I was drifting in a fog. Objects and figures would break through in barely revealed glimpses, or morph into other images, some familiar, others beyond my recognition.
Here was my brother, no longer dead but alive as he was back when we shared our cramped bedroom, Then I was lost again in the fog only to return to places of my youth, the school playground, my fifth grade classroom, my parents’ room, standing next to the bed where my father lay breathing heavily on his back. In a moment of visual clarity, I could see a crystalline drop of clear liquid suspended from my father’s nose just as I had seen it all those years ago. And just like he had been back then, my father was not conscious enough—or concerned enough—to wipe it away, no matter how embarrassed it made me feel.
“William,” my mother’s voice called through the fog. “Look who’s here!” I looked up from my father to see George C. Scott standing by the door, his extravagant sideburns reminding me of something I could only vaguely recall.
“But I want to stay with Dad,” I argued.
“William,” George C. Scott said, raising his cane in an affable gesture. “Come away, my good lad! Your Christmas dinner awaits in the kitchen. Fattened goose cooked to a mouth-watering crisp and blood pudding smothered in the drippings. Come away, my lad. You don’t belong here with your father.”
“Yes I do!” I protested.
And that’s when I woke up, the echo of my protest still ringing in the air, fighting for my attention with the sound of the movie playing on TV. The movie I was watching when I fell asleep. “A Christmas Carol,” wouldn’t you know! The version with George C. Scott playing Scrooge, which was my personal favorite. Pretty much, I watched it every year; usually on TV, even though I owned a DVD copy that sat on one of the bookshelves in this very room.
I struggled to break through the miasmic fog that still filled my head, if not my dreams, a state not unfamiliar to me from numerous other movies only half-watched from the recliner in our den.
“William,” my wife Adelaide called, walking into the room. “How are you feeling, honey?”
“How am I supposed to feel with you constantly taking my emotional temperature?” I answered with ill-concealed irritation. I should have been ashamed of my harsh reaction and depleted store of patience. But Adelaide knew enough not to take it to heart. After 38 years of being married to me, she knew my ways, and knew my disposition always turned sour when I fell into any form of sickness.
It all went back to my childhood, of course, as most things do. Back to the day I had just been reliving in my half-sleep daze, when I stood next to my father who was ill in bed, only to watch in frozen horror as two men—total strangers!—came into the bedroom carrying a stretcher and asked me to step aside so they could pick Dad up. They had come to take my father to the hospital. Only for a few days, I had been told, but that was a lie; for I never saw Dad again until they held his wake in the Sullivan Brothers’ funeral parlor downtown.
In case you were wondering, my father’s nose was dry that night at the wake, and no longer leaking.
Adelaide walked over to my end table and grabbed the remote. In a moment, the screen went black.
“What did you do that for?” I questioned with a surly voice that rose straight from my throat. “I was watching…”
As was her practice, rather than answer my question, she voiced whatever it was she intended to say, “The grandkids are here to see you. Robin and Ellie.”
“What do they want?” I almost growled back.
“To see their grandfather. Sally told them you were sick, and they were worried you might not be around for the family Christmas dinner.”
“Hey,” I exclaimed, “I’m only sick, I’m not dying!”
“Tell that to yourself,” Adelaide wryly responded with that smart-as-Einstein look of hers she knows I intensely dislike.
I couldn’t argue with her, of course. Every time I get sick, she’s usually the one who suffers the most. For the most part I hang around the house and mope. Or accuse Adelaide of eagerly waiting to get her hands on my union retirement checks. Or complain about my ailments like they were nearing their completed task of killing me.
I do not do illness well. Perhaps it would have been different had my father returned from the hospital before dying. Like I was told he would.
But he didn’t.
And now, in some subtle undefinable way, every illness I experience seems as deadly and inescapable as the one that will eventually bring me to a long-awaited reunion with Dad.
“Hey, Pops!” two voices greeted me from the threshold of the den.
“Hey, you yourselves!” I shouted back, reminding myself to smile. “Why are you two standing there like that? What are you, statues?”
“No, Pops,” Ellie, the older of the two, answered. Robin stood next to her in expectant silence, his awkward smile held tightly in place.
“Well, if you’re not statues, then you can come over here, right?”
“Besides, you’re blocking up the door.”
“Oh, really!” Adelaide fumed at me, walking over to her grandchildren. “Why don’t you come in and stand next to Pops’ chair where he can hear you.”
Hesitantly, as if uncertain of exactly what it was they feared, my two grandchildren walked up to my chair and Eleanor put her tiny hands on the chair’s soft cushioned arm. Robin stood a step away from the chair, holding a small box gaily wrapped in Christmas gift paper in both hands.
“Good to see you two,” I said, smiling broadly. “Tell me how things are going…? Are you ready for Christmas? It’s only two days away, you know. You first, Eleanor. Then you—I keep forgetting your name…? Oh yeah, Robin Hood, you go second…”
“I’m not Robin Hood,” the boy protested in a squeaky voice, swiping back rebellious bangs from his eyes, “My name is Robin!”
I imagined my mock surprise deepening the lines in my forehead, because I had furrowed those brows dozens of times expressing the same shocked disbelief at the fact of my grandson’s name.
“Now, wait a minute; you’re telling me you’re not that crazy fellow with the bow and arrows? You don’t rob from the rich and give to the poor? Are you sure about that?”
“I’m Robin Stewart Underwood,” my grandson insisted. “And I’m in the second grade.”
“Well, let’s not argue,” I said, dismissing the argument with a wave of my hand. “Anybody can make a mistake, even Pops.” I smiled, and in the instant after the smile fell away, I looked into their solemn faces. “I’ve seen droopier faces,” I finally declared, “but only on bloodhounds. Did you come here to practice for a frowning contest?”
“No, Pops,” Ellie answered, smiling at the foolishness of my question.
“Speak up, darling,“ I said encouragingly, “I can’t hear you.
“I said no, Pops,” the girl repeated. “Mommy told us we could come.”
“She probably wanted me to cheer you up. Well, what else are grandfathers for?”
Slowly, I lifted my hand to cover my face. “Tell me what you think of this one?” I asked. The next moment, I cried, “Ta da!” and pulled my hand away.
Both my grandchildren, polite to the core, dutifully laughed at the face I suddenly revealed. A face all twisted out of shape with giant flaring nostrils, two eyes a-popping and widely separated lips that revealed glistening gums and two rows of gap-studded teeth.
“Oh, Pops!” Robin cried, unexpectedly bursting into tears.
Moving the muscles in my face to release the tension, I asked in a tender voice, “Was it that bad?”
“No Pops,” Ellie answered, quickly, “It was very good, really!”
I leaned over, surprised to find myself short of breath, and lovingly stroked my grandson’s head, as if there was a certain fragile quality that only my fingers could lovingly wipe away.
“Well,” I said, putting an end to the matter, “there’s no accounting for taste.”
Ellie reached for her brother’s arm, pulling him closer to the chair and explaining, “Grammy said we couldn’t stay very long.”
I growled at that, only remembering to smile when the growl was fully released.
“Grammy says a lot of things,” I commented tersely.
“Come on Robin,” Ellie said, pulling on her brother’s arm. “Time to give Pops his presents.”
“Presents?” I exclaimed, surprised.
Robin held up the small box wrapped in holiday paper I was certain I had seen before, some earlier Christmas most likely.
“But it’s not Christmas yet…?” I exclaimed questioningly.
“We know that,” the boy explained dryly, “but we brought you your gifts anyway!”
I held the box close to my ear and rattled its contents. “I wonder what this could be? Golf clubs? Maybe a set of barbells…?”
“You’re not even close,” Robin answered seriously.
I quickly removed the ribbon and wrapping, beneath which sat a small white box, no bigger than the box that contained the Apple Magic Mouse I had purchased for their mother last Christmas. Inside the box was a plastic change purse covered in a picture of a black cat with white paws. The name “Kitty Cat” was scrawled across its chest. Inside the purse, I found a shiny brown and white seashell.
Robin excitedly leaned against the armchair to point out the features of what was clearly his own personal gift pointing to the notched seam that ran lengthwise across the shell.
“If you put the shell to your ear, you can hear the ocean!” he proclaimed, like a proud salesman.
I sat there for a long moment, my eyes having fallen on my grandson’s face, my eyes fixing in surprise on his features.
How had I never noticed it before? With an unsettled sense of shock, I saw that Robin’s face was almost a carbon copy of my father’s! With allowances made, of course, for the difference in ages and the adorable vulnerability with which Nature endows the young of any species.
Ellie explained in that schoolmarm attitude she sometimes fell prey to, “The Kitty Cat purse is from me, Pops. I thought you could use it to hold your pennies and change.”
“And I will do just that,” I replied, holding it up with beaming satisfaction.
“What about the seashell?” Robin asked. “Don’t you like it?” He began to extend a surreptitious hand towards the shell.
Without ceremony, as I answered, “Sure, I like it! “ Robin took the shell from my hand and held it up to his ear. “I can hear it,” he exclaimed with wonder, “I can, I can!”
Rescuing the shell from his tight grip, I conveyed it to my right ear and reported, like a TV weatherman, “Sounds like there’s a storm on the way, moving up the coast.
“Here,” I said, returning the shell to Robin, who was radiating beams of pride over the great gift he had just given me.
“See what you think,” I suggested.
“We better go now, Pops,” Ellie decided.
“I can hear it!” the boy exclaimed. Then, with less certainty, “I think I can hear it.”
Ellie again pulled on her brother’s arm.
“Come on,” she insisted.
“Before you go,” I said, stopping them with a gesture of my hand. “I want to say something about my Christmas gifts. I want you to know they are very special to me. And I want you to remember why they are so special. Will you promise me you’ll remember?”
Both heads nodded in silent agreement.
“Well, my darling grandchildren, with these two gifts, you’ve given me something I need more than anything else in the world right now. You’ve given me reminders. Two wonderful reminders.”
“Reminders?” Robin asked.
“Yes, reminders. The only gifts I honestly needed for Christmas. People tend to forget things, so they need reminders. Right now I needed both these reminders and you’ve furthered my belief in an intelligent Universe by giving them to me.”
Ellie stared with great concentration at the seashell and the Kitty Cat change purse in my hands. “What do they remind you of, Pops?” she asked.
I closed my eyes and rummaged in my head for words that might explain my meaning to two children still in elementary school. Two children who had had no real exposure to the concept of death or dying. Or to reincarnation, for that matter. Adelaide and I had spent years in a spiritual school—a school of self-development called The Seekers For Truth—where the transit of the soul after dying was a foundational belief. Not surprising, since the school’s spiritual outlook and teachings had arisen from a Hindu-based philosophy.
This was not the time to share my belief that we live multiple lives in our soul’s journey. Or that we carry the name ‘souljourners,’ in each visitation, as The Seekers For Truth had revealed to me. Or that we travel from lifetime to lifetime, incarnation to incarnation, with fellow spirits who occupy different roles in each incarnation. So a friend in one life might be a brother in another, or a parent in the next. Which was why I still harbored hopes from all those years ago that I might one day reunite with my father.
Staring at my two Christmas gifts—my two reminders—it struck me for the first time how my “fear” of death, as experienced whenever I fell sick, was directly in opposition to the lessons Adelaide and I had studied all those years with The Seekers. But then I had also been taught by The Seekers that to be human was to be steeped in irony and inconsistency.
“Well, this seashell once had an occupant, you know,” I began my explanation. “Something that lived inside until it was time to move on. Know what I mean, like a boarder or an occupant? Then one day, whoever it was, packed his bags, took off, and left his shell behind. So, speaking of it as a reminder, it kind of reminds me that everybody’s got a shell.”
“Like a turtle?” Ellie asked.
“Right!” I responded cheerfully. “And like a person, too.”
“That’s silly,” Robin said, lending an appropriate facial gesture to his words, “People don’t have shells.”
I smiled. It really didn’t matter if they ‘got’ it, only that they let it go into their minds. And, hopefully, remembered it for future use.
“See what I mean?” I asked his sister, who was characteristically still mentally chewing on what she had been told. “Robin Hood clearly needs a reminder,” I finished.
“I’m not Robin Hood,” he dutifully protested, but there was a smile on his face.
“Okay,” I casually agreed, “so I made a mistake. You know, my young friend, you don’t yet know everything you’re going to learn in this lifetime. Not now at least. I hope to heaven there’s more to me—your favorite grandfather—than just this frail old body of mine. I’ll sure be disappointed if I learn otherwise,” I plucked the shell from Robin’s hands and held it up to my ear again. The ocean was still there, I was happy to notice. Nothing is more reassuring than constancy.
“If there’s any fairness in things, we have to be more than our bodies, more than these shells,” I insisted, more to myself than to the two youngsters by my side. “Elsewise, you and I might never meet up again, and I don’t see the Good Lord creating mischief like that.”
Ellie leaned over to pick up the Kitty Cat change purse.
“And what’s this remind you of?” she asked.
“My dad,” I answered, wondering if they could hear the sorrow in my voice.
“Enough of all this stuff,” I declared. “Doesn’t matter if you fully understand what I said. Just that you’ll remember what I said?
“Now kiss me goodbye,” I directed, pointing to my cheek and leaning over.
“We’ll remember,” Ellie promised. She reached up, using the armchair for support, to kiss my proffered cheek.
Looking over to her brother, I could almost read the resistance on his face. I knew Robin never liked kissing me, mostly because of the rough bristles on my face.
“What about you, Robin Stewart Underwood?” I asked with a forgiving smile, “Can you put up with a little sandpaper to give your grandfather a kiss?”
“Maybe next time…?” he shyly suggested.
“Next time it is!” I agreed, falling back into the comfortable embrace of the chair.
“Goodbye Pops,” the boy uttered, his sister joining in with her own softly whispered goodbye before both of them walked away towards the kitchen where Adelaide waited with little bags of treats she always kept handy for such precious visitors.
At the threshold of the room, they turned around to see me, the grandfather they had known all their life, staring silently at the blackened TV, both the seashell and change purse held firmly in my grasp.
“Merry Christmas!” I called out to them softly. “I love my presents. And don’t forget you promised to remember.”
Well, I guess I died.
And so it was that six days later, a respectable four days after Christmas, I found myself floating above a large crowd in a chapel, staring down at people who represented most of the phases and varied pursuits of my life. At the front of the room, in a highly polished mahogany box, I saw my body, dressed in a suit and tie that struck me as highly incongruous, given my dislike in life for wearing such clothes; clothing I literally would not have been found dead in, given half a choice.
Yes, just six days after their visit to Pops—their last visit, as it turned out—Robin and Ellie were sitting in the front row, as befits close relations to the deceased.
I guess your ego outlives your body, because I was definitely gratified to see I was doing standing-room-only business in this my last chance to gauge the impact of my life on others in this particular turn as a souljourner. Also pleased to see there was a somber sadness prevailing. A few people were crying, but mostly everyone looked sad. At the front of the room, my old friend from college, David Warren, was delivering my eulogy, thankfully excluding some of the more shocking and egregious adventures we shared in college. I could tell neither Robin nor Ellie was listening to his speech.
“I still don’t get it,” Robin said. He held the seashell in his hand as if it might reveal its sacred secrets at any moment. “When I saw the gift box under the tree with Pop’s name on it, I figured he’d asked Grammy to get us something. But why’d he give me back the shell? And you the Kitty Cat purse? Don’t you think he liked them?”
“He liked them a lot,” his sister replied. I watched my lovely granddaughter as she fiddled with her blouse buttons and checked her headband to make sure everything was under control. Looking up from the change purse I had returned to her as my Christmas gift, she asked her brother, only half curious, “Do you feel like crying?”
“Nah,” he replied. “I don’t think so. You?”
“I thought I would,” my granddaughter answered, “but I don’t.”
“You think we’ll ever see Pops again? You know, like he said…?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“Yeah,” the boy said, smiling. “Pops always gets his way, you know.”
“Ellie smiled, adding, “I’ll bet he’s making an awful fuss in heaven right now. Grammy was the only one who could make him behave.”
I laughed at that. If they only knew…
Robin also laughed at the idea, but then a quizzical look crossed his face.
“So why do you think he gave me back the shell for my Christmas present?”
“Oh, Robin,” she said with a fond smile, “Can’t you see—it’s a reminder, just like Pops told us.”
“Yeah, but, a reminder of what?” he asked, confused. “I still don’t get what he was trying to say.”
Putting her arm across his shoulder, she answered, “A reminder that he loved us, and will always love us. Maybe through eternity.”
It didn’t surprise me that neither of them thought to ask about the Kitty Cat change purse. That was the gift that really struck me when I first saw it. And made me happy to think about the things it brought up for me. Thoughts about dad, thoughts about me, thoughts about all of us.
You know cats have nine lives, right?
I’m betting fathers do as well.
© copyright 2020 Paul Steven Stone
For more information about “SOULJOURNER,” Paul Steven Stone’s new “game-changer” of a novel, click here.