Author’s Note: I selected this excerpt from The Rockin’ Chair because it is the precise turning point for this family. Our protagonist, Grampa John, realizes that before he can join his lifelong love in eternal rest, he must finish a few final chores and heal his broken family. The clock ticks fast, though.
It was a bitterly cold Saturday morning when friends from far and wide came to pay their respects. Everyone who knew Alice adored her and equally loved her grieving husband. The McCarthy’s tiny field of granite was filled with mourners. As the preacher spoke, an eerie silence filled the frozen air.
“The Lord blessed each of our lives with the gift of knowing and loving Alice. Now He has taken her home to be with Him. Those who remember her, who loved her, walk with heavy hearts today, but we must also remember that Alice has been freed from the heavy chains of this world. She now walks with the Lord and shall dwell peacefully within His house for all eternity. Until the day we meet again…”
The preacher’s kind words were carried on the icy wind and John listened carefully to each one. Amidst them, a thousand memories reminded him of why he felt such loss. A thousand more reminded him of the void that now filled the desolate chambers of his heart. He stood rigid, conscious not to sway, and nearly snickered when the pastor mentioned “forgiveness.”
While John fought back the tears that burned to be free, the preacher’s drone drifted and became distant. John tried comforting himself with his own thoughts, but the ache in his heart was worse than anything he’d ever imagined. I’m nothin’ without Alice by my side, he thought, and the pain made him want to join her.
The preacher continued to talk above the sniffles. John glanced down at the scarred earth where friends had dug the hole. Beside his parents, Alice’s pine casket was about to be committed. A roll of old burlap covered the hole, while a mound of dirt mixed with snow sat behind them. Interrupting his own prayer, John questioned the Lord. Why ain’t there another hole dug beside her, Father? It don’t make no sense. It ain’t natural for Alice to be layin’ here alone.
John understood the cycles of life and had always been as comfortable with death as he was with life, but putting Alice in the ground alone was a tough one. I got no purpose walkin’ this earth without my wife matchin’ every step. God, how I wish I was layin’ right there beside her in our eternal bed. He became entranced in the fantasy.
Shoulder-to-shoulder, Hank, Elle, Evan and Tara stood across the casket from the old man. In his most difficult hour, Grampa John needed to stand alone and they respected him for it.
Elle rubbed Hank’s back, comforting her husband and ignoring her own pain. She loved Alice too. In fact, for years she loved her like her own mother. Then, when the illness took hold and caused the kind woman to live more in the past than the present, Elle loved her like one of her own children. Either way, the depth of the love never changed. At the end, though—just before Alice passed on—Elle prayed for closure. Realizing the harshness of such hopes, she wanted an end to everyone’s suffering once and for all. It had nothing to do with loving her mother-in-law any less. It had to do with peace. Mercifully, the Lord finally answered her prayers.
Denying herself the permission to mourn just yet, she continued to rub Hank’s back and whisper things in his ear that only he could hear. There will be time for me to cry later, she decided.
Hank stared at the beautifully carved casket and played the same reel of his mother over and over in his mind. He remembered watching her slave away for years in the house. She washed clothes by hand, hung them out and warned Hank, “You best stay clear.” Most of the time, he minded her. She canned vegetables, never stopped cooking and was usually busy working on one of her quilts. She was non-stop. Her routine was no easier than Pa’s, only she was being monitored by the ghosts that watched from frames on the parlor walls.
She was also in charge of haircuts and what a treat they were. If Hank didn’t squirm and fuss, she’d rinse out the bowl when she was through hacking him up and fill it with a few scoops of cherry Jell-O. Hank loved rubbing the new fuzz at the back of his head, as he sucked the sweet slime through his teeth.
Ma was also the self-appointed boss of hygiene. Every Saturday for sure and sometimes once during the week—depending on how much dirt had accumulated—she’d draw him a bath. Hank loved that old porcelain tub. It was like climbing into a swimming pool, with lion’s claws holding up its weight. Ma would leave him be for awhile, then call out, “Cover up your privates. I’m comin’ in.” With strong hands, she’d wash his hair, all the while complaining, “I swear there’s more water on the floor than in the tub!”
He could still see her sneaking dinner up to his room when he was punished, never thinking any less of him for misbehaving; and the wedding ring—from her own finger—that she gave Elle at the breakfast table the morning after he and Elle had eloped. He would never forget the way she always found time to talk, or better yet—to listen; and the ways in which she showered his children with love. The list went on and so did the invisible projector in his head.
Hank struggled to stop it, but the movie kept playing and the emotions he fought to contain finally overwhelmed him. As Elle rubbed his back, telling him, “It’s okay, hon, let it out,” the dam burst wide open. Hank’s whimpers could be heard above them all. Although he was bawling like a child, his embarrassment was suddenly replaced by another truth. This was not a physical pain that he felt. It was his heart and it was breaking. It didn’t matter that he was weeping in front of people. It don’t matter what anyone thinks, he thought. There was great freedom in it.
Hank looked across the casket and noticed his father standing strong. “Pa’s mask is still set in place,” he mumbled under his breath. As Elle leaned in to hear what her husband was trying to say, he added, “I ain’t ever been no match for him but it don’t matter no more.” For the first time, Hank felt sorry for his father.
Evan listened to his father’s labored sighs and childlike sobs. Like a contagious disease passed on by the wind, to his surprise he could feel the man’s pain. With all the resentment he held toward his father, his heart still bled for him. Looking to his side, it amazed him how pain could be such a cohesive bond in bringing people closer together. The bottom line was—they were family. Beyond their differences and hard feelings, they shared a common love and the pain that came from losing it. He’d always thought of his father as being lazy—in a fearful sort of way. Now, he just felt bad for him. Evan realized that his love for his father was stronger than his own pride. He placed his hand upon his pa’s trembling shoulder. Allowing his own tears loose, his mind suddenly flashed Carley’s smiling face. His body shuddered at the unexpected picture, and he realized that the woman he thought was his soul mate had already become nothing more than a bad memory.
Tara huddled against her brother. As the pastor spoke, her thoughts jumped from Lila to Bryce to the possible reasons Georgey didn’t make it to the funeral. Her mind was everywhere and she felt a wave of anxiety wash over her. Her life was in complete shambles, but looking around she discovered that Evan had been right. She wasn’t alone. There was pain etched into every face. All I want is a drink, she thought. Her body craved it terribly. She looked across the casket and noticed Grampa John’s mouth moving. He’s whispering something to Grandma, she realized. That was it. She lost it.
Trapped in his own bitterness, anger and sorrow, John stared at his wife’s coffin. Suddenly, Alice’s bony finger nudged him hard in the back, causing goose bumps to cover his body. It’s her touch, he knew. I’d never miss it. The strong smell of lilac wafted in the air. She’s tryin’ to tell me somethin’.
As if he’d been blinded for days, his eyes reached across the casket and rested upon his family. He gasped at the sight of them. Quickly studying each face, for the first time he could see the pain—and it wasn’t only from grieving the loss of Alice. The entire family was broken. He could feel it as plain as Alice’s message on his back. They were all slumped over from the weight of the cross they each carried. How could I have been so blind? he thought, kicking himself for missing it. If there had been a second hole, he would have endured his own grief and buried their pain instead. His concern had already shifted.
John continued to study their eyes. It was clear. The very fabric of their lives had become stained and tattered. The look on the two young ones only confirmed John’s beliefs of the world beyond the mountains. Like a cruel dream grinder, it’s chewed ‘em up and spit ‘em out.
Their parents weren’t in any better shape. Hank could barely stand, while Elle neglected her own needs—as usual—and tended to him. John felt Hank’s pain and cringed over the doubts of being able to heal the one who needed it most. He shook his head. The quilt that Alice spent so many years on is unravelin’ at the seams, he thought. No wonder she kept pokin’ me until I opened my eyes. While my squaw struggled so hard to remember her own life, her family was all fightin’ to forget their own. He felt one more nudge in the back and grinned. “I know, Alice. I know,” he said aloud. Others glanced nervously at the outburst. John’s grin scared them more.
The preacher had just finished his sermon when John dropped to both knees and spoke to his wife. “I see now, squaw. Seems I still got some chores that need tendin’ to.” He placed his lips to the frozen casket and kissed her. “You’re right, as usual. There’s some mendin’ to be done. So leave the porch light on for me and I’ll be along when I’m through.” Standing slowly, he straightened out his back and steeled himself for the chores ahead of him. I still got a few more miles to go, he decided. And it looks like I’ll be travelin’ all the way to hell to reclaim these kids. It was time to take them back from the evils of society.
As John made his way across the tiny cemetery, Doc Schwartz stopped him. “My sincerest sympathies, Big John. To tell the truth, I’m a little concerned about your health right now. I’d like to come by and give you a thorough…”
John raised his hand and halted the kind gesture. “Much obliged, Doc, but I reckon I’m gonna be too busy for a spell. Got a lot of work that needs my full attention.”
Schwartz attempted an objection, but stopped. Big John’s face looked as serious as death. He was clearly on a mission.
Hank, Elle, Evan and Tara watched as the old man approached them. Looking into Elle’s eyes, John pointed down at her jacket. “You best start takin’ care of yourself and button up. You’ll catch your own death, if you don’t start lookin’ after yourself.”
Elle smiled. His eyes never once left hers. He wasn’t talking about any coat.
Leaning into Hank’s ear, John whispered, “Ain’t no shame in cryin’ when there’s good reason for it. Believe me, I wish I had the guts.”
Hank’s brow wrinkled. No one heard their new secret and from his reaction, Hank wasn’t sure he had either. “Pa must be losin’ his marbles,” he whispered under his breath.
Evan and Tara waited. They were next. The old man turned, walked five feet, then turned back around. “And as far as you two…you can just wipe the frowns off them faces right now! Take it from your grandma, it’ll all be over ‘fore you know it.” He looked back at his wife’s coffin and shook his head. “In the end, all we have is our memories…good or bad…and your attitudes will decide which. You best start puttin’ more effort in.” The sharp words stung like a slap, but getting reacquainted with Grampa John’s penetrating gaze hurt even more. They watched as he trudged through the snow back to the house. Even Three Speed stayed clear of him. Grampa John was back and he was angry.
Steve Manchester is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month. This means we are offering sensational deals on all of his books. Steve’s latest work, The Rockin’ Chair, is out today, June 18. You can learn more at our website.