The long lingering fall stretched right into December.
Now it’s gone in a night, overwhelmed by the bracing wind and the cold of winter it had held off so long. Darkness comes earlier now. It’s a new season not only on the calendar, but it’s a new season of life.
Things have changed and will never be the same.
Tramping through the thick leaves that mat the wet ground even the dog knows it’s different. She strains at the leash and pulls hard from side to side, as though she’s unsure. How does she know the world has changed? Can she tell the difference in my wife?
The dog and I walk past houses and catch glimpses of families gathering together, busy setting tables and preparing meals behind windows framed in golden light, pasted into the darkness like shiny stones in a mosaic. They look so secure behind the walls of brick, snug and warm. I wonder, are their lives’ like mine, or am I the outlier?
Do they know it will all change soon, forever?
Watching over the bitter night is the ancient order of stars, twinkling and brilliant against the backdrop of the universe from which they hang, ornamenting this tiny, remote world.
They can’t know, I decide firmly.
My wife’s belly expands in dimly remembered ways now, like an old melody hanging on the edge of my memory. The other children are excited but even though they push against adolescence, they can’t understand the way everything must give way to the unstoppable growth of a demanding new life, coming to insert itself in the settled ways of our family. A new brother or new sister is just another new thing among new things. It’s abstract to them, happening inside their mother, just inches beyond their known world.
And yet it will change their lives too.
The streets are silent except for the random tinkle of a glass or occasional clink of silverware on plates, drifting softly into the street, traceless.
The old man startled me. He was very tall, and lean. He’d not shaved in a few weeks, and under his heavy gray coat, I suspected he was disheveled. He had a well-worn felt hat with a rogue dollop of gray hair drooping from under the brim like a dying Chrysanthemum branch mugged by the first hard freeze.
He was holding the leash attached to Sebastian, a large Yellow Labrador owned by a family several blocks over from my house. I didn’t know the family, but I knew Sebastian. He and my dog sniffed and wagged at each other in passing, acting out some primal canine ritual.
“Looks like they know each other.” His voice wasn’t deep, but it had an importance and energy that chiseled into the bitter cold like an artist creating a statue. It made him sound much younger than he appeared.
“They do. Sebastian is a friend we see from time to time. A young boy usually walks him.”
“I’m taking care of Sebastian for a few days.”
The dogs went head to tail, back and forth, sniffing each other and exchanging licks. The old man and I just watched them silently. Like us, they each knew instinctively the boundaries of the other.
When the dogs were finished, I nodded and began to move on when I heard his voice behind me, “Come up on the porch and have some hot chocolate with me, I’ve just made it.” Before I could answer, he added, “I made too much, but it is very good.” Then lightly, as though he were teasing, “Do you like whipped cream or marshmallows with yours – or both?”
“Well, sure, I suppose…I’d like that. I’m fond of marshmallows.” I don’t know why I said yes. The old man made me somewhat nervous. I didn’t know the family; now I was going to sit on their porch and drink their hot chocolate with a stranger.
We turned to the house without a word.
The dogs laid down next to the wide wooden porch chairs without request. The railing that wrapped around the front of the house was already decorated with festive Christmas bows and ribbon, and behind me the curtains were wide open, and a huge Silver Pine was blinking with a thousand colored lights, reminding me that I had to allocate something from what little money I had left for my own family’s Christmas tree.
One more thing I didn’t want to think about.
The old man came out of the house with two large mugs, each with steam wafting upward in a short duel with the bitter night. He handed me one and sat quietly next to me.
I spooned out the marshmallows and ate them first, then sipped the hot chocolate. It was delicious, bold and rich. And curiously every sip built on the one before it, laying a final assault on my senses. It was captivating, almost enchanting.
He smiled at me, “Told you it was good.”
“I’ve never tasted anything like it. Where did it come from?”
“Just a little something I came up with.”
The old man and I finished without further words. The dogs didn’t make a sound.
Finally, I suggested, irresolutely, “I need to be getting back I guess.” He smiled at my announcement, as though he knew it wasn’t serious.
“How’s she feeling? What, she’s five months along now, right?”
“My wife?” I felt stupid, who else could he mean? “Yes, she’s five months on. April tenth is what they say.”
“How do the big kids feel about it?”
It didn’t even occur to me right then that he shouldn’t know the details of my life. “They’re excited, but, of course, they don’t know what it means, do they? It’ll change the family in every way possible.” He didn’t respond and I added as an afterthought, “They’re almost teenagers.”
The old man didn’t say anything. He just looked at me. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was questioning, demanding.
“It has already changed my wife and me. We’re older now. We thought our lives were arranged just so – everything where it should be – you know?” I felt stupid again. Of course he knew. “So, now we’re going to be new parents all over again, in a way, but without the expectations or nerves that new parents have. It’s strange, actually.”
He barely acknowledged me.
“I can’t tell her now, it’d destroy her emotionally. She couldn’t handle it.” I had no reason nor intention for telling him that. But I did.
“It’s been six months now. The worst thing about being laid off is the lying to her. I get up early and leave for work in the morning and come home late, pretending everything is fine. Eating through our savings and retirement accounts.”
I was ashamed telling the old man what I’d not even told my wife about the danger running our family to ground like hounds chasing a rabbit. I continued defensively. “I came downstairs one day determined to tell her I’d lost my job. But, before I could work up to the conversation, she gave me the news – she was pregnant. Out of nowhere, after all these years, and here we turn up pregnant in the middle of our lives. The world just came apart all at once.”
The old man didn’t say anything. He just looked at me with whiffs of his condensed breath probing the bitter night then vanishing.
“I’ve walked so far off the path in my life, I’m not sure I know the way back.” The statement hung – unyielding. “I feel like I missed an important turn somewhere while I’ve been following my dreams.”
I felt like a child defensively answering a parent who hadn’t even asked me a question.
“And the longer and harder I look for the right way to get back to where I’m supposed to be, the more lost I’ve become.” I could feel a flush on my face. “I don’t even know how that works, do you?”
I thought I saw a faint, knowing smile on the old man’s face. Perhaps not.
“Always tried to do the right thing, you know?”
In a moment, I corrected myself. “Well, maybe the smart thing, anyway. I’ve worked hard. I’ve provided for my family. Now look at me – where I’ve ended up.” I felt desperate and I couldn’t look at him, but I could sense his eyes never left me.
“My wife’s family would want her and the kids to leave me if they knew that the next step is bankruptcy, losing the house, losing everything. None of them are too keen on me to start with.” I felt self-justifying. “She wouldn’t leave, of course, but it’d just make things worse for her emotionally.”
The dogs didn’t move. The old man sat silently.
Finally, I heard the old man say softly, “What now?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been looking high and low for a job. Basically, I’d take almost anything now.”
“Not really what I meant.” His statement was flat and obvious; he wouldn’t settle for anything less than the truth. “You said you couldn’t find the way back to the right path. Do you remember ever being on that path to start with?”
The question slipped under the crack at the bottom of the door of my soul like a folded note.
It was lying there, waiting for me to pick it up.
If I left it there, I realized in that split second, then every night when I went to bed it would be waiting on the outskirts of my thoughts like a child’s monster.
Yet, if I did pick it up, some terrorizing truth would be waiting for me, demanding a response, or worse, some unpayable tribute.
“How do I know?” It felt like a safe response.
“Well, if you have to ask then you don’t really know, do you?” The old man’s eyes arched ever so slightly as he spoke.
The silence slid over me like a tight glove.
I could barely hear myself speak. “No, I don’t think I was ever on the path. Not really. I wanted to be, maybe sometimes I thought I was. But, the truth is…” I didn’t want to say it again.
There it was; the lie of my life irreversibly stamped into the cold winter night between two sleeping dogs and an old man I’d never met before.
“Thought you could handle it all, did you? Life on your terms.”
I looked at him and he never blinked. “Something like that.” I hesitated, then added. “Was it all about me? Sure. You have to be your own trumpet in this world or you get ignored. No one else is going to give you a hand.”
The honesty was like the stranger I sat next to, showing up out of nowhere. It wrapped around me and squeezed me, making me feel so small. “But that isn’t who I am!” My emphatic defense sounded shallow. I grabbed for anything that could support me. “I’m a good person, really. I’m a good person.”
Repetition did not make it any truer. And, besides, the old man wasn’t buying it. I could tell. He just looked at me, pushing me along with some unseen shove.
The words leaked out of me, against my will. “The truth is that it has always been about me and my way. Even when I’m thinking of someone else, I’m thinking about how it affects me, or how it makes me feel, or how it benefits me. I dress it all up in beautiful images and words, but it’s pretty much a disguise.”
The cold was nibbling at my face and hands, but we just sat. Finally the old man spoke.
“Look at all those stars.” I involuntarily looked up at them and for a moment wondered if they were watching us too. “Can you touch one, or bring it down to us, or hold it up in the universe?”
I thought he was being rhetorical and didn’t answer.
“Not surprised, haven’t ever met anyone else that could do it either.” He smiled at me finally, answering his own question.
“Can you order the dawn to come up on time?” After the old man said it, I thought I must be missing something – what does that even mean? I was going to challenge him, but I was too late.
“So we’ve established you can’t do anything to affect the world around us. Very well, let’s focus on simple stuff first.” The old man grinned at me again.
“Not sure I’m following you?”
“You can’t control the physical world, but, I’m wondering if you can control the events right around you every day? Your wife is pregnant, can you change that life? Change its sex, or its hair color? Your other two children, can you change them, make them different than they are, or different than they will be?”
There was a softness to his voice now. “You couldn’t even change your company’s decision to let you go.”
“Well, no, of course not.” It was more of a challenge than a reply.
The old man simply looked ahead into the night. I wondered what he saw in the darkness that I couldn’t. Finally he said without turning to me; “So, it hasn’t all worked out the way you’d imagined. Do you suppose anyone’s life does? Do you think it should?”
I felt the defensiveness, the hostility building in my chest, ready to protect me, to give value to my story and to praise my self-importance and significance. The old man was questioning everything I’d ever done right, everything that mattered so much to me and the version of me I saw in my mind’s eye, like a re-run day after day.
It was stopped by his simple question. “I have to do something tomorrow and I’d like you to come. You could meet me there?”
“I’m not sure. I’m looking for a job, and…”
He interrupted me. “It wouldn’t take too long. It’s something you should see.”
“I don’t know.” I wanted to argue with him, but I sat for one moment too many and the arguments that I was going to use to excuse myself snuck off into the waiting night.
He pulled a tiny spiral notebook out of his coat pocket and wrote something down and pulled the page off and handed it to me.
“Do you know where that is?”
“Yes, of course. What’s there that is so important?”
“You’ll see. Use the entrance on Grandview Drive, and keep to the left. Be on time and I’ll be there. You can park anywhere along the side of the road.”
The dog and I walked home quietly. I had no idea what to think, so my mind simply defaulted into feeling sorry for myself, digging deep with the sharpest tool I possessed. Not until I turned the key in my front door did I realize that I’d not even thought of my wife or children.
It was in the remotest and most isolated way, about me. I was an acorn, oblivious to the Oak forest I was living in.
I arrived a few minutes early. The bitterly cold clear night had been exchanged for a cold overcast day. It carried a burden with it.
I knew the cemetery well. I’d lived close to it once, years ago. Its hundreds of acres were ringed by paved narrow roads that looped around the secluded cemetery and were part of my running circuit.
Off to the left I saw a group of people congregated in a section of the cemetery that was surrounded by its own low rock wall. Outside of the wall at some distance I could just see the old man’s heavy coat dangling off his tall frame. He was standing like a lone watchman. I parked and made my way towards him, felling apprehensive. Maybe even fearful.
When I reached him I was chilled to the bone with my hands in the pockets of my coat. His slight nod was the only acknowledgment he gave to me and I stood with him without saying a word. I could hear faint murmurings from the crowd inside the wall that obviously surrounded an unseen grave. Then, individually or in small groups, the people began leaving. Some held handkerchiefs or tissues to their faces. Others just looked at the ground as they made their way off to the road.
Even without knowing what exactly was going on I was incredibly sad. The grayness of the day seemed to overpower everything it touched. Every noise and every movement was dejected, lonely.
I wanted to turn and leave. My heart hurt. But the old man reached to my arm and held me at the elbow, as though he read my thoughts. “We must wait a few minutes. Let the others leave first.”
None of it made any sense to me, but I didn’t need to respond. I just stood my ground with the watchman.
Finally the last two people walked off. They were an older couple and they both looked like everything that mattered was gone. Everything that could make them smile was gone. I had to turn my face away, I couldn’t watch them leave.
“Be patient for a moment.” The old man’s tone was respectful.
Finally, he touched my elbow again. “Now we can go,” was his only instruction.
We entered into the small walled off area and I immediately realized that it was reserved for children. Some of the headstones had fresh flowers displayed, while others had what remained of them from a long ago visit. Some had balloons bobbing with the breeze while other balloons had lost their life too, and drooped as forlornly as the gray day. There were random stuffed animals among the flowers and balloons that tried their best, but looked tattered and sad.
We were walking towards a fresh square of brown earth that had just been turned. Sitting on the newly filled plot, curled around a simple wood Cross marker was a man who appeared to be in his late thirties. He was dressed in a suit, and wore a tan overcoat with a flower in the lapel. His head lay against the white-painted wood which had a very neat hand-written notation:
“Christopher Lewis McKinney – Age 9.”
I can’t tell you how long we stood there, two silent spectators. There were no stirrings or rustlings, as though everything around us bowed to the sorrow.
When the man finally looked up, it was only towards us, not at us. He had a pleasant angular face with ruddy cheeks rebelling in the cold. His brown hair emphasized his blue eyes. I liked him in an instant.
He said to seemingly no one, “His mother is over there.” He pointed away into the cemetery. “Lost her a few years ago.”
I was stunned. Angry. Why? His wife, and now his child. How can this happen? It is so unfair.
But before I could argue against the unjustness of it all, the man looked off and said softly, “He really liked Winnie-the-Pooh.” The words lifted softly over the wooden Cross marker, as though they could embrace it, and then gently vanished.
“I would read to him every night I was home. We would read other things, but somehow we always came back to Pooh,” he said matter-of-factly. “He loved it and would giggle and laugh at certain lines he had memorized, even before I read them.”
“The other night we were reading and I came to the line, ‘A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise,’ and he was howling in laughter before I finished.”
The memory he saw in his mind lingered until his eyes glistened.
“Then his cheeks puckered up and he tried to imitate me – but he couldn’t finish because he started laughing again – and just blurted out the end ‘tubby without exercise.’”
The quiet took ownership of the world again. The man, curled around the makeshift marker surrounded by the fresh brown earth, was looking somewhere past us.
“I wonder what Piglet is doing, thought Pooh. I wish I was there to be doing it too.”
The words were barely audible. The tear that slid from his cheek seemed to fall at the same moment another faint whisper left him.
“I wish I were doing it too.”
I couldn’t breathe. Everything in my body was in revolt. I wanted to tear the brown earth up and demand that young Christopher Lewis McKinney be given back. That’s when I felt the old man’s hand grasp my wrist and hold it, and me, in place. His whisper overpowered me. “It is not your story.”
“Dear friend,” the old man’s voice carried even more importance and energy than it had the previous night – it was both brave and kind, powerful yet calm. It called past the short wall, across the cemetery, and I was certain it carried on, unstoppable and unyielding.
The voice came again in a rich tenderness that filled the moment completely, without room for anything else.
“Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.”
The father’s face turned to the old man, and the edges of his mouth lifted ever so slightly, then the grin grew across his face until it ran out of room, and finally he was laughing, and tears fell at the same time.
“A man who knows his Pooh!” he said between tears and laughter.
“That I do. That I do.” The old man smiled at the father who returned the smile with a knowing warmth that rushed up and over the edge like a boiling pot of water on the stove. A great thing had passed between them; unknown to anyone but them.
Still holding my wrist we left the father and the boy and the plot of freshly turned brown earth.
It was already dark and I didn’t even see Sebastian until he was right on us with his great tail swooshing back and forth in anticipation, and my dog straining and pulling to mingle.
Instead of the old man or the young boy who had walked Sebastian before when I had encountered him, there was a nice looking man in his late thirties with ruddy cheeks rebelling against the cold night air, at the end of the leash.
When our eyes met, and the mutual recognition was silently exchanged, his broad grin began. As the dogs went to-and-fro with their instinctive ways, we introduced ourselves. The hand shake between us was firm, and I could tell he was reluctant to let go.
Before I could say anything else he claimed the first words. “It was so kind of you to stop by the cemetery the other day. I didn’t even know you knew my son. You saved me, really. Your words meant everything to me. They were everything I needed, just when I needed them.”
He bowed his head. I thought he was trying to smother a tear, or choke back a word. Finally he offered, “I would have just laid on the cold ground all day if you hadn’t come by.”
“I…I just don’t know what to say.” Which was the truth. My mind was spinning.
“What you said was enough. You don’t need to say more.”
I could only stare at him. We simply stood without words for long minutes.
When the dogs seemed restless, I offered, “Well…” without any real motive. The only thing that came to me was a question. “And the old man, is he still at your house?”
He looked at me quizzically. “Not sure what you mean?”
“The old man who was walking Sebastian?”
“Oh, well, I didn’t really know any of the people that the walking service sent over, honestly. I have the phone number of the company if you need someone to walk the dog.”
I couldn’t breathe.
“You know,” he seemed to fumble a bit with his words, as though he were unsure of the question and afraid of the answer. “I’m in a real bind. It’s been such a rough time for me, and I really need some help.”
“I can’t even imagine.” It didn’t seem enough even as I said it.
“Here’s the thing,” he ignored my statement, “I have a great little company going. Business is good, so good that I really need someone to come in with me, to help me run it. Especially now. I just don’t think I can do it alone.”
Again, I didn’t even know what to say.
“Listen, I know this is out of the blue, but would you consider talking about it?” Before I could respond he pressed on. “All I ask is that you come by the business tomorrow and let me show you what we’re doing, meet the staff. You and me, we’d make a great team, I just know it. I just know it.”
Somehow during the conversation, we ended up sitting on the wide wooden chairs on his porch, drinking very ordinary hot chocolate, with the dogs laying restlessly at our sides. We talked for a long time about his business and his plans for it, and about how the two of us could make it even better. It suddenly came to me that he’d never asked me whether I was even looking for a job, and he never even questioned me about my credentials. It didn’t seem to matter.
My mind was churning. I couldn’t understand what was happening right now any more than I could understand what had happened with the Old Man. Finally, after my surrender to his insistence, we both just sat on the porch, in the cold night air, between the two dogs and our own thoughts.
Finally, as I was walking off the steps to head home, he called after me, “By the way, Merry Christmas!”
I turned to my new partner, incredulous that he’d lost so much, and yet given me so much. It was a transaction beyond value and beyond my imagination.
“Yes. Yes it is. Merry Christmas my friend.”
On the way back to my house the words laid on my mind. Merry Christmas.
I stared up at the ancient order of stars, twinkling and brilliant against the backdrop of the universe from which they hung. They were in full parade across the sky. Were they indifferent witnesses to the tiny little dramas of this world, I wondered? Or did they hear the whole thing?
No, they heard it all, I was sure. I felt overjoyed and couldn’t wait to get home. My wife would be impatiently waiting, beautifully pregnant with a child that waited to change us forever in ways we’d never see coming and over which we’d have no control. The big kids would be excitedly expectant, with adolescence and their own lives waiting anxiously to take them across the years – years that were theirs’ alone. I knew with certainty I was on the right path, and for the first time in my life I knew where it was going.
Then somewhere I heard it; words coming softly and filled with ageless hope, drifting across time, as though they would never come to rest; it was the old man’s voice, I’m sure of it.
“Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.”
Artwork credit: “Yellow Lab in Profile;” Charcoal by Kate Summers