage; his mother, Ethel, was a North Carolina native and an outstanding amateur golfer. She died from cancer in 1994.
A decade later, in May 2004, Don was buying a sandwich at his favorite place in Raleigh when he suddenly felt peculiar, foggy.
"My right arm was numb, and I couldn't sign the credit card slip," he says. "Then I couldn't put the key in my ignition. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to walk back into the store and ask if someone would mind driving me to a hospital."
Raleigh's Rex Hospital was a short distance away. "They sat me in a wheelchair in the emergency room and wheeled me through a set of doors," he says. "That's all I remembered for the next month."
Don, then just 58 years old, had suffered a massive stroke. But that was just the beginning of his ordeal.
'Hoping I Would Die'
After some rudimentary physical therapy, because he had no medical insurance or immediate family beyond his ailing father back in Pinehurst, Don Lee was eventually placed under the care of legal guardian and sent to a Wake Forest rehabilitation center -- which was so poorly operated that he slept on a cot with a shoe in one hand to kill the bugs that crawled over his bed at night.
"You hear stories about such places," he says. "How people who don't have insurance can disappear through the cracks in the system. Well, that was me. I was nearly gone."
As a ward of the state, he was informed by his guardian that all of his assets had gone to help pay his medical expenses, that even his father's house in Pinehurst had been sold to pay his mounting medical expenses.
"I lay there on a cot confused and unable to move, basically a prisoner of the system, feeling as completely alone in the world as you can feel, stripped of everything I owned except my glasses and my watch," he remembers. "All I could think about was my dad -- how bad his heart was and how I was supposed to be taking care of him. I decided this was a message to me from God for throwing things away with my own sons."
The rehab center offered little or no physical therapy.
"I think they were just hoping I would die," Don says. "I begged my guardian just to let me go home to Pinehurst and be with my dad. We needed each other. I couldn't call my wife and sons back in Minnesota. The guardian promised to help me get home to Pinehurst, but she never did it. It was all a lie. You lose more than your dignity when you lose your legal status as a competent person."
One day his guardian came to give him the bad news: His father had died. To make matters worse, she showed up half an hour late to drive him to the funeral.
Don Lee wept. But he also got angry and decided to fight back at the bureaucracy that was keeping him a prisoner.
He began giving himself speech therapy by reading books aloud and physical therapy by pushing himself out of bed to exercise his withered limbs. Little by little, he came back to life.
"I was determined to get my life back," he says, "starting with my legal status."
One day in the fall, Lee persuaded a fellow patient to accompany him in a taxicab to the courthouse in Raleigh.
"She had a little money and was eager to help me," he explains. "She was one of the guardian angels I found at the worst moment in my life."
By then, Don's hair was long and wild, his beard full. The clothes he wore came from a bin in the laundry room, an old sweatshirt and some pants.
"I looked like a homeless man, a crazy street person," Don says. But he had been examined by a psychiatrist and knew he was neither insane nor incompetent. Somehow he found a sympathetic judge and filled out a small mountain of paperwork and obtained a hearing on a late December date to determine his legal status
"I told myself that I had one goal -- to be able to make it home to Pinehurst so I could sit in the pew where my parents and I always sat at The Village Chapel on Christmas Eve."
On Dec. 21, 2004, he had his big day in court. The judge took only a few minutes to make his decision. He declared Don Lee competent to manage his own affairs and cut him loose. Don made it to that pew on Christmas Eve. He also discovered that his father's house in Pinehurst Trace, in fact, had not been sold. He'd inherited it. Don Lee wept again, this time out of gratitude to be home.
Many of Don's pals at the Pine Crest know his amazing story chapter and verse, how he pulled himself out of the nightmare of legal and medical limbo, reconnected with his sons and ex-wife, and despite his disability found work as what he calls a flatware service specialist -- "If you use flatware, there's a good chance I rolled it up in a napkin" -- five days a week at Outback Steakhouse.
Folks at the Pine Crest will tell you that Don Lee's faithful care of Marmalades I and II, both of whom are gone, was perhaps his way of giving something back to the life he nearly lost and then found.
They also aren't the least bit surprised by what he did this past Christmas for his son, Chris.
Christian, the elder, had joined the Army in 2006. After basic training, he was sent to Vilseck, Germany, to work as a military driver. There, through a Web site, Christian began exchanging e-mails with a girl named Elena Makacheva from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Their correspondence intensified. Elena moved to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to take a job in a shop. On his first leave from Germany, Chris flew out to meet her.
"His mom and I naturally had worries about this," Don admits. "You hear stories about foreign women taking advantage of American servicemen far from home. But we soon learned this was different. This was the real thing. They deeply cared for each other."
In July 2007, as part of the U.S. military "surge" aimed at quelling the insurgent violence in Iraq, Christian got deployed to Dyala Province, one of the most dangerous parts of the war-torn country. During another leave last Christmas, Chris went to be with Elena in Dubai a second time. A short time later, Chris phoned his dad from Iraq.
"He asked me if I was sitting down," Don says, "then told me that he and Elena were engaged and wanted to come back to America and get married during his next Christmas leave, a short window between Nov. 26 and Jan. 5."
Help From a Key Source
Chris asked his father to help secure his fiance a visa. Don made some calls and basically got nowhere -- learning that such efforts sometimes require years rather than months to arrange. Then a friend from the Pine Crest suggested he walk over and have a conversation with former Gov. Jim Holshouser.
"I walked into his office without an appointment, and Governor Holshouser just happened to be coming down the hallway," Don remembers. "He listened to my story and offered to make a few phone calls. I couldn't believe it."
Holshouser contacted Sen. Richard Burr's office, which in turn asked Don to write out a detailed synopsis of the situation and send it immediately to Burr's Washington office. A short time later, Don heard from Sen. Burr, saying he was personally looking into the matter.
"What amazed me was that here it was now August and the Republican presidential convention was going on," Don says. "Senator Burr was co-chair of the platform committee. Yet he still managed to find time to help us out."
But as Don had found out when he was flat on his back from his stroke, the wheels of bureaucracy grind tortuously slowly. Suddenly it was November. The window was rapidly approaching. From Iraq, Chris called to say he saw the surge paying dividends. He hadn't fired his weapon in six months.
Then, on Nov. 5, a breakthrough: Don received a letter from Burr explaining that he had requested "expeditious visa processing" and hoped to soon be in touch with good news. Ten days later, another letter from Burr revealed that an interview was scheduled for Dec. 15 at the U.S. Consulate in the United Arab Emirates. Almost half of Chris' leave had vanished down the rabbit hole of time.
But at midnight on Dec. 20, with the magical visa in hand, Chris and Elena boarded a flight to Atlanta. Two days later, they were at Cathi Lee's home in Minneapolis.
'Amazing Good News'
"The city was buried in snow," Don recounts with obvious delight. "Elena didn't even have a winter coat."
On the 26th, the couple picked up their wedding license. A day later, they were married at the home of a friend who happens to be a Baptist minister. The newlyweds wore matching Norwegian sweaters in honor of Don, who couldn't afford the last-minute plane ticket to Minnesota. Don's younger son Jeremiah, who is training to become a cop, served as best man. Cathi's niece served as maid of honor.
"At a time when all we hear about politicians and maybe people at large is just the bad news," Don Lee was saying the other evening in the empty dining room just off the rowdy Pine Crest bar, "here's a story that should make us all feel better. There are such things as happy endings.
"Through this whole thing," he added, "Cathi and I have grown much closer again."
After a two-day honeymoon, Chris Lee headed back to his base in Germany. He's planning to send Holshouser an American flag that flew over his base in Dyala Province. Someday soon, it may fly over the square in Pinehurst, too. For the time being, Elena Lee plans to stay with his mother in Minneapolis, discovering a new land and awaiting her husband's return home.
Two days after I heard Don's story at the Pine Crest, he phoned me to give me some more "amazing good news" -- namely that Chris had just learned he would be reassigned to Fort Eustis in Newport News, Va. The couple will soon be reunited.
"That's where my dad was stationed during World War II and where my parents met through a blind date and later got married," Don explained with obvious pleasure. I was born there on Feb. 9."
He paused and added, "And guess what. Chris is scheduled to report there on Feb. 9. That's my birthday. Isn't that something?"
I could almost see Don Lee, flatware specialist and reborn former husband and dad, wiping his eyes.
Contact Jim Dodson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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