This story is by Dawn Van Beck and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It wouldn’t be an ordinary week.
Sitting at my window desk, I watched fellow students walk across the sidewalk, seemingly without a care in the world. In stark contrast I sat, tapping my pen on seasoned wood, feeling as if sandbags had been laid upon my chest. It started with the morning phone call.
“Mark, do you think you’ll be able to make it to the lodge this weekend?”
Usually, Grandma didn’t need to ask. I loved the lodge. I enjoyed seeing family, even if it was a four-hour drive from campus. Most of all, I treasured time with my Grandpa.
This time, the tone of Grandma’s voice was slightly different, as were my circumstances. I hadn’t been to my family’s fishing lodge in two months. Guilt stung me. It wasn’t like me to go so long between visits. I knew Grandpa missed me and our fishing dates. I was also aware of Grandpa’s subtle changes. His movement slowed, thoughts became vacant. Muscle strength decreased . . . verbal deficits appeared.
I stared at the footnotes on my computer screen reminding me of the looming deadline—five days away now. I wasn’t ready.
How could I possibly leave?
“Mark,” Grandma said that morning. “Grandpa wanted me to remind you. Life is short . . . “
“Live it well. I know, Grandma. Give Grandpa my love.”
A second-year law student, I was facing a deadline for a midterm presentation I wasn’t prepared for. An uneasy stirring gnawed at my gut.
What should I do?
Opening the wooden door with oversized handles I was assaulted with a smell of band-aids. Why did all libraries smell like that? The calm, quiet of the room settled over me like a warm blanket as I shuffled over to a study table next
to a metal bookshelf.
It was Thursday. My deadline was Monday. With only one class today, I had to make my time count, since tomorrow I’d be slammed. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been working on this speech. With a rigorous course schedule and prep for midterms, time got away from me.
I couldn’t screw up. My Health Law professor hand-picked me to present first. She told me she saw promise in me as a lawyer and wanted me to set an example for the class. What an opportunity. The chance to impress my professor, challenge my peers . . . demonstrate what I was made of.
My report was almost done but my PowerPoint wasn’t. There were still handouts to prepare. Sigh. I had to nail this.
Retrieving my laptop, low whispers and the occasional hum of a copy machine accented the room. I settled into what would be my home for the next several hours with my stomach tied in knots.
I had a decision to make.
Friday. A full day of classes. Although progress was made in the library yesterday, I failed to finish my handouts. When would I practice? I’d have to hit it hard tonight.
Grandpa consumed my thoughts. If I went, tomorrow would be our fishing day. I pondered his words as I walked to my next class.
Life is short . . . live it well. He constantly said this, to everyone. He’d often add, “Prioritize your life or life will prioritize you.”
I contemplated his nuggets of wisdom and realized for me, most compelling were his thoughts on perspective. He’d say, “Mark, ten years from now will that paperwork causing you stress really matter? Even if someone might get mad about it?”
He’d continue. “Now ask yourself this—ten years from now will it matter if you took the time to help someone, or to invest your time in someone’s life, even if something less important suffers? That’s what shows what you’re made of.”
Over the years, Grandpa’s words reverberated through my mind amid several of my life’s circumstances.
They were haunting me now.
Plodding to my next class, I recalled my speech topic: “The moral implications of the right to life and silent practices of euthanasia in hospitals and hospices.”
I wondered what Grandpa’s thoughts were on the issue.
Would I be able to ask him?
The early morning fog rolled across the calm, cool waters of the lake. I stood at the end of the dock with my mug, admiring the vivid shades of orange and red adorning the trees, thankful for strong coffee.
“I’m so glad you made it.”
I turned around as light footsteps approached.
“Morning, Grandma.” I drew her in for a tight squeeze.
“When did you arrive?”
I chuckled. “You don’t want to know.”
After tweaking my PowerPoint and completing handouts, I believe I left campus at midnight, which put me at Timber Creek Lodge around four in the morning. Three hours of sleep. A deadline still ticking. But I was here.
“Come on in for a hot breakfast. Then, you and Grandpa can visit a bit before you go fishing.”
I nodded, looking forward to another strong cup of hot caffeine.
After breakfast, I walked down the hall to Grandpa’s bedroom. Opening the squeaky door, Jordan’s smiling face met me.
“He’s been waiting for you.”
Jordan was a good caregiver. She anticipated Grandpa’s every need. With a shoulder squeeze, she walked out, leaving us alone.
Grandpa was sporting the Sea Dogs cap I’d given him. Made me smile. After continually finding clumps of hair on his pillow, they eventually decided to shave his head. His breathing was more labored. His lips now chapped. A pain stabbed at my chest as I considered gray eyes that once sparkled blue.
Chemotherapy had taken its toll, offering no reciprocal reward.
Sitting beside his bed, I did most of the talking since his speech was now garbled. He finally took my hand, insistent on speaking.
“Liiiiife is s-s-hort.” His voice rasped.
“Live it well, right?” I finished his famous phrase as he nodded with a wide grin.
Grandpa napped. I left and prepped the poles with a jig and a spinner, hoping to land some Walleye or Trout.
Sitting, I closed my eyes, breathing in the scent of pine in the crisp, fall air.
The click of wheels on wood awoke me from my slumber as Jordan pushed Grandpa’s wheelchair down the dock. He was wrapped in a wool blanket, a stocking cap covering his head.
“Ready to catch a big one, Grandpa?”
He grinned as I placed a pole in his hands, securing his fingers around it. I cast my line and sat beside him. At that moment, it suddenly occurred to me . . . my deadline held little importance.
The pole’s tip made an abrupt plunge into the water, the ripples signaling activity.
“You got a bite, Grandpa!” The pole continued to dip downward. “Hang on, Grandpa!”
He couldn’t grip the pole. I stood behind the wheelchair, wrapping my arms around his shoulders, urging him to hang on. Like his motionless body, his feeble hands made no effort. I watched the pole slide from his hands like a raindrop on a window. The pole was gone.
Grandpa was gone.
Sunday morning. An overflow of yesterday’s conversation, phone calls, arrangements . . . tears. Stiff with stress, I rolled my shoulders and retreated to my cabin.
For several long moments, I stared out the window at the lake. Compelled by some unknown force, I retrieved a fresh legal pad and pen from my briefcase, and began writing.
I didn’t stop for four hours.
I could’ve been excused, but I was of little use. I’d be back soon for the funeral. I drove back Monday morning to share my speech. I barely met the deadline. However, the topic changed.
I was about to make a bold move.
Taking a seat in the classroom, I examined the papers from my folder. I determined I didn’t need them. Once announced, I rose and walked to the lectern. With a deep breath, I addressed the room with a smile.
“Attorney and counselor at law. What does that mean?” I began. “As future lawyers, we will become trusted advisors to many people, coaches if you will, dealing with numerous issues. Hopefully, we’ll be able to ‘counsel’ our clients and be of great service.
“Aside from learning various laws and memorizing statutes, what is certain to make us of greater value to our clients is how we govern ourselves . . . how we live our own lives. I came here today prepared to wow you with a presentation on health law ethics and controversy,
however, I won’t be doing that.”
Stunned silence hung in the air.
“In the final hours before the arrival of today’s deadline, a new challenge arose, worthy to be examined. Allow me to begin with wise words from my late Grandpa.” Scanning the crowd, I cleared my throat and continued.
“He always used to say—life is short, live it well.” . . .