When people say they’re haunted, it usually conjures up images of ghosts and wraiths. But that’s not how it is with me. Six words, a beard, and the tap of a hand haunt my days and nights.
I’m probably as ordinary as a person can get, living a typically mundane life. One particularly innocent day, my client asked me to run a few papers by a local nursing home. Easy? Sure. Safe? Not so much.
I was running a tad behind schedule when I pulled into the parking lot—a totally nondescript building with a colorful banner emblazoned with “We’re so glad to see you!” rippling in a cold, February breeze. Turning from that cheery message to the field, not a half-mile away, I encountered a decided mood-changer—a prison yard.
Brushing dark comparisons aside, I hurried inside and ran smack into a large common dining room. Old folks milled about, aimlessly, it seemed. I spotted a nurse-type in her flowered top and waved my manila folder stuffed with my client’s “important papers.” A quick explanation and the flowered top flew off in hot pursuit of the needed signatures.
So, I just stood there, looking about, pretending I wasn’t looking about. It got awkward—real quick. I perused the menu, listened to the laugh track playing on a large screen television, and studied the “Report Abuse Here” sign. I turned around and surveyed the room. Any sign of abuse?
A couple old guys slumped at a table, one with his head down and his eyes closed, though his legs were in perpetual motion, the other chattered away undaunted by his less-than-enthusiastic audience. Several figures slept in front of the television, while a young man cleared tables nearby. Several old gals, the lively ones of the bunch, were looking my way. Oh no. One, with a crippled leg, limped toward me. Lord, did she think she knew me? What did she want? Where could I hide?
Too late. She’d seen me. Stretching out her hand, she reached for my arm. Would she fall? Tackle me? I searched wildly for a nurse, an aide; frankly, anyone under seventy would have been a Godsend at that moment.
I watched her hand reach out—and she patted my arm. I managed a squeak. “Need help?” After a brief smile, she limped on, her gaze focused on some mission up ahead.
“Nope. Just glad I can still get around.” She sounded like she meant it too. I looked at my arm, where she had patted me. Had she seen my panic? Was she comforting me?
The flowered-shirt nurse trotted up, a satisfied smile alerting me to her success. “The director said you should come back next week for—” I hardly heard the next words. Next week? Come back? Here? Dandy. I marched to the double doors, shoved the handle, and promptly set off every alarm in the place.
The following week was as busy as a spring tornado, but everywhere I went I saw that hand, felt that gentle pat, and heard those bloody, comforting words “Just glad….” Life is a mystery. I thought I had accepted that long ago. But now, I was a mystery to myself. When the manila folder was thrust unceremoniously back into my hands, I drove back to that parking lot overlooking the prison yard.
Squaring my shoulders like a soldier facing combat, I marched myself through the doors, breezing right by some old guy sitting in a wheelchair by the front glass doors, his gaze searching the parking lot. Must be waiting for someone. Maybe a son with grandkids—something like that. Sure.
In a moment, I stood before the throng of elderlies, searched for the flower-topped nurse, but instead a large man in blue lumbered over. Taking my manila envelope like a precious charge, he snail-paced away. Okay—so what’s on the menu today? This week? Any card catalogs I could peruse? I skirted by the Elderly Abuse notice.
Weakening, my gaze traveled the room. Before I realize what I’d done, I had stepped further into the room. A woman on my right sat at a table and gazed up at me, her eyes wide and frightened. Was she afraid of me?
I looked away—fast.
A man rocked in his chair—back and forth—while another woman talked and talked though not a soul was listening. The woman on the right cleared her throat. She leaned in, shoulders hunched, using every bit of courage to speak. Without warning, her gaze plunged into my own.
“If you’d just give me the key—I could get out of here.”
My heart stopped. Or it jumped to my throat. It certainly wasn’t where it was supposed to be, doing its job. I tried to say something, but no words would form on my lips. Desperate, she repeated her plea.
“If you’d just give me the key—I could get out of here.”
Lord have mercy, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I met the man in blue half way across the room and bolted for the door. The old man didn’t even flinch at the breeze from my passing, his gaze stayed fixed ahead, scanning the parking lot.
I spent the next week trying to rid myself of the echo in my mind, “If you’d just give me the key….” And the feel of my empty chest, where my heart should have been, the pat of a gentle hand, and the horror of knowing that the man in blue was going to wheel that old guy back to the common room—alone.
By the middle of the week, I needed serious therapy. But as that was not an option, I confided my hauntings to a friend of mine, Sammy, Sam for short.
Sam is a dear girl—woman—person, I suppose. In her own way. She listened patiently enough, and then she began her lament. It’s the government’s lack of decency, a selfish bunch of…causes all our troubles, religious zealots, insensitive relatives, you name it—Sam had a name to blame. When I finally admitted to myself that she wasn’t listening, I went home to the tune of “If you’d just give me the key….”
In fact, I never intended to go back to that nursing home. But in some kind of Christmas Carol twist, my client discovered one more signature was needed.
Fate, sure enough.
This time I came prepared. I ducked my head and shielded my eyes from the prison yard; I whizzed by the old man by the front door; I ignored the menu and practically knocked over a scruffy bearded kid who loped along to the center of the room. Flower-shirt was back, and she didn’t need to ask. She just plucked the manila folder from my grasp and suggested I sit and enjoy the live music before she trotted off.
The kid who looked like he had slept on a park bench all night unslung a guitar off his back and sat down in front, smiling, nodding at people like he was having a good time. Joking even!
I leaned against the wall, prepared for nothing. The kid’s dark, lanky hair, tattered jeans and threadbare jacket told their own story. He sang country stuff mostly, though he’d stop to answer a question or change tunes at a request. He and the old folks exchanged teasing jibes. Obviously, he’d been here before.
I gazed around the room. Most of the folks had gathered around. The sleepers stayed put—in their own worlds. Some folks rocked, some stared, a few drooled as was their way. But the woman from last week smiled up at the kid through shining eyes. No mention of a key. And the front-door guy had wheeled himself in, one foot tapping away.
Suddenly the manila envelope was thrust into my hands. But I wasn’t ready to leave. Why? I don’t even like country music.
It’s been months now, and I’ve never gone back. But I am haunted, I tell you—haunted by a gentle pat and a scruffy, young man—with a key.
Mom liked to say: “Everyone is crazy, except thee and me. And I’m not so sure about thee.” I knew she was joking, though there was always a shadow of pain in her eyes when she said it. Still, I’d laugh. Like I was supposed to.
I always got up early, when the world was still dark and cold. I’d get everything ready for school, eat a bowl of cereal, and maybe have toast scraped with butter. At promptly seven, I would get her coffee ready, spooning in plenty of sugar and creamer. I could practically taste the dark aroma. She was always pleased with my coffee, which always pleased me. Life was too hard not to make people happy when you had the chance.
On school days, I’d hike up to the bus station and wait, hugging myself, trying to keep off the morning chill. I’d try not to think too much about Mom and her troubles. I had troubles enough.
On the weekends, I would make Mom breakfast with her coffee: usually just an egg and toast. She had simple tastes. Then she’d get up and go about her business and I would head outside to play, sniffing the fresh clean air. I can’t remember studying much. Maybe if I had studied harder, I would have been able to respond better. Maybe I would have understood what she was really trying to say.
It must have been Veteran’s Day or something because I had the day off, and I stayed inside to help Mom make her bed. She was in a good mood; she hadn’t been drinking lately, and she wasn’t brooding over Dad so much. It felt good to pull the sheets tight around the mattress and then spread the blanket smooth. I remember I was wedged between the bed and the wall, the window behind me, when Mom stopped and stared right past me out the window.
I didn’t want to know what she was thinking when she pointed her finger and giggled, an eerie giggle. I only felt cold ripples roll over my arms. She spoke in a hushed tone. “Well, now he’s gone and done it! I didn’t think it was possible.”
I remember the soft sigh I heaved. I didn’t want her to hear it, but I couldn’t help it. It just escaped. She waited for me to ask. So I asked: “What did he do?”
We both knew we were talking about Dad, but it seemed only I knew that it wasn’t about Dad. Mom’s voice projected a certainty that made me look out the window. “He’s gone and turned himself into a Japanese man. Look there.”
I don’t remember what else she said. I just remember looking out the window and seeing no Dad and no Japanese man. I kind of hoped there would be one or the other.
A brown leaf fluttered to the ground, delicately, like sanity. “And I’m not so sure about thee.”
The Kingdom of If
Once upon a time, there was the kingdom of IF (Indivisible Fiefdom – a bit of an oxymoron, but as people liked it so it was). The people of IF had a king, King Oban, who was chosen by them because of his great popularity, and so they believed, as every generation before had believed, that he would be the perfect king. When he ascended to the throne, they hailed him as both hero and savior, and he believed every word of their hearty proclamations (though why he should is a bit of a mystery for even a smattering of IF history should have warned him that no king served unscathed and more often than not was picked to pieces before he was ousted for a more promising candidate). The kingdom had started out nobly enough, in fact, inspiring quotes like, “I will live and die for the salvation of IF” were quite prominent in their early history. Young citizens of IF loved to thrust their fists against their chests with hearty thuds and quote the luminaries who offered their lives in the service of IF, though in more modern times this had gone quite out of fashion for everyone is well aware that it is a young person’s primary duty was to live and die only for themselves.
But the Kingdom of IF was facing a crisis unlike anything they had ever faced before, though to be sure they had faced and overcome many dire situations in their uncounted generations of existence. But now, the Indivisible Fiefdom was sorely divided between the Earth-dwellers and the Sky-dwellers both of whom claimed the right to influence the king. But as it turned out, King Oban was heavily in debt to the Earth-dwellers (for his great-great-grandmother on his father’s side was an Earth-dweller of immense standing, and she had quite a bit of money in very deep pockets) and this left the Sky-dwellers in high dungeon for they felt left out of everything. In fact, every decision the king had to make was considered from these two opposing camps, but he overwhelmingly favored the Earth-dwellers. The Earth-dwellers saw everything from a personal point of view. “It is my right!” was their motto and “Save the Earth!” was another favorite axiom. The Sky-dwellers, on the other hand, saw everything as a matter for long consideration in relation to right and wrong. Though there were a variety of different clans in the Sky-dwellers dominion still they tended to group around a vision of a “higher calling” and this left the Earth-dwellers perfectly incensed for they believed that no one had the right to tell anyone else what to do (except, of course, when they were telling the Sky-dwellers where to go and how to follow their laws) but the Sky-dwellers were also in the habit of telling the general population how things ought to be done though they argued, quite honestly, that they were not preaching a singular individualistic doctrine but the beliefs of their ancestors dating back time out of mind. Their favorite motto was “God really rules” (though there was some debate as to what God believed exactly), and they loved the ancient melody and lullaby “Tradition Still Has Meaning In Our Lives”.
But the real danger facing the Kingdom of IF was not simply their divided nature, for they were always arguing, but rather that they did not look very far into their own future. For it was the will of the people of IF that when the king chose a side, he must stick to that side at all costs and listen not a word to the other side—even if they happened to be making humongous good sense. So the population of IF was dwindling into sad chaos, in fact, it was only surviving due to the charity of a few who still believed in the ancient prophesy that the Kingdom of IF was the best of all the kingdoms put upon the earth.
But there was another danger facing the kingdom that few seemed to realize—for there was an enormous kingdom to the east known as DOOM whose motto was “Conquer without battle”. And though they professed enduring love for the people of IF, they were secretly rubbing their hands in glee at the in-fighting between the Earth-dwellers and the Sky-dwellers for they were observing that all the work of destruction was being done quite efficiently for them. Also, on the sidelines were the tri-kingdoms of Kab, Bab, and Dan. These three semi-allied kingdoms (always together except when they were at each other’s throats) also professed an enduring love for the people of IF, though they would chant “Death to the King of IF” at every family gathering.
Besides the efforts of King Oban (who was himself a hard worker except when he was on vacation which was at least once a week or every day that began with a headache and that was becoming rather common) there were organizations of “Centralized Order” with highly trained worker-bureaucrats toiling ever so hard in the dark, dank libraries of great wisdom (though their words were drier than the parchment they lay upon) to keep the kingdom financially afloat. They had at that time finished volume P of laws and rules for tax regulation though they were now working on volume Q, but it had become stalled when the president/ CEO (and DMD for he pulled teeth on the side) of Rule-Keepers had to have an extended stay at Sunny-Shade—his nerves had become rather undone in all the hairsplitting technicalities of tracing contradictory laws and rules and regulations to their origin and rewriting them in modern jargon.
But the people of IF saw not their danger. There was only one small child who had written a poem for her mother one day, who seemed to grasp the implications of the dire times. She had learned in school of their noble history and her friends had all chosen sides. But one sunny day, her little brother sat down beside her near a great, old oak tree, and he asked her why she was sad. Though she could not answer her sibling’s innocent question, she did think that a poem might relieve her pent up feelings, so she wrote this quaint little prose, and she gave it to her mother who was too busy to read it. But you may find time in your busy life to read it before the parchment crumbles into dust—even questions from young people will fade if given enough time to wither and fall.
THE KINGDOM OF IF
If only we remembered from whence we came
And delighted in the goodness from above.
If only we grew our strength
From the victory of enduring love.
If only we realized that everything we have is a gift.
And that gifts can be taken away.
If only we toiled for that which lasts
And not so much for the day.
If only we lived lives of hope and not of dreadful dread—
We would know lives of joyful fruit
And not live as if we were already dead.
So, though the Kingdom of IF still stands upon its majestic past, and faces its future quite blindfolded, still it will not last forever, for nothing in this world ever does. But there is a quaint little plea in the child’s verse that strikes deep into the heart – for history will record not only how well the kingdom rose but how badly it fell. Yet may our nation live long, inspiring hope and enduring faith in something truly great…if only….
~James Milford Parker III~
James Milford Parker III stared at the gravestone with his name etched out in block print and realized that he would never be the same. James had seen tombstones before. Many times, in fact. But they had all been part of a set. His father had been a movie producer and his mother an actress of some renown in her early days. Now, they were just aging celebrities who lived quiet lives in as stress-free an environment as possible. They deserved some rest and fun. After all, they had given their best years to the world of entertainment. They ought to keep their golden years for themselves.
James stared and wondered why the stone in front of him did not seem real. He stepped forward and pressed his fingers against the marble slab in an attempt to dislodge it from its foundation. It did not budge. It was stone all right. He could feel the firm, smooth foundation under his casual shoes. Patting the stone, he smiled, as if asking the stone if it could take a little joke. You don’t mind, do you? I had to make sure. The image of a plastic tombstone being carried off in one hand by a prop man turned his smile into a grimace. So hard to be sure, you know.
James turned, got into his car, and drove twenty-seven miles home. He lived in the country on a sprawling estate. He never knew why his wife had insisted on having a place so far out, but he respected her wishes as he had respected everything about her. She was a good woman and that was why her sudden death baffled him to the point of incomprehension. He got out of his car and looked around. Everything was very quiet. It was early autumn, but the days were still quite warm. California seasons change almost imperceptibly. It was hard to realize that anything had changed. But he knew the night would bring a chilling breeze and he shivered at the thought.
I could use a drink, he mumbled to himself but brushed the thought away with a flick of his hand. He had suffered the pains of hell trying to sober up permanently. He wasn’t going to risk a rerun of that life, not without Cindy. Cindy had been the bedrock of his sanity when alcoholism almost destroyed his will to live. It had cost him his job at the studio and many of his friends. Though his name alone would always assure him of a following, it would not always assure him of friends. There were very few people he called friends, and he just lost the best of the bunch four days ago. Shaking his head to ward off any other dangerous thoughts, James punched in his key code and then slid the glass door open and walked inside. The echoing silence nearly deafened him.
He scratched his head and wondered if perhaps he should have just one drink. After all, his wife had died and no one would blame him for getting drunk. Standing in the middle of the foyer, he lifted his head and his gaze fell on a small marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that Cindy had installed in a little niche as you entered the house. Good Lord, how he hated the thing! He tried for weeks to convince Cindy that it made them seem like religious fanatics, like real provincials, but she had just smirked and said that at this point in her life, she didn’t give a hoot what people thought. Maria, her maid, had given it to her just before she died from liver cancer, and she wasn’t about to remove it. Cindy had said that it reminded her of something important. When James had asked her what was so damn important about it, she just told him that when he grew up, he’d figure it out. She said this with a smile, so James didn’t take it as an insult, though as he thought of it now, he wondered if it was an insult ― he’d just been too besotted to catch on.
He moved toward the expansive living room, all done up in wood paneling, shag rugs, and Native American themes. He found it rather revolting. His boyhood had been immersed in ultra-modern chromes and sleek metals and this reversion toward mother-earth had struck him as somewhat barbaric, but once again, this was what Cindy wanted and as he had his own place closer to work, he was willing to allow her decorators do their worst. And they did. Oh, Lord, did they ever.
James suddenly realized that he would have to sell the place, and he would need help. He considered several options for a moment. There were so many ramifications of Cindy’s death that his head spun. Too much to think about. Ever since Thursday morning when he awoke and realized that Cindy, lying there beside him, was not moving, that she was too still and too cold, he had existed in numbed shock. He had called an ambulance and his personal physician, but it was too late at that point. He then called his secretary and after telling her the news, she had promised to clear his calendar. All his projects had been shoved to the side. His father had said that he might come for the funeral, but as his mother hadn’t been feeling well, she probably wouldn’t be able to make it. James knew. His mother never liked Cindy, and it wasn’t in her nature to do anything she didn’t want to do. He was grateful for his father, though. He didn’t have any other family to call, and Cindy’s family was spread all over the globe. Her brother flew in from Texas, but that was it. Her father was in a nursing home and her mother had died years ago. Cindy had wanted to go to her mother’s funeral, but they had been in the middle of a big movie opening. James insisted that he couldn’t break away and since his sobriety was still in question, Cindy had elected to stay at his side. Later she told him that she felt like she had betrayed her mother by not going to her funeral, but James had just laughed.
“Good God, Cindy! The woman was cremated! What kind of funeral can there be for a pile of dust?” He had not realized how cruel he was at the time. Cindy had walked out of the room. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that she reminded him of the incident and asked him if he remembered. He said he didn’t remember his exact words, but he supposed he had said something like that. She asked him if he still felt the same. He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t like to think about death. It was a long time ago, Cindy, forget it.” She seemed to. But it nagged at him now. It more than nagged at him. It felt like a hammer blow to the heart. How could he have been so cold?
James turned and walked toward the steps. Well, if I can’t have a drink, I’m sure as hell not going to stand around here thinking about the past. I can’t change anything. It is – what it is. He walked into his study and turned on a large screen television. He picked up the remote and began flipping through the channels as he pulled at his tie. He stopped at a news channel and then threw his cell phone on his dresser and tugged off his dress shirt. He began talking to himself “Why did I go today? The funeral was yesterday. I didn’t need to check to see if the stone was set. Totally neurotic. I could have sent Edwardo. Damn, I am such―”
James turned at the sound of his cell phone ringing. He snatched it off his dresser and stepped over to the window only dressed in his casual pants and shoes. His chest was bare and he allowed the sunlight to warm him through the window. “Yeah?”
It was Dalton, his friend and buddy from days long past. He hadn’t heard from Dalton for years. Dalton explained that he had just heard about Cindy’s death, and he was in the area. Would it be okay if he stopped by for a moment? He was on his way to a screening, but he really wanted to see him for a bit. James squinted, trying to remember what had happened at their last meeting. He had a vague feeling that their last conversation had not gone well, but he couldn’t remember the details. He shrugged in the afternoon sun. “Yeah, sure. I’m not doing anything.”
James could almost feel Dalton’s relief. He stared out over the vast expanse of scrub brush and rocky hills and tried not to sigh. He wasn’t sure what would be worse. Sitting here alone or having an old friend come by and try to comfort him. Well, it was a moot point now. Dalton made sure of the address and punched it into his phone. He was as good as in his living room.
James pressed the end button and threw the phone back on his dresser. Well, so much for immersing himself in some stupid movie or another. He looked at the screen and scowled. There were images of his wife’s face and then scenes of the funeral. What? Couldn’t people ever leave them alone? Voyeurs and parasites! Then the screen blinked to the most recent war victims. It showed the fragmented remains of a school that had been bombed. Bodies were everywhere. The sound was muted so James couldn’t hear the grisly details, but he could see the reality for himself. “Christ! Do they have to put that up all the time? Isn’t there ever any good news?” James looked for the remote but he couldn’t find it. He began to scramble madly around the room, searching for it. He wanted to turn the bloody thing off but in his confusion, he felt his face flush with fury. “Where the hell did it go? Damn it! Where―” He saw it under his shirt and grabbing it, he squeezed the off button. When the screen turned black, he flopped down on a chair and buried his head in his hands. “God, Almighty! I just can’t take things like that. Not today.”
James sat there for a moment and then remembered that Dalton was coming. He tossed his used shirt into the over-flowing hamper relieved that the cleaning woman would come in the morning. He tried to remember her name. Cindy was the one who hired and managed their help. He didn’t know a thing about them other than they came and went like invisible angels of mercy. He supposed he’d have to find out what their names were. He opened his closet and pulled a casual shirt from the rack. He could smell a faint odor coming from the closet and realized that Cindy had come in the other day night before they were heading out to a party; she had practically reeked of perfume. Funny I can smell it now. I didn’t notice it this morning. I never smell anything anymore… James realized that this wasn’t helping him get ready for Dalton, so he strode to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face, and returned to the first floor.
He meandered into the kitchen and decided he would fix a little something for his old friend. He took out a package of fat-free chips and a platter of cut vegetables that had been left over from the funeral, and he poured some ranch dressing into a container. He put these on the counter with some cold meat and cheese that had been carefully wrapped away, in case he got hungry, someone had said. Who had said that? James tried to remember who had been at the funeral dinner, but it was a blur.
James was about to open the refrigerator when his hand accidentally brushed against the counter and sent the chip bowl sprawling. He bent down reflexively to catch it and slammed his head against the edge of the marble counter. The blow sent lights flashing before his eyes, and he lurched backward from the sharp pain. He clasped his hand over his temple and realized with a shock that he was bleeding. He knew that head wounds tend to bleed profusely, and it did little to stem the rise of panic as he felt drips of blood slide through his fingers. He rushed to the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror and suddenly felt sick. Before he even thought out his next move, he found himself retching into the toilet. Grabbing roller-spinning wads of toilet paper, he tried to wipe his face and temple and stem the flow of blood. After a few moments, the dripping slowed, and he cautiously moved toward the living room. He plopped down on the couch and lay his head back with a muted groan.
Does it get any worse? James closed his eyes and tried to calm down. His stomach was empty now and the blood was definitely congealing though he feared that if he got up, it might start up again. He lay as still as possible and tried to think. He should call Dalton and tell him not to come. He probably should call someone to take him to the doctor. He envisioned Dalton forcing the door open and fining him in a pool of blood. He saw himself floating above his wife’s tombstone…also his tombstone. He realized that it was his now as much as hers. He would die and he would lie there and his body would never bleed again. He would never breathe again. He would never answer the phone or have old friends coming over to comfort him. He’d never make another deal or handle another movie project. He’d never give advice or slap down a stupid idea. He’d…
He saw Dalton entering the room calling for him. He tried to tell Dalton that he wasn’t here anymore, to go look at his wife’s tombstone, but his tongue felt thick and his mouth was glued shut. Someone was tugging at him. James grew frightened. He felt himself fighting, trying to slap with cardboard arms that couldn’t move. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t know what death meant. He hadn’t decided yet.
“James! James for God’s sake, wake up! Jenny, call the doctor! I think he’s tried to kill himself or something!”
James’ eyes fluttered open, and he saw a salt and peppered swatch of hair way too close to his face. He tried to lift his arm but it was too heavy. He decided to scream.
Dalton heard the merest whisper brush against his ear. He stared at James lying prone beneath his inquiring gaze and when he saw eyes staring back, he jerked backward. “Oh, James! Looks like something happened. You looked so bad lying there, and you didn’t answer the doorbell. I got worried and we just walked in. Hope you don’t mind.”
James tried to sit up but the pain in his head throbbed him into submission. “No, not at all.” He whispered. He tried to pull off the messy swath of toilet paper and found that it was glued to his head. He grimaced and pointed with his other hand. “I hit my head against the counter – stupid.”
Dalton smiled, relieved. “Oh, I’ve done that a hundred zillion times. Hurts like hell doesn’t it?”
James grimaced his agreement. Jenny came over and inquired if she should call for an ambulance. James looked at the sleek blond in front of him with her large worried eyes and realized how bad he looked. He felt like a fool and wanted nothing more than to get them out of his house and take a hot shower and then crawl into bed. He envisioned some sleeping pills that his wife occasionally took. They were probably still in the cabinet. He waved his hand benignly.
Dalton got up from the couch and took Jenny by the arm. “Hey, honey, why don’t you get James something to eat? It looks like something spilled over there. Maybe you could―”
Jenny nodded and turned to accomplish her domestic duty. Dalton turned back toward James and smiled. “Well, I know better than to ask if you want a drink. But perhaps a soda or something?”
James smiled at the incongruity of having a guest treat him to his own food. “Yeah, that’d be fine.”
Dalton stepped away to perform his act of mercy. James forced himself into a sitting position and tried not to groan as his head swam. He pulled the tissue away from his head, tearing it, and was disappointed by how little blood was actually there. It was hardly the excessive blood bath he had imagined. “Huh.”
Dalton returned a moment later with a tray of drinks and the cut vegetables with the little ranch dressing poured off to the side. Dalton nudged the end table a little closer with his foot and set the tray down. Then he sat in a chair next to the couch. He handed James his drink and leaned in. “So apart from nearly smashing your head in and your wife dying, how’ve you been?
James merely mumbled something about the fires of hell, so Dalton accepted the mantle of charming host and continued talking.
Seven months later, James sat in his office, staring out a large bay window, his swivel chair facing away from his top aide.
Todd was gesturing enthusiastically as he outlined his newest great idea. “Do you know what the term ‘forged by fire’ really means? Some guy, Ignatius something-or-other wrote about it. I had no idea. I think that’d make a great title for a movie – don’t you? How about if we take that surreal concept by that new writer – you know the one who’s always acting so damn deep – and throw that at her and see what she comes up with. It might be good – we can always add in some fast action sequences and a bit of sex to spice it up. Besides, deep is in right now.”
James wondered if it would be considered first-degree murder to strangle an idiot. Why do I let this man work here? Why do I listen to him? James continued to stare out the window overlooking one of the highest priced pieces of real estate in Los Angeles and heard the answer in his head. Because he turns stupid ideas into multi-million dollar winners.
James turned and looked at the well-dressed man in front of him. Todd was sharp in the worst sense of the word, yet he also had a boyish charm that made even those who had suffered at his hands care about him. He really didn’t mean any harm. He merely had an incredible knack for taking the pulse of the movie-going public and serving up what they wanted. If they were obsessed with scary aliens landing on our shores, he found a script with the scariest aliens possible and if New York had to be smashed to bits once again – so much the better. If the public was subconsciously feeling a little guilty, he didn’t bother to know why, he just found a way to address that hidden psychosis through a cathartic heroic-romance where even the worst sinner alive could feel a dash of patriotic hope. If they were looking for their lost childhood, he found a way to update one of the oldie-but-goodies. Todd was a gifted man all right but who he was working for, James was never certain. Todd was a natural chameleon. Perhaps that’s what made him so good at what he did. He understood every one because, in truth, he was no one.
James rubbed his chin. “Funny you should mention Ignatius. It’s also the name of a priest. Ignatius of Loyola.” James turned and stared at Todd’s blank expression. “I only know because Martha, my cook, has her daughter dropped off at our house after school and she studies in the kitchen until they go home at seven. The other day I went in to ask Martha something, and I saw the book on the table, so I asked the kid about it. She got excited telling me all about him – she went on and on. She goes to a Catholic school and they fill her head with all sorts of stuff.” James stared right into Todd’s eyes. “The kind of stuff that you should steal and turn into a movie, maybe.” James briefly wondered if Todd would jerk away shielding himself like Dracula did when presented with a crucifix. Todd merely stared back, his mouth slightly open. Finally, he smiled and nearly giggled.
“Damn it, James, you had me going a minute.”
James smiled. “Yeah, gotcha.” He leaned over his desk. “Well, if that’s all you have to cover, I think we can quit for today. I’d like to get home early. Jimmy wants me to attend his party tonight and I need to get ready. Besides, I’m feeling kind of tired. I think I’ve been working too much lately.”
Todd nodded, his appraising glance telling James more than he wanted to know. He already realized that a lot of people thought he was having some kind of break down. There was even a rumor, months ago, that he was drinking again, but he had put that one down by showing up for work early and in perfect form every day for six months. He usually stayed over time and he had never been as successful as he had been in these last months. Everyone was full of admiration for how well he had handled his wife’s death. Until recently. Recently he had started to leave a little earlier and come in a little later. Though he still looked good and was at the top of his game, he realized, along with everyone else that something had changed.
Todd shut the door quietly behind him after saying that he’d see him at the party. His parting shot to demonstrate that he was invited “everywhere” too. James closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. God, what’s happening to me? What’s wrong? James realized that he wasn’t merely speaking rhetorically. He was really asking a question of God – well, of Someone anyway. When did this start?
It started with the dreams. After selling the house and reorganizing almost his entire life, James had felt that he deserved a little break and a change, so he took a week’s vacation. He went to a resort in Nevada that someone had insisted was just the place to get his mind off his troubles. It was the worst vacation of his life. He not only didn’t get his mind off his troubles, he found he was being haunted by his grief, a grief he thought he had already worked through. He started dreaming about Cindy. He hadn’t done anything she would have disapproved of, well, maybe a couple things, but she’d understand. He was no longer a married man. He had his needs. It took him the better part of the week and three very unpleasant encounters to realize that his needs had changed. He may not be Cindy’s husband anymore, but he wasn’t the man of his youth either. There was no going back, only forward, but without some kind of a road map, he wasn’t exactly sure where the future led. He cut his vacation short and threw himself into his work with a vengeance. It worked for a while. He was able to concentrate amazingly well while in his office and he found himself arriving early and staying late. But then there was that incident with the cook…
James rubbed his face and tried to shake off his recollections, but before he realized it, he was staring into space again. It had been nearly four months ago when his life took the next unexpected bend in the road. His old cook had been a rather eccentric old fellow by the name of Filippo. James figured that he was Malaysian though when he’d ask him, Filippo would just smile and say that he came from a lot of places. James always felt like he was on the outside of a joke. But one day, Filippo didn’t show up for work and James was having a few friends over for an important get-together that night. He got pretty worked up about it. He ended up having to order some food in, and it wasn’t nearly as good as what Filippo could dish out with a snap of his fingers.
The next day, when Filippo again didn’t show up, James sent someone to his place to find out what the hell he was doing, and they reported back that Filippo had died in his apartment and no one had realized until the landlady had been alerted. James sat dumbfounded on his couch as he took in the news that his cook was dead and had laid there cold and stiff in his apartment for two whole days while he had secretly, and not so secretly, raked him over the proverbial coals for not doing his job.
It was when Filippo’s daughter came to the house asking for any personal items Filippo had left behind, that the whole event began to really sink in. There was this beautiful twenty-year-old girl standing in his door way asking with her big honest eyes if she could come in and collect her father’s things. It was then that James realized that he knew absolutely nothing about the man who had worked for him, other than the fact that he was a great cook. He stepped aside and let the woman in and he followed her to the kitchen, opening the closet where Filippo usually hung his sweater and stored whatever stuff he had brought with him. It was there that James discovered that Filippo was Roman Catholic, for there, hanging on a little nail inside the closet door, was a set of rosary beads. What? Did the man recite prayers in between courses? James felt as if his head would explode.
He watched from the side as Filippo’s last remaining worldly possessions were gathered into his daughter’s arms. As she stepped over the threshold, James felt a resolution form in his core and he decided to act on it at once. “Can I ask your name?”
She looked at him with those sad, sweet eyes and spoke so softly that James had to lean in to hear. “My name is Martha.” James nodded and then, before she could retreat into the outer world again, he put out his hand and stopped her.
“And what do you do for a living, Martha?”
She whispered, her eyes downcast. “I was training to be a cook, like my father.”
James felt a spark of life flicker in his middle. “Really?” He appraised her. She could not be more than twenty. “How old are you?’
James’ eyebrows rose. He was used to people under cutting their age, not adding to it. But – who knows. He leaned on the doorframe. “Why do you say, ‘was’?”
“My father helped to pay my tuition. I cannot pay it by myself. I have a daughter to raise.”
James stopped leaning. “Where’s your husband?”
“He is away.”
James nodded. “Well, I just happen to be in need of a cook. Do you think you might consider working here?”
Those luminous, black eyes stared into his soul, searching, and he stared back uncertain for what she was looking for. She barely nodded her head.
Perhaps, James realized, as he propped his head on his hands in his silent office, perhaps he had been infatuated with those eyes and that perfect face. Perhaps he felt just a tad guilty for the way he had behaved toward Filippo and wanted to right some wrongs. Perhaps, he was just a mercenary jerk who just wanted to banish all grief and doubt from his mind. But as the weeks passed and as Martha came dutifully each day, he kept true to his resolution. He had decided that he would know more about the people in his life, no matter who they were. They could be the lowliest trash collector to the highest producer; he would ask more questions; he would get to know the people in his life.
He was never more surprised than when Martha’s husband showed up one day asking for her, and she threw herself into his arms like some sticky, sweet version of a movie he had dubbed a failure to express real life. Apparently the husband, Max, really had been away. He had been working in Alaska and was home, at least until he found another job. James discovered opportunities a little closer to home. Max was grateful to take one. So Martha and her daughter, Elizabeth Grace, and husband, Max, became members of James’ household – though he never mentioned this fact to anyone. There was never any need. Not really. How does one casually bring up the subject that you’ve practically adopted an entire family?
But the dreams about Cindy never really stopped. Despite everything. James wondered about that, but he figured that Cindy would be pleased with him. She was always so kind to the servants. Really, she was very kind to everyone – especially him. James realized that now.
James got up from his desk and looked at his watch. He gathered up his keys and his cell phone. He didn’t want to go to this party, and he really didn’t want to have to appear happy. Wasn’t he happy? James sighed at the question and moved across the room. The sudden image of a plastic tombstone being carried away made him stop. Counterfeits were such a part of his life; he had to wonder if he’d ever really been happy.
Five years later, on James 47th birthday, when he was returning home from a long day at work, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a minivan barreling toward him. In a split second, he realized he was not going to be able to avoid being hit; he realized that he was probably facing his final moments on earth. As he lay in the car, after the smashing, grinding impact, he could not think. Everything was immensely quiet. Then, just as suddenly, there was more noise and confusion than he could tolerate. As he blacked out, he hoped that someone nice had decided what death meant for him – he still didn’t know.
When he woke up, he was on a hospital bed in a white-walled room with large vinyl curtains blocking out the sunlight. He blinked and attempted to move his head. He discovered he could not move anything but his eyes and his mouth. He felt like his whole body had been frozen but his face was still free. His brow furrowed as he pictured a man buried up to his neck. As his mind became alert, James started to realize what this meant. Frantically, he tried to remember what had happened. Panic began to rise as he felt his breathing becoming faster and shallower. A nurse bustled into the room looking right at him with a laptop clasped to her chest. She saw the fear in his eyes, and she placed the laptop on the counter and moved to his side.
“Mr. Parker, it’s alright. You’ll be all right. You might feel rather numb right now but that’s from all the medication and the nature of your injuries. Most of your injuries should heal in time. Right now, you should just be happy you’re alive. It was a close call.” He knew she was patting his arm from the rustling of her sleeve against his hospital gown. He did not feel the pat. She bent closer and stared him right in the eyes. “Mr. Parker, it is very important that you stay calm. You’re in good hands. I’ll call Dr. Freeman and let him know that you’re awake.”
James wanted to say something to the effect – “Yes, you do that, and by the way, while you’re at it, would you mention the fact that I’m practically dead. He might find that interesting as well.” But he found his mouth was too dry and his tongue too thick to form articulate words. He just mumbled something that the nurse took to mean “Thanks.”
He watched as her upper half moved to the head of the bed, her arm adjusted his drip line, and then her shoulders and head moved away from him and bobbed out the doorway. He imagined getting one of his men in here and whispering a desperate plea to pour a pint of whiskey into the drip bag. Todd might do it. It would be just the thing that might amuse him – offbeat, gritty realism. The only problem would be that Todd would need an audience, so he’d have to tell the whole floor of nurses and they’d freak out, end of scenario. James wondered if he could be arrested for attempting to spike his own drip bag. He closed his eyes. Can it get any worse than this? When had he thought that before? He couldn’t remember. But he realized; he’d have a lot of time to play memory games. Lots of time to consider the direction his life was taking.
A white-coated doctor entered the room. He looked Indian; his smile seemed genuine. James swallowed and was relieved that he actually felt the sensation. He did not smile back, however.
“Hello, James. My name is Dr. Joshi. I was on the team that worked on you. It was a mighty good fight you put up. We were relieved when your heart started again. I just want to let you know that though you did sustain serious injuries, it looks like the worst is behind you. With some physical therapy and perhaps a couple minor reconstructive surgeries on your right leg, you should be able to get up and move around again. But right now, all you need to know is that your paralysis should be temporary, and you’ll be feeling more like your normal self in a few days, though I don’t suggest you attempt to do anything too strenuous too soon.”
If James could have burst out laughing, he would have at this bit of incongruity. Was Dr. Joshi blind, or was it no big deal that he had just about died? What did he say about getting his heart started again? Was returning to life just a mere blip in the day’s events? Everything will be back to normal? Yeah right! James merely blinked rapidly and attempted to shake his head. Dr. Joshi took that for agreement and smiled again.
“Your nurses will be close by if you need anything, and they’ll check on you regularly.” The doctor straightened and turned to the nurse, giving her directions that James could not understand, and he started walking away, his head bobbing slowly out of the room. The nurse checked James’ drip line, took his pulse, and did various other duties and then patted him on the arm. Rustle, rustle. She ordered him to get some rest. James didn’t bother to watch her head bob out the door.
He stared up at the ceiling and realized that before long he’d know exactly how many tiles comprised the ceiling and how many dots in each. This was life right now. Surely they had a television, a way to listen to music…something to occupy his mind. James realized he felt very relaxed and sleepy. Apparently, he didn’t need to spike his drip bag – they’d done it for him. Perhaps later, when the nurse came back, he’d ask a few questions. James would learn all about life here and find a way to survive.
He closed his eyes. He wondered who would care that he was here. His mother? She was slipping into another world ― dementia at its best. He’d leave her to go gently into her private world. His dad? Yeah, his dad would come and be very pleasant and upbeat, trying to cheer him up so that no one need feel sad. Tears were just for critical moments in movies. Tears weren’t intended for real life. If one got sad enough for tears, it was time to pack it in. There were those who took that way out. But Dad wouldn’t be one of those. He would die cheerfully, pretending that death wasn’t getting the last word, even when it did. James wasn’t sure he wanted his dad’s pleasant ignorance at this point. James sighed and was infinitely relieved when he felt his chest heave painfully. He wasn’t quite as numb as he thought. He tried to feel some other part of his body, but it still felt still absent. Damn. I’m living in a dead man’s body.
There were visitors those first days, mostly people from work and a policeman who wanted to go over the accident report with him. The friendly visits were painful as James attempted to do more each time to appear less disabled than he was, but he got through them with as much aplomb as he could muster. He assured everyone that he would fully recover and be back at work by the New Year at the latest.
When the policeman entered, James felt the greatest flutter of excitement since he had first awakened. He told the officer what he could remember and then waited for him to explain what had actually happened. After the officer told him, James felt his spirit go as numb as his body. A woman and child had been in the other car. No one was exactly sure what made her drive into him, could be the slight drizzle obscured her vision, or she just wasn’t thinking and didn’t see the red light directly in front of her, but she rammed into his car full speed. She and the child died. Their names were Mrs. Carol Jones and Sylvia Jones. Sylvia had only been five. They think that Carol had been driving so fast because she was hurrying to pick up her son from soccer practice. Sylvia had been at tumbling class and they had gotten behind schedule. James wondered at the value of his life when it had almost been snuffed out because of soccer practice. It wasn’t until the officer mentioned that the husband was outside waiting to see him that James wondered if it would have been easier to simply die. He merely mumbled, “Yeah, sure, what can it hurt?”
The police officer had tapped his notebook closed and left the room with a nod, hoping that James would “get better soon.” Mr. Jones entered the room slowly. His eyes had dark circles under them. His hands hid in his pockets as he moved to the side of the bed. The nurse had raised James’ bed so he was in a semi-sitting position. James wasn’t sure why this man had come or what on earth he was supposed to say, but he figured that he should be compassionate. After all, he did know how it felt to lose a wife and the officer had said something about there being another child. So, along with everything else, this guy was a single parent now and that couldn’t be easy.
Mr. Jones shuffled his feet and then looked at James. “I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am that this happened, Mr. Parker. My wife was a good woman, and I know she’d never have wanted this. It was just some stupid accident and…” Mr. Jones’ voice cracked and his stricken eyes filled with tears.
James felt his own eyes ache. He realized that he was hurting inside in ways he had not admitted to himself and he did not want to face. He could not lift his arm well, but he could gesture feebly. He attempted to do so. “Please, Mr…” James tried to control his voice. “What’s your name?”
“Listen, Eric, I know it was an accident, and it looks to me like you’ve suffered more than me. I’ve just got bruised up a bit, but you’ve lost your wife and kid. I lost my wife a few years back; I know how hard that can be. We never had kids… but I can only imagine the hell you’re going through. So please, no apologies―”
Tears streamed down Eric’s face. “My son blames me. He said I should have gone to pick him up. I knew Carol was behind schedule, but I was at work and…”
James felt his breathing quicken. He couldn’t handle this. He wasn’t a therapist. He was a recovered alcoholic who made a living by faking reality. “Eric, your son is just lashing out at you because you’re all he’s got to lash at. Who else is he going to blame? God?”
Eric stood there mute with tears falling freely. James stared at the ceiling tiles and tried to remember how many he had counted before he gave up. “Oh, God!” He looked back at Eric. “I can’t help you, Eric. I don’t know how. I wish I could. But if it means anything to you – I don’t blame you or your wife. I don’t blame anyone. I can’t say why. But you and your son are still alive and you’ve got to figure out how to live through this. Just like me. It’s a hell of a world, and I’m the last person on earth to give anyone advice, but if I did, I’d say it’d bet better to try to make the best of this rather than let it tear you to pieces.”
Eric nodded, wiping his face with his arm. “I’m sorry I fell apart like this. I didn’t mean to. It’s just when I saw how bad you got hurt and I remember… It just kills something inside me.”
James shook his head. “Well don’t! Don’t let it kill you. Not yet. Death gets its way often enough. Don’t give it anymore.”
Eric stuck out his hand and gripped James free hand lying on his bed sheet. “I meant to come here and apologize for hurting you – but you’ve helped me – more than you realize. Thank you.”
James watched as Eric left the room and for one astounding moment, he realized that he thought of death as an enemy – one that must be avoided at all costs. Problem was, he knew he couldn’t avoid him forever.
When James was sixty-eight years old he was diagnosed with a severe heart condition and was hospitalized in the hope that he would undergo a heart transplant. But that transplant never took place. He died two days before the planned surgery. But the day before he died an old friend came to visit ― his cook’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth Grace, now grown into a matronly woman with four kids.
She had taken his cold, papery hand in her own and stroked it gently as she smiled through her gentle laugh. “Hey, Mr. James, how you doing today?” They bantered about her mother and brothers and sisters, about all the “goings-on” in the world, and recent events in the family they shared. James suddenly realized that with Elizabeth Grace at his side, he felt brave and comfortable. She looked at him with eyes that could peer directly into his lost soul and she loved him anyway.
“Hey, my little love, I have a question for you. You were always so smart in school and read all those books about saints and heroes of old―”
Elizabeth stared at him, keeping his eyes held in her own.
James felt he could go on. “So what’s death, anyway? I mean, where is it? What happens when the old, grim reaper shows up?”
Elizabeth’s eyes grew round and her smile widened. “Wow, Mr. James, you always know how to surprise me.” Her smile faded as she saw something in his eyes that saddened her. “I don’t know anything about grim reapers and such, but you know, I was taught that death is a doorway ― from this world to the next. It’s a chance to go home, really — if you want to.”
James shook his head. “I don’t get it. I’m home now. I mean; I want to go home to my place on the hill. I want to get back home – not leave it forever. Death is about leaving.”
Elizabeth Grace shrugged. “I guess; you can look at it that way. But my dad used to say that he never really had a home here. He wasn’t so worried about leaving since he knew that he’d be going to his real home later. I miss him, but I don’t worry about him. He was right. He was a good man who loved a lot of people. His love didn’t disappear – I think it just led him home.”
James nodded. Then he squeezed Elizabeth’s hand and closed his eyes. “I’ll have to think about that. I’ve never understood death, but I like your version. I’ve tried to love more, to really care, and ― it has led me home ― already.”
Elizabeth smiled as she let his hand go and then bent down and placed a kiss on his white cheek. “Good night, Mr. James. You’ll always find a home in those you love.”
James smiled as he drifted into a peaceful slumber. He still didn’t know exactly what death meant, but he did know what happiness was. And he figured that knowledge would lead him past the tombstone.
~To Make a Difference~
Autumn is always bittersweet and beautiful―like a memory. I am nearly fifty now and yet my childhood seems as close as the doorway. More distant, and more painful are the memories of my sons. I had only two, Joseph and David, both fine young men, each born with a high sense of duty. One is dead now and the other might be soon. People tell me that I can’t change anything―that fate is what it must be. I try to accept that. But the memories haunt me, like autumn. They beguile me with their sweetness and then frighten me with what comes after.
I grew up endowed with a mission to change the world. I was going to be somebody. My relations going all the way back to Adam and Eve were much the same. It must be something in our genetic code. We were the branch that reached for the sun and were never content to live in the shade of another’s glory. My father was a radio broadcaster and my mother was an artist. They both strove with straining hearts to be great at what they did. You probably never heard of them. Few ever did. But they lived and died believing that they made a difference. And I guess that is all that really matters, believing in yourself. At least, that is what David keeps telling me.
It is late now, and the house is quiet. The cicada came out late this year, and I can still hear them in the evenings joining their songs with the crickets and the frogs. It makes a low, pleasant hum, always in the background, like the music in a movie. You aren’t always aware of it, but it effects your mood and soothes, or warns you, as the case may be. Right now, the evening sounds are soothing. There are no dreadful winds screeching against the windows or thunder hammering on the roof. Right now, I feel peaceful and even a little drowsy. David should be home soon. His shift ended at 8:00 P.M. but he said it might take him a little longer as he was going to talk to his director about his options. That is what he calls it, his options.
War broke out again four years ago and I thought that Joseph would stay out of it, but since he was trained as a psychiatric nurse, he saw it as his duty to join up as soon as possible and help out in whatever way he could. I admired his patriotism. Everyone did. After all, we had not looked for war. It came to us, landed in our laps when extremist terrorists set off bombs in our cities. There have always been problems in the world and tensions were especially high with threats at the time, but I had always figured that we were secure, our lives would remain on the periphery of events. I had hoped that living in the countryside might shield us. But fate crosses all boundaries and Joseph was determined to make a difference. He wanted to save people. He wanted to be helpful. How could I blame him? Over a thousand people were killed in those attacks and more died in the following battles. War comes at a cost. But I hoped that it would not cost the life of my son. I am not sure why I thought he should be exempt. But I did. I honestly thought that he was too good to die.
So now I sit here trying to make sense of my memories and trying to decide what I believe. If fate rules us, then it really does not matter what I believe. I can sit here until Doom’s Day, and nothing will change. But if fate is just an excuse for not accepting our part in things, then perhaps it does matter. Maybe I have more to do with Joe’s death than I realize. Maybe David still has a chance.
Kurt and I were older when we got married. It took us a long time to find each other. We were like that song―looking for love in all the wrong places. But eventually, we met right where you’d expect two Catholics might meet, in church. It was at Christmas time and we were both out of college, and it turned out we had some friends in common. It didn’t take us long to decide that we wanted a life together. It did take a couple years to pay off old debts and clear out our lives so that we could make room for our marriage. But once that was taken care of, we went forward and had a big wedding, inviting everyone near and far. We’re both believers, but not terribly involved in church activities, except around holiday time. Our lives revolved more around our work. I had been endowed with a missionary spirit, teaching in poor neighborhoods while Kurt had worked as an English as a Second Language instructor. Both of us were zealots. Both of us wanted to make a difference. And both of us were rather tired and worn out by the time we got married.
It took us three years to have our first child, but there was never a more anticipated bundle of joy than out little Joe. Suddenly all our zeal was directed toward this tiny little baby. It was as if no other baby had ever been born before, the way we acted. Kurt made every birthday a major holiday and started to teach little Joe the letters of the alphabet and how to play ball when he was barely old enough to toddle across the floor.
I was intent on providing the best home and the nicest, most delicious meals ever created by any mother anywhere. The poor child never had a chance to know moderation. Moderation just wasn’t in our vocabulary. If he even got a sniffle, I ran him to the pediatrician so fast that the doctor would usually just tell me to turn around and go home, giving me nothing more than an encouraging word and a slight sigh. Joseph either had a great immune system or we frightened every illness away before it had a chance for Joe grew up as healthy as an ox. He grew big too. The other kids in school used to say that he ought to try out for football, but I’d never let him. It was too risky. He had a smart mind and I didn’t want his head broken in some game which would only decide the fate of a team for a season. I wanted my boy to make decisions about far more important things. Luckily Kurt agreed with me. Kurt would read him stories by the hour about famous men in history. That boy went to bed dreaming about knights in shining armor and martyrs who suffered for their faith. Though we lived in farm country and envied farmers their knack for bringing fruit from the earth, even if it was simply acres and acres of corn or beans, still we never saw ourselves as farmer types. We had the missionary spirit. So when Joe grew up and chose medicine as his field, Kurt and I smiled in complete understanding. This was something worthy, something grand that could make a difference in the world.
Joe joined Peace Corps after college, and Kurt and I were so proud of him; we could hardly contain ourselves. We sent packages and extra money to support him through the two years he spent in the Philippines. He got Typhoid while he was there, and Kurt thought about going over to check in on him, but Joe told us not to come. His letters became subdued. Joe seemed to be changing in ways I couldn’t understand. I wondered if he was depressed, but Kurt said that he was just seeing the world as it really was and that sobered him up a bit. Besides, everyone was telling me: “Joe’s his own man now; he’s over twenty-one; you need to let him be.” It wouldn’t do any good to worry anyway. I had no control over the world or my son anymore. There weren’t any options I could veto.
When Joe arrived back in the states one blistering hot July day, he met us at the airport looking like an overgrown scarecrow. He had lost so much weight that I barely recognized him. He was tanned but his face was gaunt with exhaustion. I was appalled, but Kurt gripped my arm and told me not to mother him. He was a man now. Joe needed to tell us what happened in his own way. At least Kurt realized that something had happened. But as we drove through the city noise of Saint Louis back toward the rural quiet of Illinois, I waited expectantly for Joe to say something, for him to tell us his story. He didn’t.
He hardly talked that whole drive home and he talked very little for the three months that he lived with us before he found a job in Washington D.C. He didn’t seem to care about anything except getting busy someplace far away from us. I couldn’t understand. I thought my heart might break. I had always considered myself a wonderful mother, but now I wondered what I had done wrong. Why didn’t Joe seem to care about me, or his father, or even his little brother? Joe and David had never been especially close but they had been good friends. Now it was as if they hardly knew each other.
David was finishing college, and he was busy with dreams of his own. He seemed grieved by the change in his brother, but he didn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. I remember David came to me as I was sitting on the porch watching the sunset one evening and said, “Don’t worry about Joe, Mom. He’s made his decisions. He can’t go back to being your little boy anymore. You’ve got to accept that.”
I had no idea what David was talking about, but it seemed to be the advice everyone was giving me. Even Kurt told me not to worry. Joe was a big boy. He would make his own way. And he did. He made his way right into a psychiatric ward where he was helping men who had returned from the war with serious mental conditions. He was a very capable nurse and he got along with everyone, well, almost everyone. It was one of his own patients who killed him. Shot him in the heart. I never knew how a patient got ahold of a gun. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. Joe was dead and that was all I really needed to know.
At his funeral, the director of the hospital came over and shook my and Kurt’s hands and tried to console us. He looked me right in the eye and said that Joe died making a difference. I had to believe that was true. But I couldn’t understand why it was supposed to make me feel better. After all, if he was making a difference, wouldn’t it have been better if he lived? How did his death serve anyone?
It wasn’t until Kurt and I were cleaning out Joe’s apartment, when I came across his journal, that I began to understand the man my son had become. I found the journal tucked under a copy of The imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. I had heard of the book, but I had never read it, and I was surprised to find it among Joe’s things. I had been more afraid of finding girlie magazines but there was none of that. In fact, his whole apartment was rather Spartan. Kurt put a few of books in a box and then he said he needed to make some phone calls. He left the room and didn’t come back until later that evening when I was about done. I wanted to be angry at him for leaving me to work alone, but then I realized that he couldn’t help himself. Kurt wasn’t the kind of man who could cry in front of people, even me. He needed to be alone to deal with his grief. I figured pretending that everything was okay was the nicest thing I could do. Sometimes not talking was our way of getting through things.
I gave most of Joe’s stuff away, but I kept the journal. I couldn’t read it for over a year. But then in late September the following year, I picked it up after lunch, and I didn’t put it down even to make dinner. Kurt had gone to a game with some friends, and David was living on campus. I was completely alone. I wish I hadn’t been. It was an experience that seared my soul forever.
I’ve Played My Part
The first part of Joe’s journal was much like what I would have expected. He was obsessed with his work, and he wrote about the people he worked with and the things he was doing. But then he wrote about a series of nightmares which were haunting him and his reflections about what they meant. Then a few entries later, Joe finally admitted that he was struggling with his faith. There was a long time lapse between entries at this point and when he finally started writing again, he wrote about his experiences in the Philippines. He had become good friends with a girl there, and he had even thought about bringing her home and marrying her, but then he discovered that she was pregnant. His friends warned him that he would be in a lot of trouble, so they advised him to help the girl get an abortion. Abortion was not an option for this girl or Joe either, but her father found out, and there was a big scene and Joe discovered that he was in bigger trouble than he had realized. The girl’s father wanted Joe to marry her right away, and Joe knew that his dreams for the future were seriously compromised. A friend got him some medicine that was supposed to end the pregnancy quick and easy. Joe gave his girlfriend the medication, telling her that it would make everything better. She believed him and took it and soon became so sick she nearly died. The baby miscarried and Joe transferred to another village. After that, he fulfilled his time in Peace Corps as perfectly as possible. He wrote that he never even looked at another girl for a long time. He tried to put the whole event out of his mind and promised himself that he would make up for his mistake by being the best nurse he could be. And everything seemed to work out. Except that he couldn’t completely forget the girl he once believed he loved, or atone for the past with promises for the future. Nightmares haunted his nights.
I sat there sobbing, hugging Joe’s journal, thinking that my son had died a tormented man when I realized that he had left three pages blank before his last entry. When I thought about it later, I realized that perhaps he had left those pages blank for a reason. Maybe he had wanted to mark the place in his journal with white pages, to show the difference in his life. In any case, Kurt came home before I could read that last entry, and it was a long time before I could pick it up again.
Kurt never drank much but occasionally when he was out with friends they would stop by someplace and have a few beers. This particular night, he had had more than a few. I wondered at him as he came in swaying haphazardly and I asked him if he wanted anything to eat, but he just waved me away. He said he had finally realized that his whole life was a sham. He was never any hero, and he had never accomplished anything. The world would be better off without him. I was shocked and hurt. After all, if his life was a sham, what was mine? What was our marriage? I couldn’t understand this pit he had suddenly fallen into, but I did have sense enough to realize that a good night’s sleep would probably help, so I pretty much agreed with everything he said, and I helped him to the bedroom. I gave him a back massage and let him mumble himself to sleep.
As I watched him lying obliquely on the bed half dressed, since I couldn’t manage to get him completely undressed or completely straight on the bed, I realized that this was our life. A half-done life. We had the ideals and the zeal, but we didn’t have something that made things really work out properly. I wondered about that as I made my way to the living room. I didn’t bother undressing either, for I thought Kurt might get sick in the night; he wasn’t a drinking man and this little bout with the bottle might have other unpleasant consequences. So I just piled up the couch pillows, and I lay in the dark living room and thought about what I had read in Joe’s journal. I don’t know why I didn’t just get it and read the last entry, but I felt so overwhelmed that I couldn’t take one more emotional revelation. I just lay there and wondered what Kurt had meant by his life being a sham. Was his life really a sham? Didn’t he love me? What did that say about my life? I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I awoke to the sound of Kurt calling me from the bathroom. There were other unpleasant consequences all right.
That spring David graduated from college with an engineering degree. He had decided that he wanted to specialize in aeronautics and though I didn’t see the “big plan” David seemed to feel that there was one, and he needed to be a part of it. The war had slowed down and was rolling along like many modern wars, mostly on someone else’s turf. I read on-line reports and I wondered if anyone would ever find a way to convince leaders that killing each other’s young people was no way to solve our differences. But I could see the necessity of protecting the innocent. After all, “the only way for evil to conquer was for good men to do nothing.” I had always believed that. So had Kurt and Joe. But now Kurt was submerged in doubt, and Joe was dead. I had a hard time lifting myself to the heights of idealism that I used to love.
During that spring and early summer, Kurt seemed to be getting ill a lot. He lost weight and looked tired all the time. I urged him to go to see a doctor, but he insisted that it was just a summer cold and he’d get over it. He didn’t. By the time he finally did see a doctor, the cancer had spread throughout his lymph nodes and into his bones. It had progressed to the point where even the specialists didn’t think he had much time left. They were willing to do chemo treatments, but Kurt said that he was too old and too tired to fight that hard. He was ready to go. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I felt like I never knew my husband at all.
By the fall, Kurt was in the hospital a lot. I would go see him after a full day of teaching and spend the evening with him, before I went home to shower and get ready for the next day. As we sat there in that white walled room, we would sometimes watch TV or we’d talk about stuff on the news. Kurt always enjoyed discussing current events, and he loved history so he’d often tell me everything he knew about the countries that were in the news. He loved sharing his knowledge. That was one reason he had been such a wonderful ESL teacher. He was smart, and he cared about the people he worked with because he knew something about them and where they came from. He had always seen a connectedness between people and events. Yet now, as he slowly succumbed to the ravages of cancer, he didn’t see himself as being particularly connected to anything or anyone. When I asked him why he was so ready to leave me and David behind, he said, “I’m done – that’s all. I played my part and though it wasn’t as big as I thought it would be, still, I gave it my all. Now it’s my turn to go off stage and let someone else take over.”
I remember; I wanted to slap him. I wanted to beat him on the chest and tell him that he wasn’t God and no one said he could slip quietly into the dark night. But even as I was shaking with fury, I wondered if I was being fair. Kurt had a right to face his death in his own way, and I should be glad he wasn’t suffering any worse. I should be relieved he was accepting his fate. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I was troubled. My heart was hurting and my head was aching. Nothing seemed to be making any sense. I tried to reach back to my youthful sense of high purpose but it was elusive. Everything that used to comfort me was slipping through my fingers. I sat there, the blinds closed against the blazing August sun and Kurt fell into one of his evening naps.
I wondered at my stomach crunching distress. I could feel the familiar ache in my middle and knew that inner turmoil was one of the worst pains in the world. I tried to talk myself out of my suffering. If Kurt was accepting his fate, why couldn’t I? If Joe had died making a difference, then what good did it do to grieve over his death? Was I was just lonely and frightened? No, I had friends, and I was certainly capable of taking care of myself. Though I was losing my best friend, I didn’t need to think I was losing my whole life. My life would still have purpose. I would still be a valuable person, and I needed to accept what I could not change. But somehow all my reasoning just made my stomach clench harder and my brain whirl that much faster.
Late one October afternoon, one of Kurt’s students came by to see him. He was an elderly Asian man and though many of Kurt’s students had come before to say hi and engage in some kind of humanitarian kindness, this man, I don’t even remember his name, was the kindest of all. He didn’t say much, but as Kurt was sleeping, he just came over and shook my hand then he knelt by Kurt’s bed and began to pray. I was taken a little aback. I wasn’t sure what religion this guy was or who, exactly, he was praying to, but his sincerity was obvious. He stayed there kneeling for what seemed like hours but was probably only just a few minutes. When he got up, he smiled at me and just whispered as he left, “God knows.” I have absolutely no idea why those words comforted me so much, but they did. I could actually feel the knots in my middle unloosen a little and though I didn’t knee on the floor, I did bow my head.
Certainly, I had prayed for Kurt just like I had prayed for Joe. A priest had come in and anointed Kurt. Our faith had been an intrinsic part of our lives. But suddenly, I saw things from a different view. It was as if I was looking at my life from a new perspective. In my youth, I had always been trying to make a difference. Then as tragedy entered, I tried desperately to grasp its meaning. Everyone advised acceptance but that had seemed cowardly, elusive, a run-away kind of thing. But there, as an October rain drizzled against those never-opened windows, for a brief second, I grasped what I was missing.
Kurt died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. We hadn’t planned much since he was so ill but several of his relatives had come to town for family get-togethers so, in a way, it was good timing. Everyone was close, and the funeral was arranged without difficulty. Kurt had insisted on making out a will as soon as he knew he was seriously ill, so money matters slipped into place easily. David came home from his work at NASA, and he did everything he could to help me out. He was as good and kind a son as a mother could want. But he didn’t talk much about his work. He just said that there were a lot of wonderful possibilities in the future, and he wanted to explore some of them. I knew he had always been interested in space exploration, but as he turned his attention toward engineering and then toward planes, I figured his childhood fantasies of traveling to far off planets had vanished like other vaporous dreams. It turned out I was wrong.
His dreams had never died and as he faced a world in turmoil and the deaths of his brother and father, his dreams seemed to revive with alacrity. Even during that wet and cold November, he would sit out on the porch in the evenings watching as the sky turned from misty-grey to solemn-black. When I came out and asked him why he didn’t come inside where it was warm, he simply said he was watching for any stars which might break through the clouds. I remember telling him that any stars which broke through a November night were more likely to be airplanes or aliens, and he just chuckled and said, “Maybe so, maybe so.”
I finally had the courage to read the last chapter of Joe’s journal that winter, and I could have kicked myself for waiting so long. It turned out that Joe had met someone in the hospital that he really admired, and he had shared his turmoil with him. The man, whose name was Dr. Scanlon, was just starting out, but he must have had been born with the wisdom of the ages for he told Joe that his mission in life was not defined by his mistakes but by how he handled his mistakes. Apparently Joe got a new lease on life, and he realized that he would never be a perfect man. That job had already been taken. He was called to be as good a man as he could be, and when he slipped up, he was called to stand back up and try again.
I realized as I read this, how common place those words seemed. They were the kinds of things I told my fifth graders. But I understood that Joe had grasped them on a whole new level. I suppose someone would say that Joe had been born again. He suddenly seemed to believe that his life had a meaning beyond what he could fully grasp. And that encouraged him. “Thank God,” I murmured as I sat there on my bed once more rocking and hugging his journal to my chest. “Thank God.”
The next time David came home for a visit, I handed him Joe’s journal and told him he’d enjoy the last entry. David only smiled and said that he probably knew more about Joe than I realized. Joe had called him the day before he died and said that he was thinking about asking out a particularly beautiful intern. They had laughed together, and David said he felt that Joe was relieved of a heavy burden. I just stared at my son and asked him if there was any hope that I would know him before I died, and he smiled that bewildering smile he has, and said that he would share more―if he could. I just sighed and shook my head. David then did one of the most surprising things he has ever done. He took my hand and he led me out to the twilight sky and he pointed to the stars. He said, “Look up there, Mom, and tell me what you see.”
I told him I saw a multitude of twinkling lights that scientists tell me are really balls of burning gas bigger than the earth and that though I believe them, I’d be equally content to have them just be twinkling lights. David has such an infectious laugh. I had to laugh with him. We stood there, him holding my hand like a little boy again, and he suddenly turned to me and said, “What if I told you that out there lies the hope of humanity? If only we have the daring to realize it?”
Well, what could I say? What would you say? I remembered my youth and I felt a strange flicker of hope and life. I felt his excitement. But I also felt a ripple of fear. What was he about to do? What was he about to risk? So I looked at his upturned face and I asked him, “What do you mean? Tell me about it.”
So David explained. He told me all about how he was working on the design for a settlement on Mars and how one day he hoped to be part of a mission which would initiate the first building efforts on Mars. There was even talk of him being a part of the next space mission so that he could better prepare himself for that experience and have a better understanding of what would be needed for a lifetime in a space settlement. I stared at David, much like I had stared at Kurt, wondering if I ever knew the man in front of me. I asked him why he had never shared these plans with me before, and he chuckled again.
“Some of this is not for the general public, Mom, and besides, it still sounds strange even to my ears. I wasn’t sure I could handle the bewildered expression I see in your eyes now. There was a time when I would have doubted my sanity for even dreaming of such things.”
David had grinned. “Now I feel a confidence born of grace. I trust that if God wants this done, it will be done. And I’ll be the man to help do it.”
There was so little I could say at that point. I realized that my whole life had been the humus of this dream. David’s dream, like so many others: Christopher Columbus, Einstein, Albert Switzer, Mother Teresa, had borne fruit not from the desert of fantasy, but from the nurturing love of family who dared to believe in things, who dared to dream big dreams even when those big dreams ended up being little more than a life well lived or a death well faced. I stood there as the clouds passed away and the stars broke through, twinkling their hearts out. I held my son’s hand and I never wanted to let him go.
So the Earth continues to revolve around the sun in its allotted course, and seven more years have passed. David has been on two space missions, and now, he has to decide if he will go on this last one. This will be a mission which will take him further than even my imagination can travel. He will begin a new phase in his dream. He will be a part of a team that will begin building a settlement on a very, very distant planet. He will likely spend the rest of his life working with robots and men who have sacrificed everything for a home very different from this one. He’s never been a coward, and he doesn’t expect to start now. I always wished David would settle down and have a family, but now I see how that was always impossible. He was a man born for a mission. I guess, we all have our missions. Perhaps mine was to give life to such a man and to plant a seed of daring hope.
Have I made a difference? Did Kurt? Surely when Kurt read those stories to the boys, he made a difference in the kind of young men they would be. He did as much as I to form them, not just their bodies, but their very souls. Kurt died believing his mission was over. Joe died trying to help an insane man deal with his suffering, hoping to have a family of his own someday. His life was about never giving up. My mission?
The winds have picked up, and I can hear David’s car pull into the driveway. He said he would come home tonight, even if it was late. It’s nearly midnight. It is raining now and there is a rumble of thunder in the distance. I suppose, he has accepted his mission.
I suppose I have too.
The forecast says that the temperature will drop tonight, down to the forties. Winter is on its way. Autumn can’t last forever. No season ever does. I left some chicken and fixings on a plate for him. I guess I’ll warm them up and sit with him awhile. I even made a few chocolate brownies. They’re his favorite.