Once upon a time, I was a hunter.
The woods my home, the rivers my bath, the bounty of nature was mine to enjoy. My father, Abel, trained my brother and I too live our lives according to the rules of nature. Take no more than needed, leave the woods in the same shape you found it.
Those halcyon days are far behind me now. My beard is white, my eyesight dimmed. The one true love of my life was taken from me by cancer. I am alone. My one last vice, writing, is the only link to the world outside my abode.
I gnawed at the corncob pipe and waited for the infusion of tobacco to stain my lungs. The pipe is not loaded with tobacco or the other ‘herbal’ version of cancer. I gave it up years ago. There’s something about losing your love to a preventable disease that changed my perspective on smoking.
The day she died; I swore I would not touch the stuff again. I haven’t. She suffered, and I watched. There was nothing I could do to alleviate her pain.
Tears dripped down my face as I stared at her picture. She’s gone on never to return to me, time separates us now. Death called her number and punched her ticket. I must wait my turn, but I pray so earnestly for it.
At 18, I grew disenchanted with hunting game. The challenge was gone. The greatest game of all was hunting men. I signed up for the military and left my home on a cold Friday morning in October. My dad picked me up.
We didn’t talk much. Words wouldn’t express what we wanted to say. My father served in a war people wanted to forget. I didn’t know it at the time, but my war would fall into the same category. War, a necessary evil if you believed the politicians, came to my country on a brisk fall day in September.
I signed up and jumped at the chance to prove myself in mortal combat. Movies glorified the sacrifice of men for ‘the greater good.’ Video games depicted it as a contest of courage and fortitude. I have no idea where they got those ideas from.
If you want to know about war, visit the medical tents. Guts splayed out on field litters, blood soaked into the hungry earth, and hard men cried for their mothers. “Will my wife still love me,” the amputees shouted. “Will my momma recognize me,” the deeply scarred asked anyone who looked their way.
The cost of war is found in those who came home less than they were when they left. Those not killed on the field of battle live a little longer and die in the war anyway. There is no escape. One way or another, war claimed us all.
Tension crept into my arthritic neck, I twisted and cracked it. My blurry eyes brimmed with heavy tears. It does no good to think of those dark days, I chided myself.
I survived the war and came home to Mississippi, not straightaway, I had to lose everything I worked for before I returned home to the Magnolia State. Still, I returned to my roots. Although, I was far from happy.
My mind survived the screams of the dying, and the moans of those brutally injured. What it could not deal with was how to adjust to life without war. As tobacco stained my lungs, war stained my soul.
In the quiet of the night, madness visited me. My sins had followed me home.
After multiple tours through the hellscape called war, I thought to live out the remainder of my life as a peaceful man. “God, if I could return home, intact, I would put down my guns.” He heard my plea. I survived the war intact and returned home.
I put aside my weapons; I tried to live a peaceful life.
People wouldn’t leave me alone. When I went to town, they would give me that look usually reserved for those they considered ‘low class or no class.’
As if money was the single, most important aspect of class. Women clutched their babies close; their dads would mock me when I came near.
“Look kids, it’s Adventuresome Fred. He left home looking for something and got ahold of something he couldn’t turn loose.” The kids laughed, as did their parents. I’d hang my head and shuffle by.
“So, that’s what I defended. Irksome children and their idiot parents. That’s why my friends never returned home. Or why they came home with blown off limbs and shattered minds.”
I’ll admit it, their laughter embarrassed me. Worse, it angered me. Rage built in my heart when I considered the cost of freedom. I worried for my friends from war. Would I turn on the news one day and see where one of them went off the deep end? Would I one day lose control and unleash hell upon my town?
I couldn’t say that I wouldn’t, so, I bought a cabin far out in the woods. It came with twenty acres of hills and a small pond. The owners had built small cedar shops not far from the main house. It also came with the property.
We agreed on a sum, and I purchased it. I moved in on a cold, bitter day in January. There was no central air and heat unit. The house had propane heaters. I lit one and sat in my recliner.
In the quietness of my cabin, I sought solace for my mind. I prayed for my friends. The darkness of the cabin provided me with the quiet my mind needed to heal.
For years, I lived alone. Every now and then, I bought a dog or a gun. The world devolved into a maddening house of corruption and chaos. I wanted nothing to do with it, and I limited my comings and goings. When I went out, it was only for necessities.
Without even noticing it, I became a hermit.
I wish I could say that being a hermit was a grand adventure. I really wish I could, but it wasn’t all that great. Even with the company of my dog Chunk, I craved companionship. In the cold of winter, when it’s so cold that it settles in your bones, you need a person who wants to talk to you.
On those cold, frostbitten nights, when shadows are longest, I held my wife’s picture and cried myself to sleep. Chunk would snuggle up to me and lay his head on my lap. The memories of our life together cut into my mind. Outside my cabin the wind howled, in my soul the same howl resounded through my psyche.
And for all the howling, Death never came for me.
I let out a heavy sigh and took the corncob pipe from my mouth. Tiny cuts were on the lip of the pipe. I had fell into a deep remembrance, and the stress of my memories made me gnaw on it. I put it aside.
“It does me no good to remember this if I don’t write it down. Do better, Fred.”
My computer is an old HP that I’ve worked hard to maintain. It is loaded with musings from one part of my life or another. The only thing I’ve never written about is how much I loved my wife, or why I loved her so.
I don’t know if my heart can take the beating.
We met on a cloudless Wednesday night. You know how it is, you don’t expect to find true love at a taco shop on the weekend, much less during the week. I was at the back of the line, impatiently waiting for someone to take my order so I could return to my cabin.
I wasn’t alone. It seemed like half the town decided to descend up the small taco shop at the same time. People jostled for position, like NASCAR racers at Talladega. More than once some dad nudged their kid and nodded my way.
Everyone seemed to get a kick out of my plight. I represented a world that no longer existed. A world where nothing was perfect, but people held themselves to a higher standard. A world where patriotism was not a catchphrase, where kindness had value, and where it was okay to hold a dissenting opinion.
I was a man out of time.
Down the line came an older woman. She was about my age. I was 48 at the time, she was a couple of years older than me. Her hair was black, not a strand of gray showed anywhere.
“Hi. What can I get you?”
“Um, I’ll take six soft tacos.”
She raised her eyebrows and smiled at me. I shuffled from one foot to the other and avoided her gaze.
“Is that it?”
“I’m Patty,” she said as she stuck out her hand. I gripped it. She had the softest hands I ever felt. They weren’t clammy the way that some people’s hands are. Her hand was soft but firm.
“Um, I’m Fred.”
“You like soft tacos, do you Fred?”
“They’re okay,” I said quietly. “They’re for my dog.”
Patty smiled, and my heart raced. I let go of her hand, she had never tried to remove it from mine. No jewelry was on her fingers. “There’s no way this lady is single,” I thought to myself. “Besides, I’ve been without a woman for so long, I wouldn’t know what to do with one.”
I left that day with six tacos and a warm feeling in my heart. At my cabin, I told Chunk about Patty. He stared at me with those big amber eyes as if ordering me to go get Patty from the taco shop. I didn’t.
As a matter of fact, I never went back to the shop. One evening, I heard a knock at my door. Patty stood on my porch, a bag of soft tacos in hand.
“So, this is where you hide at.”
She smiled that beautiful smile. I invited her in and made a fresh pot of coffee. Her presence in my house made it feel like home, and all she did was show up.
Love blossomed between us. I like to think it had something to do with the soft tacos. She would stay to the wee hours of the morning and fall asleep on my couch. I would watch her sleep.
For the first time in my life, I felt as if I knew what love was. It wasn’t the ‘made in Hollywood pipe dream,’ it was enjoying the company of a person who gave you hope. Love was a cup of coffee with someone who enjoyed being with you. It was long walks and short talks, quiet afternoons in a dim bookstore, or plundering the local Goodwill.
I did it all with her, and I am a better man for it.
I reached for the pipe and stuck it in my mouth, I yearned for tobacco. “I can’t. I promised Patty…” Tears stained my cheeks; the holidays are so hard when you’re alone. My children had families of their own. I received invitations from all of them to come visit, and I will. After, I write and post it for review.
Patty died on a cold January day. The wind howled that day, the flags on my porch whipped from side to side and banged off the tin with a thud. Patty grew so uncomfortable, that I slept on the couch. All through the night she whimpered from the pain.
At midnight, I slipped into the room and sat beside her. She always kept the blinds open. The silvery beams of moonlight filtered in and highlighted the tears on her cheeks. She groaned and tried to smile at me. I pulled over a chair and took her hand in mine.
“Hey beautiful,” I whispered.
“Shush, I’m no longer beautiful. We had a good life together, didn’t we?”
“Of course. You brought completeness to my world.”
She sobbed and groaned. I held her hand. Neither of us hid our tears that night.
“I’m afraid, Fred.”
“I am too, Patty. I don’t know if I can live without you.”
Patty gripped my hands and tried to lean up to look me in the eyes. The moonlight lit her eyes with an ethereal glow, firm in their resolve.
“Yes, you can Fred. You must live for our children’s sake. They will need you when I am gone.”
Her words broke me. I sobbed and put my head on the bed and cried. “God don’t take my love from me. You know I can’t make it without her.”
At 0300, Patty slipped away from me, and went on a solo adventure somewhere beyond the stars. I cleared my throat, wiped my tears, and called the hospice center who cared for Patty. They had worked so hard to keep her comfortable. I told them Patty had passed, and they sent out a nurse. The mortician and a chaplain followed shortly after.
Then, I called my children. They dressed and rushed to my side. While the mortician and nurse worked to remove Patty, the chaplain came and sat beside us.
“I know this is tough, but I would encourage each of you to remember that the Lord doesn’t put any more on us than we can bear.”
It took time for me to fully appreciate his words. While I knew his words were true, his timing was off. My heart felt ripped in two. My daughter Beth and Emma, plus their husbands and children, all wept at our great loss.
This Christmas makes our third one without Patty. For my children and their families- life moved on. That’s not to say have forgotten Patty, rather it’s a testimony of how resilient my children are. They wept, but then they focused on healing.
I haven’t healed, Lord knows it’s not because I haven’t tried. Through my tears I begin to type:
Three years ago, I lost my one great love, her name was Patty. Our romance, if you can call what we had a romance, was not some Hollywood story. We never had caviar and wine, and we never splurged on the most expensive resorts and hotels.
Our story consisted of tacos and Dr. Pepper. We wore old jeans, battered shoes, and flip flops. While many in the world rushed from one job to the other in hopes of keeping up with the fabled Jones family, we filled our house with laughter and old movies.
Patty loved the holidays, and while I would never match her fondness for them, she showed me the reason for such things. Patty would dance to White Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock, her eyes lit up like the Christmas tree she insisted we put up the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Patty was all the things I ever yearned for throughout the years. She loved people, loved church, and loved God. Patty had a thing for the underdogs, which I guess explained her love for me.
Together, we stood strong in our beliefs. She taught me to show mercy, to overextend myself with kindness, and to open my heart to everyone with no expectations.
And now that she’s gone, I am afraid of what I will become.
I stopped writing. My tears clouded my vision, my heart ached at the remembrance of Patty’s last days. She remained strong to the end, I on the other hand, put on a brave face, but I knew it was only a façade.
Prior to having met Patty, I could describe my life as one capacious bad decision. The horrors of my warfighting days followed me home in the form of nightmares, agitation, and full-on rage. Daily, I would get out of bed, pull my sidearm from my holster, look down the barrel and ask myself one question: Why do you still live?
Then, I met Patty, and she changed all that for me. Through the years I considered that maybe God put her in my life. He must have known that I needed a friend to help me through the darkness, and in His wisdom, He sent me Patty.
I can’t begin to describe her influence upon my life. My vocabulary is not large enough to rhapsodize her impact. She led me from the forced isolation of my reclusiveness to enjoying life with another human being. Patty showed me that my children could thrive as long as I made an effort as their dad.
Her absence has altered my life as well. I’ve cried more tears in the past three years, than I ever did over the course of my seventy-five years on this planet. As the world changed, Patty gave me hope that better days loomed on the horizon.
“Every day is not a bad day, Fred.”
I can hear her whisper this in my ear, every time that I considered using my sidearm to change my fate. My life is less because she is no longer in it.
Better days are coming…
I’ve gnawed on this pipe until my teeth hurt. My eyes hurt from crying so much. “It’s Christmas, Fred. Put on a brave face and go see your children.”
After a quick shower, I changed into my khaki slacks, brown slip-on shoes, a nice flannel shirt, and the last pull over sweater Patty bought me.
“It’s an ugly sweater,” she had said when I wrinkled up my nose at it, “you only have to wear it at Christmas.” And because it was from Patty, I wore it. Even now, I can feel her hug when I wear it.
I drove to my children’s house and shut off my truck. From the large window in the living room, I can see my daughters peeking through the curtains. They won’t come out to check on me, they’re good girls like that. In the silence of my old truck, I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I opened my eyes and stepped out of the truck.
My oldest daughter Beth opens the door when I step onto her porch. Tears wet her eyes when she sees my sweater. Her bottom lip quivers as she wraps her arms about my neck.
“It’s okay, daddy. Better days are coming…”