Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Evergreen

 





 That particular brisk November morning, as had been the entire Fall season to that point, was colder than usual for the southwest corner of Georgia. Emory could hear the familiar sound of the soles of his feet scrape across the coarse sandy surface of the road. His pace was quickened that morning, but not simply because of the temperature. He knew that Hannah would be at her usual spot and he didn't want to keep her waiting.  

   The school bus stop was about half a mile from Emory's house and was a familiar route once all of the harvesting was finished and the school year rolled around. Emory, an outdoor person by nature, nonetheless looked forward to the reprieve offered by the school year. His favorite class had always been biology, although history was a close second. Math was useful but still a little dry for him. His whole environment was immersed in life and to obtain a greater understanding of that diversity had always been fascinating. Now, more than ever, his and his family’s existence depended on the land. The Depression and the seemingly never-ending war overseas had stretched resources beyond their limits and what the land could produce and your hands manufacture were all that anyone had. And none of that was guaranteed. Emory had friends who would beg him for the left-over core of his apple at lunch. He gave away all that he could, but he had very little to offer to begin with. 

   In a world where there was little to possess and little to hope for, there was one bright spot in Emory’s life. His jacket. More specifically, it was his bomber jacket. It might have seemed almost laughable to someone from a larger town or from a family possessing greater means, but to Emory it meant the world. It was exactly the same kind of jacket that the American bomber crews wore on their high altitude bombing missions in Europe. The exterior was entirely leather while the inside was lined with a thick layer of fleece that would deflect even the staunchest winter winds. He had saved what he had earned from working the previous summer and purchased the jacket after combining those summer earnings with his entire life savings. He was too young to go and fight, but only barely so and wearing the jacket was a small way of respecting those who fought and died daily. After all, they were his heroes.  

   Emory knew that he was getting close as he approached the familiar bend in the road. The leaves of the large red oak to his right had turned brown and were slowly, one by one,  succumbing to the November winds. The small fishing pond to his left had been a scene of constant activity and socialization during the warmer months but was now secluded and alone. Yet, closer to him and just beyond the edge of the road was a lofty long-needled southern pine whose girth and height indicated a tree of great age and majesty. Never losing its needles in the coldest of seasons, it remained a symbol of hope that perhaps all would be well. Yet, the beauty and dignity of that tree seemed to pale in comparison with the diminutive young woman who stood beneath it. Hannah, her blonde hair playing across her face in the cool morning breeze, was standing beneath the tree engrossed in a book. As Emory approached, his movement caught her attention and she looked up with a smile that made the morning pause to take notice.

   Hannah was German. That was the simple truth of it, and usually the only knowledge necessary for most people to pass judgement. It seemed to make little difference that she and her parents had fled Germany for the distinct purpose of avoiding the Nazi regime and were already settled in their new home by the time hostilities had begun. It was enough merely to hear her speak, her English decorated with a slight Bavarian accent, and gaze upon her long golden hair and sapphire eyes to realize that she was one of the enemy; no matter how pleasant her demeanor might first appear.

   Emory, however, saw her differently, although he had never spoken openly of it. When he had first met her at school, he had immediately felt great compassion for her at being so far from her home. The flat coastal plain of southern Georgia held little resemblance to the foothills of the Alps from which she had immigrated. She already spoke English, but she nonetheless still faced a society who did not speak the language of her heart and whose culture was markedly foreign. Not to mention that within the short period of time that she had lived in her new home, her native country had declared war upon it. 

But Hannah was certainly not helpless and that fact, perhaps, made Emory respect her all the more. He had often remarked to himself that if all of the German people had the same strength of will as Hannah, it was no small wonder that they made such staunch fighters on the battlefield. She also possessed a keen mind and Emory, although a good student himself, had to admit that Hannah was likely more gifted than he. And, in spite of all of her attributes, it had not escaped Emory’s attention that one of his favorite things about Hannah was just how pleasant she was to look at. Superficial, but true nonetheless. 

   Hannah’s smile, as she stood beneath the Evergreen, warmed his heart as it always did on those cool fall mornings.

   “Guten Morgen, fraulein!” Emory greeted her proudly as his breath condensed in the cool air. 

   “Ah, du sprichst Deutsch?” Hannah replied. “Wie geht es dir heute?”

   “Alright, I give up,” Emory responded by throwing up his hands. “I need you to give me more lessons. I didn’t understand a word you just said.” 

   “Perhaps, if I had a more diligent student you would already be fluent by now,” Hannah responded jokingly.

   “That's not funny,” Emory responded with a smile as he joined her underneath the evergreen tree. At that exact moment, the unmistakable rattling of the 1931 Ford school bus reached their ears. It seemed on most days that every bolt holding the old green vehicle together would rattle itself out of place but it had, with constant diligence from the maintenance crew,  somehow managed to hold itself together. The dust kicked up from the sandy roads by the bus’s tires rose above the dormant fields and made it quite easy to track the path of the vehicle.

   “Do you think we'll make it to school today without breaking down?”

   “Not sure. But, that’s one of the things that keeps life so interesting.”

   The vehicle pulled up beside the pair and the door swung open revealing the serious face of Mrs. Davis, the bus driver. The two got onto the bus and took their usual seats about midway back on the right hand side of the bus. Hannah pressed in a little closer to Emory for warmth which was never unwelcome as she always smelled like cedar. 

   “So, how is your piano playing these days?” Emory asked. 

   “Fine, I suppose,“ Hannah replied modestly although Emory had heard her play before and was not fooled in the least.

   “I’m sure that it’s much better than just fine. I remember the last time you played at church. I'm certainly no Mozart, but I thought it was flawless.“

   “You are too kind, sir,“ Hanner replied with a smile while putting on the air of a medieval princess. “And I dare say I would be happy to play on a much more frequent basis, if only they were more Lutheran churches in town.“

   Emory chuckled before responding.

   “Now, you know good and well that there aren’t any Lutherans in this town, but you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Baptist Church.”

   Hannah nodded in acknowledgment.

   “At least Mrs. Johnson still lets me practice on her piano. She has really been very nice about the whole situation and has allowed me to play whenever I need to. I’m not sure, but it seems as if she enjoys the music as it takes her mind off of the emptiness of her house.”

   “I’m sure it does,” Emory responded. “I can only imagine having a house full of the noise of that many children and then how quiet it must be when they all move away.“ 

   Emory then looked over at his companion and she thumbed through her sheets of music.

   “In fact,“ he offered. “You can come and play the piano for me anytime when all of my children have moved away.“

   Hannah then returned his gaze and curled her lips over her teeth as to give the appearance that she had none.

   “You mean when you’re old, with no teeth like this? “

  Emory couldn’t help but chuckle, in spite of his friend’s teasing.

   “Now, you just hang on a second there. I’ll have you know that I’m planning to keep all of my teeth.  And my hair, too.”

   “Oh, I see.”

   A thought then suddenly came to Emory. 

   “You know, it really has been a while since I’ve gotten to hear you play. The school recital is coming up in a couple of weeks and that’s something that everyone in town always looks forward to. Maybe I’ll get to hear you then.“

   Hannah smiled as a respectful gesture but did not respond verbally.

   “You’re going to play then, aren’t you?” Emory  asked. “You’re one of the best piano players that I know.“

   “And just how many piano players do you know?”

   “I’m serious. You have to play. You would be great.”

   “I don’t know,” Hannah responded, still thumbing through her sheet music. Emory could tell that something was bothering her but he was not sure exactly what it was. 

   “I know it can be a little intimidating getting up in front of all those people,” Emory continued sympathetically. “But I certainly wouldn’t let that stand in your way.”

    “No, it’s not that.”

   “Is it everything going on with the war?”

   “No,” Hannah shrugged her shoulders. “Not really.” 

   Emory could still tell that something was bothering Hannah, but he also did not want to push her if it was something that she really did not want to talk about. Almost as if she had read his mind, Hannah suddenly  turned to him as if to share a secret that she could no longer bear to keep hidden. 

   “You can’t tell anyone. Promise me.” 

   “I promise.”

   “I’ve seen pictures from other years,” Hannah began. “And I’ve been to other recitals and I know how the girls are dressed.”

   Hannah paused to collect herself. 

   “Papa’s crop was not as good this year as we had hoped. Our family doesn’t have anything extra for something as impractical as a new dress. Right now, I don’t own any clothing that would be considered appropriate for a recital. My parents feel terribly about it but I believe it would be more embarrassing to them for me to go ahead and play publicly dressed as I would be than to not play at all.”

   Emory listened respectfully.

   “But you know what?” Hannah continued with a more optimistic tone. “Papa took us to town the other day and we walked by Alderman’s store downtown. In the window was this beautiful blue evening dress with a neckline just perfect for showing a string of pearls.”

   Hannah smiled wistfully. 

   “Maybe one day, after this war is over, I can have some things like that. If only every now and then. I guess what I’m really wishing for is something constant. Something dependable. Something unchanging. Like that evergreen tree that we meet under every morning for school. Immergrun as we say in German. Evergreen.“ 

   Emory's face was filled with compassion. 

   “I’m sorry, Hannah.” 

   She smiled in return.

   “I know that things are tough now for everyone. I just wanted you to know. But, please, don’t tell anyone.”

   “I promise, Hannah.”


   For the rest of the school day, Emory could think of nothing but Hannah and the blue dress hanging in Alderman's window. Emory knew without doubt that Hannah would be the most talented musician at the recital, but he greatly respected her unwillingness to embarrass her parents or herself for the sake of putting herself on display. As the day progressed and just before school ended, a solution began to form in  Emory’s mind. Wishing to honor his promise to Hannah, he kept his ideas to himself. 


   The next day was Saturday and Emory’s brother, James, had several errands to run for the family in town. Catching James by himself, Emory made his request.

   “Why in the world do you need to stop by Alderman’s?“ James asked with a perplexed expression. “Unless you’ve come into some money that the rest of us don’t know about, you don’t have any business going there.“

   “Listen, I just need to go there. It’s not for me.“

   “Then who is it for?”

   “Can’t tell you. I made a promise.“

   “Is it something that’s going to get you into trouble with mama and daddy?”

   “No. They would approve.”

   James appeared a little disappointed.

   “Then you should go tell them about it.“

   “I will. But I have to keep my promise first.”

   Reluctantly, James agreed to take him with the stipulation that Emory would owe him a favor to be cashed in at a later day. That stipulation didn't bother Emory in the least and he grabbed his bomber jacket before heading out the door behind James. 

   

Following the eight mile drive into town, James eased the farm truck into the parking area on the city square in front of Alderman’s. 

   “Now listen,” James began. “You’d better be done with whatever business you’ve got to do by the time I get back from the hardware store. Don’t think that I won’t leave you here if you start interfering with my schedule.” 

   Emory pretended not to hear as he slammed the truck door and made straight for the front entrance of the clothing store. Before going in, he paused for a moment and stared into the right front window. There, just as Hannah had described, was the blue evening dress. She had certainly been right about one thing; even Emory could easily imagine the dress accented by a strand of pearls. Gathering his courage and taking a deep breath, he then entered the store.

   The woman who assisted Emory was very kind and listened patiently as he explained his proposal. 

   “Well,” she began once she fully understood what he was asking. “It’s certainly a reasonable thing to suggest, especially with times the way that they are now. It’s just that I was wondering if this is really something that you wanted to do. Especially at this time of year.“ 

   “Yes ma’am,”  Emory replied immediately. “I’ve given it a lot of thought.“

   “I’m quite sure you have. It’s just the mother in me that makes me ask questions like that. Very well then, let’s get this all set up for you.”

   “And if you don’t mind, would you mind wrapping it? Nothing fancy.” 

   “I think that we can arrange that.”


  

 “What in the world is that?“ James asked as Emory climbed into the passenger seat carrying a package.

   “I’ve already told you. I’m not going to tell you right now. I made a promise and I’m keeping it.“

   “So, it doesn’t bother you at all to keep me in the dark about all this and yet use me to give you a lift to town?”

   “Not in the least,“ Emory replied. “You were coming this way anyway. I’m also not going to feel bad about asking you to stop by Hannah's house on the way home, either. But don’t park out front. I want you to drop me off where no one from the house can see me.” 

   “You certainly are causing me a lot of problems today.“

   “Yes,” came the sultry reply as Emory stretched his arms across his package. “But I’m worth it.”


   The following Monday, the brisk November air was even colder than it had been the previous week. Emory once again settled into a hurried pace so as to not keep Hannah waiting. He always looked forward to seeing her, but on that day his excitement was above its usual level. As he navigated the familiar turn in the sandy road, he once again saw Hannah reading her book beneath the spreading arms of the evergreen pine. Noticing his approach after looking up from her novel, her face burst into the largest smile that Emory had ever seen. 

   “Herr Tucker! “ Hannah began using one of her playful names for Emory. “You will never guess what happened this weekend!“

   “Well, don’t leave me in suspense! Spill the beans!”

   “Do you remember me telling you last week about the blue dress at Alderman’s? The one I dreamed about having for the recital?“

   “Of, course. The one that would go really well with a strand of pearls.” 

   “So, you were listening!”

   “Of course I was.”

   “Well, Sunday morning papa had gone out back to feed the livestock before church when he found a package on the back porch. We had no idea where it came from. We certainly had not ordered anything and the postman never leaves anything on the back porch. It had no address. We didn’t want to keep something that wasn’t ours, so we decided to open it to see if we could find out who it belonged to. Emory, you’ll never guess what was inside.” 

    “Tell me.” 

   Hannah paused for a moment as if she still could not believe her own story. 

   “It was the gown.”

"What gown?"

"You know which gown!"

   “The blue one from Alderman’s?”

   “Yes! That exact one.”

   Hannah paused again. 

   “I don’t want to keep something that is not mine, but I would not even know where to begin to find its owner.”

   “Sounds like an answer to prayer to me.”

   “I thought you told me that God didn’t hear Lutheran prayers. Only Baptist ones.“

   Emory chuckled. 

   “I may have been stretching things a little bit there.“ 

   “Then what should I do?”

   “I think you were meant to have that dress. I think you should wear it and attend the recital and take your place among the other ladies. It’s where you belong. You’re out of most of their leagues anyway.” 

   Those last words rolled out before Emory could restrain them, but once they were free upon the November air, he did not regret saying them.

   “At least that’s my opinion. For what it’s worth.” 

   “Danke,” She replied softly, the harshness of her German accent having almost completely faded away.

   “Bitte,” came the honest reply. 

   Hannah smiled again and, this time, allowed her blue eyes to linger a little longer than usual, interrupted only by the sound of the arriving school bus. As the pair boarded the bus and slid into their usual seats, it seemed to Emory that Hannah moved in a little closer than usual, making the welcome scent of soap and cedar even more prominent.

Hannah’s gaze then moved back to Emory as she observed his hands and how strong but kind they were. They had seen more hardship than a person of his age should have endured. She was noticing the worn cuffs of his shirt, no doubt a hand-me-down from his brother, when a thought suddenly occurred to her.

   “Emory, where is your jacket?”

   Emory looked down at his shirt, attempting to feign surprise. 

   “I must have forgotten it. I was in a hurry.”

   “Today was one of the coldest days of the year so far. And besides, you never go anywhere without that jacket.“

   Hannah was far too keen for a detail of that nature to go unnoticed and Emory suddenly felt very foolish to have thought that he could have ever kept it from her.

   “It was you, wasn’t it?” Hannah started as the details began to fall into place. “You traded your jacket for my dress . An expensive jacket that you bought with your own money.”

   Emory did not respond at first, a part of him regretting that his sacrifice had been so obvious. He had somehow hoped it would go unnoticed. To watch her enjoy her dress and recital from a distance without any need for compensation. But that was a very childish idea. 

   “When I told you about the dress last week, I never meant for it to sound like I was…”

   “Of course you didn’t,“ Emory interrupted gently. “Of course you didn't. It was never taken that way.” 

   Emory’s gaze fell to the floor boards as a silence settled between the pair. He had already made a fool of himself. He might as well complete the task.

   “I would rather be cold than to ever see you embarrassed or to have to go without.” 

   He was quite sure that he had ruined everything and that his priceless friendship with the beautiful young woman next to him was over, when he suddenly felt the soft touch of Hannah’s hand as it grasped his. He suddenly realized that he had never touched her before and this new sensation was in no way unwelcome. Emory’s gaze returned to Hannah and he could tell in the softness of her gaze that her German fortitude was crumbling. 

   “You know what they’ll say about you when word gets out, don’t you?”

   Emory nodded. 

   “It doesn’t really matter.”

   She smiled once again. 

   “Immergrun,” she whispered.  “Evergreen.” 

   “Evergreen,” he responded. 


   




   


Wednesday, June 10, 2020

As It Is In Heaven: Part 2



   "Where did you say the bottles of formula were?" the doctor asked as he searched in vain through the medicine room behind the nurse's station on the pediatric floor.
   "Now I know you Internal Medicine docs don't treat kids," Jessica, one of the pediatric nurses, joked as she moved over to help. "But even you should be able to find these."
   She reached into an unlabeled box behind a stash of infant diapers and immediately produced a couple of pre-filled formula bottles.
   "You'll need these, too," she added as she reached into a separate area to find the disposable latex nipples.
   "You do know how a bottle works, don't you?" she smiled as she handed him all of the necessary equipment.
   "I know just who to ask if I run into any problems," he responded as he returned her smile.

   The empty pediatric room smelled like a mixture of clean linen and baby powder as the doctor eased into a rocking chair sitting in the corner. Lydia, still wrapped in her police blanket, was close to the end of her stamina and totally off schedule, but she continued to show her previous courage in spite of all that she had been through. She suddenly seemed to catch her second wind when she saw the formula bottle and her glassy eyes opened wide in anticipation.
   "Hang in there," the doctor encouraged. "I know I'm slow, but we're almost there."
   He placed the bottle close to her mouth and she reached out instinctively to clasp the bottle on both sides with her little hands.  She guzzled the first bottle in record time and was halfway through the second when her eyes again grew heavy and formula began to drizzle out of the corner of her mouth.  He then gently placed the bottle on the bedside table and cradled Lydia in his arms as he continued to gently sway back and forth in the rocking chair. Her fingers soon found their way to her mouth and she sucked on them noisily as she grasped his little finger with the other hand and drifted off to sleep.  He leaned his head back against the rocker as the toll of the day began to weight heavily upon him as well and it was not long before the tranquil scene lulled him to sleep.

   He was awakened some time later by a soft stream of yellow light cascading through the opening door. Momentarily, Jessica's head appeared through the opening.
   "Sorry to wake you," she apologized. "I was just checking on you."
   "No problem," he responded, sleep still heavy in his eyes. "It's been a long day for both of us."
   Jessica slipped into the room and quietly pulled up a chair and sat with her back to the door. Jessica was a gifted nurse and he had always respected her, even though he did not get the opportunity to visit the pediatric floor very often. Especially in that uncertain situation, he found her presence very comforting and he began to respect even more the comfort that she undoubtedly brought to her patients and families. The light scent of her perfume was not an unwelcome addition either. She crossed her legs and placed her hands on her upper knee and he noticed, as he had on other occasions, that she wore no wedding band.
   "Just never found the right one," he had heard her explain to the other nurses on a previous occasion.
   She remained silent for a moment as she watched the young child sleeping. The doctor in return studied her facial features as her brow furrowed in concern over this little life that she hardly knew.
   "I heard her mother didn't make it."
   The Doctor shook his head.
   "What will you do, now?" she whispered.
   "I'm not sure," he responded. "I guess the best answer would be that I'll do whatever is in her best interest. There's just so much that I don't know. I'll get some information from the authorities tomorrow and see if a case worker was involved or something like that. That way I can make a better decision."
   The nurse nodded with understanding.
   "Do you work tomorrow? Or, I guess it would be better to ask if you work today now that I look at the time."
   "Thankfully, no. I have the next couple of days off, which I'll need to figure all of this out."
   "It's almost morning now," Jessica reminded him. "We don't need this room now, so just stay here with Lydia. Before you leave tomorrow, remind me and I'll give you an older portable crib that we don't need  anymore. You can keep it for as long as you need it."
   "Thank you."
   "Anytime. I'll let you both get some rest."
   As quietly as before, Jessica silently left the room, the soft stream of yellow light disappearing as the door closed behind her.

   The bright morning sun caused Lydia to squint as the pair crossed the hospital parking lot the following morning. Upon reaching his truck, he placed the portable crib in the bed before placing Lydia back in her car seat. She was understandably fussy after such a traumatic night but at least her  stomach was full.
   "Alright, little lady," the doctor stated as he finished buckling her in. "I wish I could tell you that your day today will take you back to some sort of routine, but that probably won't be true.  But, you will get to meet some good friends of mine while I sort some things out."
   Climbing back into the truck and starting the engine, he left the hospital behind and drove across town passing multiple schools and playgrounds as he did so. He glanced at them through his truck windows before glancing into his rearview mirror as if Lydia could see him.
   "Don't worry, I haven't forgotten," he whispered.

   Pulling into the familiar drive in the wooded suburb, he could already see well-known faces greeting him through the front windows. He pulled to a stop and hardly had time to step out of his truck before little feet pattered up to him. Looking up at him were two bright faces full of excitement almost as if it were Christmas morning.
   "Can we see the baby?" they cried in unison.
   "Alright you two," a stern but loving voice answered before the doctor had a chance to respond. "You kids give them some space. That baby is not some toy and she hasn't had the easiest of times recently, so let's back off."
   "Thanks for looking out for her, Jim, while I meet with the case worker."
   "No problem. I'm glad you called. It's the least we could do with everything she's been through. Listen, just don't leave her here too long, though, You know how Leigh is. You leave the baby here too long and she is gonna to want another one."
   No sooner had the words left his mouth than Leigh rounded the far end of the truck and looked directly at her husband.
   "I heard that," she said with a fabricated frown.
   "Puppies can only only relieve baby fever for so long," Jim responded.
    Leigh ignored the comment and looked inside the truck .
   "Oh my word," Leigh said as she stretched out her arms to scoop Lydia from her seat. "She's beautiful."
   Jim let out a long sigh.
  "Alas, 'tis already too late."
   The doctor chuckled.
  "Thank you all again. The bag in the back seat has all of her supplies that the hospital gave me and there's a portable crib in the bed of the truck. I'll be back as soon as the meeting is done."
   "I'll get the bag!" the oldest child exclaimed as they all leapt forward to quarrel over who was to help first.
 
   Driving away and seeing Lydia in his rearview mirror produced an emotion that the doctor was not expecting. Hardly twelve hours before then and he would not have even known who she was. Yet, even after such a short time, he missed her. She was too young to speak, and yet she needed no words to soothe the loneliness of the last year. He had not seen it before, but he, in fact, was not saving her. She was saving him.

   The case worker's office was near the police station downtown and it was about a twenty minute drive from Jim and Leigh's house. Arriving a few minutes early, the case officer nonetheless introduced herself and invited him into her office as she was not involved with anything pressing at that particular moment. He sat down in the straight back chair and studied the pictures of the case manager's family  arranged neatly upon her desk.
   "So, I've spoken with the officer that you met last night," she began after finishing the usual pleasantries. "And he has filled me in on what happened."
   She paused for a moment as she studied the man in front of her.
   "I'm just curious," she began. "Has anyone asked how you're doing?"
   He had not given the question much thought.
  "No," he responded. "But I'm alright."
  "What you saw last night was not easy. It has to weigh on you."
  "What I see everyday weighs on me," he responded truthfully but respectfully. "But it's what I signed up for. I cannot hide. Mankind has become my business, and I see it in all its ugliness."
  "You must have someone you can talk to?"
   He shook his head slowly.
  "I don't tell my secrets. No one would understand. And who would be made better by the telling? I can't bring myself up by telling others what would inevitably only sadden and disappoint them. About myself and others."
   The case officer remained silent.
   "People ask me sometimes why I tend to listen to melancholy music," he continued. "It's not because I'm depressed. It's because somehow it bridges the chasm between the hymns on Sundays and the devils that walk through my dreams at night. If only for a little while."
   The case manager let out a long sigh.
  "Are you a poet?"
  "No."
  "You should give it a try. You express your thoughts beautifully. I see a poem in there somewhere."
  "I'm sorry. You asked me a simple question and I turned it into a counselling session."
  "Don't apologize. You've already told me a lot. Regardless of what role you end up playing with Lydia, she is going to need someone who understands the darkness. Someone who has walked through it."
   The doctor nodded. The case worker then opened the file on the desk in front of her.
  "Did Lydia's mother tell you anything last night?"
  "Not much. She had very little time. She only told me that she had no one to care for Lydia and to not let her be lost to the system. She told me how hard she had tried."
  "All true," came the compassionate response. "Lydia's mother had come through the blackest of places. All of her family was either dead or in jail. But somewhere along the way, she decided that she did not want to follow that same path. I believe it was right after she became pregnant with Lydia. So, she got a job. Began to save and was able to buy the car that was in the accident. Joined a little country church and, I suppose, found a family that she'd never had."
  "What about Lydia's father?"
  "Her mother didn't know who the father was. She had no idea where to even start looking. Like I said, she had just come through a dark time."
   The doctor pondered her words carefully.
  "So, you see, Lydia really has no one. It's possible that her father could step out of the shadows one day to try to claim her but that seems very unlikely, especially given the nature of the circle of friends that her mother associated with prior to her change."
  "So, as of now, Lydia would go into foster care?"
  "Unless someone steps forward, yes."
  "Then I step forward. I promised her mother."
   The case worker paused for a moment.
  "You need to give this some thought. With your occupation and the hours you work, will you be able to manage all of this?"
  "I won't be alone. And neither will she."
   The case worker nodded in understanding as she closed the file on her desk. The physician then rose to leave.
  "Tell me one thing," she asked before he had a chance to leave the room. "In spite of all you've been through, I sense that you are a man of faith. So, why would a loving God take the life of a girl who was just getting her life together? She was trying to do the right thing. Trying to give a new life to Lydia. So, while all of her unsavory friends continued unmolested in their pagan ways, she died alone on a deserted road."
  "She wasn't alone," he responded. "I was there."
   He paused, letting the silence settle for a moment.
  "I've stopped blaming God for the storms of life and started always looking for the hope that He always throws our way. I was on that road at that time for a reason. And Lydia was that reason."
 
   Lydia's feet were kicking excitedly in her car seat as he pulled his truck into the playground. Taking her out of the back seat, he placed her car seat on a nearby picnic table so that she could watch the other children swinging joyfully and sliding down the bright yellow plastic slides. She was mesmerized by the scene in front of her.
  "I see why your mother liked to bring you here. You love watching everything going on.You just wait until you're a little older and can actually play with the others."
   With Lydia's attention occupied, he began to scribble in a notepad that he had brought with him.
  "We have a sad goodbye to say tomorrow, Lydia," he spoke out loud as he continued to write. "But maybe we shouldn't see it as goodbye. This is not the end. I've been here before."
   Having finished his writing, he closed the notebook and watched the children with Lydia.

   Later in the morning the next day, the doctor dressed Lydia in an outfit he had bought the previous day and drove with her to a small country church about eight miles outside of town. He had called to find details regarding Lydia's mother's service and he felt that it would be inappropriate not to attend. The small brick building stood in a grove of pines which swayed gently in the morning breeze. A few cars were parked outside and he pulled in next to them. Placing Lydia on his hip and adjusting the small pink bow in her hair, he walked through the doors of the church and was warmly greeted by the only family Lydia had ever known. Even in such a somber occasion, there was joy in the faces of those who poured out their love on an orphaned infant and a widower.
   While Lydia was being reaquainted with her church family, the doctor walked to the front of the sanctuary where the simple casket lay, Lydia's mother clothed in a beautiful dress and with a face finally at peace.
   "I gave you my word," he whispered. "I won't leave her."
   He then drew a small sheet of paper from his pocket, the final product of what he had written with Lydia at the playground. He then moved to one of the attendants nearby and handed him the slip of paper.
  "What is this?" the attendant asked.
  "Heeding some advice someone told me recently. If you and the church feel it's appropriate, could you put this with her?"
  "I'll be glad to ask them."
   With a smile of thanks, the doctor then returned to rejoin Lydia and the rest of the church. Unable to contain his curiosity, the attendant opened the paper to read the following lines:

                           As the stirring of the morning breeze
                             And the scent of roses long past
                           So brief was your time with her
                             And never intended to last

                           But leaving the host of heaven
                            And as constant as the tide
                           You leaned on Me in the darkness
                            And I never left your side

                           Words left unspoken
                             And tears left undried
                           Both did I hear with an unseen ear
                             And wiped gently from your eyes
                          
                           So, come to Me now
                            And rest from the agony of life
                           From the constant uncertainty
                            And never ending strife

                           Close your eyes, come and rest
                             To a place no poet can pen
                           For in only the twinkling of an eye
                             You will see her once again
                         


   Lydia giggled as she watched a young girl swing higher and higher at the playground the following day. The doctor had brought his notebook with him once again and was scribbling down several lines as they surfaced in his thoughts. As his pen passed over the paper, he became aware of a shadow above him, temporarily darkening the page. Looking up, he saw Jessica's familiar face.
   "Didn't expect to see you here," he said with a smile. "Heading home?"
   "Yep," she responded. "I just finished up and was driving home when I noticed your truck. Couldn't resist seeing her again so I thought I'd drop in and see how things are going with little sweet pea here."
   She tickled the bottoms of Lydia's feet, much to the child's delight.
   "We're doing good."
  "Is that your professional answer or the truth?"
   He chuckled quietly.
  "No, we're really doing well. Don't get me wrong, we have a ton to work through and I'm sure we'll have our days. But we're going to  make it."
   She smiled and nodded in approval. Her gaze suddenly shifted to the notebook in front of him.
  "Are you writing poetry?"
   He quickly closed the book.
  "No."
  "Uh huh. Well, if you were to decide to start, some would consider that a romantic quality."
  "That depends on how good you are at it," he responded.
   Jessica laughed.
  "Maybe so."
   She then stood to leave and straightened Lydia's blanket as she said goodbye.
  "Well, I suppose I'll leave you two to enjoy your morning and for you to continue not writing poetry. We'll see you around."
   As she turned to go, he suddenly felt something that he had not felt in quite some time.
  "Jessica?"
   She turned to face him.
  "I'm off this Thursday and was looking forward to trying the new coffee shop downtown. If you can, I was wondering if you'd like to come along?"
   Jessica paused only momentarily.
  "Sounds good. I can do that."
  "Oh," he suddenly responded and touched his forehead as if forgetting something of utmost importance. "I need to tell you that I will most likely be accompanied that morning by a much younger woman. I hope that won't offend you."
   Jessica smiled as her glance shifted to Lydia, still enjoying the sounds of the playground.
  "I think I can handle that. See you then."
  As she walked away, the doctor opened his notebook and began to write once more, the sounds of the morning inspiring his thoughts.
  "So you will."
  

Friday, June 5, 2020

As It Is In Heaven: Part 1




The shift had been long and busy with more hospital admissions than the doctor could remember in some time. All of the patients who had been avoiding the hospital at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic were returning in droves sicker than ever because of that delay.  He was glad to leave the chaos and noise of the emergency room behind and gladly greeted the silence of the dark parking lot as he pushed open the side doors of the hospital. Although he was glad to leave the chaos behind, he enjoyed a love/hate relationship with it as the noise served as a distraction from the loneliness that often plagued him. He was never in a particular hurry to go home, as only more silence awaited him there. There were too many memories, and the death of his wife only a little over a year previously was still as fresh as ever.
    The night air was cool as the evening breeze blew through his hair. His truck was parked on the far side of the lot and the overhead lights reflected off of the dark paint. Reaching the vehicle, he opened the door, sat in the driver's seat and placed his stethoscope and name badge in the compartment between the front seats before shutting the lid. Pressing the ignition button, the engine roared to life and the headlights beamed across the mostly empty parking lot. He sat motionless for a moment, his hands gripping the steering wheel, before inhaling deeply and putting the truck in gear. The gate opened automatically as he approached it and he passed swiftly underneath, his brake lights soon disappearing into the darkness.
    The drive home was familiar and generally took him about twenty-five minutes to cover the distance. Many of his partners lived much closer to the hospital, but he had never disliked the drive as it had always given him the few minutes that he needed to clear his thoughts. The initial part of the drive was in the city and was well lit and only when he got into the more rural areas of the county did the artificial lights begin to fade and his headlights would stretch out to their maximum limits to illuminate the road ahead. Deer were plentiful and unpredictable at those hours and his greatest fear had always involved the sudden unexpected appearance of a large buck that desired to make itself a permanent fixture as a hood ornament. For that reason, he was never in a hurry on those isolated two-lane roads.
   Traffic on those roads at that time, however, was more unusual and so the single headlight beaming in his direction as he rounded a particularly sharp curve immediately caught his attention. The headlight was still at least a quarter of a mile down the road, but the fact that it was beaming at him from his side of the road struck him as unusual. Knowing the potential devastation of an intoxicated driver all too well, he slowed  his truck even further. However, he was surprised to see that even as his truck crawled forward, the single headlight seem to remain stationary. His foot pressed gently on the gas pedal and the engine hummed as he closed the distance for a closer look. As his headlights illuminated the scene ahead, he could make out the instinct outline of a single vehicle which had veered off of the road after leaving a long trail of rubber tire marks on the asphalt. The car had swerved across his lane and had impacted the trunk of an enormous northern Catawba tree whose white blooms had rained down on top of the immobilized vehicle. The front end was completely crushed, the windshield was shattered, and thin wisps of steam rose from beneath the hood.
  Finally realizing what had likely happened, the doctor pressed firmly on the gas pedal until he had fully closed the distance and then brought the truck to a screeching halt in front of the immobilized vehicle. Leaving his lights on for better visibility and grabbing his first aid kit, he flung his door open and approached the wrecked vehicle. He could smell the smoke from the wrecked engine but there was no evidence of an open flame. Turning on his phone flashlight, he quickly moved over to the driver's side of the car while calling out to see if anyone would answer. At first, all was silent except for the hissing of steam until his ears finally detected the faintest of voices. Shining his light through the driver’s side window, he could see a young woman pinned against the steering wheel. The car was an older model and was not equipped with airbags. The young woman had been wearing her seatbelt,t but the force of the impact had smashed the entire front of the car and crushed her against the steering wheel. The driver's side window had been shattered and he immediately put his hand through the open window and placed it on her shoulder.
   “It’s ok,” as he tried to comfort her. “I’m here. I am one of the doctors from the hospital. I'll get some help and then we'll get you out of here.”
   The young woman seemed less concerned with herself but instead was motioning toward the back seat.
   “My baby,” she gasped between labored breaths.  “My baby is back there.”
   He immediately focused his attention on the backseat where, amazingly, a young child remained safely secured in its car seat. In spite of all the chaos around it, the child was not crying but looked at the stranger gazing in through its window with curious, glassy eyes. There was absolutely no evidence of any trauma.
   “Is she ok?” came the labored question.
   “She’s fine, perfectly fine,” he responded as he returned to the front window. “You stay still. I’m calling for help but I’m not going anywhere.”
   He quickly placed the call, giving all the pertinent information and their location in the most efficient way possible.
   “ Hang in there. Help is on the way,“ he reassured her as he finished the call.
   “It was the deer,” she began to explain. “It was on top of us before I knew it...I swerved to avoid it, but...”
   “It’s alright,” he reassured her. “It wasn’t your fault.”
   He then focused his attention once again on her door. He tried to open it, not necessarily to move her but to be able to better assess the extent of her possible injuries, but the door was hopelessly jammed.   As he continued to inspect the door, he kept conversing with her, telling her about every mundane detail of his recent life in an attempt to keep her attention focused on something else besides her current condition.
   “If it’s ok with you,” he continued as he realized that getting her door open was hopeless. “I’m going to get your baby out, if I can, so you can see her. I’m just amazed at how quiet she has been through all of this.”
   “She’s...she’s a good baby.”
   He then momentarily left the mother’s side to move to the rear window where the child still sat completely content, inspecting the chaos all about her. He examined her more closely this time and realized that she had remained completely restrained in the car seat and that there was absolutely no evidence of injury. He looked at her little head, followed by her arms and legs and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He was able to reach in and unbuckle her car seat straps without any difficulty, and, after having done so, he lifted her out with ease.
   “Oh my goodness, “ he said with his best baby voice. “Look at you. What a brave girl you are!”
   He then brought her up to the front window and knelt down so that her mother could see her. Immediately, the terror and uncertainty of the last several minutes washed over the young mother’s face as the tears welled and began to rain down her cheeks. Her breath was already short and her rising emotions only worsened that.
   “What’s her name?”
   “Lydia.”
   “Just like the seller of purple in the Bible?”
   The mother nodded with a weak smile.
   As he spoke with her, the doctor noted that the mother's color begin to take on a more ashy hue as her breathing became more short, and labored. Trying to avoid drawing too much attention, he slid his hand down to her wrist and noted that her pulse was very rapid. He inspected the area around the driver again, but there was no evidence of any external bleeding.
   Blunt trauma. He was no trauma surgeon, but he had seen the scenario enough to recognize it. Blunt trauma from something like a steering wheel could be far more devastating than a penetrating injury as many times the blunt force would tear one of the large internal blood vessels. Often there was nothing that could be done and the young physician begin to recognize a growing sense of his own helplessness. The mother, without ever directly expressing her own concerns, seemed to be aware of her dire situation, nonetheless.
   “Listen,” she instructed as she struggled to express herself.  “I don’t have anybody... nobody.”
   She gathered her strength before continuing.
   "I've got nobody to look out for Lydia...you can't let her just get thrown to the system. I've tried so hard..."
   The doctor listened in silence.
   "Promise me...promise me you won't let that happen."
   A thousand responses flooded his mind. Why would she ask this of him, a man that she didn't know at all? He was in no way prepared or qualified to accept the responsibility; a widower himself with no children.
   "Promise me."
  "I promise," he responded quietly to her insistent request, if for no other reason than to bring what little comfort his promise could afford. She smiled and nodded in response. She raised a weak arm and stroked Lydia's cheek.
   "Hey there, sweet pea... you're going to be ok...you won't be alone...I just know it... "
   The mother's arm dropped as she no longer had the strength to lift it. Her gaze, shifted from her daughter to the man kneeling just outside her door. She was staring directly at him, but seemed to be focusing on something in the distance.
   "I...I think I'm going to be ok...it doesn't hurt anymore."
   The doctor held the mother's hand, the iciness expanding by the second.
   "Tell her...tell Lydia...tomorrow we'll go to the playground..."
   With utmost reverence, and still stunned by the whole experience, he slowly released her hand and sat back on the ground next to her car door, Lydia still in his arms. He remained there, even as the sounds of the approaching sirens began to reach his ears.

  He was only vaguely aware of the rest of the evening as the previous events seem to cloud his vision. As a physician, he was no stranger to death but this was different. This was personal, and he had been helpless. It was a realization that made him admire his fellow soldiers and first responders who dealt with that situation on an almost daily basis. As he held Lydia, he observed, almost as from a great distance, the paramedics pry open the driver’s side door and reverently remove the young woman. Per protocol, resuscitation efforts were started, but he knew instinctively that their efforts would be in vain. He was suddenly overcome with a sense of grief. He didn’t even know her name.

   “Was the baby hers?” a sudden deep voice suddenly shocked him back to reality. Standing I front of him was a local policeman, taller than him with a spotless deep blue uniform.
   “Yes,” he responded.
   “We’re trying to contact family now.”
   “She told me she didn’t have any. She was pretty adamant about it.”
   “Well, there’s always someone. Did you happen to see what happened?”
   “No. Everything had already happened by the time I got here. She was able to tell me that she swerved trying to avoid a deer when she lost control of the car. She was pinned inside and there wasn’t anything I could do. The baby, thankfully, was fine.”
   “So what do you plan to do now, Doc?“
   He took a moment to look at the small child in his arms.
   “I’m not sure. She asked me to take care of Lydia.  I owe her at least that.”
   “Well, that’s a very nice sentiment but we're still going to have to do this by the book. We can’t just go handing babies out to everyone.”
   “No problem there. My wife and I were approved for the foster program before she died. We didn’t have children of our own.”
   The office looked up form his notebook.
   “I’m sorry to hear that; about your wife.”
   “Thank you. It was a little over a year ago.”
   “Was it an accident, if you don’t mind me asking?”
   The doctor shook his head.
   “No. It was cancer.”
   The officer nodded his head compassionately.
   “Well, all I know is that she’s quiet right now, but that’s not going to last. It’s late and she’ll soon need a change, a bottle and some sleep before it’s all over.”
   “I don’t have any of those things at my house,” the doctor responded. “But I’ve got plenty of folks back at the hospital that could help me out, at least for tonight. Just clear it with the judge so it’s all official. Here’s my license. I’m sure he’s going to love you waking him up.“
   The officer smiled in agreement as he reached for his phone. While he gave the appropriate information to the judge, the doctor took Lydia back over to the smashed remains of the car and lifted her car seat through the back window. Opening the rear door of his truck, he reinstalled the car seat using his free hand. Soon, Lydia was safely strapped back in. She begin to whimper and rub her eyes as the lateness of the night and the trauma she had sustained begin to settle in.
   “Here’s you a blanket,“ the officer handed him the blanket and his license as the doctor snapped the last strap in place. “ Looks like you check out. We haven’t been able to locate any relatives as of yet so it looks like you’ll have her at least for tonight. You’ll be hearing more from the powers that be tomorrow, I’m sure.“
   Turning back to his truck, he draped the blanket over Lydia’s legs and noticed that she had begun to whimper even more as large tears begin to well up in her soft eyes.
   “I know, “ he responded compassionately. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that your mommy can’t be here for you now. I’m sorry that you don’t know me and all of this is very strange to you. I’m sure nothing feels right. Maybe it’s for the best that you’re too young to remember.  Someday, when you’re older, maybe we can explain this to you where it will make some sense, but I can’t make you any promises about that. There’s still so much I don’t understand myself. What I can promise you is that I won’t leave you. I gave your mommy my word.  I’m with you for as long as God lets me stay.”
   Tucking in the blanket securely, he gently closed the back door and then climbed into the driver’s seat. He then looked back to check the security of the seat one last time.
   "And tomorrow, I'll take you to the playground."
   The engine roared to life once again and, humming the tune to “This Little Light of Mine,” he turned his truck back in the direction of the hospital.
 



Friday, May 22, 2020

A Funeral for a Sparrow




 The Late October Saturday had dawned clear and bright, but as the day had progressed, a cool west breeze brought with it a gray and overcast sky. Those clouds, however, brought no rain with them but did have the effect of smoothing out the contrast between shadow and sunlight. If he were to be completely honest, that was the young boy's favorite type of weather. He was quite glad to have finally gained some reprieve from the summer’s heat as fall had finally arrived in South Georgia. He did not have much in the way of homework that weekend and so he grabbed his air rifle to walk along the dirt road behind his home. The young man had a vivid imagination and he would often walk along that deserted highway and collect the aluminum cans that people carelessly tossed out their windows. When he had collected what he felt was a sufficient amount, he would find an appropriate patch of ground where he would neatly line them up in organized rows to re-create some famous battle that he had read about in the books in his parent’s bookcase. He, a sharpshooter in his own imagination, would then set to work by picking off each member of the opposing army until his homeland had been completely defended. After heavy rains, he had even recreated naval battles by floating and subsequently sinking the aluminum cans in the flooded ditches. Such were the creations of his overactive mind.
   The harvest of cans that day was particularly productive as the sunlight gleamed off of the silver lids of many newly discarded items.  As he reach down into the ditch to pick up another item, his gaze was captured by a particularly colorful and shiny specimen in the taller grass in the opening of the field on the far side of the ditch. Unable to resist this new find, he quickly hopped over the divide and rescued his new treasure from among the broom straw. As he hopped back over the ditch onto the sandy road, the coarse sound of his shoes on the dry packed earth almost completely blotted out a much more subtle noise. He couldn’t quite describe the noise but it was, nevertheless, enough to catch his attention and he turned to look back toward the underbrush.
   As he was still trying to decipher the origin of the noise, he detected a rustling in the underbrush. From between the strands of broom straw and briars emerged the most pathetic of creatures. It was a small, tabby kitten and its tiny meows were the source of the noise that had earlier caught his attention. It was very young and small, probably just old enough to have been weaned, and it was obviously suffering from exposure and neglect. Because of the isolated location of the boy’s home, someone had probably released the unwanted animal into the wild in hopes of getting rid of it. Even at its young age, it still was not afraid of humans and was trying to reach the boy even in its weakened condition. The boy kneeled down, suddenly losing interest in his collection of cans. The kitten, with its matted fur and protruding ribs wobbled over to the boy. Even in his curious state, the young boy was careful enough not to pick the kitten up as he certainly did not want to risk getting bitten. He spoke kindly to it and scratched its little head between its ears as the pitiful meowing continued.
   “Well, I certainly can’t leave you here. You’ll just have to come with me.”
   Picking up his air rifle, he begin to walk slowly back down the dirt road in the direction of his home calling the kitten as he did so. The little animal wobbled dutifully behind him, sensing safety with the young boy and having no desire to remain alone in the wilderness.
   The house was not far but the return journey took much longer as the kitten could only maintain a certain speed. The boy's compassion finally took over as he watched the struggling animal and he soon reached down and scooped up the kitten with his free arm. The kitten weighed next to nothing and it was difficult for the boy's senses to fathom if he was actually caring anything at all. The boy's new friend seem to appreciate the ride and its head turned back-and-forth to look at the passing scenery with large, glassy, and fatigued eyes. The boy soon covered the remaining distance and he skipped into the garage before placing the kitten at the bottom of the steps.
   “You stay here,” he gently commanded as if he expected the kitten to understand. He then turned and opened the house door where he saw his mother busy in the kitchen.
   “You’re not going to believe what I found!" he exclaimed after getting his mother's attention. "Come here and look!”
  “What did you find?” she interrogated as she wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and made her way toward the door.
   “Just come here and see!”
   She arrived at the door and peered out over her son's shoulder where she caught her first glimpse of his new companion.
   “Oh my word,” she breathed as she slowly pushed past the boy and down the steps.  “Where did you find it?”
   “On the back road at the opening to the field. I was picking up cans when it just walked out of the bushes.”
   “Someone must’ve just thrown it out.  And not just yesterday either, from the look of things.”
   His mother picked up the kitten as she gently searched it for any obvious injuries.
   “Well, you’ve got yourself a little boy here. It doesn't look like he's hurt but he’s very malnourished.”
   “I want to keep him," the little boy said.  "He has to be tough to have already beaten the odds and survived this long.”
   His mother began to shake her head.
   “Now you know we already have pets, and I can already tell you what your father is going to say about it."
   "I know," the boy confessed.  “But I have to help him. At least I have to try. I promise I will take complete care of him. You won’t even know he’s here.“
   “ Uh huh,” his mother responded. “Now, where have I heard that before?”

   “You get out of my yard!” the sudden boom of his father's voice echoed inside the garage and startled them both. The kitten, likewise, shrunk down in a defensive stance.
   “What are you yelling at?” inquired the boy’s mother.
   “It’s the Pearson’s dog again!” his father responded. “That stupid dog is about to eat me out of house and home. He somehow keeps getting out of his pen and then he wanders down here.”
   His father then entered the garage and stopped suddenly as he instinctively sensed the presence of a new creature. His eyes then settled upon the diminutive animal nestled on the floor next to the boy.
   “And exactly what is that?”
   “I found him on the back road.”
   “We already have too many cats as it is.”
   “I’ll take complete care of him. You won’t have to do anything. He can stay outside and I’ll make him a place to sleep.”
   “Listen, it’s not that I’m trying to be cruel, but he’s obviously sick and who knows what his vet bills  will be when it’s all said and done.”
   “I can pay them", the boy promised. "I can use all my birthday money and I can always find jobs to do to make extra money.”
   The boy’s father could tell immediately by the expression on his son’s face that he was fighting a losing battle. Also, something about the little abandoned kitten tugged at his own heart strings and so his demeanor softened and his shoulders relaxed.
   “All right,” his father responded. “But just remember that I expect all of your schoolwork and chores to be done first.”
   “They will! I promise.”
   “Oh,” his father responded with a smirk as he turned to go. “And please remember that I would prefer that you not write ‘Here Lies the Cat Man’ on my tombstone.”

   The boy began to work diligently to care for his new friend as soon as he had received permission from his father. He found an empty cardboard box and used his mother’s sewing scissors to cut off the top. He then lined the inside of the box with an old, but clean towel that his father sometimes used to dry the car. He placed the kitten onto its new bed so that it could get familiar with it surroundings.
   “See, it’s all yours,” he encouraged as he scratched its tiny head.

   His biggest concern involved feeding the kitten. Immediately upon bringing it home, the boy had offered the kitten water in a bowl along with some crushed dry cat food that the other cats ate. The kitten lapped up the water quickly and tried to eat the dry cat food as well but would inevitably not be able to keep it down.
   “It may just be because he’s malnourished,” his mother advised. “Or it may just be because he’s so little and his system can’t handle adult food.”
   “What should I feed him?”
   “Well, we used to give goat’s milk to young kittens without a mother. Ms. Nichols at the end of our road has goats, so she might let you have some. At least until he can eat more solid food.”

   His mother gave him a quick ride down to Ms. Nichols' house where the elderly woman was more than happy to share her goat milk as she was quick to tell the boy that she already had more of it than she knew what to do with. He offered to pay her for the milk, but she assured him that was not necessary and that what he was doing was an honorable thing. As soon as the boy poured some of the milk into a saucer, the kitten began to hungrily lap it up. Much to the little boy’s relief, the little ball of fur seemed to be able to keep the milk down without any problem.

   Over the next several days, the young boy kept his promises to all of the involved parties. First of all, he made sure that all of his homework and chores were done just as he had always been required to do. In addition to that, the little boy made sure that his kitten was cared for as well. He made sure that it had plenty to eat and drink. He always made sure that it had a clean place to sleep. In addition to that, the boy would spend most of his afternoons playing with the kitten under the garage. He would pick it up in his arms and stroke it while he listened to its tiny but robust purring. As its nutrition improved, the kitten’s energy begin to improve as well and he especially loved to chase the strings of yarn that the boy would drag behind him along the garage floor. No matter the challenges that the young boy faced at school, he always could look forward to arriving home and stepping off of the bus to see the small furry head peeking out to greet its new master.

   So, the young boy found it particularly unusual when he hopped off the bus on a sunny Thursday afternoon and found no furry face waiting to greet him. He entered the garage and looked into the kitten’s bed, but it too was empty. The water bowl and food dish remained half full. He got down on his knees to look beneath all of the vehicles and appliances but still he found nothing. He then walked outside but could find no trace of the little animal even after calling it repeatedly. His parents soon arrived home from work and, seeing his concern, joined in the search. His father, having much more experience searching for lost animals, begin to search places further from the house, while the young man continue to search in the typical places where he and the kitten had played.

   It was late in the afternoon and getting close to suppertime when the boy saw his father returning from his search. He was walking slowly,  his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his jeans. The boy stopped his search as an increasing feeling of dread begin to wash over him. His father walked over to his side and looked down at him with a look of compassion, finding himself at a loss for words.
   “Did you find him?”
   His father nodded slowly.
   “I found out what happened to him.“
   There was a tremble in his father’s voice. The boy could not find the courage to ask the obvious question.
   “It was the dog. The Pearson’s.”
   A vision of the escaped dog that frequently roamed uninvited through his family’s yard flashed through his mind. The boy would not accept it. The kitten had never harmed anyone. Why couldn’t the dog have left it alone?
   “I’m so sorry.”
   Unable to hold back the tears any longer, the boy sprinted off into the woods hoping to find some solace among the trees.
   “You should go after him," his mother stated quietly.
   “I will,” his father responded. “But I’ll give him a few minutes first. He at least deserves that.“

   Through tear-dimmed vision, the boy finally made his way through the darkness of the woods and into the brightness of the open field where he had first found the kitten. With the setting sun casting long shadows through the broom straw, the boy collapsed on the ground and begin to trace pictures with his finger into the sandy soil. He could still see the neglected animal wobbling through the underbrush and his ears were still filled with the sound of his tiny cry. The evening breeze swirled through the broom straw, but the boy soon became aware of another sound as he hear his father‘s familiar footsteps approaching from the direction from which he had just come. With his head hung low, the boy could see his father's feet come and stand beside him before he knelt down and sat beside his son. Out of respect for the boy's grief, he said nothing but with closed eyes raised his face to heaven to bask in the last light of the fading day.

   “I remember," his father began when the time was right. "Something that my father told me right after the passing of my sister. I was just a boy. He told me to look out across the field and try to count the tiny sparrows that were fluttering about in the underbrush. He explained to me that nobody really pays them any attention. For all practical purposes they are ignored and insignificant. For most people they might as well not even exist. Yet, he went on to say, God attends the funeral of every single sparrow that falls to the ground, never to fly again. And He attends them alone, for no one else cares to go.”
   The boy looked up for the first time, his cheeks stained with tears.
   “So, now you have a choice to make. You can choose to be bitter and hate all dogs and swear vengeance on them wherever you go. You can blame the Pearson's. You can blame God for taking away something that was precious to you; a little defenseless thing that you were trying your best to help."
   His father paused momentarily.
   "Or, instead, you can choose to envision the God of the universe kneeling down to attend the funeral of a helpless kitten.”
   The little boy wrapped his arms around his father and pressed his face deeply into his chest, his muffled sobs joining the music of the evening wind in the surrounding pines. His father compassionately stroked his hair.
   “You're going to make it. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”

   The following day, with the sadness still lingering, the little boy hopped off the bus into the parking lot and, after adjusting his backpack, begin to cross the parking lot toward the entrance to the school. As he did so, a single sparrow unexpectedly hopped out from behind one of the teacher’s cars and stopped directly in his path. It stayed there momentarily before tilting its head slightly to the side as it investigated the boy in front of it. An unexpected smile crossed the boy’s face.
   “I understand,” he said quietly.
   With that, the tiny bird spread its wings and fluttered away into the vast blue of the October sky.

Evergreen

   That particular brisk November morning, as had been the entire Fall season to that point, was colder than usual for the southwest corn...