Photo attributed to Daniel Case – Own work from Creative Commons
I’m new at this, so I’ll be learning as we go along. I reserved this time spot not knowing what story preceded mine, and discovered afterwards that our stories, varied though they are, seem to have a common theme, even though a very different outcome. I’ll let the readers be the judge.
And now, the story, The Last Walk.
He stopped the car just to the side of the gate, pausing for a few moments before he got out of the car. The rusty, worn gate leaned against the fence, held up by a single, fragile hinge that was slowly corroding itself into complete collapse. On its last legs, he thought, just like me. The old country church loomed silently, dark against the cold November sky, guardian of those weary souls resting, waiting patiently for that day of judgment and their final journey.
He pushed against the heavy car door. It took an effort these days, he thought. These days of growing old, not being able to do the things you used to do, but still think you can and should. It opened slowly and he unwound from the car. Reaching back in, he grabbed the coffee he brought and straightened his lean, but crumpled, eighty-six year old body for his morning walk.
It had become a ritual. Each morning, rain or shine, he would slowly get dressed, spend a few minutes with who ever happened to be up early with him, perhaps his daughter, or one of the grandchildren who still lived with him, then he would get into his car and head for McDonalds. They made his favorite coffee, and he got a chance to see a grand-niece who worked there most mornings. She was always glad to see him and, he had to admit, he liked it too. Then, after getting a cup to go, he would get back into the car and head for his visit.
He walked slowly and purposefully, just as he had every single morning for the last 13 years, finally reaching where he needed to be. The flowers the kids had placed there were finally drying up, and some had blown away. He knelt by the slightly tilted tombstone and brushed away some accumulated debris. He touched her name etched into the stone. As he did, her face flashed in front of his eyes.
She had never grown older to him, only more beautiful, and the woman he saw in his mind’s eye hadn’t changed since the way she looked in 1941. Not to him. He knew she was older. Hell, so was he. Yet, every time he thought of her, no matter what, the same picture always formed.
Thick, wavy, auburn hair, surrounding a face that everyone agreed was drop dead gorgeous. Soft skin, slightly blushing, green eyes, straight white teeth, that could break into a smile dazzling all who came near and a throaty laugh that was contagious. Funny, he always heard that soft laugh when he thought of her face. The face and laugh that had stopped him in his tracks that day by the river, where he’d gone with his twin brother to meet ‘some girls’ that lived over by Waynesville.
It was the picture she had sent him after they were married, while he was away from her for the only time in his life, and she was carrying their child. He would pull it out whenever he had a chance and look at it. The Germans would usually interrupt his reverie as he sat in a muddy foxhole somewhere in France, sometimes with a well place mortar, or some sniper sitting where he couldn’t be found, trying to end the war with the Allies, one soldier at a time. He held the picture in his hands and promised her silently that if he got home alive, he would never leave her again, ever. He had kept that promise. They had never been apart again, not even for a single night, until the day she left him.
It wasn’t her fault. He never blamed her for leaving the way she did. She had to. All those doctors visits and days waiting to find out what was wrong only to find out she had Hepatitis C; received when she was injured in a car accident forty years earlier, innocently riding as a passenger. Having to have that blood transfusion, the one which unknowingly made her a carrier.
All those times in the hospital, making trip after trip. Once, actually being on the operating table when the doctors walked in and said a last minute test showed a patient that was younger, and who had a better chance of surviving was going to get her promised transplant liver. All that torment and pain, and all she did was smile weakly and squeeze his hand and tell him it was all part of God’s plan for her.
He smiled bitterly, what possible plan could God have that means taking you away from me, your children and your grandchildren?
So, he found time every day to visit her, to keep his promise. Rain, snow, heat or car trouble was no match for the old man who doggedly kept his vow.
As he knelt, he gazed at the small tombstone, engraved with only her name, and the years of her life.
“I love you and I miss you; but you know that,” he said. “I’ve got news. The doctors tell me the bone cancer is much worse, and I have to go to the hospital for a special treatment. It’s supposed to make the pain stop, but not much else. They don’t think I have much time, which is the best news I’ve heard since the day you were taken away.”
He paused for a moment. “I won’t be stopping by in the morning, or for a few days after that. I’m not going to be able to see you for awhile.” He took his time to form his next words. “Here’s what I really came to say. I’ll be back soon, right there by your side and we’ll take those walks we used to take once more. And, I’ll never leave you again.” He finished his coffee, stood up and steadied himself for the walk back to the car, looking back one last time.
Ten days later he kept his promise. The family gathered for his internment and stood silently as they lowered the coffin into the ground. Each of them paid their respects, some tearfully, others stoic. Later that afternoon one of his sons, his namesake, came back by the site, now covered with fresh sod, and stood between the the two adjoining graves to say a final goodbye.
He noticed something moving in the grass; what he thought at first was a scrap of paper. He reached down, picked it up and turned it over. It was a faded photograph of his mother. He stared at it for a few moments wondering how it got there. He casually put it in his suit coat pocket and turned to join his wife and children waiting patiently nearby.
His wife asked him what he picked up. “I’m not sure,” he answered. “I’d tell you it was only a faded photograph of Mom that Dad has carried since the war, but I really think it was a final message from Dad, saying he didn’t need it anymore.”
He turned his head so she couldn’t see the tears forming, started the car, and drove away satisfied, knowing the two of them would always be together.