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The Four Seasons--Winter

an event from Hal's winter enters his dreams

By Autumn Writer
© Copyright 2008, 2010

Chapter 4: Winter

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.

Song of Solomon 2:10-11

November 1993

Martha and Hal sat in their family room late in the afternoon on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. They didn't go in for long conversations in those days, but that was okay. They liked to be close to one another and conversation wasn't an absolute necessity. Hal was in his favorite easy chair, watching the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame Game with the sound on the television turned low. Martha sat on the couch. Her legs and feet were stretched up across the cushions. She had a blanket over her feet and another one on her lap and wrapped around her arms and shoulders.

Due to the angle of the chairs Hal couldn't get a very good look at her face. He didn't need it. All the clues told him she was dozing—in that undefined state between sleep and being awake. There was a time, not long in the past, when she would have scolded and scoffed at Hal and his devotion to televised football. The Notre Dame Fight Song would have been her signal to get up and busy herself in the kitchen. They had entered different times. Martha sat still for football or whatever might be on the television. She would stare at the television without flinching. Hal was never sure if she made any sense of the programs she watched. Sooner or later she would fall asleep.

"It's getting to be about time I fixed dinner," he called in a loud voice from his chair.

It was a test. Sometimes she could make little sounds of approval. At least that's how Hal interpreted them. He'd asked the doctors about it but got shrugs for answers. The stroke had left her paralyzed but not without feelings, he often told himself.

"I'm just thankful that I can still lift her."

Indeed, it was fortunate, because if he could not lift her he would have to put her in a nursing home where others could do it for him.

"That would just kill her, going into one of those places."

At other times he wondered if she really wished to cling to a life that was so meager. He lived with the cruel paradox, satisfied with the knowledge that the wisdom to understand such things was beyond him. He just kept doing the best he could.

Hal turned off the television and moved from his easy chair to a footstool that he placed next to the couch. He looked into Martha's face. She looked so peaceful when she slept. He wondered if she was dreaming.

"Martha," he said in a soft voice as he shook her wrist. "Martha, can you hear me? I'm going to get dinner ready now."

She slowly hoisted her eyelids. There was a stern look behind them.

"Not ready for dinner, yet?"

They had developed a language of the eyes. A single tear trickled from the corner of one eye and ran down Martha's cheek. Hal pulled a tissue from the box on the coffee table and dabbed it dry.

"I know how you feel, Old Girl. We're not as young as we used to be. I guess you might say that we're both playin' the back nine."

Her eyelids made a slow descent. She looked more tranquil. Hal reckoned that it helped her to know that he understood. He wasn't any hungrier than Martha at that moment, so he thought to stay with her for a few minutes and try instead, for some food for the soul.

She must have sensed him still seated on the footstool instead of wandering into the kitchen to clatter with some pots and pans. She opened her eyes again. Hal was still holding her hand.

"We were a pretty good pair in our prime, wouldn't you say?" Hal mused out loud. He swore that he saw a faint smile. "Of course, we had our ups and downs."

She let out one of her purring sounds. Hal didn't need her confirmation to know the truth of that.

"I wasn't perfect. That's for sure," he said to her. "Of course you weren't, either," he hastened to add.

He thought for a second that he caught her laughing. He didn't say anything for several seconds. He just sat there, holding her hand. He thought about the many times he had been imperfect. His thoughts traveled to that night and day of mutual unfaithfulness, the agony it created. He wondered how little meaning the incident had for them at this time of their lives.

"I wish I hadn't thought of that."

"We did alright together," he assured her. "The kids turned out well. You were a wonderful mother."

The last statement brought out another tear. Hal let this one run its full course, hoping that the feeling of the droplet reminded her of one joy or another that their children had brought them.

"Did I ever tell you that I thought that you look like Eve Marie Saint?" he asked her.

He never had, and the new revelation brought a look of surprise to her face. Hal's heart quickened. He promised himself that he would never lose the memory of her expression as he told her that.

"Maybe you had a slightly better figure than her," he added with a chuckle.

That last comment brought out the stern look once again and Hal knew that he had gone too far. Martha always liked compliments but never flattery.

"Well, maybe," he retracted in part. "I always liked your figure."

He stood and leaned over her. He bent down and kissed her on the cheek and tasted the saltiness of the remnant of her tear from a moment ago.

"Time for me to get some dinner on the stove. I'll just make sure you're warm enough before I go into the kitchen."

He secured the blankets around her shoulders and feet.

"I'll be back in a few minutes. Why don't you take a nap? It'll help your appetite."

"Mac and cheese for me. Broth for her."

It was a simple enough meal to prepare. When he went into the kitchen the mess on the counter reminded him that he hadn't yet cleaned up the dishes from breakfast and lunch. He decided to do them while he waited for the water to boil. He decided to bring her soup into the family room and feed her while she sat on the couch. Getting her off the couch and into the wheel chair was always such a big production. It took a lot out of her. The only advantage was that when they ate—or rather, when he fed her—in the dinette there was a shred of normalcy at mealtime.

"Who am I kidding? This isn't normal. Martha knows it, too."

He got out a tray from the cupboard and set the soup bowl and spoon on it. He went searching for a napkin.

Twenty minutes later he carried the tray into the family room. He had waited a few minutes for the broth to cool down. Hal set the tray on the coffee table and then glanced at her silhouette on the couch. She hadn't moved. He sat on the footstool and took her hand again, getting ready to reawaken her.

For a moment, it appeared that she had fallen asleep, but the deception didn't last longer than that. Hal had seen death before, but he tried to rouse her just the same. He called to her in vain. He had to; after everything, he owed it to her not to give up easily. He knew all along that it wasn't in his power to call her back. He wondered for a second if he should and fought off the doubt. It was time to say good-bye.

He lay her down on the couch and pulled at the blankets to cover her up. For a split-second, the image of Sammy Cimino raced through his mind and he reached out to take her dog tags. He shook himself and pulled his arm back.

"We were a good pair," he said out loud. He laid her down, pulled the blanket over her face and patted her on the shoulder. She was gone; he was alone.

On the day after Hal buried Martha—his first real day of being alone—he arose early. It wasn't that he was unused to sleeping by himself. Martha hadn't made it to the second floor of the house since her stroke. Hal glanced from the kitchen through the French doors to the family room and the daybed and couch where she spent so much of her last days.

In his secret thoughts, he was glad that things had gone as they did. Hal struggled against great opposition to arrange for Martha to come home at all. The doctors, the insurance company, and even his children were against it.

"It was sad," they said, "but she would be better off with professional care."

If she had gone through a slow decline the pressure would have mounted and he would have had to take her to a hospice. He was grateful that she was spared the pain of that experience. After a lifetime of devoting herself to their home, she would never have chosen to spend her final days away from it.

"Comfort of the body and the spirit don't always go hand-in-hand," he often told himself.

He knew enough not to voice his feelings. No one would have understood, for they did not have his experiences to draw on.

He poured some cereal into a bowl. He was out of eggs and a lot of other things. He didn't feel like toast and coffee. As he sat at the kitchen table eating he thought about doing some shopping. If he didn't, his daughter was sure to show up and insist on doing it for him. It would have been a nice gesture, but he desired a return to self-reliance. He picked up the pace through breakfast and took a quick shave and shower. He hurried to get it done fast. He suspected that his daughter might show up, unannounced, at any moment.

A half-hour later, Hal was backing his car out of his driveway.

"Ah! I made it."

The escape brought the sensation of freedom. Grocery shopping was not a favorite task, but it felt good to take care of himself, for a change. It was the way that he and Martha had lived until she got sick. Martha's stroke, and especially the funeral, put a temporary end to that. Their need for dependence on others was over.

"Nancy would have done the shopping. She's been great, but she should take care of her own family. I don't need her now like we did before."

He knew that Nancy would have a hard time understanding it. Hal hoped that his son, Robert, would see it his way. It would be easier to explain it to him, if he had to. He thought on these things as he made the short drive from his home to the grocery store.

"Oh no! I forgot about Thanksgiving."

As Hal guided his car through the entrance of the supermarket parking lot he saw the mass of cars and humanity. With the Holiday only a day away, he looked upon a maelstrom of self-absorbed shoppers, frantic to get last-minute cans of cranberry sauce, or a bag of onions.

Worse yet, he saw that most of them were women. They always seemed to get the better of him in the grocery store, even during normal times. He thought, for a second, about turning around.

"If I do, Nancy will be sure that I can't do it for myself."

With his pride at stake, he decided to enter the fray.

His first task was to find a place to park. It wasn't a very nice day, so he would have preferred a space close to the entrance of the store.

"Fat chance!"

He thought he would give it a try, just the same. He hoped to get lucky and find someone who was just leaving. He guided the car down the first row of parking spaces.

It was a disheartening scene. He expected traffic to be flowing—if only inch-by-inch. Instead, there were cars stopped in the midst of the driveway every twenty feet or so. They blocked movement of all else as they waited for returning shoppers to vacate a space. First, the departing car would have to back out of its space; the waiting car would wedge itself into the vacated space. That wasn't the end of the struggle. The departing car, intent on finding the exit, was headed against the flow of traffic. Each lined-up car, in turn, had to edge itself aside to make room.

"If I'd known it would be like this I would have stayed home," Hal sighed out loud.

It occurred to him that Martha would never have gotten herself into this kind of mess. She never did things at the last minute.

"And if she did find a mess like this, she would just go home and come back later."

Hal reasoned that he was only sitting in the line of cars because he was too proud not to. He was out to prove something—that he could do it by himself.

"A worthy goal, carried too far."

It was too late to do anything about it; he was waiting for people to get finished waiting for others.

"I've got to become more humble. I'll work on that after the holidays."

He'd been in the line for about fifteen minutes. It crept ahead, car by car. Every so often a delinquent car would perform a nasty maneuver and approach an empty slot from the opposite direction and slide in before the car rightfully waiting could do so. There would be shaking of fists through the windows of the cars involved. The offending driver would look away. Hal sighed in wonder and disgust.

"I would never do that. People should be nicer to one another. They'd sing a different tune if the tables were turned."

He was quite sure that he would never have done it, and he was quite proud of that fact. He was of a generation and age which imposed a self-regulated discipline of civility and order. It was a matter of personal pride and self-respect.

A black pickup truck, raised high on oversized wheels, stood in line in front of him. From it, Hal could hear the thump-thump of the stereo bass. The driver bounced up and down in the seat in time with the music—if it could be called music—as he talked on a cell phone. A woman was beside the driver and was bouncing to the music, too.

It was the last straw and Hal started to look again for a way out. He'd have to come back later. It was then that a miracle appeared to happen. A young woman, carrying two shopping bags appeared and unlocked the SUV parked to the left of where Hal's car waited.

"I'm in luck!"

The spot, soon to be vacated, was tailor-made for Hal. He could glide his car neatly in. The pick-up truck ahead had proceeded too far to turn into it.

Hal was patient as he waited for the young woman to back out. As her car eased away Hal was about to lift his foot from the brake and take his rightful spot.

"Ah—finally!"

An unexpected thump inexplicably jolted him.

"What the—?"

Hal put his car in park. The young man from the pick-up truck met him at the scene of the impact.

"I'm sorry, man!" the young man said. "I didn't see you back there."

"You should have known not to back up in a crowded lot like this," Hal retorted.

Just then, water and antifreeze appeared in a puddle under Hal's car. Steam hissed from the hood. They saw the truck's trailer hitch impaled into the middle of Hal's radiator. Hal reached to a lever under the steering wheel and popped the latch on the hood.

"Raise the hood so people know we're disabled," Hal called out.

The youth reached in between the cars and raised it. Cars in the back of the line immediately started honking and those closer began squeezing by the two injured cars. As one of the cars passed by a young person leaned out an open window and yelled out.

"What happened, Gramps; did'ya fall asleep?"

"It's all my fault," the youth declared, hanging his head.

"Don't get too upset," Hal advised. "It's just an accident. We'll need some help getting my car towed. Get out your insurance information. If you've got a cell phone, you better ask for a police officer."

Hal didn't carry a cell phone, wishing that they had never been invented.

A store customer returned to her car which was parked in one of the spaces that Hal's disabled car was blocking. It was a woman in her thirties with a self-important expression.

"Now what am I going to do?" she demanded to no one in particular. "This could take hours."

She folded her arms in defiance of the fates.

"Some people are just too old to drive," she said in an elevated voice to make certain Hal heard her. He didn't answer.

"Martha would never have said that," Hal thought.

The abuse he was taking was starting to make him angry.

The youth returned with the insurance cards. The young woman had returned to the warmth of the pick-up cab.

"Here's my paperwork," the young man said.

Hal looked a little closer at him. He looked to be about nineteen. Hal chose to ignore the pierced ear and longish hair.

"He doesn't look like a bad kid—just impatient like all young people."

"Stupid old coot," he heard a passerby remark.

Hal thought about setting him straight but decided not to. It didn't seem to be worth the effort.

"My father's gonna kill me," the young man said, finally giving in to the strain. "It's his truck—I just borrowed it to take my girlfriend to the store. I'm already on assigned risk for insurance. I just got home from college for the holidays last night. I'm real sorry about this. I'm sorry about all those people calling you names, too."

"Forget about them. They're not worth worrying about," Hal told him.

A police officer approached in a black and white cruiser. The store manager also arrived, wanting to clear his parking lot as soon as he could.

"Well, what happened?" the officer demanded as he cast a suspicious eye on the young man.

"Let me answer first," Hal blurted out before anyone else could speak. "It was my fault. I ran into this young man. He was just sitting there. I saw a parking spot open up and went for it. I should have been more careful."

"Oh?" the policeman said, showing his surprise as he jotted notes on a pad. "Is that what you say?" he asked as he turned toward the youth.

The youth looked at Hal, his jaw hanging open. He began to shake his head, but Hal gave him a stern look.

"Yes, I guess so."

A short time later a tow truck was hoisting Hal's car. The young man turned to him.

"Geez sir; thanks for doing that for me. I don't why you did, but I sure do appreciate it."

"Consider it a Thanksgiving present from my wife, Martha," Hal answered.

The youth looked confused. Hal slapped him on the shoulder.

"Don't worry. When you're an old coot like me someday, you'll understand."

Continued

Epilogue

The Lord our God spake unto us in Horeb saying, ‘Ye have dwelt long enough in this mount: Turn you, and take your journey, and go to the mount of the Amorites, and to all the places nigh and thereunto, in the plain, in the hills, and in the vale, and in the south and by the sea side, to the land of the Canaanites, and unto Lebanon, unto the great river, the river Euphrates.’

Deuteronomy 1: 6-7

As Hal lay on his bed savoring his peaceful nap, he couldn't understand why all these old events crept into his dreams. He wasn't even sure if he was really dreaming. It was a half-asleep—half-awake status that was new to him. It brought a certain comfort so he desired not to rise. He would skip his rations of French Toast. It was just better to lie in comfort. He wondered if any more dreams would come to him.

These dreams—about events that he hadn't thought about in so many years; why did they all come to him that morning? It had been a long time since his body felt as good as it did. It was free from all the nagging pains in his hips and knees and back to which he had almost become accustomed. He must have found the best spot on the mattress. He felt himself starting to doze again; waited in earnest for the next dream—and soon it came to him.

There was a young man next to him who Hal did not know. The young man had a pleasant smile, but was silent. Hal sensed that he was a friend; he wanted to know more about him. He was dressed in white, reminding Hal of Javier as he came to help him each morning. Hal thought he felt a little light-headed, but then realized that it was the restfulness that was so intoxicating. He almost felt like he was floating in the air over his bed.

"Oh, these dreams!"

"Señor Hal—Señor Hal; wake up!"

Javier had appeared in his dream. He was standing over Hal as he slept. Hal could see it in panorama, the faithful attendant bent over his sleeping body. Hal called down to him.

"Javier, I don't want any French Toast today."

He said it loudly enough, but Javier didn't appear to be listening.

"Forget the French Toast!"

Hal looked to a spot somewhere over his head from where an almost-familiar voice came from. He dreamt that he saw Mort Plinsky in the distance motioning him to come to where he was standing. Hal was confused and looked at the young man beside him.

"What's going on?" he asked. "These dreams seem so real."

The young man in white finally broke his silence. "It's time to go," he replied in a soothing voice.

"Let's go already," he heard Mort Plinsky cajole from above. "We're all waiting," he added with his characteristic insistence.

"These are the strangest dreams," Hal said to the white-clad young man.

He gazed at Mort in the distance and saw Martha beside him, looking happy, with that patient smile that he had never forgotten. Sammy Cimino was there, too, looking more content than Hal remembered him from his Army days. Lieutenant Lamont was standing alongside them. They were all dressed in white, like the young man. A bright light shone from them and their garments and the young man next to him shone, too. Hal wondered why he could stand to be so close to such a bright glare; it seemed to be the source of his euphoria.

Javier was still below leaning over Hal. He had ceased calling to him and was shaking his head. Two others from the staff stood beside him. Hal felt the young man's hand give a gentle lift at his elbow and they floated higher.

Hal didn’t know where he was going, but he had no fear.

Death came sweetly.

THE END

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