Monday, November 23, 2015

The Unexpected Gift

It was still dark when the alarm went off, and it took me a few minutes to orient myself. Getting up at 5 am on Christmas Eve wasn’t my first choice, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Henry had been relegated to full-time caregiver since Eva’s Thanksgiving Day surgery, and I thought that he would appreciate someone clearing the three to six inches of snow that had been forecast overnight. He would definitely appreciate it, but as was his custom, he would complain that I had better things to do than shovel an old man’s driveway on Christmas Eve.
     I threw the covers off and quickly pulled on my thermal underwear and some thick wool socks before I glanced out the window to see how much snow we had actually gotten. I’ve never trusted the weathermen. I figured a forecast of three to six could mean anything between nothing and a foot. I’d love a job where I could be that wrong and still be paid.
     It was difficult to gauge precisely from my 6th-floor apartment, but it appeared that we had gotten closer to a foot. From here, the cars appeared as larger, whiter, and more bulbous versions of themselves. The snow that clung to them in every direction told me two things. First, that it would be heavy and wet. Secondly, that the extra money I laid out every month leasing an indoor parking space was well spent.
     Despite the bad road conditions, I arrived in front of Henry’s house before the sun was above the horizon. The snow was still falling in fat flakes nearly the size of golf balls, and in the predawn light, the entire landscape seemed to be painted in shades of blue-gray.
     I had expected to be the first one out with a shovel in hand, but I was wrong. The brittle scraping of metal against concrete, muffled by the deep snow, echoed from several houses on the street. Early risers with places to be on Christmas Eve, I figured. There was even someone clearing Mrs. Roman’s walkway.
     Marie Roman was Henry’s next door neighbor. She was in her mid-nineties and had been a widow for about a decade or so. Her sons both lived out of town, so she would occasionally ask Henry to help her out with little tasks around the house, which he did without complaint. In exchange, she would deliver homemade grape leaves, baklava, or pita bread. “The food of my people,” she would tell him. It was during one of these deliveries that I first met her earlier in the year.
     “Dylan, this is Mrs. Roman,” Henry said to me after he had relieved her of a large tray of food.
     “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Roman. I’m Dylan,” I replied, offering my hand.
     “Oh my, this is Dylan? What a handsome young man. Henry has told me all about you,” she said, completely ignoring my hand and opting instead for a big hug. “Please, call me Marie,” she added.
     “As you wish, Mrs. Roman.”
     “Stop it, you! It’s Marie, or I won’t answer.” She punctuated it by putting her hands on her hips and turning her nose into the air.
     “As you wish, Marie.” She reminded me a lot of my own grandmother, and I liked her instantly. In fact, after that brief encounter, I felt like I had known her for years.
     I waved at the figure on her front stoop. He was dressed in bulky overalls, a thick, knit cap pulled down over his eyebrows, and a scarf pulled up to meet it. I assumed it was either one of her sons, visiting for Christmas or a landscaper that she paid to do the work. He returned my wave and went right back to work on the walkway.
     Following his lead, I picked up my own shovel and began the daunting task of clearing Henry’s driveway. To take my mind off of the work, I entered into a secret race with the mystery man at Marie’s house. He had a distinct advantage in that her one-car garage faced the street, and as such, the driveway was short and narrow. Henry, on the other hand, had a corner lot, with a long, wide driveway that ran nearly the depth of the property.
     I pushed through the thick snow, occasionally comparing my progress with that of the bundled-up man at Marie’s. I noticed that he was going considerably slower than me. It had to be her son, I finally decided, as a landscaper would have been faster, and likely would have used a plow, or at the very least, a snow blower.
     I had two passes left to complete Henry’s driveway. My opponent had just finished Mrs. Roman’s driveway, and thrust his shovel into the snow bank in triumph. It’s probably more likely that he simply finished his task and set the shovel down since only I knew we were racing, but it certainly felt like a taunt. I returned, defeated, to the last of my job. My back was toward Mrs. Roman’s so I was startled when I heard the gibe from behind me. “Is that all the faster you can go?” What was even more surprising was that it was Henry.
     “What the. . .Why are you out here? This snow is way too heavy for you, and besides, shouldn’t you be taking care of Eva?’
     The wet snow fell away from the wool scarf as he pulled it down to reply. “Eva’s fine inside. I think she gets a little tired of me doting on her, so I figured, I’d clear Marie’s driveway to give her a break.”
     “But Henry, you’re 83! You shouldn’t be out here shoveling your own driveway, much less someone else’s.”
     “I didn’t shovel my own, you did,” he quipped.
     “You know what I mean.”
     “I do, but Marie’s ninety-something. I’m certainly not going to let her go out there and do it herself. You know me better than that.”

     I had no comeback. I certainly did know him better than that. As if she had waited for the lull in the conversation, Marie opened the front door and shouted to us. “You two boys must be exhausted and freezing. Come inside for a minute. I made you some hot chocolate.”
     Henry looked at me. “You go ahead. I’m going to run in and let Eva know where we are going so she doesn’t worry. I’m right behind you.”
     I shook myself clear of as much snow as possible before I went inside. I was greeted by the aroma of hot chocolate, and some sort of dessert either still in, or fresh from the oven. Exactly what dessert it might be was being masked by the vague scent of mothballs. A patchwork of carpet runners led the way through the high traffic areas of the house. I wondered at first if she had just laid the there to protect the floors from me, but the wear patterns made it evident that they were a permanent part of the d├ęcor. It was quiet except for the slow march of the Regulator clock keeping time on the living room wall.
     “Let’s go sit in the kitchen,” she said, leading me toward the back of the house. “I just baked some nut horns as well. I hope you’re hungry.”
     “Do you think I’d be foolish enough to turn down anything you made by hand.”
     She handed me a large mug of hot chocolate. The steam rose from it in waves, and the two big marshmallows on top had already began to melt. I cupped my hands around the mug in an effort to get my circulation to return.
     “I can’t thank you enough for clearing my driveway. My boys wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she said. “They’re getting up there.”
     I laughed out loud without meaning to. “I’d love to take credit, Marie, but Henry did every inch of it.”
     “I’m going to kill him. He knows better than that!”
     “No argument here,” I said. “I pretty much told him the same thing just before you invited us in.”
     “I want to give you this,” she said, sliding a beautifully wrapped package across the table.
     “What is it,” I asked.
     “It’s a gift, silly.”
     “I know that,” I said. “But I told you I wasn’t the one who did your driveway. I can’t accept it. You should give it to Henry.”
     “It’s not Henry’s gift. It’s yours. Please, just open it.”
     “Okay, but I didn’t get you anything.” I unwrapped the package to find an exquisite china pedestal bowl. I know next to nothing about china, but I could tell it was a fine piece – delicate and rimmed with gold.
     “It’s Lenox,” she said. “It’s actually a fruit bowl – I think they’re called compotes or something like that – but my husband used to keep it in his armoire and lay his rings and watch in it at night. I want you to have it.”
     “It’s gorgeous, Marie. I really don’t deserve it. I wasn’t expecting anything.” I figured it was useless to remind her again that I wasn’t even the one that did the shoveling, so I didn’t.
     “I know you weren’t expecting anything. Sometimes, unexpected gifts are the best kind.”
     “I suppose that’s true,” I said. She was truly a delightful woman to be around. “Since you’re giving me something so sentimental, do you mind if I ask you about your husband?”
     “He’s one of my favorite subjects. What would you like to know, dear?”
     She proceeded to tell me about how they met. It was during the war. He had stayed home on a medical deferment. It was love at first sight – for both of them. She told me about her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They were her world, and it came through both in her words and in her eyes as she talked of them.
     “I can’t believe he’s been gone for almost fifteen years. I miss him every single day,” she said. I detected a little quiver in her voice as I reached for another cookie. “I don’t want to get all philosophical, but why is God keeping me around?”
     “These nut horns,” I answered quickly, trying to lighten the mood a little.
     “I’m glad you like them, but I’m serious, Dylan. The kids are grown. Heck, their kids are grown. There’s nothing I can do except be a burden. Why is God keeping me alive instead of letting me go be with my husband? I’m a nobody. I swear that I’m only here because I’m so insignificant that even God forgot about me.”
     I was caught off guard. How was I supposed to respond to that? I didn’t know her all that well. In fact, this was the first one-on-one conversation we had ever had. But as I said, she was the kind of person you felt you knew intimately after five minutes together. “Well, Marie, I think God wants us to be happy, so he puts sweet, kind, joyful people in our paths all the time. You’re one of those people. Henry and Eva swear they’ve never seen you in a bad mood. And you make me smile every time I see your face. Maybe that’s why God keeps you around. To be a joy to others.”
     “I don’t know if I buy that, but thank you for cheering up an old lady.” She smiled a wrinkled smile, and she was beautiful. “You ought to run along. You have better things to do on Christmas Eve than talk to me.”
     “If there’s something better than this, I haven’t experienced it yet, my dear,” I said as we both rose from the table. She hugged me for a long time – a deep grandma hug – before she let me leave.
     “Thank you so much for the gift,” I said. “I know just where I’m going to put it.”
     “Thank you, Dylan.”
     Henry was just about to knock on her door as I opened it to leave. He apologized to Marie for being so long and asked for a rain check. As we walked to my car, I told him about our talk and showed him the bowl. “She is one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met. I just don’t understand why she gave me such an expensive gift,” I concluded.
     “Maybe she feels like she’s repaying you for an even more expensive gift,” to which I gave him a puzzled look. “You’re a smart guy. Figure it out.”
     “Challenge accepted,” I replied. “Give Eva my love, and tell her I’ll stop and see you both after church tomorrow.”
     “Will do,” he said, hugging me. “Merry Christmas, Dylan. Oh, and thanks for shoveling. It was a huge help,” he added with a wink.

     On the morning of December 27th, Henry called me with the news that Marie had passed away. Henry had found her in her bed. He had gone over to check on her when her son couldn’t reach her on the telephone. I was silent as he told the story. I hardly knew her, but I felt the pain of her loss as if she were someone who had been a part of my life for a long time.

     “When you get a chance, I want you to come over,” Henry said. “I have something I need to show you.”
     “What is it? Can I stop by after work?”
     “That’d be fine. I’ll just show you when you get here.”
     I made the drive from my office thinking about Marie – her white, wispy hair, the wrinkles that added so much character to her olive skin. I wondered what it would have been like to live through the Depression, World War II, and all of life’s hardships and still manage to smile every day. What a lady.
     When I got to Henry’s, he poured us each a glass of scotch before sliding a small, leather-bound book across the table. The thick, brown cover was embossed with a rose, and the year 2015. A pink ribbon protruded from the pages near the back.
     As I reached for it, Henry asked, “Have you figured it out?”
     It took me a second to figure out what he was asking. “You mean what Marie was repaying me for?”
     “Yes, that.”
     “Well, she loves you and Eva. I think that she was thanking me for helping you.” My voice involuntarily trailed up at the end, making it more of a question than a statement. Henry waited silently for me to continue so I did. “Maybe she was thanking me for spending some time with her too. I know we didn’t talk long, but it was a good conversation.”
     “Not bad. You’re on the right track. Maybe you’re wiser than I give you credit for,” he teased, using his head to gesture me toward the book. “Read it from the ribbon until the end.”
     Her penmanship was exquisite – round, flowing cursive written with a fountain pen. Her last three entries were as follows:
December 24th
It looks like we’re going to have a white Christmas! I can’t believe the snow we got – almost a foot. But I woke up to a clean driveway thanks to Henry! How sweet. I also had the most enjoyable conversation with Henry’s friend, Dylan. What a wonderful young man. I gave him John’s jewelry bowl today. It was hard to part with it, but he deserved it. He’s so kind. Just like John. We talked for a long time (maybe longer than I should have kept him on Christmas Eve) and he wasn’t in a hurry to go. He talked to me – not with me or at me, but actually to me. He made me feel like I mattered for the first time in a long time and he said I bring people joy. That conversation was an early Christmas gift. I am blessed.
December 25th
Christmas was wonderful! Both of the kids and even some of the grandkids were here for dinner. They showered this old woman with gifts. I got a lovely sweater set, new perfume, and best of all, they cleaned up after dinner. I love my family. I wish they could have stayed longer. Henry, Eva, and Dylan stopped by to wish me a Merry Christmas. Too sweet.
December 26th
I’m in bed early tonight. I wasn’t feeling well – probably the excitement of the holiday. I keep thinking about what Dylan said, and how he made me feel. I feel awful for saying it, but it was honestly the best gift I got this year. After all these years, he made me see that I actually might matter. Tomorrow, I’m going to write him and tell him so. I need to thank him for giving this woman such an unexpected gift.

With tears in my eyes, I closed the book. Sometimes unexpected gifts are the best kind, I thought. Requiescat in Pace, Marie.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

We Are What We Like

A good friend and Brother recently sent me a private text telling me that he had an issue with a post that I had shared that day on Facebook. He explained very civilly why he didn’t like the post and how he thought it might reflect badly on us as Masons. While I didn’t agree with him, I removed it out of respect. The exchange got me thinking about how much our social media behavior directly impacts how we are perceived by others.

Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay. It has woven itself, one very colorful thread at a time, into the fabric of our daily lives. As a nation, we feel compelled to share pictures of ourselves, our children, our pets, and our meals. We are eager to post stories about coworkers, dining experiences, and those crazy misadventures that landed us in the emergency room. While I don’t care that much about every nap, donut, at-bat, concert, ice cream cone, or theme park trip that little Stevie enjoyed (there is such a thing as sharing too much), I do enjoy the occasional glimpse into my friends’ lives that Facebook affords. And if it gets to be too much, I can generally just scroll past until something interesting catches my eye.

The problems begin to arise when incorrect information is disseminated as fact. Morgan Freeman still isn’t dead (thankfully); Mars will not look as big as the moon next week (or ever), and Augusts which have five Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays occur way more frequently than every 827 years. Sites trying to pawn themselves off as legitimate news sources lure us in with click bait (“He took a plastic spoon, some sugar-free gum, and a roll of chicken wire. . . I can’t believe what he did next,” or “[Politician] is in hot water for sure. . .You’ll never guess what he/she said”) designed to get you to their site and generate ad revenue.  Far too many people are now using Facebook, Twitter, and other sites as their primary (read only) source of news, and it becomes very easy to read that story and share it with your friends, their friends, and the whole world without even ascertaining whether it has any truth to it. And before you ask, no, your favorite shampoo will not give you a rash that looks suspiciously like a lotus flower pod Photoshopped onto a shoulder, so don’t click the share button.

While the above examples can be annoying, they are generally innocuous. The real trouble comes from the hate-filled political and social posts that have dominated my (and probably your) news feed of late. Cecil the Lion, Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, Confederate flags are dominating my news feed today, but by the time this goes to print they will have been replaced by a new division du jour.

Pictures and posts that pit one class of people against another, eschew a religion, or put down others for their political views have no legitimate purpose, and we as Masons should think twice about liking or sharing anything that divisive. I have two friends and Brothers (both of whom read this column) who I have removed from my news feed because of the vitriol they spread through social media. One of them hates Republicans, the other hates Democrats. I hate seeing that kind of broad brush approach to anything, so it was a one-way ticket to Blockville for them both. Yes, I will miss updates on some of their Lodge events and the more thoughtful posts that they write, but I no longer want to sift through so much hate-filled chaff to get to the occasional grain of wheat.

So how can we, as Masons, decide what to share and what to scroll past as we peruse our News Feeds? I’m glad you asked, but I was going to tell you anyway. First, you can follow my example and block those who habitually post those things. Unfriending your uncle may cause a family feud, but he will never know if you simply blocked his rants from your news feed. I recommend using this option liberally. You’ll  love your new and more positive news feed.

Even after we have blocked the worst offenders, there will still be posts that make our like and share fingers a little twitchy. Before we give in to the impulse, we should FACT check it. Use the handy acronym F-A-C-T to take the guesswork out of whether to give a thumb up, a share or just to pass it by.

First, is it FEASIBLE? The odds that Facebook is going to start charging fees are about the same that the email you keep getting is from a real Nigerian prince who wants to give you money. If, on its face, an idea or proposition seems unlikely, it is. Scroll on by. Remember, there is no such thing as a free iPad. And if we fail one time out of 285,000 to pass on something legitimate, the world will go on spinning.

Next, is it ABHORRENT? Does the picture or post demean, humiliate, or degrade a person, a group, a religion, or a belief? Is it filled with vile points of view or abusive language? Is the sentiment of the post so disgusting that you would be embarrassed to share it with your grandmother? Then don’t share it with your Facebook friends.

Now ask yourself if what you are viewing is CHIC? Sure, it’s trendy to comment on the Duggars, Kardashians, or Honey Boo-Boo, but sometimes discretion can be the better part of Facebooking. When you get right down to it, each of us has an opinion on everything. However, having a social media account puts us under absolutely no obligation to share it. Sometimes it’s okay to let our friends wonder about our stance on proper football inflation – it builds mystique.

Last, is it TRUE? If Winston Churchill, Julius Caeser, or Deepak Chopra didn’t actually say it, then we should feel no obligation to share it. But how can I tell?, you ask. Go to Google and search it, check, or even examine the source material. If it’s untrue, step away from the like button.

Remember, social media is forever. Some of what we share today will be available until the end of time, so we must take care to make sure that what is on our timeline is an accurate representation of who we are and what we believe.

The goal of this column isn’t to scare you or shame you into closing your account or never sharing another post – Facebook and Twitter can be fun, informative, and entertaining after all.  Rather, it is to help you make informed decisions. Remember, Modern Vitruvians, we are what we like. That’s a FACT.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Calls of Duty: Part Three

Dylan stood in the doorway speechless. He wasn’t even certain that the person standing in front of him actually was his father. In fact, he was sure it wasn’t him. His real father was at the family cabin in the mountains more than three hours away, seated at a long oak table, surrounded by the rest of the family. He was probably, right this second, doing what he did every Thanksgiving for as long as Dylan could remember – holding a turkey leg in each hand, shaking them above his head, proclaiming, “It’s good to be the king.” So who was this man standing in Henry’s doorway?
“Why are you . . . What are you doing in Henry’s house,” Dylan asked, still struggling to make sense of the scene before him.
“Well, you rushed out this morning before I could tell you Happy Thanksgiving, and that didn’t seem right. So I got to thinking, maybe I’d bring you a little care package so that at least you could have some of your mom’s turkey and stuffing. Get in here,” his father commanded, taking him by the arm. “It’s freezing.”
“But how did you get in? What about mom and the rest of them? You didn’t need . . .” He stopped, his mind still racing to process it all. Glancing back at Henry, he asked, “You knew?” It was both a question and an accusation.
Henry flashed a broad smile. “Yeah, I knew. Meet Don, my friend from church.” He mimed air quotes for the last three words. “I think you usually call him Dad.” His eyes turned toward Don, “Thanks for letting the dog out,” he added with a wink.
“But this was the big family weekend. You really just up and left? They’re going to be so mad. I’ll never hear the end of it.”
 “Please quit worrying, son. No one is going to be mad,” Don said as he led them into the kitchen. He glanced over his shoulder at Henry. “I’m so glad that Eva is going to be okay.”
“How do you know that,” Dylan asked. “She was still in surgery when you called.”
“Henry sent me a text before the two of you left the hospital. How about getting us some drinks, Dyl? Iced tea for me.”
“Wow. Eva is going to be okay and Henry sent a text. Truly a day of miracles,” Dylan said, taking three glasses from the cabinet above the sink. The strong smell of turkey and stuffing reminded him that he hadn’t eaten a thing since he had left the cabin.
“That’s two and it’s not even dinner time yet. The night’s still young,” Henry said. He waited until Dylan turned toward the freezer to fill the glasses with ice before shooting a furtive wink to Don.
“The turkey won’t be done for a few minutes, but we can start on the salad now. Take this into the dining room,” Don said, handing Dylan the largest bowl of salad he had ever seen.
“Seriously, Dad? There are restaurants that don’t go through this much romaine in a night.”
“Salad travels well, and your brothers didn’t save you much turkey.”
“I can smell it, so I know they left some.”
“Just go put it on the table.”
Dylan paused for a second to formulate a plan for opening the French doors that separated the dining room from the kitchen without upsetting the salad. He was trying to come up with another smart comment about the salad as he pushed down on the door lever with his elbow. He felt the latch release from the strike plate, and as he pushed the door open, the lights came on. Seated around the table was the rest of his family. He looked at each of them without saying a word. His brothers, sisters, and their spouses all wore wry smiles, proud of their subterfuge. As he met each set of eyes, his heart grew more full. He struggled to keep his composure until finally he saw his mother standing just away from the table, her hand still on the light switch.
“Happy Thanksgiving, son,” she said as she wiped a tear from her cheek.
Great waves of emotion overtook him, and Dylan felt as if he would lose his legs at any moment. “I. . . I think I should sit down,” he stammered.
“Here you go, little bro,” his brother said, rising to offer his seat.
For the next several minutes, Dylan listened with astonishment as they took turns telling the story of how they ended up there, gathered around Henry and Eva’s table. His mother explained that, right after he left, she went and woke his father to tell him what happened. “You know your father, alpha male extraordinaire. Well, within five minutes, he had the whole group out of bed and gathered around the kitchen table.”
“Yeah, thanks, Dyl. You know how I love five a.m. You were right that you’ll never hear the end of it,” his brother interjected with a wink.
“Shush, Jeremy. Be nice to your brother. He’s had a long day,” his mother said. Henry walked in to listen. He stood behind Dylan’s chair and placed his hands on his shoulders.
“So has Jeremy, Mom,” said Amanda. “It was his first sunrise. Such a big boy now,” she teased, pinching Jeremy’s cheek. Amanda, as the oldest of the siblings, was the family’s self-anointed sarcasm queen. She used the interruption as an opportunity to take over the storytelling duties.
“So,” she sighed. “Dad made this big deal about how you were his favorite, and we should all drop everything we were doing, pack up the car and follow you down here.” She punctuated it all with an exaggerated eye roll, not wanting to miss an opportunity to tease her little brother.
“That’s not true, Amanda. We love you all equally,” his mom interjected.
“They just love me more equally,” Dylan retorted, scrunching up his nose at Amanda.
The fact that he could make that joke indicated to Dylan that his shock was finally giving way to a sort of tentative joy. He tried hard to give his full attention as his family took turns telling the rest of the story, but it proved difficult. He marveled as he watched Amanda comfort Henry. Her arm stroked his shoulder softly as he talked to her. He had never seen the compassionate side of Amanda before, and he liked what he saw – glimpses of his own mother in her mannerisms and tenderness. He couldn’t hear the conversation, but he was pretty sure Henry was recounting how he had found Eva this morning. Was that really just this morning, he asked himself. To him, it seemed like weeks ago. He thought about how lucky he was to have such families. Such a family, he corrected himself. He realized that this selfless act on the part of his parents and siblings meant that Henry and Eva were indeed family, and not just to him. As he glanced around the table at the people that mean the most to him in the world, he experienced a fullness that he had never felt before.
The story was all but wrapped up as his dad appeared in the doorway to announce that dinner was just about ready. Despite all of his inner distractions, he had managed to pick up a few details. First, that the decision to take the dinner on the road was unanimous, despite Jeremy’s protestations to the contrary. Also, that he was on clean up since he had shirked all of his other duties. Fair enough, he thought, even though he was pretty sure it was said tongue-in-cheek.
Without further direction, the siblings and their spouses lined up single file, Dylan at the rear, and proceeded toward the kitchen, each, doubtlessly, to return with a serving bowl overflowing with food. We must look like ants, Dylan thought to himself. Henry and Dylan’s mom remained in the corner of the dining room, talking softly. As he approached, Henry intentionally increased his volume to draw Dylan in.
“You have a very special boy, Marlene. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if Dylan hadn’t come down,” he said.
“He made me an incredibly proud mother today,” she replied, pulling him in close and lifting herself onto her tiptoes to kiss his cheek.
“So you do love me more,” Dylan said, uncomfortable with the compliment.
“I’m serious, Dylan.  From the moment Henry called, you knew the right thing to do, and you never shied away from doing it, even though it was hard.”
“It was no big deal.”
“Nonsense,” Henry interjected. “The easy thing to do would have been to stay at the cabin with your family and let this old man fend for himself.”
“I’m really not that special. I barely had the courage to tell my mom what I wanted to do this morning. Ask her.” He blushed a little remembering his lack of courage.
“That’s so far from the truth, Dyl. You didn’t struggle with telling me. You were searching for a way to make me feel the right thing as deeply as you do, and that’s not always easy for my analytical mind. Your father wants to tell you more, so I’ll stop. I don’t want to steal his thunder. I’m – we’re – just so proud of you . . .” She fanned her eyes vigorously to prevent her mascara from running. “Let’s go help in the kitchen.”

The turkey had been reduced to little more than a pile of bones, the plates were cleaned and the wine glasses were nearly empty. The din of the conversation was even dying down as the tryptophan did its work. Capitalizing on this rare silence, Dylan’s dad lifted his knife from his plate and gently tapped it against the bowl of his wine glass to get everyone’s attention.
“Before we have dessert, I want to say a few things,” he began. “First, we are all thankful beyond words that Eva’s surgery went well.”
“God is good,” Henry agreed.
“Today turned out very different from how I had envisioned it when I headed to bed last night,” Don continued. “Just before I turned off the light, I looked at Marlene and said, ‘We have so much to be grateful for, and they’re all right here under one roof.’ Didn’t I, honey?”
Marlene flashed a closed-mouth grin and nodded in affirmation.
“Well, it turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. We had family a hundred miles away – a family that needed us,” he fought hard to keep his composure, “and one that we needed as well. We never would have known this family if it wasn’t for a young man with one of the biggest hearts and greatest capacities for compassion that I have ever known.” Despite his best efforts, a tear ran down first one, then the other of Don’s cheeks, but he wiped them and continued.
“Dylan, I’m incredibly proud of what you did today. And you may think that we packed the food and ourselves into the cars and drove down here just to see you, but that’s not the whole story. You showed us – all of us – that there are always things more important than just ourselves to consider. You knew where you should be, and you decided to go there without hesitation. Your selflessness inspired us to do the same.”
Dylan bit his lower lip hard to avoid sobbing.
“Your mother and I,” Don continued, “we’re analytical by nature. We look at every situation as a problem to be scrutinized and solved. We try to distill it into costs, benefits, and outcomes. But you – you see people and their pain, their joy, their need. You see their spirit, Dyl. You see people for who they are at their core, and you make decisions based on how you can best nurture their souls. And Henry, his friendship with you has made that blossom.
“I was a little skeptical when Dylan first joined the Masons. All I ever knew were the conspiracy theories, secret society nonsense and what the internet told me about how evil they were, but now I know that none of that is accurate. They’re just good people trying to do good things. You have helped him to grow in ways I never could have. Thank you.”
The words just hung in the room. No one wanted to break the silence. Henry finally did. “Well,” he started, but quickly thought better. He desperately wanted to say that Dylan has done so much for him as well – that it was not a one-way street – but his emotions were so raw from the stress of the day that he knew he would never get the sentence out of his mouth without a complete breakdown. “You and Marlene raised a good one – five good ones from what I’ve seen today. I’d be proud to call all of you my family.”
“Dylan, you better get Henry back to the hospital. I’m guessing you’ll be allowed to see Eva soon,” Marlene said. “How about if I put a plate together for the surgeon? Just to say thanks.”
Henry smiled. “You sound just like Eva.”
“I’ll drive,” Don said. “You two have been working on no sleep, plus the ride over will give me a chance to find out where you Masons stash the gold.”

The three of them piled into the car, Dylan insisting on the back seat. As they left the driveway and he looked over his shoulder at his mother waving from the porch, Dylan said his second silent prayer of Thanksgiving that day. In the morning, as he had pulled away from the cabin, he had given thanks for having these two families. Now he thanked God that he was a part of them.  He knew, in that place of deep, sure knowing that each of us has, that today marked the beginning of a new family, bound by blood and obligation equally. He certainly had a lot to be thankful for. Two of them, his dad and his Brother, were in the seat in front of him. Maybe my Brother and my Brother someday, he thought to himself.

Dylan smiled.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Calls of Duty: Part Two

"I'm not sure what you mean. What could we possibly need to talk about," Dylan asked in the most innocent voice he could muster. He was unsure how much his mom had heard and wasn't prepared to make any unnecessary admissions just yet. "Can't a guy just get up early and enjoy the sunrise?" He never thought when he went to bed a few short hours ago that Thanksgiving day would start like this.
His mother cocked her head to the side and stared at him with one eye. She reminded him of the parrot he had as a child. It was as if she was trying to decide whether to take a peanut from him or bite his finger.
"How old are you," she asked.
"So how long have I known you?"
"Twenty-three years, I suppose." She still had her head cocked, and in spite of the possible danger to his fingers, he reached for his coffee. “Why are you asking?” He made his best attempt at what the family called the boo-boo face. Whether he was conscious of it from that early on or not, from about the time he was able to walk, Dylan could melt his mother’s heart simply by going doe-eyed and pouty. It drove his siblings crazy, but it was his gift, and by the age of twenty-three, he had honed it to an art. 
This time, it wasn’t working.
"Dylan, do you remember when you were five and you came to me holding the two halves of the Royal Doulton figurine that the cat had knocked down?" He felt his cheeks warm when she mimed air quotes at the end of the sentence. "Well, I knew it wasn't the cat then, and it isn't the sunrise now. Moms just know. What’s wrong with Henry?"
“It’s not Henry, it’s Eva, and he’s not sure yet. They’re taking her to the hospital now. Her heart stopped.”
“And he asked you to come?”
It shocked him that she heard that much of his conversation. To himself, he cursed the paper-thin walls of the cabin and his mother’s bat-like hearing simultaneously. “He did, and I thought that if I left right after Thanksgiving dinner. . .” He trailed off, stirring his coffee to avoid eye contact.
“Dyl, this is the first Thanksgiving that the whole family has been together.”
“I know mom, but. . .”
“Let me finish, honey.” She picked up from where she left off. “This is the first Thanksgiving that the whole family has been together, but I know how close the two of you are. I can’t even pretend to understand the depth of the bond that you share as Masons, but I see glimmers of it in so much that you do since you joined; how you comport yourself; your desire to be more; the way you genuinely care for everyone around you. Your soul has expanded, son, and I could not be more proud of you.”
Dylan’s eyes pooled with tears. He pulled her in close and hugged her tight. “I don’t know what to do mom,” he sobbed. “I don’t want to disappoint the family.”
“Henry is your family, too. He needs you there.”
“I’ll wait until everyone is up, so I can say goodbye. Dad’s gonna be mad.”
“You just go, and let me handle your father. He understands more than you give him credit for,” she said, taking a large travel mug from the knotty pine cabinet above the coffee maker. “He may be a little disappointed, but he’ll understand. Now go.” She screwed the lid on tightly and handed it to him. “Go,” she added for emphasis.

The tires crunched on the gravel as he drove from the cabin. Through tears, he watched it shrink in the rearview mirror, silhouetted by the rising sun.  He said a silent prayer of thanksgiving for his family, for both of his families.

It was late morning as he walked in to the Emergency Entrance of the hospital, and it was busier than he expected for Thanksgiving morning. The Macy’s Parade played on the flat screen television that hung in the corner of the waiting area. A boy no older than four, his hand wrapped in a now ruined bath towel, turned from the floating balloons that had been keeping his attention to watch Dylan approach the triage desk. Following her son’s eyes, the boy’s mother glanced up as well as she ran her fingers through his blonde hair.
“I’m here to see Eva Ranier,” he said to the nurse in the pink scrubs.
“Family,” she asked as she typed the name into the computer.
“Yes. Family.” He didn’t love lying, but he knew it would both save precious time as well as avoid an argument (one that he knew he would eventually win). Besides, Henry was family, there was no doubt about that.
 “Curtain four,” she said, gesturing violently behind her with her head. He assumed that her willingness to put her neck in such danger meant that curtain four was all the way in the corner. “The doctor is in there now. Go on back.”
As he approached, he heard fragments of conversations – stitches, flu, surgery – through the other curtains as he passed. They’re about as thick as the walls of the cabin, he thought to himself.
He approached Eva’s curtain and listened. “We’ll take her up to surgery in a few minutes. She’s not out of the woods yet, but we’ll do everything we can, Mr. Ranier. You calling 911 saved her life.” Through the gap, he watched Henry stroke Eva’s frail hand. The pale skin was almost translucent, and it bunched easily as his thumb rode up toward her wrist. A cluster of wires rose out of the top of her blue hospital gown and disappeared behind the bed.
He wasn’t sure of the protocol for entering a curtained-off area, so he simply said, “Knock, knock,” softly as he pulled the curtain back.
Henry sprang to his feet with the speed of a man thirty years younger and engulfed him in a hug. “Dylan,” he exclaimed, a little too loud. Softer, he continued. “I can’t believe you came, son. I told you to stay with your folks. We ruined Thanksgiving.” The hug was so firm, it was difficult for him to breathe, but Dylan embraced him back.
“You didn’t ruin anything. I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Henry released him but kept his hands on Dylan’s shoulders. “You’re here,” he said, smiling through tears. “You’re actually here.” Henry pulled him in again and slapped him hard on the back, sobbing.
“How is she,” Dylan asked, mostly to the doctor.
“She had a severe MI – a heart attack. The next few hours will tell us a lot, but we have a great surgical team standing by. I’m heading up to scrub in for her open heart surgery now.” Two orderlies opened the curtain and unlocked the wheels on her bed. “Why don’t we all ride the elevator together. That’ll give you a few more minutes with her before we take her into the OR.”
The doctor brought Dylan up to speed on the situation as they were lifted toward the surgical floor. The ding that counted off floors seemed to sound in syncopation with the heart rate monitor at the foot of Eva’s bed. As the doors slid open, Henry kissed Eva on the forehead and whispered something in her ear. The doctor waited until he was finished, then waved them out first, pointing to the waiting area to the right. He and the bed carrying the love of Henry’s life turned left toward a set of broad doors on which were stenciled the words, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Before he could get too far, Henry caught hold of his long, white lab coat. “Doc, she’s my sun and my moon. Bring her back to me. Please.” On the word please, he broke down.
“We will, Mr. Ranier. I’ll come see you the minute we’re finished,” His eyes flashed with confidence as he turned and disappeared through the wide doors.
Over the next hours, Dylan distracted Henry as best he could. He caught him up on the family. He told him about work, and he listened as Henry told him about the first time he met Eva.
Dylan tried several times to coax him to the cafeteria, but he refused to leave the waiting room in case the doctor came. Every invitation to eat was met with an apology for making Dylan leave his family.
“Quiet, old man,” Dylan smiled. “You have nothing to be sorry for. I have an idea. Maybe you can help me with the Third Degree lecture?” He already had a pretty good handle on it, but knew from experience that they could easily pass an hour or more once they got started. Halfway through the lecture, Dylan was interrupted by the ring of Henry’s cell phone. He took the opportunity to check his own phone. Not even two o’clock yet.
“This is Henry . . . She’s in surgery now . . . Please don’t go to that trouble, I’ve already messed up enough people’s holiday . . . I don’t even know when I’ll be able to get home . . . If you insist . . . You’re too kind – runs in the family obviously . . . You know where the house is. There’s a key under the potted mums on the front porch. Are you sure you want to do that? It seems like a lot of trouble . . . God bless you.” Henry flipped his phone closed and wiped a tear from his eye.
“Who was that?”
“Oh, no one. No one you know, I mean. Just a lady from church who wanted to let the dog out.”
“You seemed to fight her pretty hard over something so simple.”
“Really? You appeared to listen terribly intently to a conversation that you weren’t a part of,” he retorted, winking a little at Dylan. “Now where were we?” It was the first time Henry had smiled all day.

It was after six when the doctor came in. He walked up to them with all the poise he had when they last saw him, and they knew before he said a word that she was going to be fine.
“You have a very strong wife, Mr. Ranier. She’s going to be okay.”
“Can we see her?”
“They’re closing now, then she’ll go into the recovery room, so not for a few more hours. Go get something to eat, and be back around nine. I’ll take you to see her myself.”
“That’ll never happen,” Dylan said. “I couldn’t get him to leave these chairs since she went in.”
“Nonsense, kid. We should eat.”
“But don’t you want . . .”
“I need to shower and get some of Eva’s things for when she wakes up. I can’t give you the full meal, but I have sliced turkey in the deli drawer of the icebox, and we have a lot to be thankful for. Get your coat.”

Dylan thought it was odd when Henry had him stop at the end of the driveway. For as long as they had been friends, he never saw Henry use the front door. Henry tossed Dylan the key as he fumbled for his knapsack in the back seat.
“Head on in, my bag spilled.”
Dylan walked up the steps of the front porch and moved the key toward the lock. The door opened on its own as he did. He expected to see the stranger from church who had called earlier, but standing on the other side of the threshold was someone far more familiar. “Dad?”
“Happy Thanksgiving, Son.”

To be continued . . .