A Closet Full of Memories -- Part 3
After a few minutes, the pastor from the Reed's church dropped by to speak with them. He stayed a while, talking with them, offering reassurances and a quiet prayer. Jim introduced him to Jean and as usual, she charmed the minister with her smile and personality. The minister left after he extracted a promise that someone would call him after John got out of surgery.
Shortly after he left, a nurse came in and talked to the woman who had been reading her Bible and praying. From the smile that broke out on the woman's face, Jim assumed she had gotten good news about her loved one. The woman packed up her things and followed the nurse out of the waiting area, still smiling.
I hope we're smiling when we hear the news. I just wish it was all over. Jim looked at his watch. An hour and twenty minutes. Maybe it's half over. Maybe.
Jean squeezed his hand. "Hang in there, baby."
"I'm trying," Jim said. He returned the squeeze.
"Why don't you tell me a story about your Dad from when you were little?" Jean asked.
"Like what?" Jim asked. "There's so many."
"Oh, what's your favorite memory of him from childhood?" Jean asked.
"I don't know," Jim said, feeling uncomfortable. That sounds kinda creepy. Almost like he's gone already.
"I always remember you and Dad playing horsey in the living room," Jane spoke up quietly. "Dad used to ride you around on his back, and you wore your cowboy hat and boots."
"Awww, how cute," Jean said.
"I was really little then," Jim said, fighting a rising flush on his neck and face. "Couldn't have been more than 4 or 5."
"Something like that," Jane agreed. "But you kept doing it until Dad said you were going to break his back!"
Jean giggled as Jim's skin reddened further. "Do you have any pictures of that?" she asked.
"I'm sure we do somewhere," Jane said. "I'll see what I can do."
"And there's gotta be one or two pictures of Jim naked in the bathtub you can drag out, too," Phil said with a grin.
"Oh, by all means, I need to see those," Jean agreed.
"Jane, you wouldn't dare," Jim said. His face burned even hotter.
Jane grinned. "I sure would, little brother. I have a lot of things to pay you back for," she said. "Bugs in my bed, reading my diary, listening in to my phone conversations, hiding my dolls -- shall I go on?"
"What are little brothers for?" Jim asked. "It was my job to drive you crazy."
Jane rolled her eyes. "You certainly did your job well, Jim. And that's another thing I always remember about Dad -- he was always having to keep you out of my business."
"One of the worst whippings I ever got from him was after I stole your diary and took it to school to read to the class for show and tell," Jim said.
"Jim, you didn't!" Jean cried.
"Oh, yes, he did," Jane said. "I was mortified when I found out. I was fourteen, and Jim wasn't quite ten."
"The fourth grade class loved it, until the teacher stopped me and took it up," Jim said. He chuckled with the memory, and then shook his head. "I got in trouble both at school and at home. I don't believe I'd ever seen Mom so mad, and I can personally testify as to how mad Dad got."
"A stunt like that deserved a good whipping," Jean said. "That was so mean."
"He had a mean streak in him until he was about fourteen," Jane said. "Then he got so wrapped up in sports he didn't have time to torture me any more. Eventually he grew up." Jane smiled at Jim.
"Dad had a lot to do with that," Jim said, his voice turning quiet and serious. "He gave me a terrific example to follow. He still does."
"And he will for a long time to come," Jean said, apparently sensing Jim's worry. She gave his hand another gentle squeeze.
Jim turned his head to see a nurse standing at the edge of the carpeted waiting area, her eyes tracking from group to group of people.
"Here," he and Jane said almost simultaneously. Jim stood, anxiety bubbling up in his gut.
"Is the surgery over already?" Jane asked, as the nurse walked over to her.
"No, ma'am," the nurse said.
"Something went wrong," Jim said, the anxiety reaching a crescendo inside.
"No, no," the nurse assured them. "Your father's still in surgery. But there has been a development. Dr. Bergman needs to speak with you. He's waiting in a consult room in the surgical corridor. I'll show you the way."
Jim grabbed Jean's hand and almost jerked her out of the chair in his haste to keep up with the nurse. He was only vaguely aware of Jane and Phil following behind. Memories of a night less than three years earlier took Jim's mind hostage; horrible memories of following a nurse down a sterile corridor to speak with a doctor who told him his mother was dead. That night had changed Jim forever, and Jim feared the next few minutes would reveal yet another life-changing circumstance.
Please, God, don't let this be bad. Don't let it be bad. Don't let him be dead. Don't take him away from us, too. Please.
"I wonder what's wrong," Jane fretted. "This isn't right."
"Try not to worry, honey," Phil said.
The nurse led them by the nurses' station, down a corridor, then through a set of double doors and down another corridor, finally stopping at a room at the end of the quiet hallway, next to a set of thick double doors labeled "Operating Rooms -- Staff Only."
"Dr. Bergman is in here," the nurse said, and then rapped quietly on the door.
That simple motion sent Jim's heart racing, his mind flashing back to the nearly identical scenario of the night his mother died. He took a deep, trembling breath and grasped Jean's hand for stability. Jean looked up at him, concern radiating from her face. She squeezed his hand as the nurse pushed the door open to reveal Dr. Bergman sitting at a small table inside.
"Dr. Bergman, the Reeds are here."
"Yes, yes, come in, quickly, please." Dr. Bergman stood and motioned them in.
Jim swallowed hard and forced himself to move inside. He tried to read the surgeon's face but Dr. Bergman appeared inscrutable. Jean now gripped his hand with both of hers, but Jim couldn't bring himself to look at her any longer. Instead, he took another deep breath and tried to clear his fear-fogged mind.
Jim spoke first. "What's going on, Dr. Bergman? Can you please tell me if my dad's okay?"
"Yes, please tell us what's happening," Jane seconded.
Dr. Bergman blew out a breath. The inscrutable look on his face turned more serious. "Why don't you all sit down?"
Phil seated Jane, and sat down next to her, but Jim remained standing, as did Jean. They always make you sit down before they give you bad news. I don't want to sit.
"Is Dad still alive?" Jim asked, point-blank, his heart about to leap out of his chest.
"Why, yes, of course. Didn't the nurse tell you that?" Dr. Bergman frowned.
"She did," Phil said. "We're just a little anxious, that's all."
"He's holding up well under the anesthesia," Dr. Bergman said, but his face still had the look of a man about to drop undesirable news. His gaze tracked to each of them in turn. "But that's not the problem."
"Then what is?" Jane asked. Jim could see that she barely held herself together.
"I wish that I had good news for you. I wish there was an easy way to break this news to you all. But the fact is, there's not, and time is important, so I'm just going to have to be straight with you. We found...massive amounts of cancer in your father."
Jane gasped. "Oh, no, no," she said.
Jim sucked in a breath of his own, every muscle tensing in response to the shocking news. Jean's grasp on his hand tightened. Jim felt as if he stood on the edge of an abyss and the slightest nudge would send him plummeting over. He grasped at anything that would keep him from falling into that dark pit, and found inside himself a core of angry denial "How can you tell?" Jim demanded. He fought to control his shaking voice. "You haven't had time to get a, a...report back. You and Dr. Greenbaum said there had to be lab tests."
"I know this is very difficult for you," Dr. Bergman said. "And you're right; under most circumstances we wouldn't make a diagnosis of cancer without a pathology report. But I'm afraid this isn't an ordinary circumstance. The diagnosis is positive and it's based on years of surgical and medical experience. I am so sorry."
Jane began to cry and Phil did his best to comfort her.
Jim tuned out his sister's grief as best he could, focusing his own raging emotions into anger. "I don't understand why you asked us here in the middle of the surgery to tell us this. Why not wait until it's over?"
"Because you have an important decision to make," Dr. Bergman said. "Let me explain the whole story. When we opened up your father, we expected to find a mass in the lungs, based on the x-rays and the earlier tests. And we did find a mass; a rather large one in the lower right lung and several smaller tumors in the left. What we didn't expect to find was a multitude of tumors in other places. We found tumors on his pancreas, his small intestine, and a massive growth on the liver. There's extensive lymph node involvement, as well."
"My God," Jim said, even more shaken. The doctor's words sent his weak knees to trembling. He wasn't sure what a lymph node was, but it sounded terrifying to him.
"We were stunned as well. In the medical field, we call that metastasizing, meaning the cancer starts in one place and later spreads to other organs. It's a sign of advanced cancer. In fact, my first instinct was to just close him back up and do nothing. In my opinion, and the opinion of my associate, the cancer is that advanced."
Jim didn't think he could take another shock. He clenched his hands into tight fists even as grief hammered at the door of his heart. He barely registered that Jean tugged on his arm and somehow got him settled in a chair.
"There's nothing you can do?" Jane asked, her voice choked. She clung to Phil's arm.
Dr. Bergman hitched his hip on the side of the table. "At first we didn't think so. But then as we explored a little further, we discovered that the one we were most worried about -- the pancreatic tumor -- had not infiltrated the organ itself very much. Most of the tumor is lying on top. We think we can remove about ninety percent of it without touching any tissue. That's encouraging. The liver tumor is a little trickier, but with some careful surgery, we can remove the greatest part of it. The right lung will probably have to be removed. But the left lung isn't too involved."
"How can he live with one lung?" Jim asked. The more the doctor talked, the closer the dark abyss loomed. He leaned on the table with one arm and clutched Jean's hand with the other.
"It's possible, though not without difficulty. And therein lies your decision. Do you want me to undertake this massive surgery, or do I just close him up and send him home with you to wait for the end? Your father can't make the call, so you, as his children, have to."
"Do whatever you have to do to save his life," Jim said, without hesitation.
"Yes," Jane seconded.
Dr. Bergman held up a hand. "It's not that cut and dried. We're not talking about saving his life. We're talking about prolonging it, and affecting the quality of life."
"Prolonging?" Jim asked. "You're saying he's going to die, no matter what?"
Dr. Bergman looked at them all in sympathy. "I'm afraid so. It's merely a matter of time and effort. Let me spell it out for you. If we simply sew him back up and leave things as they are, he could leave the hospital in about a week. With no further medical intervention, he might live six weeks."
"Six weeks!" Jane cried softly as Jean gasped in a breath.
Jim felt his world shift from underneath him. Six weeks. Oh, God, no. It took a much greater effort to keep the shakes at bay. The table became an anchor to reality.
"But if we get aggressive with it -- take the lung, remove all the cancer we can, and begin treatments, we can extend his life for probably another six months. Maybe longer, if we get lucky with the pancreatic tumor."
"What kind of treatments?" Phil spoke up as Jim still tried to digest the horrifying terms of the death sentence his father had been handed.
"Living in LA is a tremendous advantage. UCLA Medical Center is developing a first-rate cancer treatment center. They
have some of the world's leading oncologists -- that's a cancer doctor -- there. We'll get him referred, and they can study
his case and outline the course of treatment. I couldn't say exactly, but certainly radiation therapy would be appropriate,
and there are a lot of advances in and experimental protocols for treating cancer with powerful chemicals. It might be an option."
"Then maybe there's some hope?" Jane asked.
"I don't want to give you false hopes," Dr. Bergman said. "I'm not talking about a cure. I'm talking about extra time with your father. Time to do whatever it is you might want or need to do as a family. Time to get things in order."
"I want that time," Jim declared. In his mind, fighting death would be the only acceptable choice. He wanted every second of time he could have with his father. "Do the surgery. Take whatever you've got to take."
"Yes, please," Jane again seconded Jim's statement.
"Wait a minute," Phil said. "There's one question we haven't asked. Dr. Bergman, you mentioned the quality of life. After all this hard surgery, living with one lung, and these treatments -- what kind of life will he have? How much pain will he be in? Will he be bedridden? Suffering? Maybe a quick illness would be preferable to lingering in pain."
"That's a fair question, and one I'm glad you asked. If we do nothing, like I said, we can make him comfortable and he'd probably have about four decent weeks and then he would deteriorate rapidly. Death would occur in about six weeks. With the aggressive treatment, he'll have a longer hospital stay after surgery, longer recovery time, and then the treatments have side effects. Radiation can cause a multitude of problems of its own -- nausea, burns and skin sensitivities, fatigue. It kills healthy tissue as well as the cancer. And the chemicals -- chemotherapy, they're calling it -- they are literally poisons that kill the cancer, but they have been known to cause complications that kill the patient a lot faster. It just depends on the person.
"Will there be pain? Yes, either way. Will there be suffering? Yes. We can manage pain adequately until near the end when the traditional treatment is a morphine IV. At that point, death comes quickly. So what it boils down to is time. Six months versus six weeks." Dr. Bergman stopped and looked at them all, compassion evident in his expression.
"I'm still for fighting for every minute we can have," Jim said. "Do the surgery."
"To me, it sounds like a lot of suffering for just six more months of life," Phil said.
Phil's words caused something to snap inside Jim. The anger he'd been using to stay rational and calm erupted into a cascade of emotions.
"He's not your father!" Jim slammed his hand on the table. "I'm not ready to let him go! Do you hear me? I'm not ready!"
"Jim, honey," Jean spoke for the first time. She wrapped her arms around him. "It's all right."
"None of us want to give up," Phil said. "But do you want him to suffer?"
"Who knows what might happen in six months?" Jim said. "Maybe...maybe they'll find a cure! Or, or…a, a better treatment. I couldn't live with myself if we didn't fight this and something came along after he's gone. Dad's a fighter. He always has been. Since he can't say, I say we fight this!"
"Jane?" Phil asked.
Jane took a shuddering breath, tears still tracking down her face. "We fight," she whispered, with a nod.
"Very well," Dr. Bergman said. "If it's any consolation, I think you made the right choice. If it was my dad, I'd make the same decision. Every patient is different, and you're right -- who knows what might happen in six months? I've got to get back in there and rescrub, but I want to warn you. This surgery will be extensive. It could last another four to five hours or more. You'll have to be patient. We'll try to send a nurse around with updates for you."
"Thank you, Dr. Bergman," Jim said. Somehow, he managed to extend his hand and shake the surgeon's. "Go help my Dad."
"I'll do my best," Dr. Bergman said. "Stay here as long as you need to digest all this and discuss if you need to, but you'll be more comfortable in the waiting area." The surgeon slipped between them and left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.
Once the door closed, Jane began to sob. She buried her head in her husband's chest, and Phil held her close.
Jim wanted to comfort her as well, but the cruel knife of anguished despair had been plunged too deeply into his soul. His own instincts urged him to either pound his fists into the walls and kick the furniture to release the pain, or to simply collapse to the ground and scream and cry. I have to stay strong. I have to keep my mind clear. I can't give into this.
When he'd learned of his mother's death almost three years earlier, he'd run away, trying to escape the pain, but that had done nothing but to cause the rest of his family to worry. With his father down, the mantle of responsibility for being the head of the family suddenly rested on Jim's shoulders. I don't know if I can do this. It hurts too much. How can I help everybody else when all I want to do is fall apart myself?
"Jim, honey," Jean's trembling voice pulled Jim back to the present, and he forced himself to look at her. Tears had pooled in her eyes and she looked as grief-stricken as he felt. "I'm so sorry, baby. I'm so sorry."
Looking into the sorrowful depths of Jean's eyes almost proved to be Jim's undoing. He couldn't speak; if he did, he knew he would completely break apart. Instead, he crushed her to him and tried to draw comfort and strength from her presence. He allowed himself a few moments of mindlessness as Jean rubbed his back, but he refused to let his tears fall.
"What can I do?" Jean whispered tearfully, lifting her face up enough to speak. "What do you need me to do?"
Jim shook his head and swallowed, trying to get his emotions reigned in. "Just be here with me, baby. Just stay here."
"I will, Jim, I promise. I'll be here as long as you need me to be."
Jim rubbed the engagement announcement with a grimy index finger. It amazed him how a reminder of one of the happiest days of his life could lead him through a maze of depressing emotions.
Jean stayed by me, all right. She was always there, all through that hellish day -- nearly six more hours of surgery, then hours more of touch-and-go uncertainty whether he'd even wake up. I was a basket case, but because of Jean I held it together. Every time I thought I'd come unraveled, she would hold me, or whisper encouragement in my ear, or do something to keep me sane. She made phone calls, force fed me to keep me from collapsing, and made sure there was always somebody there for us. Her Dad. Her mom. Our minister. My coaches. She was the only one of us with half a brain in her head for days. I never would have survived without her.
Jim reluctantly put the engagement announcement into the throwaway pile, then stood up and stretched his back. Even with her by me, I still don't know how I made it through.
Jim walked out of his father's small cubicle in the intensive care unit on leaden legs that hardly held him upright. He leaned against the wall just out of sight of the tiny area and took a moment to pull himself together before he went back out to the waiting area to face Jean and whoever else might be out there waiting for his return.
Jim thought the ten-minute visiting period allotted the families of intensive care patients every hour hardly seemed a long enough time to spend with his father -- at least on the one hand. On the other hand, that ten minutes often seemed an eternity of torture as he watched his father struggle to draw every breath. Jim could hardly stand to see the pain on his dad's face and the cloudy fear so evident in his eyes.
John's first question when he'd finally awakened late Friday night after the surgery had been "Do I have cancer?" Honoring their promise to their father, they had of course told him the truth, though they had held back the horrific details for later. "Later" had come on this hot Sunday evening, when Jim, Jane, and Dr. Greenbaum had finally told John Reed the true seriousness of his condition.
Jim counted that conversation among the worst moments of his life. He could hardly bear being a party to bringing his father a death sentence, and it had taken every ounce of strength he had not to completely break down when his father had reacted with a hoarsely whispered, "Oh, my God." Somehow, though, he and Jane had both stood strong for their father while by his side; once back in the waiting area, however, Jane had given vent to her tears while Phil held her. Jim had merely slumped into a chair, buried his head in his hands and did his best not to cry as Jean comforted him.
Jim took a deep breath and swiped at his face, hoping to wipe away the bone-grinding fatigue that gnawed at his body, and the anxieties that chipped away at his emotional resolve. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into a dark hole, shut himself away from the world, and sleep for a year. But of course, that wasn't an option.
God help me. Help me get through this. Help us all get through it.
Jim dragged himself away from the wall and pushed through the soundproof door that separated the ICU from the waiting area. He put on his bravest face as he walked toward Jean. She stood and hugged him as he reached her.
"How's he doing?" she asked.
Jim returned her hug and leaned more heavily into her embrace than he really wanted to. "The nurses say he's still improving slowly," Jim told her, "but I can't really see it. He's in so much pain, even with the medication. And he's still struggling to breathe."
"Be patient, darling, he'll get better," Jean whispered. She planted a feather-light kiss on his cheek. "Come sit down."
Jim let her lead him back to the couch and its uncomfortable orange naughahyde covering. The worn and thin couch cushions had been his chair by day and inadequate bed by night since his father had been moved to ICU late Friday evening. Jim and Jane had set up camp in the small waiting room, the restrictive visitation rules forcing them to stay close by. They had gotten acquainted with a few others who had loved ones in the unit, but now Jim and Jean were the only ones in the waiting area, an exhausted Jane and Phil having left after the last visiting period.
Jim sat down heavily on the couch, pushing aside the pillow and blanket he used for his brief naps in between visits to his father. Jean settled in beside him and took his hand in hers. She raised it to her lips and kissed it, and Jim squeezed it gently in return.
"You should do like Jane did and go home," Jean said quietly.
Jim shook his head. "Somebody's gotta be here. Jane's health keeps her from staying; you know that."
"I know. But if you wreck your own health that won't do anybody any good."
"I'm okay," Jim said, though he felt anything but okay. He felt both physically and emotionally exhausted. And angry. And scared.
"Of course you are," Jean said, but her sarcasm clearly came through.
"I just helped tell my father he's only got six months to live, and that's if he's lucky," Jim said bitterly, anger seeping through despite himself. "You didn't see how that affected him. I'm not about to leave now when he needs me the most."
"Surely he'll sleep the night through with his medication. If you could just get out of here a few hours to stretch out and really get some rest, it would do you a world of good."
"Jean, I'm not leaving, and that's final," Jim said.
Jean sighed. "All right. But will you at least eat something? Walk down to the cafeteria with me and eat a bite of supper. It's after eight."
"I'm not hungry."
"Jean, please!" Jim snapped, completely at the end of his patience. "I don't feel like leaving, or eating, or even talking. So just leave me alone and let me sit here in peace, all right?" He pulled his hand away from hers and leaned over, burying his face in his hands. His conscience pricked at him for taking his frustrations out on Jean, but his self-control had been shredded by the events of the past few days.
Jean didn't reply, and as a tense silence grew between them, Jim's guilt grew as well. But an apology stuck in his throat, held captive there by a plethora of negative emotions. He could feel a knot of misery growing within him, fighting to get out. Why, God? Why is this happening? I can't handle all of this. I can't help my dad. I can't make it better. I'm going to lose him and I don't know what to do. What have I done that's so bad that you'd take both my parents from me? Now I'm yelling at the one person that I need the most. Please help me. God, help me.
"God help me," Jim whispered aloud. Jean placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, and Jim's defenses began to crumble. Tears stung his eyes as a tremor shook him, its epicenter deep within his gut. He didn't want to fall apart in front of the woman he loved, but he found no strength left to fight the inner pain that begged to be released. Jean's apparent forgiveness for his insensitivity proved to be the final straw that broke through his barriers.
Jim let the tears fall, and he choked off a sob as his whole body shook. Jean enveloped him in her arms and pulled his head down onto her shoulder. She kissed his head and stroked his hair wordlessly, rocking him gently through the sorrowful storm.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Jim said brokenly.
"It's all right, baby, it's all right," Jean said. "I understand. You need this."
"I feel...like a fool," Jim said as Jean continued to comfort him. He clung to her as if letting go would mean his death.
"Sssssh. That's nonsense." Jean kissed his head again. "You can't deny your feelings. You've held up while Jane's cried, and I've cried. It's your turn to cry now."
"Men aren't supposed to cry," Jim said around a quiet sob.
"Utter nonsense," Jean said firmly. She kept stroking his hair and gently rocking him in her arms. "Men have the silliest ideas sometimes."
Jean's comfort and acceptance of his display of grief soothed his troubled soul like a balm. His insides began to uncoil and relax. The knot of pain eased enough so he could breathe again. After a few healing moments, he sat up and rubbed his face. "I'm sorry," he offered again.
"Stop saying that. I love you. And I want to help you. If that means supporting you while you get things off your chest, then I'm willing to do that. I don't think any less of you for your grieving over your father."
"I love you, too, honey," Jim said. More under control, he hugged her close again. "And I am sorry that I yelled at you. I know you're only trying to help."
"I'm going to be your wife soon. I'm supposed to take care of you. And as far as that goes, the way I feel about you, we might as well already be married. I feel like we are, except for the physical part." She smiled shyly at him.
Jim managed a small smile of his own. "You're something special, you know that?"
"As long as you think so, that's all I want."
"I definitely think so." Jim leaned over and kissed her, and they hugged again. When they released their embrace, Jim said, "I should go in the bathroom and clean up before somebody else comes in here and sees me like this."
Jean nodded. "You'll feel better if you wash your face."
"Be right back."
Jim made his way to the nearby bathroom, blew his nose, then splashed cold water on his face. The shock of it invigorated him, at least for the moment, and helped him to clear his head. Even though he'd been embarrassed to cry in front of Jean, he really did feel better having cleansed the poisoning emotions from his soul. But now his conscience had a clear pathway to his brain, and a lot of guilt set in.
Jean's right. I really do need to take better care of myself. I can count the amount of sleep I've had since Thursday on one hand. It's no wonder I can't think straight. And that cup of coffee and stale danish I had this morning is long gone.
Jim dried off his face and studied himself in the mirror. The sight shocked him. Besides obviously red and bloodshot eyes, they both had deep dark circles underneath. He ran his fingers through his hair, which looked greasy and wild due to lack of care. The evidence of not having shaved in two days stood out in stark contrast to the pallor of his skin. No wonder Jean's so insistent I leave. I need a bath and some sleep. But what if Dad needs me in the night? How can I leave? But on the other hand, I won't do anybody any good if I keel over -- or even keep snapping people's heads off. I'm lucky I have Jean to help take care of me. That was cute of her to say she feels like we're already married except for the physical part. But we'll be married for real in eleven months. Eleven months...
"Eleven months," Jim said to his reflection in the mirror. "Eleven months." Realization hit him like a crazed linebacker. He'd been in such a daze, so upset over the prospect of losing his father, that he hadn't done the math. "Dad won't be here in eleven months. He won't be here. The most important day of my life and he won't be here." No! I hadn't even thought -- I need him by my side on that day. It's not fair! Not to have either parent on my wedding day... Jim slammed his hand down on the sink, the bitterness and anger welling up inside him again. "It's not fair! It's not right!" He yelled. He turned around and kicked at the door to the toilet, sending it crashing into the wall. It rebounded off the tiles and Jim kicked it again.
Jim would have kicked it a third time, but he heard the door creak open behind him, so he turned to see who would come in. An older gentleman who Jim recognized from the waiting area entered, giving Jim a curious look. Jim nodded at him and stepped aside, breathing deeply, trying to get himself under control.
"Are you okay, son?" the man asked kindly. "Your father taken a bad turn?"
"Oh, no, sir, no." Jim managed to answer in a calm voice. "I was, uh, was just..."
"It's all right, son," the man held up a hand to forestall any further explanation from Jim. "I've kicked a few doors in my day, too."
Jim's eyes widened, and he reddened from embarrassment. The older man went about his business and Jim left the bathroom hoping the kindly man didn't think him a lunatic.
"Jim, are you okay?" Jean stood nearby the door to the men's room. "You were gone so long, and I thought I heard you yelling."
I must have been louder than I thought. In the wake of his anger, seeing Jean's worried face took him on the pendulum swing back to despair. He tried to keep his face neutral, but the grim reality etched itself firmly on his features.
"Jim? What's wrong?" She held out her hand to him and he grasped it tightly. "Talk to me, honey."
"What you said," Jim began, having to clear his throat, "about marriage. I've been so upset about Dad, I haven't stopped to think. It didn't even occur to me. Dad won't...he won't be here for our wedding day." Jim had to lower his voice to a whisper to keep it from breaking.
Jean didn't look surprised, but she closed her eyes briefly before she said, "I know, honey. I've thought about it, but I knew you hadn't realized it yet."
"It's the most important day of my life. I need him there. I want him there."
Jean wrapped her arms around him and rubbed his back. "I know, Jim. I know you do."
"There's no hope for that," Jim said into her hair. "The doctors doubt he'll live the full six months. Eleven is an impossible dream." His eyes burned again and he squeezed them shut tightly to keep the tears from falling. "He'll never make it that long. And even if he did, by then, he'd be in too bad of shape to stand up for me."
"Miracles happen," Jean said.
"Not this time. And there's nobody I want to be my best man except my Dad. If I can't have him, I won't have anyone."
"Oh, honey, don't think like that. You have to have someone to stand up for you." Jean patted his back again.
"I want my Dad to stand up for me. It's bad enough not to have Mom around. But to not have either of them there for me on my wedding day...it's too much. I want my Dad to be there."
Jean hugged him tight for a moment, then looked up at him, a smile on her face. "Then he will be, Jim. We'll make our own miracle," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"It's simple, really, hon. We move the wedding."
"What?" Jim frowned at her.
"We move the wedding," Jean repeated. She took Jim by the hand and tugged on it. "Come on, let's go sit down and I'll show you."
Jim followed her back to the waiting area. "Jean, we can't move the wedding. We can't afford to get married before next May."
"We can't afford not to," Jean corrected.
"Jean, baby, we don't have the money," Jim said. He sat down next to her, took her hands in his and lowered his voice, as some members of other people's families had begun to gather in anticipation of the 9:00 p.m. visit. "We've been over this. We need this year to save money. And besides, you said it would take a year to plan a proper wedding."
"I have the solution to both those problems. We do what you said the night you proposed to me. We drive to Las Vegas and get married there, as soon as your father is well enough to make the trip."
"What? No way, honey. I'm not letting you give up your dream wedding."
"It would keep us from having to do all the planning. And I could just ask Daddy for the money that he would have spent on the wedding. We can use that to live off of."
"This is insane, Jean. I know how much a beautiful wedding means to you, and I won't let you give that up."
"Your father being by your side is far more important than a beautiful wedding," Jean said.
"We are not getting married in Las Vegas," Jim said, with a tone of finality. "I only said that when I proposed because I was caught up in the moment. I really don't want to get married in Vegas. I want to get married in your church, like we planned." He took Jean by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. "I don't ever want you to look back and regret that we didn't have a beautiful wedding. I couldn't live with that."
"And I don't want you to look back regretting we didn't move the wedding so you could have your father by your side." Jean's lips formed into a semi-pout. "Don't you want to marry me right away?"
"Of course I do, " Jim said. "You know I'd marry you tomorrow if I could. It's not you; it's the money. I have to support you, and right now we don't have enough saved."
"Who says you have to be the only bread winner? I can work a full-time job. Or two part time jobs. We have enough saved so I can do that and we can make it."
"What about your school?"
"No, you won't!"
"Jim, staying in school isn't my priority right now. Marrying you, making a home and family with you is what I want to do! I can always go back to school later."
"But Jean, I don't want you to have to work."
"That's your silly male pride talking. You're the one who needs to finish school. You've got a scholarship that you shouldn't waste. You want that degree so you can do better in the Police Academy, and just in case you don't make it -- which isn't going to happen -- you'll have something to fall back on. I can do anything right now. Be a secretary. Work in a store. Baby-sit. I can make enough money so that we can survive while you're in school. The workplace is changing and there are lots of opportunities for women now."
Jim felt himself weakening. To have her as his wife sooner would be a wonderful blessing. To have his father stand up for him at his wedding would be the gift of a lifetime. But the doubts still nagged at him.
"It'll be so hard, Jean. Instead of just one year, it'll be two years of me playing ball and studying, and not being able to work much, and you having to work all the time..."
Jean covered Jim's mouth with her hand. "I don't care. I can do it. I want to do it. I can give you the gift of having your father at our wedding. That will be worth an extra year of struggling a bit. And you know, at the end of the day, we'll have each other. And to me, that's worth it, too."
Jim kissed her hand, then gently moved it away from his lips. "Are you sure?"
"So when will we move it to?" Jim asked.
Jean's grin went from ear to ear. "Let's look," she said. She grabbed up her purse and pulled out the pink and white wedding planner and a pen. She thumbed through the pages. "Let's see. We'll give your father plenty of time to recover, and us time to work a little more and plan the wedding, since we aren't going to Vegas. This is the 2nd week of June, so..." she stopped and looked up at Jim. "Don't you think we should get married before your summer football camp starts? That way all the pressure will be off and you can focus on football and school, and your dad, of course."
Jim had to smile; Jean, fully in her element, had switched to high-speed mode. Nothing'll stop her now. "That's probably a good idea. Once the season starts, it'll be hard to plan a wedding."
"I think you told me that camp started on August 22nd. That's a Sunday...so, let's back up a week, and get married that Saturday before. That would be August 14th. How does that sound?"
"Jean, that's only nine weeks from now," Jim said. "How can you plan a wedding in nine weeks?"
"It can be done. When I meet with the wedding planner Tuesday, I'll just tell her we've had a date change."
"What about your mother and dad? They'll flip! What if they don't agree?"
"Leave mother and daddy to me," Jean said.
"And the church? What if it's not available? And our attendants?"
"Jim, honey, trust me. I'm good at stuff like this. Leave everything to me, and I'll take care of it all. I'm sure the planner will have lots of ideas. Ruthie will help me, and momma, and I know Jane will want to help with the rehearsal dinner plans. All you have to do is plan our honeymoon."
"That's another thing. The honeymoon. If I can't work this summer as much as I planned, I might not have the money to give you the kind of honeymoon I wanted."
"Jim," Jean said, looking at him in the way that always set Jim's heart racing, "Where we go on our honeymoon really isn't important to me. As long as we're together, any place will be a paradise."
How on earth did I get so lucky to get a woman like her? "I love you, Jean."
"I love you, Jim." She took the pen and, with a flourish, circled the August 14th date. "And on August 14th, we're going to get married, with your dad standing beside you."
"When you say it, honey, I can almost believe we can do this."
"We can do it. We will do it. And we'll live happily ever after." Jean giggled.
"That sounds good to me." Jim leaned over and kissed her, and felt the tiniest bit of weight lift off his chest. Sounds too good to be true. Lord, please let this work out so I can have my Dad at my wedding.
Jim got up off the bed and walked into the den, overcome by the urge to take a look at their wedding pictures. Despite the pain-filled sadness watching his father fight cancer, the wedding had been an oasis of joy for the entire family. Although his father had first objected when told the wedding had been moved to August, he eventually realized the genuine emotion and love behind the decision, and became an enthusiastic supporter.
The wedding was like a part of Dad's cancer treatment. It was a goal for him, to stand by me straight and strong, without his oxygen. And he did it. I'm still not sure how he did it, after all the hell he went through recovering from the surgery, and going through the radiation.
Jim took the wedding album down from its place on the den bookshelf, sat down on the edge of the couch and started thumbing through the pages. "Jean and her mother really put it all together. I'm still not quite sure how they managed to do it in nine weeks., even if they did have help from a planner." It really was an amazing time. We worked so hard to save up money, and Jean surprised me with my ring after the rehearsal. Jim glanced down at his left hand, missing the silver band that usually adorned the third finger there. He'd stopped wearing the precious wedding band on a daily basis after a serious accident he'd had on the job that had damaged the ring and crushed his hand. Pete had seen to it that the ring had gotten repaired, but after that, Jim had been loathe to wear it to do work of any type. The ring simply meant too much to him to risk further damage to it. I'll put it on afterI finish this job. Funny how I really feel naked without it.
Jim quickly bypassed the first few pictures in the album, though it made him smile to see how much he and Jean had changed just in six short years. He also enjoyed the memories that seeing the pictures evoked. He clearly remembered his nervous excitement of that day, and most especially the anticipation of the honeymoon. But he also remembered his father's bravery during that time and how healthy and happy he had looked that day.
Jim stopped at a picture of he and his father -- a staged picture of his father holding up his left arm and pointing to his watch, which had been run forward to 2:00 p.m. which, of course, was the time he and Jean got married. Jim chuckled at the silly grin plastered on his own face in the picture, but had he not known that his father had been gravely ill, he never could have told it from looking at the picture.
The irony of the picture didn't escape Jim. Though the picture had been staged as a comic relief in the album, pointing out Jim's last moments of bachelorhood, in Jim's mind, it now reminded him of how time was running out for his father...
Jim turned his car into the driveway of his boyhood home, one hand on the wheel, the other holding the grocery bag on the seat beside him. If it tipped over, the container of soup that would be his and his father's dinner for the night would spill all over the front seat. Jean had made the chicken noodle soup, using her mother's recipe, and Jim thought it tasted every bit as good as Mrs. Smithson's. One of the many things Jim had come to appreciate in the eight short weeks he and Jean had been married was Jean's skill in the kitchen. She had an uncanny ability to take little of nothing and make it taste great. Well, maybe not so great all the time. But it was filling, if nothing else. Good thing she can, since we don't have any money.
Jim's mouth watered in anticipation of enjoying the homemade soup. He'd just come from a very intense football practice, and his empty stomach growled in protest of lack of nourishment. I could probably eat this whole container by myself. I just hope Dad eats it. Jane said that he's hardly eaten anything in two days.
Jim got the car parked and killed the engine. He scooped up the grocery sack, careful not to squash the crusty French bread that would accompany the soup, and walked to the door. He felt an odd loneliness without Jean beside him, but she had been scheduled to work at the department store tonight and couldn't come with him. Jim had arranged to spend the evening with his father, spurred into action by a disturbing phone call from his sister. Jim had spent the better part of Monday with his dad, escorting him to an appointment with his doctor and for a round of tests. John had seemed well enough then, but Jane had called Jim yesterday to tell Jim she had seen a definite change in their father in just the two days that had passed after that. Maybe he's just extra tired. Or maybe that last round of radiation has gotten to him. Anyway, I want to see for myself.
Jim put his key in the door and opened it. "It's me, Dad," he called. "Don't get up."
He shouldered the door open and automatically looked around the living room to find his father. "Dad?" Jim felt a moment of alarm when he didn't see John Reed sitting in his recliner in the living room.
"In the kitchen," John called to Jim, in a voice so shaky and quiet it could hardly be heard.
"Okay." Jim shut and locked the door and hurried into the kitchen.
"Hi, son," John said, when Jim entered.
"Hi, Dad," Jim set the sack down on the table and studied his father, who sat at the kitchen table, his oxygen tank at his side. The tank had been John's constant and necessary companion since the surgery. A pile of papers, a pen and some envelopes lay at John's right hand. Jane's right; he looks worse than he did just three days ago. His color isn't good. And he's shaking. What's going on? "How're you feeling?" He reached out and gave his father's shoulder a squeeze.
"Hanging in…best I can," John wheezed, reaching up to give Jim's hand a fatherly pat. He then took a couple of deep draws on his oxygen, as if that simple statement and movement had taken all of his strength.
"Have you eaten dinner?" Jim asked. "Jane told me you haven't eaten much lately." Jim kept his voice as calm and level, but inside, his unease grew.
"Not very hungry lately."
"You've gotta eat something, Dad. Jean made some soup. I'll heat it up for us both."
"Where is Jean?"
"Working. I'll pick her up at ten." Jim took out a pan from a cabinet and dumped the soup in it. He rattled around in a drawer until he located a big spoon for stirring.
"How was practice?" John asked.
"Long and tiring," Jim said, giving the soup a stir.
"Big game Saturday."
"They're all big, according to coach," Jim said.
"He's right…of course." John said. He managed a smile at Jim around a wheezing breath.
"He says that, too," Jim said. He took the foil-wrapped bread out of the grocery sack and shoved it in the oven, then turned on the heat.
"You're on pace…for a thousand-yard season."
"There's a lot of season left, Dad," Jim said. "This is only the fourth game coming up."
"And you're averaging over … one hundred yards a game."
Jim smiled. "I know."
"Marriage must be agreeing with you," John said breathlessly. "Where's Jean, by the way?"
Jim frowned. "Dad, I just told you; she's working 'til ten." What's going on?
"Oh, yeah, you did."
"Are you all right, Dad?"
"Sure. I…just get tired at night. You'd better stir that soup again."
Jim gave the soup a stir and lowered the heat. Man, I'm starved. I'm used to Jean having dinner ready for me right after practice. I hope Dad'll eat some of this; he looks terrible. And he doesn't seem all there for some reason.
"I want you to promise me that no matter what happens in the next few weeks, that you won't quit school or give up playing ball."
Jim turned, the soup spoon in his hand. Droplets of chicken soup splattered on the floor, but Jim didn't notice. "Where did that come from?"
John shrugged slightly. "It's something I've been wanting to say. So, do I have your word?"
"Dad, I'm not planning on quitting. But you're more important to me than any school or football game, and if you need me, I'll be here." Jim frowned at his father, and his unease increased again. What made him ask that now?
"I don't want you using my being sick as an excuse."
"I won't, Dad. You know that I want a degree."
John nodded. "Good. I don't want you giving up anything important because I'm sick."
"Don't worry, okay?"
Jim turned back to the soup and stirred it once again, but swiveled around when he heard his father's chair scrape away from the table.
"Where are you going?"
John pushed himself slowly to his feet, using the table to brace himself. He creaked upright, then turned his head to face Jim. "To the bathroom…if that's okay with you?"
"Sorry." Jim shrugged, smiling. "Need some help with that tank?"
"You just tend the soup." John grabbed the handle of the small dolly that carried his oxygen tank. "I don't need the house burned down around me."
"Yes, sir." Jim pretended to turn back to the pot, but he kept a surreptitious watch on his father as the elder Reed walked slowly toward the kitchen door. Shock washed over Jim as he noticed his father's obviously slow and shaky gait, almost a shuffle, and an unmistakable tremor in his limbs that had not been present three days ago. What's happened in three days? How can he go downhill so fast? Is this what happens with cancer?
John stumbled as he reached the doorway and he flailed out an arm to catch himself against the door. Jim dropped the spoon and in two long strides reached his father's side. Jim got a supportive arm around his father's shoulders and straightened and steadied him.
"Dad, you okay?"
"I'm fine…fine," John tried to push Jim's arm from around him. "Danged tank throws me…sometimes." John dragged in an obviously painful and deep breath.
"Let me help you to the bathroom," Jim said, not relinquishing his hold on his father.
"I can go to the bathroom by myself!" John exclaimed irritably, then fell into a fit of coughing his raised voice caused.
Jim held him loosely until the coughing fit passed, his own heart breaking from seeing his fiercely independent father in need of help. Jim understood his father's frustration and insistence on staying independent, but this small incident had opened Jim's eyes to the possibility that his father might not be able to take care of himself much longer.
"Do you need any water?" Jim asked.
John shook his head, gasping for breath. Jim could feel his father's muscles trembling from the exertion to stay upright.
"Okay." Jim let go of his father then, but hovered closely, ready to grab him again if needed. "I'll just walk with you to the bathroom then, in case this tank throws you off balance again."
"All right," John agreed. He gave Jim a look that seemed a lot like gratitude, then resumed his halting walk toward the hall bathroom.
Jim walked quietly beside him, not touching his father, but poised to steady him if needed. I've got to let him do as much as he can on his own. It's important to him. We're probably going to have to fight his stubbornness as much as the cancer. I still can't get over the change in him just since Monday! "I'll wait on your right here, Dad. Call me if you need me."
John nodded, dragged his tank into the bathroom, then closed the door.
Jim sagged against the wall of the hallway, his insides a tornado of emotions. Fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, sadness, grief, and confusion all swirled inside him. The maelstrom made it impossible for him to make sense of anything. How can three days make so much difference? I don't get it. Maybe the tests showed something we don't know about. Why haven't we heard from Dr. Moody to get those results? I'd better call him in the morning. Or maybe this is nothing and Dad is just tired. It's after seven; maybe he just needs sleep. But if he's going to be like this, he doesn't need to be left alone. Jane and I are going to have to make sure someone's with him at night, too. I guess that'll be my job, since I just promised Dad I wouldn't quit school.
Jim heard the toilet flush and the water from the sink turn on, so he straightened and pushed his concerns aside for the moment.
"That soup's starting to smell really good," John said, as he shuffled out of the bathroom.
"Trust me, it is good," Jim said. He allowed his father to walk unassisted, but Jim stayed close by his side in case his father stumbled again.
"Where'd you get it?"
Jim's heart turned over in his chest. His father could remember how many yards Jim averaged on the football field; why couldn't he remember something Jim had told him five minutes earlier? "Jean made it," he said. Jim didn't remind his dad that he'd already told him that.
"She's a good cook, then?"
"You're happy, son? You and Jean getting along okay?" John reached the kitchen door and Jim helped him roll the heavy tank over the raised threshold.
"I'm really happy, Dad. We're doing just fine."
"You're sure? Sometimes adjusting to marriage is…difficult."
"I'm sure. Jean's great. I'm happier than I ever thought I could be." And if you weren't dying, Dad, life would be just about perfect.
"That's good." John said. He eased himself into the chair that Jim pulled out for him and adjusted his tank beside him. "I want you…to be happy."
"You don't have to worry about that." Jim got two bowls out of the cabinet, filled them with the steaming soup and took them over to the table. "A spoon and some bread coming up. And what do you want to drink?"
"Just water is fine."
Jim got a couple of spoons and placed them on the table, then got a potholder to take the bread from the oven. He grabbed a couple of plates for the bread on the way back to the table, then got some water for his father and milk for himself. Only then did he finally take a seat.
Jim grabbed up his spoon and started to take a bite of the soup -- his stomach had strengthened its protesting - but John tapped him on the hand with his own spoon.
"Have you forgotten how to say grace?" John asked him.
"Uh, no, sir," Jim said, surprised. Since his mother had died, he and his father rarely said grace over their food, even though his mother had always insisted. Jean insisted, as well, but Jim didn't think his father would care one way or the other. "I'm sorry."
John shrugged. "We should always be grateful for what we have."
"Yes, sir. You want me to say it?"
"I will." John bowed his head, and Jim followed suit. John uttered a short, breathless, heartfelt blessing, and Jim echoed his "amen." The short but sincere prayer had taken Jim back to his childhood. Jim could almost imagine that he would see his mother sitting at the table when he opened his eyes.
"Now, for some soup," John said. He took a small sip off his spoon, then nodded and smiled. "You're right. It's good." He had to take a deep breath before he could eat more, but he did take another spoonful.
Jim opened up the bread, put a warm piece on a plate for both he and his father, then started eating, too, pleased and satisfied that his father at least tried to eat. Jim tried not to stare at him, but the tremor in his father's hand and his lethargic pace disturbed Jim. I don't want to leave him alone any more, if this is the way he is all the time. I need to know if this is just temporary or is he this bad all the time. And one minute he seems okay, and the next confused. Is that normal?
"Do I have two heads, Jim?"
"Sir?" Jim set down his spoon.
"You're staring at me as if I had two heads."
"I'm sorry." Jim deliberately dropped his gaze to his bowl and took a bite of bread.
John took another slow sip of soup and a deep breath before asking, "Is something bothering you, Jim?"
What a question. He has to know how worried we all are. Surely he realizes how much worse he is. But I'll never have a better opening to ask him about his tests and all... "Uh, well, I was just thinking that you don't seem to feel as well as you did on Monday. You look a little tired."
John dipped a piece of the warm crusty bread into his soup and took a bite, his movements slow and apparently painful. He coughed after swallowing the morsel, and Jim watched him with a worried gaze.
"I guess I am tired," John wheezed when he could talk again.
"Maybe we should call Dr. Moody and tell him. Your test results should be back by now, too. Maybe he found something that should be treated."
John pushed his soup bowl away. "I don't need to talk to Dr. Moody."
"Is that all you're going to eat?" Jim asked.
"I can't eat much these days or I'll get sick."
"Why don't you need to talk to Dr. Moody?" Jim asked. "Surely he's got your test results by now."
John nodded. "He does. He called me yesterday morning and gave them to me. That's why I don't need to talk to him." John coughed and took a wheezing breath.
"What? You've known since yesterday morning? Jane didn't mention it to me, and neither did you on the phone last night."
"That's because I didn't want to tell you. I hadn't completely made up my mind about some of the things he said."
"What does that mean?" Jim asked. He pushed his own bowl of soup aside, his appetite ruined by a worsening anxiety.
"We'll talk when you're through eating," John said.
"I'm through now. Tell me what he said." Jim knew his voice sounded harder than it should. He's hiding something. It has to be bad.
"You haven't had nearly enough to eat."
"Dad, just tell me."
John dipped his head momentarily, then looked Jim straight in the eyes. "It wasn't good news."
Jim swallowed hard but kept his father's gaze. "I didn't figure it was, since you didn't want to tell us about it."
"I would have told you this weekend…on Sunday, after you were rested from your game." John paused and frowned. "You do have a game on Saturday?"
"Yes, Dad, I do. But don't worry about me or my game. I'm here now, so tell me what Dr. Moody told you." Jim kept his voice calm, but his stomach had tied itself into a knot. "Please."
"Dr. Moody thinks that…the radiation treatments are no longer effective. According to the tests, the cancer seems to have…spread."
Jim swallowed again. "How far? Where?"
"A lot. In a lot of places." John paused and took a couple of wheezing breaths. "They found new spots in the x-rays in my lung and on my liver. The pancreatic tumor has grown. And he even suspects I might have a tumor in the brain now."
Jim had to force himself not to sag into his chair and reveal the inner terror that hearing those words brought on. He had been dreading hearing this news for months. Jim licked at his lips and tried to get enough moisture into his mouth to speak. "What…what's his plan for fighting this?" Jim managed to get out.
"He said the next step would be that chemotherapy we'd talked about."
"Chemotherapy." Jim said the unusual word quietly, contemplating the little he knew about it. Toxic chemicals purposefully pumped into his father's body that would hopefully kill the cancer, but probably take out almost everything else useful in his body. It would make him deathly sick - sicker than radiation had. Destroy his immune system and worse. But if it could kill the cancer… "When will you start it?"
John didn't respond right away, but instead looked at Jim with a mixture of emotions. The elder Reed first looked determined, then sad, then sympathetic. "I'm not going to take the chemotherapy, Jim," he said quietly.
"You're not? Then what are you going to do?" Jim frowned.
John took a deep breath. "I'm not going to do anything. I'm not going to take any more treatments. No more radiation, no chemotherapy." He locked gazes with Jim. "Nothing."
Jim stared at his father, mouth open from the shock that reverberated through his body. It took a few moments for the words to cycle from his ears to his heart and back up to his brain. He could barely find the voice to croak, "But Dad…if you don't do anything, you'll…you'll…"
"Die." John placed a gentle hand on Jim's arm. "We knew that was inevitable all along, didn't we? It's just going to happen a little faster now."
"No! No, Dad, you can't do this. You've got to fight it."
"I'm tired of fighting, son," John wheezed.
The glowing coal of fear Jim had been unable to damp since the day he learned his father had cancer burst into a blaze of anger. He pushed his father's hand from his own arm and stood up, sending his chair sliding nosily across the kitchen tile. "You're giving up!" Jim accused, his voice trembling from barely suppressed emotion. "That's not right. It's not fair to us. You can't quit!"
"I can and I will," John's quiet, yet determined voice rang in sharp contrast to his son's. "I know I'm going to die, so I choose to die on my own terms."
"You're breaking your own rules," Jim said, his fresh grief crushing his heart. He pointed a trembling finger at his father. "You're the one who taught me - my whole life - to never give up. No matter what the odds, no matter what, you told me to never quit. Now you're quitting! Tell me how that's right!"
"Son, this is different from football, or getting an 'A' in algebra…"
"You're damned right it is," Jim said hoarsely. "It's life and death. You quit, you die. So you can't quit. I won't let you quit."
"Jim, I know you're upset, and I can understand why you are." John paused for breath. "But I'm still your father, so sit down and listen to me without blowing your stack." John pointed to Jim's empty chair.
Jim crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the kitchen counter rather than sit in the chair. Chin out and jaw clinched, he glared at his father, angry and more than a little defiant, but unshed tears of grief blurred his vision and choked his throat. His chest heaved in his efforts to calm down.
"All right, then, be stubborn and stand there. But you will listen to me." John's jaw clenched as well, and despite its weakness, his voice took on the unmistakable edge of authority.
Jim nodded once, running his hands through his hair and recrossing his arms over his chest. "Just tell me why," he choked out.
"All right." John's voice turned gentle. "If you promise to really listen to what I'm saying."
Jim nodded again.
John dragged in a deep breath and coughed before speaking. "Dr. Moody and I had a long talk yesterday when he called. I made him be straight up with me, give me the best-case and worst-case scenarios. And to tell the truth, there wasn't much difference between the two. And there's a pretty good chance the so-called cure would kill me before the cancer. It's all still experimental."
Jim waited for his father to regain his breath again. He understood what John Reed said, but his heart didn't want to accept it.
"He told me to think about it and decide what I wanted to do. So I did. I thought about it. Prayed about it. And I decided that I didn't want to go through that…put my family through it for what might only amount to a few weeks more of life."
"But, Dad…" Jim began, only to be cut off by John's upraised hand.
"I'm ready to go, son. I'm ready to put an end to the pain, to the expense, the uncertainty…and the false hopes." John locked gazes with Jim again, but Jim had to look away.
"I still think you're giving up too soon," Jim insisted, looking at the ceiling. "What if they find a cure the day after…"
"There isn't going to be any cure. That's what I mean by false hopes. A cure is decades away. It might not come even in your lifetime. That's something we all have to accept." John had to stop again to breathe. He sagged back in his chair, looking for all the world like a deflated balloon. "And another thing. I told Dr. Moody, when the end comes, I don't want all that…that life support stuff and doctors tryin' to prolong my life. Just let me go in peace."
I can't believe what I'm hearing. "What about us?" Jim tore his gaze from the ceiling and looked at his father. "Jane and me. We want you with us for as long as possible."
"That's selfish," John said.
"Selfish?" Jim's anger flared anew. "How can it be selfish for us to want our Dad to be with us for a long time? We love you, Dad."
"When you love somebody, you want what makes them happy. And what's going to make me happy is to be free of pain. And to be with your mother again."
John Reed's words tore through Jim's heart, ripping through his emotions with their white-hot edges, and opening still-raw places in his soul. Jim couldn't find his voice; he could barely find his breath. He leaned heavily against the kitchen counter and rubbed his forehead, trying to steady himself. I'm in a nightmare. I can't believe what he's saying. He wants to die. He wants to die. How can I deal with that?
"Try to understand, Jim."
Jim spread his hands in a helpless gesture, fighting to stay calm. "I'm trying, but…"
"Then if you can't understand, just please don't fight me." John reached over and pulled the pile of papers in front of him. "I'd like the time I have left with you to be pleasant."
"Dad," Jim said, putting all the anguish and confusion he felt inside into that one syllable. "Dad, please don't do this."
"I've been making arrangements the past couple of days," John rifled through the papers and pulled out one or two, along with some sealed envelopes. "I called …uh…Reverend, um, Reverend . . . ?"
"Reverend Casey?" Jim blinked and tried to follow his father's line of thought. Why did he call the minister? And why can't he remember his name? He's been his minister for twenty-five years! Dr. Moody's right about that brain tumor.
"Yes." John picked up a piece of paper filled with writing. "Reverend Casey. He helped me with the funeral arrangements."
"The funeral arrangements?" Jim didn't think he could take one more piece of shocking news.
"That's right. It's something we've been avoiding talking about, so I went ahead and took care of the preliminaries. I gave a copy of the burial policy to the funeral home and picked out my casket."
Jim's knees almost buckled as he gaped wordlessly at his father.. I can't believe this. I can't believe it.
After a couple of shaky breaths, John continued, "I talked over some other things with Reverend…ummm… Casey. It's all right here." John put the paper down and patted it. "Of course, there's still some decisions that you and Jane will have to make, but I think I've done the hardest of it for you.
"And I amended the will. It'll be ready next week." John stopped as a painful expression covered his face. He put a hand to his head and leaned on the table.
"Dad?" Jim quickly moved to his side. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Just feel a little dizzy."
"What can I get for you? What do I need to do?"
"I should just lie down, I guess. What time is it?"
Jim looked at his watch. "A little after eight."
"I usually go to bed by now," John said. He frowned and rubbed at his head. "And I think I have to take some medicine."
"I'll help you get to bed," Jim said, both worried and relieved. Maybe if his father got some rest, Jim could have some time to think of something to get him to change his mind about treatment. I'll talk to Jane. Maybe if she says something, Dad'll change his mind. "Where's your medicine?"
"By my bed…I think," John said. "Yeah, that's where it is. In the pillbox."
"Okay. Come on, and I'll help you get settled." Jim gently tugged on his father's arm.
John slowly stood, though he wavered slightly. Jim put a bracing arm on his back to keep him steady. "Okay, Dad?"
"Yeah. I'm just really tired, now. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize." Jim kept his hand on his father's back as they walked slowly toward the bedroom.
"I'm sorry…that I upset you."
John sighed, then coughed. They had to stop for him to finish the coughing and catch his breath. Jim could see the pain etched on his father's face, and it tore him up inside to have to watch his once strong and vital father reduced to the very sick man who stood beside him.
John started forward again, but allowed Jim to drag the oxygen tank. By the time they reached the bedroom, John seemed spent. Jim settled him on the side of the bed.
"Pajamas?" Jim asked, then retrieved a pair from the drawer when his father nodded. "Need help?"
"No. Go get me a glass of water while I change."
Jim didn't want to leave his father alone until he tucked him safely into bed, but he went back to the kitchen and fixed a large glass of ice water. When he got back to the bedroom with it, his father had barely managed to get out of his day clothes. Jim put the water down on the coaster located on the nightstand next to the bed, and deliberately didn't watch his father struggle to dress himself.
"I'll put these in the hamper for you, Dad," Jim said, scooping up the discarded clothes.
"Thanks," John wheezed.
Jim took the clothes to the bathroom to place in the hamper, taking his time, but always listening to see if he needed to hurry back to his father's side. Along with the grief weighing down his heart, a heavy sense of responsibility settled over him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd known the time would come when his father could no longer care for himself safely, but Jim had fooled himself into thinking it would be much, much further down the road.
Tonight, the reality of the situation had hit him smack in the face. And it broke his heart.
John had just finished fumbling with the last button on his pajama top when Jim walked back into the room, a forced smile on his face. "That's more comfortable, huh?"
"Yeah." John pushed his oxygen tank over some, then lay down on the already turned-down bed.
Jim came over and straightened the air hose, playing out just a little more slack so his father wouldn't accidentally pull the tank over in the night. He then pulled the covers up so John could reach them. "Do you need to sit up straighter?" Jim asked.
"No…this is good." John closed his eyes.
"Don't go to sleep until I get your medicines," Jim said. He reached for the pillbox and for the paper underneath it. Thank God Jane wrote all this stuff down so we wouldn't get confused. Jim checked the list, the half-filled bottles and the pillbox, satisfied himself that he'd located the correct pills, then gave them to his father. It took John a while to get the medicines down, and Jim noticed that he seemed to have trouble swallowing.
"Anything else you need, Dad?" Jim asked. He shifted the covers up around his father's chest.
"No. I just need some sleep. It's been a hard…two days."
"Yeah." And it's not going to get any easier. "I'm going to go clean up the kitchen and stick around until it's time to pick up Jean from the store." He didn't mention that he would come back and stay the night, as well.
"I can clean it up…tomorrow."
"No way. I'll take care of it. Jean's training me well."
John managed a slight grin. "Women'll…do that."
"Night, Dad. You call me if you need anything." Jim turned to leave, but John reached out and grasped his arm. "What, Dad?"
"On the table. There's an envelope with…your name on it. Take it."
"What's in it?"
"A letter. Things…I want to say, but don't have the breath for anymore." John closed his eyes briefly, obviously exhausted. "You can read it whenever you have time."
"Okay, Dad," Jim said. The rip in his heart widened a little further. He's really putting his affairs in order.
"There's one for Janie, too," John wheezed. Jim could barely hear him. "But don't give it to her until…"
"I won't, Dad. I know you want to talk to her first."
John nodded. "Right."
"Get some sleep now, Dad," Jim said. He patted his father's shoulder once, then quietly backed out of the room. John fell asleep before Jim had reached the hallway. Jim stood at the door and watched his father for a few moments, then turned and went back to the kitchen.
Jim slumped into his chair and cupped his head in his hands, leaning his elbows on the kitchen table. He couldn't feel more sick and defeated if someone had come into the house and beaten him senseless with a baseball bat. The need to do something pressed in on him, but his jumbled thoughts and shattered heart kept him from being able to make sense of anything. The idea that his father wanted to die and had begun actively planning for his death made him sick to his stomach. He ached for Jean's presence; he craved her comforting touch and ability to soothe his spirit with a simple word.
What am I going to do? Should I call Jane tonight or wait until tomorrow and talk to the doctor first? Should I try to talk Dad out of this nonsense? Or do I respect his wishes and let him die the way he wants? But how can I just let him go? Just watch him die? I don't think I can do it. God, show me what to do.
Jim sat for a long while, lost in his thoughts, too numb to cry, too tired to move and too confused to truly think. He finally decided that he couldn't do anything until he'd talked to Jean and tried to get some perspective on what had happened here tonight. He lifted his head and his gaze fell on the papers his father had been working on.
Jim picked up the one sheet that held information on the funeral. He looked it over, getting ever sicker as he surveyed the information. It's all here. Casket model. Requested songs. The suit he wants to wear… I can't stand this. Jim put the paper down and got up from the table. He picked up the still-full soup bowls and began to clean the kitchen, hoping the routine of doing the ordinary would help him.
But even as he put up the soup and bread, washed the dishes and wiped down the countertops, his mind kept going back to his father's words. "I'm not going to do anything. I'm not going to take any more treatments. …what's going to make me happy is to be free of pain. And to be with your mother again. And to be with your mother again."
"Dad, I don't want you to give up," Jim whispered. He hung the wet dishcloth over the faucet and sat back down in the chair at the table. "I guess that is selfish, but how else am I supposed to feel?"
Jim pulled the pile of papers closer to him and looked through them. He found the envelopes addressed to he and his sister, and he put them aside for the moment. Among the other papers he found notes that his father had written to himself in a shaky handwriting, that outlined things about the household. Checking and savings account numbers, locations of life insurance policies, keys to a safety deposit box and deed to the house highlighted the important things on the list. Other, lesser things such as the location of the family archival Bible, the photo albums and certain family heirlooms finished out the paper.
Jim then found several bills in the pile, almost all of them from the UCLA Medical Center, Dr. Moody or various labs. They'd been opened, their balances circled, but no indication of payment made. The dollar amounts stunned Jim. He knew that the medical care didn't come cheap, but seeing an actual bill sent a chill down his spine. Dad wanting to die had better NOT be because of the expense. Surely he wouldn't just give up because the insurance isn't covering his treatments. That possibility upset him even further, because he knew his father had been dismayed to discover his work-provided insurance didn't cover cancer treatments. Jim also knew his father had dipped deeply into the money he'd gotten from selling the gas station to pay a lot of the bills, and that the reserve had almost been depleted.
That's something else to talk over with Jane. I know Dad doesn't want to lose the house, but I'd rather lose the house than lose him.
The last paper jarred Jim even further. His father had written "Jim" and "Jane" at the top of the paper and had begun a list of household items and other things under each of their names in an apparent effort to split them equally between the two of them. Under Jane's name, John had written "Alice's jewelry," "bedroom painting," and "Alice's doily collection," among other things. Under Jim's name his father had written "power tools," "lawnmower," "car," and a few other items. Jim pushed it aside, horrified to see yet another manifestation of his father's determination to simply die. Jim closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples. He had to fight to keep the little soup he'd eaten from coming back up. Jim lay his head on the table and prayed to God for strength to make it through what lay ahead.
After a few moments, Jim sat up and shook himself, afraid he'd fall asleep or otherwise lose track of time and forget to go pick up Jean. I don't want to be late getting there. I don't like it when she has to close and I sure don't want her there by herself after closing. He looked at his watch to confirm he still had time, then his gaze fell on the envelope sitting in front of him.
"No, I don't want to read that tonight," Jim said to himself. "Not after all this." But he couldn't keep himself from looking at the sealed envelope. A combination of concern and curiosity got the better of him, and he picked it up, turning it over in his hands for a few minutes. Finally, he tore the seal and pulled out two pieces of paper folded together, covered in John's handwriting, now shaky from his illness, yet the unmistakable bold strokes that characterized his style.
Jim lay the papers on the table, smoothed them flat with his hand, and began to read.
Writing this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Reading this may be the hardest thing you've had to do. But I can't leave this earth before telling you things I know I should've told you a long time before now. I'm sorry that now that I want to say them, I don't have the breath or the strength. Forgive me.
First of all, I want to say how much I love you. I hope you know that. You're the finest son a man could ever ask for. You're strong and good, and a loving and caring young man, and you have always made me proud, no matter what you've done. You know I'm proud of your athletic ability. I admire your determination to succeed and how hard you work. I'm proud of the good grades you've managed to make all through your schooling, too. That will open a lot of doors for you. But most of all, I'm proud of who you are. I'd like to think I had something to do with your strong character, but ultimately you make your own choices. And you've made some good ones. You have a good head on your shoulders and I know you will always do your best to do the right thing. And just in case you wonder, you have always shown your love to me. Don't ever think I doubted your love and respect.
You have a lot on you right now, being newly married, playing ball, going to school, working, and dealing with my illness. But you are strong. I saw that strength in you when we lost your mother - the ability to deal with so many stressful things and still meet your responsibilities. And you will handle this, too. I want you to remember that your life will go on, long after I am gone, and no matter what happens in the next few weeks, I want you to stay in school, keep playing ball, and spend time with your wife. Getting your college degree is the most important thing you can do to insure a successful future for you and your family. That being said, I know you will be at my side when it really counts. Grieve if you wish, but then get on with living.
Now I want to tell you some things I hope will help you in the future. I'm sorry I won't be here for you, to help you smooth things over with Jean when you have that first awful fight; to show you how to change a diaper; to help you fix up your car; to keep you from blowing your stack when your teenager does something stupid (and they will, so just get ready). I think that not being able to see my grandchildren is the hardest fact to accept. I hope you'll tell them about me and will be able to share happy stories with them. Maybe some of these things will help out.
1. Stay faithful to God and go to church. Give your family a strong foundation of faith. You won't regret it.
2. Honor your marriage above all else. Jean is a great gift from God. Always love her. Always be faithful to her. Don't let a momentary temptation wreck a life of love. She will be your greatest support and your best friend if you only love her, provide for her, respect her and her opinions, and stay faithful to her. Tell her you love her every day. Twice a day. Never, ever leave her doubting your love for her. Spend time with her, and when you're alone, let her have all of your attention. If you do this, your marriage will bless your life.
3. Be honest in your dealings with everyone. Never underestimate the value of a good reputation. One lie can destroy it. Never lie to your wife or your children, even if the truth might hurt a little. The truth is always the best. Never lie to your boss, or your coworkers, and most especially, don't lie to yourself.
4. Whatever you do, do your best at it. Right now you say you want to be a policeman. If so, be the best policeman you can be. Work hard. Be fair. Treat those you protect and serve with respect. Don't abuse your position or the public trust. Do your best to get along with your co-workers. You'll spend a lot of time with them, so make the best of it. Unfortunately, you'll find that a lot of people you work with won't be as nice, or hard-working, or honest as you are. Always "take the high road" and don't get down to their level.
5. Spend time with your children. Your career is important, providing for your family is important, but loving your children is more important. Your children won't care if you live in a big house, if they know you love them. Invest in your family--the returns are worth any sacrifice.
I hope that I have given you what you need in life. I tried to teach you all the basics - honesty, hard work, kindness, responsibility - and do it in love. I pray that I've succeeded. When I look at you and your life, I think your mother and I did a pretty good job.
I wish the best for you always. You're the heart and soul of my life. I hope God will allow me to watch over you once I am gone from this earth. That would be a great way for me to spend eternity.
I love you, Jim.
By the time Jim reached the end of the letter, tears had so blurred his vision that he could barely make out the words.
"I love you, too, Dad," he whispered. Hands trembling, Jim folded the papers back into their original shape and placed them back in the envelope. Emotion overcame him, and he finally allowed his tears to fall
Jim tapped the picture of him and his father and stared at it just a while longer, lost in his bittersweet memories. He had long since memorized that letter from his father, and had stored the original safely away in the fireproof box where he kept other important papers. Jim kept a photocopy of the letter in his locker at work, and another one in his sock drawer, as an emotional back up for tough times.
Dad, you're doing a pretty good job of watching over me - you and Mom. I don't think I'd have made it home from the desert that night if you hadn't. But I'm the one who's dropped the ball. I haven't even mentioned you to Jimmy yet. He's young, but I could at least show him pictures. Why haven't I done that yet?
Jim closed the wedding album and blew out a breath. "Because you don't want to admit to yourself how hard it still is to talk about losing your parents, you selfish jerk." He put the wedding album back in its proper location, feeling more than a little guilty. He walked back toward the bedroom, fully intending to finish up with the loose papers, and get on with the clean up job.
Jim sat down on the bed and looked through the papers, discarding most and placing the others in the oil box that he'd salvaged from the garage. But he couldn't shake the oppressive, leaden feeling that stayed in his chest since he'd thought about the night he first read his father's letter. He managed to seal the box and get it labeled, adding it to his "completed" pile, but afterwards he sat back down on the bed, suddenly drained.
This is how I felt that night. And every day after that night. It was just the beginning of the end for Dad - that nightmare that never seemed to end. I've never been so confused as I was those terrible weeks. For Dad's sake, I wanted it to end, but when the time came I just wasn't ready. I just wasn't ready…
The bench on the home sidelines of Warriors Stadium had never felt so hard and cold to Jim Reed. He sat on the far end of the bench, as far away from anyone else on his team that he could get, a damp towel draped over his bowed head, his attention anywhere but on the football field. He'd screwed up royally for almost four full quarters of football today. He'd been much more a liability to his team rather than an asset, so now he didn't want to face anyone. The restless rumbling of the crowd barely registered with Jim, on this mid-November day that felt more like mid-August, thanks to the Santa Anna winds that swept in from the desert.
Why am I here? Why did I even bother? I should've stayed with Dad. I'd have been more use to him than I was to the team today. What if this is Dad's last day on earth and I've wasted it here?
None of his teammates or even his coaches approached him, which suited Jim just fine. He preferred to be alone in his shame. Besides, they all seemed glued either to the scoreboard or the field, both of which told a tale of missed opportunities, inept execution, and an abundance of errors. The scoreboard read Visitors 7, Warriors 6, with 1:22 and counting left to play. On the field, the Warrior defense struggled to hold the visiting Titans to those seven points, but even though the football game had been a classic defensive struggle, the Warriors defense had about all it could handle. Now the Titans stood poised to score again, their line of scrimmage the Warriors 21-yard line.
Thanks to my fumble, we don't have a chance now. It's over and we're losing, and our playoff hopes are out the window. I knew I shouldn't have played. This is my fault. I should have stayed with Dad. I've let everybody down today. I should've listened to my gut feelings and stayed at the hospital.
Jim hadn't wanted to leave his father's side to play today, but his family had insisted that his father would have wanted him to play, regardless. Even though Jim knew that to be true, leaving his seriously ill father in the hospital to play a ball game had been difficult. He felt sad, and guilty, and more like an ungrateful child than someone following his father's wishes. Jim's play on the field had reflected those negative feelings. He'd fumbled twice, and had barely topped the thirty-yard mark in rushing yards. He'd been a major target of the Titans' defense all afternoon, and had seen more of the turf in his face than he had seen the sky. He hadn't even gotten near the end zone. Jim's first fumble led directly to the Titans' lone touchdown. His second fumble, deep in their own territory, had happened only seconds ago, appeared to be leading to yet another Titan touchdown. It also seemed to seal the fate of the Warriors' team. On top of that, Jim's lack of rushing yardage likely made his hopes of a 1,000-yard season an empty dream.
After the second fumble, Jim had slunk to the bench, both physically and emotionally spent, his beaten body aching and his spirit broken. A trainer brought him a wet towel to help cool him down, but after that, everyone else steered a wide path around him. Jim figured his teammates had already cast him in the role of the game goat. Jim didn't dare look over his shoulder to the crowd where Jean sat with her father, cheering him on, as usual. At least Jean still loves me. One look at his wife and he'd probably break down from the intensity of it all, and he'd determined he would not do that. So, he simply stared at the ground and wallowed in his guilty misery.
A sharp, loud roar from the crowd and a cacophony of cries from the bench brought Jim's head up with a snap. The towel dropped from his head and he got to his feet to see what had happened. He saw one of his teammates getting off the ground, holding the ball triumphantly over his head, and the referee signaling a first down for the Warriors. Apparently one of the defensive backs had intercepted a short pass, and with 1:01 showing on the clock, the Warriors had new life.
The coaches and offensive team sprang to action. The head coach, Robert Messner, called a quick time-out, the Warrior's last one. Jim grabbed his helmet and stuck it on his head, even as the offensive coordinator growled and motioned for him to get over to the sideline huddle for instructions.
"Here's the plan," Coach Messner barked, his voice raspy from overwork during the game. "We've only got a minute - they're going to expect us to throw every down to get into field goal range. But we haven't had any success against that man-to-man defense. We also haven't had any luck running today. So we're going to try to soften up that line by throwing a long pass on first down. We'll run 32-Reddog. Fredricks, throw that ball as far as you can throw it. If you've got a man open, try to hit him. If not, throw it out of bounds. Just throw it, but don't risk an interception. Got it?"
"Yessir," the quarterback replied.
"If it goes complete, great. But it's a set up for the next play. I want to run the halfback draw, 16-Charlie. I think they'll go softer and more into their prevent defense after the first down play, and that'll loosen up the defense for Reed. If we can seal off the few left on the line and Reed can break into the open field, it's a whole new ballgame. Jim, get out of bounds when you see you've made all the yardage you can." The coach held Jim's eyes a moment. "You with me?"
"Yes, sir," Jim nodded, though his stomach dropped. After the awful day he'd had, the whole game possibly hinged on his next performance. He felt both awed and terrified that his coach would trust him after all he'd done wrong today.
"Fredricks, if we're not in field goal range after that, then we'll run a down-and-out to Walker to get us there. If we have the range, we'll run in the field goal unit. Everybody on the same page?"
The team chorused an acknowledgment, even as the referees blew the whistle to end the time out.
"Then get in there and let's win us a ball game."
Jim trotted out onto the field and took his position behind the line. Jaw clenched in determination, he talked to himself under his breath. "Come on, Jim, one minute. Give it everything you can for one minute. You gotta make up for your screwups today. Don't let the team down. Don't let your Dad down. Do it for him. Do it, or you wasted your time here."
He crouched into his stance and looked up into the eyes of the defensive lineman who had made his life miserable today. No more. No more.
Jim turned on his automatic pilot as Fredericks barked out the cadences. He pushed the last 59 minutes of play out of his mind. He blocked his last sight of his dying father from his head, and thought only of somehow getting that ball into the end zone.
"Hut!" Fredericks called for the snap, and 22 bodies on the field moved almost in concert.
On this play Jim's assignment was to pick up any blitzing outside linebacker and keep him off Fredericks' back long enough to get the pass off. Jim's counterpart, a wide load of a fullback named Mixon, would do the same on the other side. At the snap, Jim backed into position, his eyes locked solely on a massive blur of black and silver heading his way. Jim held his ground as Frederick backpedaled and prepared to pass. The grunts and groans of the linemen engaged in the trenches punctuated the roaring crowd. As the Titan's linebacker reached Jim, they added their own grunts as Jim picked up his block. The determined Titan took a massive arm and tried to manhandle Jim out of the way, but Jim wouldn't yield, despite the size disparity. He only needed to hang on another second; just another second…Jim twisted and got a shoulder under his opponent's arm, then pushed hard, just barely altering the stunting linebacker's trajectory.
But it was enough. Jim heard Fredericks grunt as he got the pass away, so Jim released his block and followed the flight of the ball downfield. The crowd cheered hopefully, but Jim knew the ball wouldn't find its target; Fredericks had thrown the ball away. It fell harmlessly out of bounds, and the home crowd moaned in response. Jim heard Fredericks curse under his breath, while the Titans players clapped their hands and congratulated each other.
The incomplete pass stopped the clock momentarily, so Jim joined his teammates as they huddled around their quarterback. Fredericks looked straight into Jim's eyes and narrowed his own. "It's coming to you, Jim," he said. "On three."
Jim liked Joey Fredericks, and enjoyed playing ball with him. They'd both joined the squad as freshmen and also spent time together socially. Jim thought him one of the smartest people he'd ever met, both in terms of athletics and academics. So Jim had little trouble hearing the unspoken message send by his friend. Don't screw this up, Jim.
"Just get me the ball," Jim said. He sent his own unspoken message to his teammates.
Fredericks nodded, then clapped his hands. They broke the huddle with 51 seconds left on the clock.
The linemen settled into place, and Jim crouched in his three-point stance. Don't mess this up, Jim. You can do it. He caught the eye of the linebacker he'd blocked on the previous play. The Titan drilled Jim with an intense stare and a snarled lip. Jim returned the stare with equal intensity.
"That's right," Jim muttered under his breath. "Get mad. Get mad and run right by me, and I'll leave you in the dust."
Fredericks started the snap count and on his third Hut! The Warriors' center put the ball into play. Fredericks took the ball and drifted back, and as designed, the line sagged slightly to let the opposing linemen in. Jim circled around as if to block, as his quarterback faded back even further. The black and silver clad Titans poured through the line, taking the bait as hoped.
At exactly the right moment, Jim turned upfield and Fredericks put the football into his midsection. The quarterback then threw a vicious block on the nearest Titan, and Jim took advantage of the empty space of grass. He leaped over the fallen lineman and ran for the hole that the rushing Titans had left in the line.
Jim shook off the hand of a would-be tackler that grabbed at him as he burst through the line. Both hands wrapped around the ball, Jim put his head down and fought for balance as yet another Titan managed to fight off his block and make a grab for him. This Titan's hands slipped off Jim as well, as Jim kept his legs churning and refused to let anyone bring him down.
Suddenly free of the crush of men on the line, Jim looked up and saw at least thirty clear yards of running room, with only a few men from the Titan's secondary standing between him and the goal line. So Jim did what he did best - he tucked the ball securely in his left arm and turned on his speed.
The roar of the crowd didn't drown out the sound of his own harsh breathing as Jim ran for daylight. Jim narrowed his focus down to near-tunnel vision; all he had eyes for was the goal line and the Titan defenders that now began to close the gap. Jim angled for the near sideline, mindful of the steadily-ticking game clock. Years of training, practice, and words of advice from his father and all his various coaches kicked in at a sub-conscious level.
Don't look back. Keep your focus. Watch for your blocks. Protect the ball. Block out the pain. Push harder, push harder.
Jim made the sideline and ran down it as fast as his tired legs would take him. He knew he'd crossed the fifty yard-line, but he needed at least twenty more yards before the Warriors would be in a comfortable field-goal range. Jim saw one of his teammates trying to block out one of the Titans secondary that had a clear shot to him, and his peripheral vision showed another black-and-silver clad defender coming at him at an angle from the opposite side of the field. Jim had to make a decision - angle back from the sidelines to avoid the onrushing Titan in front of him so he could gain more yardage, or stay his course so he could get out of bounds at the end of the play.
In the fraction of a second available to him to make that decision, Jim knew the team would be better off if he stayed his course. Even if he came up a little short on yardage, they had no timeouts, and he had to get out of bounds to enable the field goal unit to set up. So Jim ran on, wanting to get every single yard he could get before he got tackled. He gasped for air, ignored the burning in his calves and chest, and placed his other hand over the ball as he neared the Titan tackler. It was obvious that Jim's teammate wouldn't be able to take the enemy player, so Jim tensed for the inevitable tackle. Taking a dive out of bounds wasn't an option in Jim's personal playbook; unless directly ordered to do so, Jim preferred to meet his opponents head on and take his chances. He was close enough to the sidelines so they would be carried out of bounds and stop the clock.
The Titan player was close enough now so that Jim could see the determination in his eyes. He bore down on Jim at full-tilt and when the gap narrowed to just two yards between them, the Titan finally made a mistake. He left his feet and dove at Jim's knees in his effort to take Jim down.
Jim could hardly believe his good fortune. Leaping over a diving tackler was much easier than running the 440 hurdles in track; something Jim had done for years in high school. Jim slowed ever so slightly as the Titan dove at him, then pushed off and leapt high above the black jersey. Jim's opponent threw up an arm, trying to trip Jim, but the effort proved to be too little too late. The Titan's meaty hand slid off Jim's knee pad, then somehow, his fingers found the opening of Jim's shoe. Just as Jim thought he'd beaten his last obstacle, he felt his right leg jerk back. It threw him off-balance, and Jim saw the turf rushing up to meet him. He threw out his right arm to catch himself, and almost overbalanced as his leg suddenly popped free. He half-stumbled, half-scrambled on one hand and his two feet, somehow managing to keep his knee from hitting the ground. After three or four yards of the awkward scrabble, Jim straightened, and saw nothing but an empty gridiron in front of him.
Jim turned on the afterburners and raced for the end zone, easily outracing the final Titan defender. When he crossed the wide white stripe into the diamond-patterned end zone, Jim gave into exhaustion and stumbled to the ground. He lay there for a moment, dragging in deep breaths and listening to the deafening roar of the home crowd. Thank you, God, thank you, thank you…Dad'll be so proud.
After just a few seconds, his jubilant teammates reached him and pounced on him in the end zone, slapping him on the back, and congratulating him endlessly. One of them finally pulled Jim to his feet, and the group of Warriors headed back to the sidelines to make room for the kicking team, reveling in the jubilant screams of the crowd.
"Hey, Reed, you might need this," Fredericks met him halfway to the sidelines and held out a shoe.
Jim looked down and saw that he did only have one shoe on. He hadn't even noticed until then. He grinned at his teammate. "Yeah," he said.
Fredericks returned the grin, slapped the shoe into Jim's chest, then pounded him on the shoulder pads. "Knew you could do it, slow-poke," he said as he jogged along beside Jim toward the sidelines.
"Sure you did," Jim said. I sure didn't. They reached the sidelines then and Jim received brief congratulations from his coaches before they turned their attention to the kicking team.
Jim pulled off his helmet and scanned the crowd for his wife. Jean always sat in the same place so he could find her quickly. Until now, he hadn't wanted to face her, he'd been so ashamed of his performance, but he wanted to see her now. It didn't take him long to find her, looking straight at him, smiling from ear-to-ear. Jim lifted his helmet to her and flashed her a quick grin. She rewarded him by blowing him a kiss. Jim grinned wider and turned back to the field just in time to watch the football split the uprights for the extra point.
Jim clapped his hands as once again the home crowd cheered. Now the Warriors held a 13-7 lead, with only six seconds left on the clock. I know the defense can hang on for six seconds. If they just don't make a mistake…
Jim watched the field with renewed interest now that he'd made a positive contribution to the day. Even if the defense messed up and the Titans won after all, he wouldn't feel quite so guilty over his sub-par performance. And he wouldn't feel so badly about facing his family and friends, either. I hope Dad will be coherent enough to understand what happened today. Maybe it'll do something for him. Help him hang in a little longer.
The thought of his father sent Jim's stomach to churning again. Even though he watched his teammates kick off and successfully stop a return by the Titans deep in their own territory, his mind had already rewound itself to his last sight of his father from earlier in the day. That soul-rending memory of his totally unresponsive Dad took precedence over the remaining three seconds of the game, in which the Warriors successfully defended a long pass as the horn sounded to end the game.
Jim turned to give a quick "thumbs-up" to Jean before he got swept up in the crush of his teammates rushing the field to celebrate the last-second victory. He joined them in the joyful congratulations, then in the ritual of shaking hands with their competitors, but he managed to do it quickly, and head on into the locker room ahead of most of his teammates. In fact, only the trainers and managers had made it to the locker room ahead of him. They greeted Jim with backslaps and wide grins and "way to go's," as they took care of his soiled uniform and equipment. Jim accepted their praise and congratulations graciously, then took advantage of the relative calm to grab his toiletries and hit the shower before the coaches, reporters, and the scores of others who usually crammed into the post-game locker room setting made their appearance. Warriors football didn't get the TV and newspaper coverage that the Bruins or Trojans did, but they did have a considerable alumni base and got quite enough publicity for Jim's taste. He didn't like talking with reporters, anyway, so the low-key treatment suited him just fine.
I don't want to get tied up with them today. I just want to get with Jean and get back to the hospital. I hope she's waiting on me when I sneak out of here.
Jean always waited for him outside the locker room, of course, along with whatever other family members had come to the game. Only her father had come with her today, since Jane and Phil had stayed at the hospital with their father. Coach Messner had already agreed that Jim could skip all the post-game hoopla so he could get back to his father's side.
Coach has been so good to me. He understands that football just isn't my number one priority right now. I can only do so much, and I don't know how much longer I'll have Dad. Jim had to swallow hard and blink back sudden tears as he thought about it. He scrubbed at his tired and dirty body and tried to scrub away the distressing thoughts as well.
The noise level increased in the main locker room and over the hiss of the shower Jim heard the usual whooping and hollering that accompanied the return of his teammates. He finished his shower quickly, and stepped into the toilet area where he'd stashed his clean clothing to dress. He felt only marginally refreshed from the cooling shower; his body still ached from the abuse he'd taken on the field. I need to at least stay for Coach's post-game talk.
By the time Jim finished dressing, the team had finished singing the fight song, a long-standing Warrior tradition, win or lose, and the locker room had grown quiet. Jim heard Coach Messner's game-weary voice break the near-silence. Jim walked back into the locker room and slipped in beside some of his teammates, who greeted him with a slap on the back and an understanding smile. Jim took in the usual post-game scene - Coach Messner standing on a bench in the center of the locker room, surrounded by players leaning, sitting or kneeling around him, scarred and dirty helmets in hand, in turn surrounded by a ring of scribbling reporters, influential alumni and other supporters. A few flashes of light from a reporter's camera punctuated the room.
"…by no means was this our finest hour of football today," Messner said, with a wry smile. That drew a few chuckles, moans, and other sounds of agreement from the weary players. "When we review the game films and look at the stats, I know none of us will be very happy with what we see. Some of you didn't play very well at all today. Some of you gave everything you had and just got outmanned by some very talented Titan players. Some of you won't get very good scores this week, and that shouldn't surprise you."
That pronouncement brought another round of groans from the Warrior players.
"But the news isn't all bad," the coach continued, his voice so hoarse he could barely be understood. "You hung in there. When it looked bad, you hung in there, working together, and kept yourself in a position where you could win. And when the critical time came, you sucked it up and did what you had to do. I'm proud of each and every one of you. You proved to me today that you're men who know how to play as a team - to pick each other up when one isn't having a great day. To play together and not point fingers. That means more to me than any victory. Now hit the showers and enjoy your Saturday night, because I want to see all of your smiling faces in the film room at 1:00 p.m. sharp tomorrow to review films so we can talk about what went wrong." Coach Messner clapped his hands twice, then stepped down from his perch, the sign that the winning celebration could start up again.
Jim squirmed his way through the crush of his teammates, speaking briefly with some of them, trying to make his way to his locker to pick up his wallet and keys before heading out. Jim spotted a couple of reporters heading his way, so he deliberately turned his back and pushed on through to his locker. He was surprised to see Coach Messner standing there waiting for him.
"Hello, Coach," Jim said. He ducked his head briefly, knowing in his heart that, despite his winning touchdown, he'd made little contribution to the team today. "I'm sorry I didn't play better."
"Hey," Messner placed a fatherly hand on his shoulder. "none of that. It took a lot of guts for you to even get out there today. I almost benched you a half-dozen times, but not because I was angry. I was afraid you'd get hurt, with your mind maybe not focusing on what you were doing."
"Thanks for giving me a chance to redeem myself," Jim said. He found it hard to look into the compassionate eyes of his coach.
"You've got the heart of a champion, Jim," Coach Messner told him. "I knew you'd come through, not only for us, but for yourself."
"Yessir," Jim nodded once. "Thanks."
"And besides, sometimes giving and taking a few hits is the best therapy on earth." Coach Messner smiled at him. "Now, let's get you outta here before the reporters get to you. You can use the service exit by the laundry room."
"Thanks again, Coach."
"I'll drop by to check on you later tonight," Coach Messner promised.
"That'd be great." Jim shook hands with his coach, then turned and made his way to the service exit.
Once outside, Jim stopped and took a deep breath in an effort to gather his strength. Even the unusually sultry November air felt refreshing after the steamy, noisy, smelly locker room, but the game had depleted almost all of Jim's emotional and physical reserves. It would take a lot more than just a deep breath to replenish his energy.
I don't want to look like I'm at death's door. Jean worries so much. But the last thing I need is her fussing over me.
Jim took another breath, squared his shoulders, and walked around to the side of the building. He didn't want to expose himself to any stray reporters or rabid fans, so when he caught sight of Jean and her father waiting outside the door, he called to them in little more than a stage whisper.
"Jean! Jean! Over here!" Jim motioned to her when she turned, then put a finger to his lips to keep her from talking.
Jean touched her father's arm, and they both walked toward Jim.
"Honey, that sure was fast! But what on earth are you hanging around the back for?" Jean asked, when she reached him. She held her arms up for a hug, and Jim gave her a warm hug and kiss before answering.
"I'm parked out here, remember? And coach let me go out the back to avoid the reporters and all that other post-game stuff so I could get to the hospital."
"You'll eat something first, won't you? You look wiped out." Jean wrapped her arms around Jim's waist.
"I'll get something later. I really want to get back to the hospital."
"Honey, I've just had this feeling all day…" Jim stopped and groped for words to express his anxiety. "I need to be with Dad," he finished.
"You go on to the hospital," Mr. Smithson said, keeping Jean from more objections, "and I'll bring you something to eat later. Marge and I wanted to come visit tonight anyway."
"That'd be great, Daddy, thanks," Jean said.
"I'd appreciate that," Jim said.
"Glad to do it," Mr. Smithson said. He reached out and gave Jim's shoulder a squeeze. "Any requests?"
"No, sir. Whatever's easy."
"Marge will have something whipped up. I'll bring you both a plate." Mr. Smithson looked at Jim with a critical eye. "Jean's right, you do look wiped out. That was a tough game. Be sure to get something to drink; it's a hot one today."
"I'll make sure he does," Jean said, giving Jim another hug.
Mr. Smithson favored Jim with a crooked grin. "You had me worried there for a while, son. But it was worth the wait to see that last run. I think that was one of your best of the season."
"I'm just glad I finally did something," Jim said.
"It was something all right," Mr. Smithson laughed and clapped Jim on the back. "You realize it was an 84-yard run, don't you? It ran your total yardage up to 115 yards. You're going to get that thousand-yard season yet."
Jim smiled through a conflict of emotions that boiled inside him. On the one hand, he really wanted the thousand-yard season. He knew that his Dad wanted him to have it as well. But even that hard-earned honor paled in comparison to the value he placed on spending every second he could with his dying father. "I hope so," he said neutrally, then looked down at Jean. "Come on, honey, let's go. I want to get to the hospital."
"Okay, baby," Jean agreed. "Daddy, we'll see you later."
"Drive carefully," Mr. Smithson warned, before they went their separate ways.
"You want me to drive?" Jean asked. The young newlyweds walked slowly toward their car, their arms wrapped around one another. "I know you're worn out."
"No, I'm all right. I'll drive."
"You sure got rough treatment today. I think I'm mad at the offensive line."
"It wasn't all their fault, honey. I told you the Titans were tough. And I played like crap."
"It wasn't your best game," Jean agreed. "But you have more important things on your mind."
"Yeah." Jim fished his car keys out of his pocket as they reached their car. He unlocked Jean's door, and she slid over to open his door for him.
Jim eased into the drivers' seat, hoping Jean didn't notice the grimace he couldn't suppress when his sore muscles protested. But, as usual, Jean didn't miss it.
"You need a good soak in a hot tub of water," she said, patting him on the leg.
Jim cranked the car and backed out of his parking spot. "I'm going to go the back way and try to avoid the biggest part of the traffic. I think we can hit the freeway down on North Oakman."
Jean sighed quietly. "You're doing the driving," she said, but Jim easily picked up on her disappointed tone.
"Honey, I'm okay," he said. He took a hand from the wheel and gave Jean's hand a squeeze. "I just…I really want to get to the hospital. Like I said, I have this feeling that time is important today."
"I do understand, but you can't blame me for worrying about you. That's my job." Jean smiled up at him.
"I'm glad I have you to take care of me," Jim said, and he meant it. He couldn't imagine not having Jean beside him any more. Even though they'd only been married a little over three months, she'd become such a part of his life, he felt empty when he had to be away from her for more than a short stretch of time.
Jean leaned her head on Jim's shoulder. "Not that you ever really let me, Mr Superman."
"Sure, I do. You take care of me all the time, and I love you for it."
"Well, I love you, too. And I love taking care of you."
"I know a lot of people who think it's an impossible job."
Jean laughed. "I love a challenge."
Jim managed a small chuckle, and he squeezed his wife's hand again. I know I can be difficult. I guess stubbornness runs in the family.
They drove on in a comfortable silence. Jean seemed to respect Jim's somber mood and simply kept her head on Jim's shoulder and patted his thigh with her hand in unspoken support. For his part, Jim concentrated on maneuvering through traffic that got heavier as they made the freeway and headed toward Westwood and the UCLA Medical Center. A variety of sporting events in Los Angeles contributed to the unusual early Saturday evening congestion. Jim chafed when he had to slow below the speed limit and fight for position on the crowded freeway, but he chewed on his lip and forced himself not to rage out loud.
Finally, after only a few delays, Jim made the proper freeway exit, got through the short maze of surface streets and reached the Medical Center. As he drove through the multi-storied parking deck in search of a spot, all the cars parked there reminded him that he wasn't the only one grieving over an extremely ill loved one. That's something I never really thought about before. So many sick people. So many people suffering. So many people grieving. I wish I'd been smart enough to be a doctor; I wish I could help those people. Heck, I just wish I could help my Dad.
"Honey, is there any reason why you passed those parking places back there?" Jean asked quietly.
Startled, Jim tapped his brakes and noticed that he had, indeed, passed many empty parking spaces. "I guess I was preoccupied," he said.
Jean patted his leg. "It's okay, there's one right up there, and it's closer to the elevator, anyway."
Jim parked the car, embarrassed at his lapse of attention. He started to get out, but Jean caught his arm and gently tugged him to her. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him fiercely. Jim returned the hug, fighting against the desire to just stay in the car and hold his wife rather than face the horrific reality of attending his father's deathbed.
"I love you," Jean whispered to him, then kissed him gently. "And I'm here for you, sweetheart. You don't have to hide your feelings from me."
"I know," Jim whispered back. The words barely got past his tightening throat. He could hold himself together fairly well until either Jean or his sister got emotional, then his defenses would crumble. And he couldn't allow himself to crumble - he had to stay strong and do what had to be done. He had to be a man and stand on his own.
Jean kissed him again, and just for a moment, Jim let himself be comforted by the sweetness of her lips, the softness of her body and the security of her embrace. But only for a moment. He returned the kiss, then gently pulled away from her. "Come on, let's get in there."
Jim locked up the car, and he and Jean walked hand-in-hand through the deck and took the short ride into the main area of the hospital. Jim's overworked calves and thighs protested the long walk down the sterile hospital corridors, but he ignored the pain, just as he would in a ball game. After yet another elevator ride to the 6th floor, and another lengthy walk through a maze of corridors, they reached the area of the hospital where terminally ill cancer patients, including John Reed, received their care.
As they passed the nurses' station, the evening shift nurses greeted them warmly.
"Hey, hero," a middle-aged nurse named Sarah, Jim's favorite of the evening shift, called out. "You had us scared there for a while."
"You listened to the game?" Jim asked.
"Don't we always?" Sarah responded. "We were getting pretty mad at how badly those guys were treating you."
"See?" Jean said with a triumphant smile. "I'm not the only one who thinks that way."
Jim smiled and shook his head. "Women. You just don't get football."
Jean swatted Jim's arm playfully as Sarah waggled an index finger at Jim. "No need to be insulting, young man. We understand a lot more than you think."
"Sorry," Jim said, his smile widening briefly. But he sobered quickly when he asked, "How's Dad doing?"
Sarah's smile faded as well. "About the same, Jim."
"What about his pain?" Jim asked. Of all the horrors of his father's illness, watching him suffer with the excruciating pain associated with end stage cancer disturbed Jim the most.
"Doctor Moody authorized another increase in the morphine. It's helping." Sarah looked at him with sympathy.
"Good. Thanks, Sarah," Jim said. He tugged at Jean. "Come on, hon."
Jim stopped at the door of his father's room and tapped on it lightly; not necessarily out of courtesy, but because he needed those few seconds to fortify himself for the sight of his father. Jean squeezed his hand, obviously understanding his need for support, and Jim returned it before he pushed the door open.
Jim's gaze automatically tracked to the bed where his father lay, still and quiet. The sight of his pallid and emaciated father, so obviously struggling for each breath, surrounded by tubes that snaked in or out of his body, once again caused an indescribable sorrow to arc through Jim's soul. I don't know why it still shocks me so much. It's never going to get any better. It's only going to get worse. Jim swallowed hard; he felt Jean's grasp tighten on his hand again.
"Hi, little brother," Jane said softly from her seat on John Reed's left side. "I see you're still walking. I had my doubts."
"Yeah, I survived," Jim said, his voice quiet. She looks as tired as I feel. It's time for her to go home to rest. Jim walked around his brother-in-law, who sat at the foot of the bed, over to his father's side. "Any change?" he asked.
Jane shook her head. "He's not been awake since you left. Phil played the game on the radio, and we talked to him, but he never moved." Jane frowned. "I think a couple of times his breathing got kinda weird, like he was gasping. I called the nurse in, but they said that was probably to be expected. They increased his morphine." Jane pushed a strand of her dark blonde hair behind her ear.
"That's what Sarah said." Jim let go of Jean's hand and took his father's in between both of his. "Hi, Dad," he said, raising his voice a notch. "I'm back from the game. We won." Jim paused, disappointed that he got no response at all from his Dad. He tightened his grip and spoke a little louder. "I didn't play very well, but I managed to get one good run in. I wound up with 115 yards. So maybe I'll get that thousand-yard season. Just two more games to go. Dad? It's me, Jim. Can you wake up, Dad?"
Jim stood there, holding his father's hands, waiting for a response. Jean slipped around Jim and kissed the elder Reed on the forehead. "Hello, Dad, it's Jean. You should have seen the run Jim made today. You'd have been so proud." She stroked Mr. Reed's hair a couple of times, but still he offered no answer to their efforts to communicate.
"That's the way he's been all day," Phil said, after several minutes.
Jim swallowed again, something he found himself doing a lot of lately. Emotions boiled up inside him as fresh fear showered its icy tendrils around his heart. "Is he…in a coma?"
Jane sighed and scrubbed at her face. She stood and placed a hand on her father's shoulder before answering. "Sarah says probably not. She thinks it's the morphine."
"But at least he's not in any pain," Jim whispered, almost to himself.
Jane looked up at Jim, her eyes full of sorrow. She waited until she had his attention before she said, "Sarah also said that once they keep increasing the morphine…the end will come a lot sooner."
Jim stared at his sister for a moment, then wordlessly looked away and studied his father's face, hardly recognizable after his months of struggling with his illness. Would that be so awful? He could be at peace. Immediately, however, guilt and sorrow nipped at the heels of the thought. But I'm not ready to let him go. I'm just not ready.
Jean moved to his side and rubbed his back. "Sweetie, why don't you sit down here next to Dad? I'm going to go get you something to drink."
Jim nodded once, still unable to speak. Jean slipped out of the room, and Jim sat down in the chair that Phil vacated and gave to him. Once he sat down, he realized how weary he really was. He clung to his father's hand, willing him some strength and drawing some measure of comfort himself from the contact. Jim flinched when he felt Phil's hand touch his shoulder.
"Jim, will you be okay if I take Jane home? She needs to rest herself and get a decent meal."
"Phil, I'm fine," Jane objected.
"Sure," Jim said, wishing he'd suggested it himself. He sure didn't need Jane collapsing on him or getting sick from not taking care of herself. "Go on home, Jane. You've been here all day. Go get some rest."
"And you've been out playing ball in the heat. I don't think you're in any better shape than I am."
"I'm staying with Dad tonight," Jim said, the tone of his voice indicating he would not be dissuaded from that decision. "I shouldn't have left today. It wasn't right."
"Jim," Jane sighed, "we went over this. You did exactly what Dad would have wanted you to do if he was awake enough to tell you. Trust me on that, will you?"
"I'll trust you on that if you'll agree that you need to go home and rest. Dad wouldn't want you to run yourself down."
Jane actually smiled. "Maybe you should be a lawyer instead of a policeman," she said.
Jim arched his eyebrows at her. "Sure," he said. "If I had both money and brains, I could go to law school."
"You've got plenty of brains, and there are always loans."
"I'll stick to the Police Academy, thank you."
Jane walked around the bed and gave Jim a hug and a kiss on the top of the head. "You just want to play with guns."
"Go home, Jane," Jim said.
"I still say you've got a shot at the NFL," Phil said.
"And take him with you," Jim said. "You're both talking crazy."
"All we have to do is get a good highlight film and start shopping you around some," Phil continued. "If you get that thousand-yard season, it'll be a lot easier. I can probably hook you up with a decent agent."
Jim glanced over his shoulder at his brother-in-law, wondering just how much he meant those statements. Phil had a history of pulling Jim's leg, so he didn't take him too seriously. "I'm really not interested in going to the next level," he said. "I'm way too small."
"Don't dismiss it so easily," Phil said, putting an arm around his wife.
Jean came back in the room then, her hands full. That saved Jim from having to answer his brother-in-law. "Here, honey, I brought you a big drink and a pack of peanut butter crackers to tide you over until Daddy gets here with the food."
"Thanks." Jim took the drink first and drank almost half of the large cup in one series of big gulps.
"I knew you were thirsty," Jean said.
"I was, thanks." Jim tore into the crackers with equal intensity. He had a big appetite anyway, but practicing and playing ball made him absolutely ravenous.
"I'm going to take Jane home now," Phil said. "You call if you need anything, Jim."
Jim nodded and swallowed a mouthful of cracker.
"Call me at 10:00 no matter what and tell me how he's doing," Jane hugged Jean goodbye, then gave the top of Jim's head another kiss.
"I will." Jim said, after he'd gulped down more of his drink.
Apparently satisfied, Jane and Phil finished their goodbyes and left Jim and Jean alone with the elder Reed. Jean stood behind Jim and kneaded his shoulders with her hands.
"That feels nice," Jim said. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the impromptu massage.
"Good. You need to relax."
"If you're not careful, you'll put me to sleep." Jim finished off his drink.
"That wouldn't be so bad, would it?"
Jim forced his eyes open and looked at his father for several moments. "I just wish he'd wake up." He grasped one of Jean's hands and kissed it, then stood and placed his empty cup on the small table next to his father's bed. "Dad, it's Jim," he said, leaning close to his father's face. "Can you hear me, Dad?" Jim reached out a hand and lay it gently on his father's forehead. "Hey, Dad, wake up. Dad, we need to talk about the game, okay?"
Jim stood still and held his hand on his father's head hoping the contact and his voice would cause his father to rouse. But long minutes passed, and John lay still, his labored breathing the only sound in the room. Jean moved up beside Jim and placed her hand on his arm.
"Jim, he's just not ready," she said, her voice gentle and soothing.
"What if he doesn't wake up again?" Jim asked, the grief that ate him up inside coloring his own voice.
"Don't say that."
"Did I tell him I loved him the last time he was awake?" Jim asked, turning to look at Jean, irrational panic rising in him. "I can't remember. What if I didn't?"
"Jim, stop it," Jean said. "Don't torture yourself like this. Your father knows how much you love him. You've been at his side through this whole thing. He knows, baby." Jean tugged gently at his arm. "Come sit back down. You can hold his hand from your chair."
Someone rapped on the door and they turned to see one of the evening shift nurses come in.
"Hello," she greeted them cheerfully. "I've got to do a vitals check and give Mr. Reed some medicine."
"More morphine?" Jim asked, as he and Jean moved out of the nurse's way.
"No, just something new Dr. Moody wants us to give him, to ease his breathing a little."
While the nurse tended to her duties, Jim let Jean guide him to the chair, and he sat down, overwhelmed by fatigue and worry. He watched the nurse's face for any change of expression that might clue him into something, but she remained cheerful and focused. Jim questioned her when she'd finished, but she simply said, "He's holding his own," then patted him on the shoulder as she left.
Jim had no time to reflect on that, for almost immediately after the nurse left, a steady stream of visitors began to arrive. Some of Jim's teammates came by to offer their support. John's closest friend for many years dropped by with his family and had an especially emotional visit. The Smithsons showed up with the promised dinner, but by that time in the evening, Jim had to force himself to eat. Nothing appealed to him, even though under other circumstances, he would have had seconds and thirds of Mrs. Smithson's cooking. Coach Messner came by as he'd promised, and Jim spent a good amount of time talking with him. Once or twice during the evening, nurses came in to make observations or administer medicines. One even drew blood. During all the activity, John never awakened or even responded. Jim thought the nurses came with more frequency than usual and that they seemed concerned. It worried him, but the visitors kept him busy and he didn't have a chance to talk to any of the caregivers.
Already tired, before too long, the constant stream of visitors began to wear Jim down further. Each visit, though appreciated and comforting, took a little more out of Jim, as he tried to keep up his stoic front. It got harder and harder to watch the expressions on people's faces as they realized how much closer to death John Reed had drawn. Not reacting to others' shock and sorrow tapped Jim's already-depleted reserves. He found himself wishing for everyone to leave so he could just spend some time talking to his father - even if it turned out to be a one-way conversation.
Mercifully, visiting hours drew to a close and only Jean and her parents remained. The Smithsons sat out in the lobby near the elevators, as they had most of the evening, but Jean hovered close to Jim's side.
"I think he's in a coma," Jim said, staring at the unmoving form of his father. Jim placed a hand on his father's shoulder.
"You're not a doctor," Jean reminded him. "Sarah said it was the medicine."
"Why all of a sudden today? Yesterday he was awake a lot. He could even talk a little. Now, he's not doing anything. I wish the doctor had come by tonight. This isn't right."
"He was in a lot of pain yesterday. They're giving him more morphine. You heard what Jane said that Sarah told her."
Jim sighed. "Yeah, I know. But still…"
Jean slipped her arm around him. "If it'll make you feel better, I'll go get Sarah and you can talk to her."
"I might ask her about it before she leaves for the night. I mean, the nurses have been in and out and they haven't said anything. So maybe it's nothing. But they look kinda grim. Maybe it's really bad and they just don't want to tell me."
"Now why would they do that?"
"I dunno." Jim shrugged. Maybe I'm just paranoid.
Jean squeezed his waist in a hug. "They wouldn't be that cruel. You're just tired and worried. Why don't you sit down, stretch out, and catch a quick nap. I'll watch over him for you."
Jim glanced at his watch. Already after nine. He took his hand off his father's shoulder and pulled Jean closer to him. He kissed the top of her head and then tilted her face up towards him. "Honey, I want you to go home with your mom and dad."
"Jim, no! I'm going to stay here tonight. I'm not going to leave you here alone."
Jim smiled at her, but shook his head. "There's no need. One of us needs to have a good night's rest. You worked late last night, and got up early. I'd feel better if you went home with your parents and had a nice visit and good sleep."
Jean started to object again, but Jim placed three fingers gently over her mouth to stop her. "Please don't argue with me. I'll have one less worry if I know you're safe and resting."
Jean kissed Jim's fingers, but leveled a glare at him and then pushed the fingers away. "So I'm supposed to be the one at home worrying?"
"Something like that. You seem to enjoy doing it so much," Jim teased.
Jean's glare deepened, so Jim hugged her even closer and gave her a warm kiss. "Do this for me, please, baby," he whispered into her ear after they broke the kiss.
"Oh, Jim," Jean sighed, tears gathering in her eyes. "You're so stubborn." She buried her face in Jim's chest and they shared a long, hard hug. Jim stroked her hair tenderly, and gave her a few kisses on top of her head. I really don't want you to go, either. But I need some time alone with Dad. After a moment, Jim pushed her away gently. "Go get your mom and dad and go on home with them."
Jean wiped at her eyes, still scowling, her lips turned in a pout. "I'm doing this under protest."
Jim couldn't resist kissing those lips once more. "I know."
Jean lingered over another hug, but then reluctantly left, after giving Jim instructions to call her if he needed anything. He had just settled in next to his father when the Smithsons stuck their heads in the door to tell him good-bye and Jean rushed in for one final hug and kiss.
Just when he thought he'd finally be left alone, another rap on the door interrupted his thoughts. What is this, a parade? His irritation at the intrusion disappeared, however, when Sarah entered the room.
"May I come in?" Sarah asked.
"Sure. Is it time for more medicine or something?"
"I thought I'd check his vitals again. Your wife says you're really worried." Sarah walked over to John and took his wrist in her hand to check his pulse.
"She told you, huh?"
"Ummmmm, yes," Sarah finished her task and made a note on a pad. "She's a doll, your wife." Sarah drew a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff out of her pocket and wrapped it around John's arm.
"She's terrific," Jim said. He missed her steady presence already.
"You're going to have gorgeous kids," Sarah grinned at him, then completed her blood pressure reading. She also jotted this down.
"Thanks." Jim smiled and flushed a little at the compliment, but as he watched Sarah continue with her duties, the knowledge that his father would never see any of those gorgeous kids took the edge off his joy. Sorry, Dad, that's just something we couldn't arrange.
Sarah finished checking everything she needed, and then turned to Jim, her face grim.
"He's worse, isn't he?" Jim asked, knowing the answer before she said anything.
"His vitals are definitely going downhill, even from earlier this evening."
"What does that mean? Is he in a coma? Is this…the end?" Jim had to swallow to get that last out.
"I wish I could tell you for sure. But I can't. I am going to call Dr. Moody in a bit and tell him about the change in vital signs." Sarah looked at him in sympathy.
"Yesterday he was talking," Jim said, choked with fear. "He would wake up and know who was in the room. He'd get confused sometimes, but he always seemed to eventually understand what was going on. He asked questions. Why the sudden change? Is it the extra morphine he got today?"
"It could be a reaction to it. Or it could just be that his body is tired of fighting. The extra morphine eased his pain and allowed him to relax. It could be that he just can't rouse himself from that comfortable place. The body is a complex and mysterious thing. Sometimes it just decides to shut down and no matter what we do, we can't stop it. I guess you noticed that we took blood from him earlier in the evening, and those results should be ready within the hour. Once I have those I'll call Dr. Moody. He'd ordered a few tests."
"So you've talked to him already this evening?"
Sarah nodded. "He was a little concerned about the drop in vital signs, so he wanted to run some labs."
That sounds bad. Really bad. My feelings were right. This might be it. Jim swallowed again. "How long do you think he has?"
Sarah shook her head. "I don't know. A day, a week, who knows? I've seen patients in his condition and worse hang on for weeks. And then again, I've seen them slip away quickly. It's up to the individual."
"Should I…should I call my sister to come back in?"
"I wouldn't just yet. Let's see what Dr. Moody says, and see what happens in the next couple of hours."
Jim felt as if his heart had been torn in two, but he said, "You know, Dad said that he didn't want any special medical intervention."
"I know. It's in his chart. We aren't doing anything to prolong his life - we're just trying to make his passing easier."
Jim rubbed at his face with his hands and forced his sorrow deep down inside. "Do you think he's in any pain? Do you think he's aware of anything?"
"Jim, you're asking me questions I just can't answer with certainty." Sarah walked over to him and patted him on the shoulder. "My first instinct is to say no to both questions, but you just never know. I'd talk to him just like you thought he could hear you."
"I'll let you know what Dr. Moody says. Can I get you anything?"
"No," Jim said. "Thanks for talking to me, Sarah."
"Part of the job," Sarah smiled and gave him another shoulder pat. "You know how to use the call button."
"Thanks again." Jim watched Sarah disappear through the door, then moved his chair closer to his father's side, sat down, and gripped his hand again. "Dad, I'm here," he said, using a normal tone of voice. "I'm going to be with you all night. I sent Jane home. She was looking kinda tired, and she needed to eat. I sent Jean home with her parents, too. So it's just you and me." Jim squeezed his father's hand. "Did you feel that, Dad? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, squeeze my hand back. Okay?" Jim held his breath and waited for his father's hand to close around his own. Please squeeze my hand, Dad. God, just let him hear me. I have so much to say.
But John Reed's hand lay limp in Jim's.
Jim swallowed his disappointment. "That's okay, Dad. I know you're tired. I'm kinda tired, too. It was a hard game today. Hot, too. But I'm glad you weren't there, in a way, because I played so bad. Coach understands, though. The guys do, too. They know I'm not completely focused on football right now." Jim, why are you rambling on like this? Why don't you just say what you want to say and get it done?
"Hey, Dad, do you remember when we all got in the car and drove down to San Diego for a vacation? I think I was six years old. I remember about halfway there the alternator in the car went out and we got stranded in some little one-horse town waiting for it to get fixed. It was blazing hot, and you were so irritated - you knew more about how to fix it than that so-called mechanic did. But you bought Jane and I an orange soda and peanuts out of the machine at the gas station and I thought it was such a grand adventure. Then the guy charged us so much that it took almost all of our vacation money.
"I remember Mom wanted to turn around and go back home, but you talked her into going on and staying one night. We had to stay in this tiny little old motel that Mom hated. She said it was dirty and went around cleaning everything in the room. And we went to the grocery store and bought stuff for sandwiches and ate in the room, but I remember having a ball. We watched TV and played cards, and then swam in the motel pool all day the next day. I had so much fun just doing that and being with the family - thank you for not turning around and going back home." Jim paused. "Did that mean as much to you as it did to me? What's it like seeing through a Dad's eyes instead of a kid's? I guess one day I'll find out."
Jim continued to hold his father's hand as he took a brief journey through his memory to more special moments in his life. "You've been a terrific Dad to me. You've always been there for me. I really hope you know how much that's meant to me through all these years. If I can be just half the man you are, half as good a father, then I'll be happy. You taught me so much just by the way you lived your life. I've got a lot to live up to." Jim's emotions started to boil up and he blinked back tears. "But I promise you I'm going to try."
One particular memory insinuated itself in Jim's mind and made him smile to himself, easing a little of his anxiety. "Dad, I remember the Christmas when I found out there wasn't really a Santa Claus. Do you remember that Christmas Eve? I'd eaten so much of Gramma's mincemeat pie that I was sick at my stomach and I got up to look for Mom. I found her, all right, and you, too, putting out all the gifts around the tree. I'll never forget the look on Mom's face when she looked up and saw me standing there. She tried to explain it all away, but you told her that I was too smart to fall for it and that I needed to know the truth. Mom wrapped her arms around me and you told me the whole story. I remember Mom crying a little, thinking I'd be upset. But you know what, Dad? I wasn't. I think it made me feel even more loved, knowing how you cared enough to do all that for Jane and me. I know that financially…"
Jim stopped as his father made an odd, strangled sound, deep in his throat, different from the raspy breathing that Jim had been hearing all evening. A loud, wheezing exhalation followed the strangling sound, and then for a long moment, he didn't breathe in again.
"Dad? What's the matter?" Panic rose in Jim, and he shook his father's shoulder. "Dad?"
John then took several short, hiccupping breaths, and the strangling sound got louder.
"Dad, I'm calling the nurse," Jim jumped up from his chair and reached over the bed to grab the nurse call button. He stabbed at it several times, as his father continue to gasp for breath. Jim dropped the device and started to run to the nurses' station, but the dire sound of his father's erratic and labored breathing stopped him. Instead, he lowered the rail on the bed, put an arm under his father's frail frame and sat him up, hoping that would help ease the spasm. "Dad, just relax. I'm here. Breathe, okay, please?" Jim held his father close and rubbed his back. He could feel his father's body tremble as each wet-sounding, shuddering breath seemed to be more difficult than the last. Is this what dying is like? Am I about to lose him? "Dad, don't die. Please don't die. I'm not ready for you to go."
The door opened and Sarah hurried in, followed by Martha, another evening shift nurse. "What's happening?" Sarah asked.
"He can't breathe. All of a sudden, he just started strangling," Jim said, knowing his voice sounded near hysteria.
"All right, calm down and lay him back down on the bed," Sarah said.
Jim complied, gently lowering his father back down, then stepping back out of the two nurses' way as they worked over him. Jim prayed silently as they worked, willing his father not to die. After what seemed an eternity, but actually was only a few minutes, his father's breathing evened out and quieted somewhat. It still held the raspiness and seemed much more ragged than earlier, but his father had obviously weathered some crisis.
"That's better," Sarah said, after watching John for a few more minutes. She turned toward Jim. "Are you okay?"
Jim nodded and swallowed before trusting himself to speak. "What was that?"
"A very tired and sick body starting to shut down," Sarah said. "I hate saying this, but you should probably get used to it. This is probably just the beginning of a series of crises before the end. His lung is filling with fluid. That's partly due to the cancer invading it, but it's also a sign of heart failure, among other things. We've elevated the head of the bed even more, as you can see. That should ease his breathing, but for how long I don't know."
Jim blew out a breath and looked at the ceiling, trying to gather his wits and keep from breaking down in front of the nurses. Why can't he just go peacefully? Why can't he just go to sleep and not wake up? Why does he have to keep on suffering?
"I got the results from your father's tests and talked with Dr. Moody again," Sarah said, as Martha left the room.
"What did he say?" Jim walked over to the bed and raised the railing again. He put his hand back on his father's shoulder, mainly just to reassure himself.
"He's coming in early in the morning to examine him. He's cut the morphine back to see if he'll rouse and if there will be an improvement in his vitals. The tests showed that his kidneys are shutting down, his liver enzymes are off the scale, and his blood gasses are at dangerous levels. I already told you about the fluid in the lungs."
"In other words, this is it." Jim couldn't bring himself to look at Sarah. "Just like we said earlier. This really is it."
"I think so, yes."
Jim had nothing to say to that. He stared at his Dad, his heart pounding and his mind racing. Should I call Jane back? She'll want to come back when I tell her all this new information. But surely he'll make it through the night. She needs her rest. She can't rest here. But she'd never forgive me if the worst happened and she didn't get to say good-bye. I'll just have to see what comes out of my mouth when I call her, I guess.
"Jim," Sarah's firm voice broke into his thoughts. "You need to try to get some rest. I'll bring you a pillow and a blanket."
"I don't think I can sleep," Jim said, finally looking up at her.
"You'd be surprised. It's going to be a long night, and you have some hard days ahead of you. You should at least try to doze."
"I need to call my sister and my wife," Jim said, looking from his father to the door. But I don't want to leave him even for a second. Not for the first time, Jim hated the fact that these rooms didn't have phones.
Sarah seemed to pick up on his reluctance. "I'll stay with him while you go do that. You should grab a snack out of the machines, too and clear your head for a minute. I think I can spare five or ten minutes."
"Thanks, Sarah." Jim gently squeezed his father's shoulder. "Dad, I'm going to go make a couple of phone calls, but I'll be right back, okay?"
Jim smiled tightly at Sarah as he hurried out the door to the payphone located in the lobby area of the Cancer Care Unit. He fished out a dime and stuck it in the slot, but then he had to stop and think before he could recall his sister's phone number. He managed to dial it, all the while worrying about what he would tell Jane. As it turned out, he needn't have worried; Phil answered the phone and said that Jane had fallen so soundly asleep that the phone didn't even awaken her. Jim explained the situation, finding it easier to talk to Phil than to his potentially emotional sister. In the end, they both decided it would be best to let Jane sleep and gather her strength. Jim promised to call again if anything changed, and Phil promised to have Jane at the hospital early on Sunday morning. Jim felt pretty good about that compromise.
Next, he dropped in a dime and dialed the Smithsons' number, both longing to hear Jean's voice, but dreading it at the same time. I don't want to break down. I've got to stay strong. Jean must have been sitting right next to the phone, because she picked it up right after the first ring. Her anxious "hello" revealed her worry, and a pang of guilt sliced through Jim for sending her away.
"Hi, honey, it's me," Jim said, hoping he sounded casual.
But Jean seemed to have built-in radar when it came to him hiding something; particularly worry. "You sound awful. What's happened?"
Jim explained to her the events of the past few minutes, and the dire test results. He had to stop and swallow back emotion a couple of times. It's just so hard to talk about. If I don't have to say it out loud, I can pretend it isn't happening.
"Sweetie, I'm so sorry. I should come back and be with you." Jean sounded as if she, too, had to choke back tears.
"No, just stay put. If anything changes, I'll let you know. I mean, he could linger like this for days." Jim sighed. "We just don't know."
"I love you so much,. I might not be there physically, but my heart is right with you." Jean lowered her voice to a husky whisper. Jim knew her well enough to know that she had to be crying.
"I love you too," Jim said, and his own voice broke. He swallowed hard. "But don't worry. I'm all right."
"Oh, Jim, no you're not," Jean sniffed, confirming her tears. "But I understand why you want me to think so. It's one of the reasons I love you so much. But I'm going to be there early, early tomorrow. Just as soon as I can drag Daddy out of the bed to drive me there."
"Okay," Jim said. "Get some sleep, though. It might be a long few days."
"I know. You try to get some, too."
"I'll try. Honey, I've gotta get back to Dad. I love you."
"Love you, too. See you bright and early tomorrow."
"Good. 'Night, hon.."
Jim had never felt lonelier than when he heard the click of the phone and the strident dial tone that followed. He would face this night alone, no matter the outcome. He hung up the receiver, took a deep breath and rubbed at his face. God help me get through it.
Jim trudged back to the room, feeling the necessity of being there, but dreading it all the same. He opened the door and found Sarah talking quietly to him as she fussed over his IV line.
"Thanks, Sarah," Jim said.
"You made all your calls?"
"Sure did. Everyone's going to come in early tomorrow."
"That'll be good for all of you, I think." Sarah paused. "I get off at 11:00, but I'll bring you a pillow and blanket before I go. I think that Audrey is in charge of the night shift tonight. Do you remember Audrey?"
"I can't place her right now," Jim said. I'm so tired, I can barely remember my own name.
"I'll talk to her before I go and make sure she checks on your father and knows what's going on."
"I'd appreciate that."
"I'll be back in a bit," Sarah said. She smiled at him and left.
Jim sat down in the chair that he'd pulled up close to his father's left side. He threaded his hand through the bed rail and lay his hand on his father's chest. "I'm back, Dad," he said. "I'll be here all night." With each harsh, ragged breath, John's chest shuddered and heaved. Jim wondered how much longer his father would be able to keep that up.
As Jim watched his father struggle for air, a multitude of conflicting emotions plagued him. When he thought his father had been about to die a few minutes earlier, his instincts had cried out against it, begging him not to die. Even though Jim had tried to prepare himself for months for the inevitable outcome of his father's cancer, a part of him had never accepted it. He loved his father, and he didn't want to lose him. A part of him hoped, prayed, and held out for a miracle. There's not going to be any miracle. There's only going to be this…pain. Suffering. Silence. What kind of life is that? What kind of son would wish that on his own father?
Jim recalled the conversation he and his father had the night John had told him he would no longer take cancer treatments. His father had accused him of being selfish for wanting to prolong his pain-filled life. Jim hadn't understood that then, nor had he truly understood it during the intervening weeks of watching his father deteriorate. But tonight, at this moment, he began to understand. All he wanted was to be free of pain, and to be with Mom again. He said that's what would make him happy. He'd be a peace, in a far better place than this. How can I argue with that? Pain and suffering or peace and serenity in God's presence? It really isn't a choice, is it?
Jim bowed his head and closed his eyes, shutting out the sight of the dimly lighted hospital room. But he couldn't shut out that horrible, wrenching sound of his father's breathing. God, how can I stand to lose him? He's been everything to me. Dad, coach, mentor, friend, role model--even a mother. I can't imagine my life without him in it. But I can't stand to see him suffer any more. If this is all that there is, then maybe it's time to let go. But I can't bring myself to say 'take him, God' so I'll just say You do what's best for him. You know more than I do. Just give me the strength to get through it. Help me stay strong for Jane and Jean.
The creak of the door brought Jim's head up. Sarah came in with the promised pillow and blanket. She also had an icy drink in one hand. Jim accepted them all with gratitude, and said goodnight to the kindly nurse. After she left, Jim sipped on the drink, lost in more somber thoughts, sometimes praying, sometimes talking aloud to his father.
Through it all, John Reed's labored breathing rang a disturbing accompaniment.
Time dragged by. The nursing shift changed, and Audrey came in several times during the next few hours to take vitals and write in John's chart. Jim remembered her once he saw her, and though she didn't have Sarah's pleasant personality, she did her job well. Somehow, Jim managed to stay awake, even though his body screamed for rest.
For a while, Jim forced himself up out of the chair and paced the room while he talked to his father, or to God, but by three in the morning, Jim no longer had the energy to do that. He gave in and sat back down in the chair, propped the pillow up on the side of his father's bed and lay his head on it.
"Dad, I'm kinda tired. I think I'll take a little nap, if that's all right with you." Jim positioned himself so that he could lay a hand on his father's shoulder and still rest his head. He closed his eyes, and it took only a few seconds for sleep to claim him.
Jim didn't know exactly what awakened him, but about an hour into his sleep, something caused him to awaken with a jerk. He sat up quickly, and his pillow fell to the floor. Jim rubbed at his face and blinked, trying to orient himself to his surroundings. Where? Oh, yeah, the hospital. I'm with Dad.
And then he realized that something had changed in his father's breathing. The raucously loud, wheezing breaths had all but stopped. Jim stood, shrugging off the last shadows of his sleepiness, and watched his father carefully. Now his father was breathing in a very shallow, hiccupping way, similar to his earlier crisis, but much more quietly. John would drag in three or four of the tiny, desperate breaths, then exhale. A long pause would follow, and then the pattern of tiny breaths would repeat.
"Dad, I'm here," Jim whispered. He gently touched his father's chest, shocked that he could feel his father's heart irregularly racing, even through the blanket. It's so fast. It's never been this fast before. Something's going on. Jim clasped his father's hand and squeezed it gently. "Did you hear me, Dad? It's me, Jim. I'm here."
John, as usual, did not respond, but continued his irregular, hiccupping breathing. It sounded to Jim as if no air could get into his father's lungs, no matter how hard he struggled. The pauses between breathing cycles got longer and longer, and it seemed his father struggled more and more. Jim reached for the nurse call button, wanting someone to come in and take a look, but he stopped the motion halfway there. What can they do? More poking, hurting? More medicine to just drag this torture out? Dad made it clear what he wanted. He wants to stop hurting. He wants to be with Mom. Maybe now is the time. Jim dropped his hand back onto his father's laboring chest.
Guilt chewed at him. Dad needs help. But his father's wishes also echoed in his head. No life support. He wants to end the pain. It's selfish to hang onto him like this. Jim tightened his grip on his father's hand and watched as he continued his painful struggle. Please take his pain away, God. If it's time for him to go, please let it be more peaceful.
As soon as he'd silently directed that request to God, Jim knew that he needed to do something to maybe bring his father that peace himself. Of all the things Jim had said to his father over the course of the past months, he'd never said good-bye. He hadn't been ready; it hadn't been time. Deep inside, he now knew this was the time. Somehow, God, just let him hear me. Let him understand what I need to say.
"Dad, I want to tell you something," Jim said, his heart breaking with grief. "I love you. I love you a lot. And I'm sorry that I haven't been as understanding of your wishes as you wanted. You were right, Dad, I've been selfish. I wanted to hang onto you, no matter what, because the thought of you not being here tears me apart." Stinging tears brimmed in his eyes; tears that he would not stop from falling down his cheeks. "But I think I understand now, Dad. I see your pain, I see your struggle. I know you'd be better off in Heaven, with God and Mom." Jim took a deep breath, and though it took every ounce of courage he had, he continued, "I guess what I'm trying to say is…it's okay, Dad. You don't have to fight any more. It's okay to go whenever you want to. I'll be all right. We'll all be all right. Phil and I will take care of Jane, and Jean'll take care of me. I'll miss you, Dad, but I'll feel better knowing you're at peace. So, I love you, Dad, and I'll say good-bye. Go on and be with Mom." Jim had to stop and swipe at his eyes and nose with the back of his hand. "And when you see her, tell her I love and miss her, too."
It's in your court, now, God. Please take care of him. Of all of us.
Jim stood vigil over his father, silently holding his hand, watching his breathing get more shallow and slower. Finally, at 4:56 a.m. on a quiet Sunday morning, John Reed dragged in his last breath, and let it out in a long, whispery sigh.
"Good-bye, Dad," Jim whispered. Only then did he press the call button to summon a nurse.
Jim ran dirty hands through his sweaty hair, stunned to discover that the passage of six years hadn't diminished the pain of reliving his father's death. The oppressive cloak of sorrow still draped over him, thinking of that long, miserable night.
I'm still not sure how I made it through. I wouldn't have if I hadn't had Jean. If we hadn't been together already it would've been unbearable. She kept me from falling apart for weeks, until could deal with it all. I'm so lucky to have somebody like her. I need to tell her so tonight…
Jim glanced at his watch and frowned when he noticed how much time had elapsed since Jean had left. A tendril of worry flashed through his mind, but he berated himself for it.
"She's just out shopping," he said to the empty room, "and got carried away, like she always does."
Jim forced himself to his feet, still talking to himself. "You've just been dwelling on depressing stuff and you're overreacting." He pushed his feelings aside and turned his attention to the next box, hoping the work would distract him.
Jim opened the very heavy box and inside found several old college textbooks along with a few notebooks. He flipped through a few of the notebooks to make sure he didn't find anything worth saving, then, because the books were too old to be of value, he put the whole box in the throwaway pile. He knew for sure he didn't want to deal with Western Civ, Trigonometry or Geology anymore. At least not until Jimmy gets to high school. Lord, I hope he grows up smart because I can't remember any of that stuff any more. But if he ever has a test on the California Penal Codes, that'd be another matter.
The next two boxes went just as quickly as the box of textbooks. The contents of both of them turned out to be old curtains and moth-eaten rugs that Jim and Jean had used in their first apartment. I thought we already gave these things away. Jim put both boxes into the "giveaway" pile. With the disposition of those two boxes settled, only two boxes remained to be examined, both of them relatively new and in good shape. Both of them were lightweight and one even had Jean's handwriting on it, and was marked "articles & keepsakes."
"I'm sure I'll have to keep that one," Jim muttered, so he placed it aside and went for the unmarked box first.
When he opened the unmarked box, he smiled at the first item lying on top, a black-and-white caricature of himself and Jean that a sidewalk artist had drawn of them while on their honeymoon. It had been a mutual decision to bury the rather unflattering cartoon in a box of memorabilia rather than to display it. Still, Jim had to smile, thinking of their honeymoon, remembering that magical time and wondering at the changes they'd been through since then.
I'll leave this out for Jean to see before I lose it in the depths of this box again. I wish she'd get home…
Jim pawed through other items in the box, most of which were photographs from their honeymoon and the early days of their marriage. He found some of the two of them with his father just before he got so sick, some of their first apartment, and even a few of him in various college sports uniforms. He wondered how these good snapshots got to be lost inside this box rather than put in an album. Jean's usually on top of that kind of thing. I guess I must have thrown them in here when we moved from the college apartment and just forgot about them. I'll definitely keep these out for Jean to go through and get put in an album.
Jim grabbed the stack of photos and sat down next to the box. He flipped through the pictures quickly, but when he came to one picture, he stopped and sighed quietly, as yet another painful memory intruded. The picture, one of he and Jean holding twin baby boys while the twins' parents stood in the background, brought up a flood of bittersweet remembrances.
I haven't thought about Rick and Marilyn in a long time. I wonder what Marilyn's doing now? I hope she found somebody and got married again. The twins are old enough to be in school. Rick, Rick, you stupid idiot…if you'd just given up the booze you'd still be here enjoying your life. You were just too young to go like that.
Jim sighed again, remembering Rick and Marilyn Beaufort, their next-door neighbors in the college apartment complex where they'd lived for two years. They had met the Beauforts the day they moved in after their honeymoon, and had struck up an instant friendship. Both he and Jean had been drawn to Rick's raucous sense of humor and outgoing manner. Rick and Marilyn had befriended them during Mr. Reed's illness, had cheered Jim on in his athletic endeavors, and Jim and Jean had returned their friendship, helping out during Marilyn's pregnancy and often baby-sitting the newborn twins. But Rick had a deep secret that it took a while to discover - he was an alcoholic. Most of the time Rick Beaufort functioned fine, but he couldn't leave his apartment without having a drink first. And on the weekends he spent a great deal of that time drinking, almost always to the point of serious intoxication. On those occasions, he'd laugh and tell Jim he was just blowing off steam, trying to relax, and he was fine. Then he'd tell a joke or two and go on like nothing was wrong.
I don't know how he managed to keep up with his studies like he did. He hid it so well. I feel so dumb not figuring it out before I did. But it wouldn't have done any good anyway. He still didn't listen to me once I did find out. I tried to help him but he couldn't admit he had a problem. Even Marilyn wouldn't own up to it until it was too late to do anything.
Jim could vividly remember the night that Marilyn had knocked on their door at a quarter of midnight, sobbing that Rick had gone out earlier in the evening but hadn't returned. She admitted he'd been drinking a little and she was worried. Jean had gone over to the Beaufort's apartment to keep Marilyn company, and Jim had gone out looking for him in some of the local college bars. He'd even searched some more unlikely places, hoping that Rick had simply holed up somewhere and gotten smashed. But after two hours of fruitless searching, he'd turned up nothing, and he'd returned to the Beaufort's apartment. When Jim realized Rick still hadn't returned, it made him furious. Marilyn couldn't quit crying, and he and Jean were losing sleep trying to comfort and reassure her. When three a.m. rolled around and still Rick hadn't showed, Jim decided he'd better call the police. Before he could do so, however, the problem got taken out of his hands.
A knock sounded at the door, and Jim had answered it, expecting to find an inebriated Rick on the other side, unable to use his keys. But it hadn't been Rick. It had been two somber-faced Los Angeles Police Officers, hats in hand, delivering the news that Rick had been killed in a car accident. He'd driven his car right off a bridge, and had been killed instantly. There had been an open container of liquor in the car with him.
Marilyn, of course, had been devastated. He and Jean had spent the rest of that long night with her, helping her make phone calls, taking care of the babies, and simply watching over her until her parents, who lived in San Diego, were able to make it in.
It had been a hard time for he and Jean. Losing a close friend so soon after losing his father hadn't been easy. It took a lot out of the both of them to support Marilyn and care for her boys while the family made arrangements. It had hurt to see the pain and suffering left behind by a basically good man who made bad choices.
I've seen a lot of drunks on the job. But none of them have reminded me of Rick. Rick was different. He wasn't a skid row bum, or even a man trying to forget his troubles in a bottle. He had a great life, but he just got snared by trying to have a good time, all the time. Such a stupid waste.
Jim got to his feet and put the pictures in a neat stack on the chest, then put the emptied box in the throwaway pile. The leaden feeling in his chest intensified, thinking about Rick and especially about Marilyn, having to deal with the loss of her husband at so young an age. He wished again Jean would come home so the uneasy sensations would go away.
I can't imagine not having her with me. I couldn't take losing her like I lost Mom, and Rick. And Bill Stenzler…accidents, so sudden…shocking. One minute happiness and the next…life isn't the same any more.
"Okay, stop it with the melodrama," Jim said out loud. "Just get this project done and stop thinking so much."
Jim turned to the last box, but before he could open it, the doorbell chimes sounded.
For a crazy moment, Jim's imagination ran wild, and he froze in place, unwilling to answer the door. Thoughts of a colleague standing at the door bringing him bad news flashed through his mind. But after only a beat he moved, irritated at himself and his overactive mind.
"Jean's probably back with the groceries and needs help," Jim muttered under his breath as he made his way to the living room door.
The doorbell rang again.
"On my way, hon," Jim called. He hurried to the door and opened it, only to find a smirking Pete Malloy standing there. "Oh," Jim said, disappointed, and a little embarrassed. "It's you."
Pete's eyebrows arched. "Gee, 'hon,' that's not much of a greeting."
Jim scowled. "I thought you might be Jean."
"No kidding," Pete said, his smirk widening.
"Why are you here, anyway?" Jim asked.
Pete rolled his eyes theatrically. "Boy, this closet cleaning's really put you in a snit, hasn't it?"
"Sorry," Jim offered, then jerked his head and thumb toward the living room. "Come on in."
"I'm not sure I want to," Pete said, looking at Jim's state of sweaty disarray.
"Jean's out shopping and she's been gone longer than she said," Jim said in explanation. "I just thought you might be her."
"You always say she's a champion shopper," Pete said, his voice pitched to be reassuring. "She's probably racking up the bargains as we speak."
"Yeah, you're right," Jim said, appreciative of Pete's efforts to reassure him. "Come on in - I didn't mean to act like a jerk."
"Oh, I'm used to it," Pete grinned, but he stepped through the door into the living room.
"Thanks," Jim muttered. "You want something to drink?"
"I'm fine but you look like you could use something," Pete said. "You're soaked."
"I've been working all day," Jim said, and he realized then that he hadn't taken a break of any kind. He hadn't even had any lunch. "And I sure could use something cold. Come on into the kitchen and I'll see what we have."
"Sure." Pete followed Jim into the kitchen. "How's the cleaning going, anyway?"
Jim shrugged. "It's goin'. I've thrown a lot of junk away."
"That was the point, wasn't it?"
"I guess so."
Pete cocked his head and looked at Jim. "What's your problem?"
"Nothing." Jim looked back at Pete briefly, then turned his attention to the refrigerator. I'm not about to tell Pete how seeing those old things has put me in a weird funk. "No wonder Jean went to the store. We're about out of everything. Looks like I can offer you a bologna sandwich and a soda. That okay?"
"I've had lunch, so I'll pass on the sandwich, but I'll take the drink."
Jim took two sodas out of the fridge and gave one to Pete, who still studied him with that piercing look that Jim had come to recognize from long days together on patrol. That look meant Pete would probably start a new round of interrogations to pry information from him. Jim forestalled any questions by turning back to the refrigerator. "Hope you don't mind that I fix myself a sandwich," he said over his shoulder. "I'm getting hollow."
"Go right ahead." Pete twisted the cap off his soda and took a swig as Jim gathered supplies for his sandwich. "By the way, where's my godson?"
"Oh, he's at his mamaw's and papaw's house," Jim said, as he put the sandwich fixings on the table. "He's spending the night." Jim pulled a couple of paper towels off the roll to prepare the sandwich on.
"Something fun going on?"
"Yeah, a trip to a carnival at their church. And probably the zoo tomorrow."
"So you and Jean will have some time to yourself," Pete said, grinning.
"That's the plan," Jim nodded. Come on home, Jean. Where are you, anyway?
When he came back to the table, he felt Pete's gaze on him again, but he chose to ignore it. He bent his head to the task of building his meal. "You sure I can't interest you in a bologna sandwich?"
"No, thanks," Pete took another long gulp of the soda. "I'm still waiting for you to tell me what your problem is."
"I don't have a problem," Jim snapped. He slapped on the top piece of bread and grabbed up the sandwich. "I'm just tired and hungry."
"Whatever you say, partner," Pete said, "but usually if I come in with a sack from Mack's Bait and Tackle, I can hardly get in the door before you're all over me to see what's in it."
Jim stopped in mid-bite and noticed for the first time that Pete did, indeed have a sack from their favorite fishing supply shop in his left hand. He felt really foolish that he hadn't noticed it before.
"Didn't even know I had it, did you?" Pete smirked at Jim again, then took another drink.
Again, Jim chose to ignore Pete's needling probe. "What'd you get? A new reel?"
Pete held out the bag. "Take a look."
Jim took the bag and knew immediately it held no reel - it was far too light. He looked inside and saw two new lures. "Hey, you got those new lures we looked at last time we were there."
"I thought you said you had enough lures."
"I never said that," Pete said. "You can never have enough. This is the one with the glow-scales and the tail fans."
"Yeah, they're great looking." Jim took one out of the sack and studied it more closely as he continued to chew on the bologna sandwich. "If this doesn't attract the big ones, I don't know what will."
"That's what I'm counting on."
"Why'd you buy two just alike?" Jim asked, around another mouthful of sandwich.
Jim swallowed his food. "Mine?"
"How much do I owe you?"
Pete scowled at him. "Nothing,"
"Well, thanks, Pete." Jim felt slightly embarrassed at Pete's sudden generosity, but touched, as well.
Pete shrugged marginally and took another swig of his soda. "Thought I'd level the playing field between us for our fishing trip."
"Well, you always claim I catch more fish because I have better lures," Pete said, a definite twinkle in his eyes. "So I thought I'd take this opportunity to prove to you it's not the lures, it's simply skill."
"Uh huh," Jim lifted his eyebrows at his partner and took the final bite of his sandwich. He chewed on it for a few seconds then swallowed it down. "I assume you have a plan?"
"Don't I always?"
"That's what I'm afraid of." Jim gulped down the rest of his soda.
"It's simple enough," Pete said. "Same lures, same lake, same conditions - we'll see who catches the most fish."
"And the winner gets?" Jim started cleaning up his mess he'd made from sandwich construction.
"Immense satisfaction," Pete said, grinning. "Bragging rights."
"What? Did you think I wanted to put money on it?" Pete exaggerated a look of shock.
Jim grunted again. "Yes."
"Now, would I take advantage of you like that?"
Pete shook his head and made a dramatic motion of placing his hand over his heart. "You wound me, partner. For you to question my motives…"
"Save that for somebody who doesn't know you as well as I do," Jim said. "By the time we make the lake, we'll probably be spotting a couple a bucks a fish." He didn't mean to sound irritable, but he knew that he did.
"Only if you insist," Pete said, but the twinkle had left his eyes. "But I think I'll leave and come back another day when you're not so crabby."
Jim blew out a breath. "No, don't leave. I'm sorry. I really appreciate the lure."
Pete shrugged. "I thought it might take your mind off your workload, but apparently not. How much is left to do?"
"I'm almost done. I've only got one more box to look through, then it's just a matter of taking out the trash and carting off the things to be donated. I'll have to check with Jean to see where she wants me to put the things I've reboxed."
"Maybe I can help you," Pete said. "I can take out your trash while you finish up."
"Aw, Pete, you don't have to…"
"I know I don't have to, but I can contribute fifteen or twenty minutes of labor to the cause," Pete said. "Anything to lighten your obviously bad mood."
My mood really doesn't have anything to do with the work. Just the weirdness of the day. And I want Jean to come home. "I'd welcome the company," Jim said, hoping he hadn't been too rude to his friend.
"Show me the mess and tell me where to put it."
"Okay, but just remember, you asked for it." Jim put his and Pete's empty soda bottles on the counter, then motioned Pete to follow him back to the spare bedroom.
Pete whistled when he caught sight of Jim's project. "No wonder you're in a bad mood. What a mess! I thought you were almost done."
"I am. All these piles are organized. Those boxes there are my 'keepers,' that pile in the corner is what's going to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, and all the rest is trash. Once all this is up, I'll vacuum, and it'll look clean as a whistle."
"And you'll be out of Jean's doghouse."
"So, where were you planning on dumping this trash?"
"I'm gonna put it all in bags and put it out on the curb for pickup."
"You sure they'll pick it up?"
"Sure, I'm sure."
"Okay, where's the bags?"
"There's a box on the end of the bed there," Jim said, pointing.
"Might as well get to work then, while I'm still in a generous mood." Pete grinned, and threaded his way through the piles of junk. Before he got to the bed, however, he stopped. "Hey, what's that?"
Jim followed Pete's line of sight and realized his partner had caught sight of the caricature of he and Jean from their honeymoon. "Never mind that," he said, but Pete had already found a path to the chest and picked up the drawing.
"This should go up on the division bulletin board," Pete laughed. "What a hoot!"
"It's not too late to revoke godfather rights," Jim growled, reaching over and plucking the picture from Pete's hands.
"I wouldn't do that to Jean," Pete laughed. "When did you have that done? You both look like teenagers."
"Deformed teenagers," Jim smiled in spite of himself. "Actually, Jean still was nineteen. We had that drawn on our honeymoon. You can see why it got buried in a box."
"I think the artist nailed you pretty good, but it doesn't do much for Jean."
"Ha, ha." Jim lay the drawing back down on the chest. "I only left it out so Jean could see it. Then it's going right back in a box."
"Wise move." Pete then picked up the pile of photographs that Jim had placed next to the caricature and started thumbing through them.
"Do you mind?" Jim reached for the pictures, but Pete turned his back so that Jim's effort fell short.
"Hey, look at this," Pete held up one of Jim in his college baseball uniform. "I think this is the first shot I've ever seen of you in your college baseball uniform. In fact, I'm not even sure I knew you played baseball in college."
"I only played two seasons, and I wasn't all that great. Baseball's my weakest sport."
"You can't tell it by the way you play on the division's team. You're our best player."
Jim laughed. "Thanks for the compliment, but that's really not saying much."
"I guess you've got a point," Pete grinned. "You play shortstop?"
"Only when the coach was desperate," Jim laughed again. "I played shortstop in high school, but in college, I usually played center field. I guess coach figured I'd do less damage there."
"Or that you had a pretty good arm." Pete looked through the rest of the pictures, stopping to grin at a couple of poses of Jim.
"I thought you were going to help me, not make fun of me in my younger days."
"Oh, I'm not making fun of you. I'm just getting a kick out of these pictures. They're helping me unravel the mystery of your past."
"My past isn't mysterious," Jim said. He reached for the pictures again and this time managed to snag them from his partner. "You're the one with the mysterious past. You know a whole lot more about me than I know about you."
"That's because I don't have a wife that loves to talk about her husband," Pete said smugly. "Just another benefit of remaining single."
"I think I'm going to have to have a serious conversation with Jean," Jim said with a frown. I just want her to come home. Jim put the pictures next to the caricature.
"Don't you dare yell at Jean," Pete warned.
"I won't yell," Jim said. "But obviously she's a security leak," he added, with a weak grin.
"I knew I shouldn't have said anything," Pete said, returning the grin. "Now I'll lose my pipeline."
Jim grunted, but the grin stayed on his face. "Now I know your secret."
Pete shook his head and pulled a couple of garbage bags out of the box. "Busted. Okay, show me what goes in here."
"That pile there is the throwaway. Put all that in those bags, and I'll put things in the giveaway bag."
"I thought you had one more box left," Pete said.
"I do, but I'm fairly sure it's all stuff I have to keep," Jim said. "I'd rather get all this mess up and taken care of before Jean gets back. I'm not sure she'll believe I'm almost done if all this is still scattered around."
"Good point. I know I didn't believe it when I saw all this mess."
The two men bent to the task, bagging items appropriately. Jim took care of his end, but he couldn't quell the uneasiness inside. Even while carrying on a conversation with Pete about the upcoming fishing trip, he couldn't keep from glancing at his watch and wondering why Jean hadn't returned from her supposedly brief trip to the grocery store. I don't know what could be keeping her. She said she'd only be gone a little while. I wonder if I should go out looking for her.
"These are ready for the curb," Pete announced, after he tied the fifth bag of trash closed.
"I'll take them out," Jim said, shaking himself from his gloomy thoughts. "I'm all but done here. I just have that one last pile of old clothes left."
"It'll take the both of us to get these out there," Pete said. He hefted two bags. "Out front you said?"
Jim nodded. "To the left of the drive. Trash day's tomorrow. I've got these three." He took the remaining three bags, struggling a bit with the awkward bulk, but wanting to get it all in one trip. Jim followed Pete outside and placed the bags for pickup. He looked up and down the street, willing their sedan to turn onto it. But again, he was disappointed. He thought a little prayer for her safety, as he and Pete went back into the house and returned to the bedroom.
"I can drop this stuff off at the Salvation Army on my way home," Pete said, indicating the remaining bags.
"That's too much trouble, Pete. I'll take care of it tomorrow."
"There's a drop off just two blocks behind my apartment complex. It's no trouble."
"Well, thanks, Pete. I'd appreciate that. It'll help me out a lot."
Pete picked up two bags as Jim finished filling up the third. "I'll take these to the car while you finish that."
"Great, thanks." Jim stuffed the last of the clothes into the bag and tied it closed. He looked around at the now-orderly room, pleased except for the large littering of trash on the carpeting and the few "keep" boxes in the corner. "I'll get the vacuum after that," he muttered to himself. "But I'd better put those boxes up first."
Jim put the bag in the hallway and fished the vacuum out of the hall closet. He took a minute to put the "save" boxes in the top of the bedroom closet, then grabbed the vacuum. He'd just plugged it in and started vacuuming when Pete came in for the last bag. By the time Pete returned, Jim had all but finished his cleanup.
"I've got all the bags in my car," Pete yelled over the roar of the vacuum. "Is there anything else?"
"No, that's it, Pete." Jim made a few more swipes with the vacuum and then shut it off. "Much better, don't you think?"
"Definitely. I'd say you will officially be out of Jean's doghouse."
"About time," Jim sighed.
"What about that box?" Pete pointed to the one remaining box on the bed.
"I'm pretty sure that's all stuff to keep," Jim said. He pulled the plug from the wall and wrapped it around the cord hooks on the vacuum.
"Aren't you even going to look?" Pete picked the box up off the bed and shook it.
"I suppose I should, just to make sure. But it's got Jean's handwriting on it, so I'm fairly sure that's her box. It's probably some family photos that she hasn't had time to stick in an album." Jim gave Pete a sideways look. "You're probably just looking for more pictures so you can make fun of me."
"That'd be a nice reward for all my hard work," Pete said with a grin. He handed Jim the box.
Jim shook his head. "Okay, I'll open it." The box wasn't sealed with tape, so he simply sat down on the bed and opened it.
"What's in there?" Pete asked. He sat down next to Jim and peered into the box. "Hey, what's this?" Pete reached over and plucked a picture off the top of the pile.
Jim sighed. "I knew opening the box was a mistake."
Pete laughed and showed Jim the picture. "Look at you. You look about 16 years old. But you're holding the uniform, so it can't be that old a picture."
Jim took the picture from Pete and looked at it. He couldn't help but grin and shake his head. "Jean took this picture of me. You know what this is, don't you?"
"You look like you're about to leave for the station."
"Yeah. For the very first time. I was walking out the door getting ready for my first tour of duty."
"No wonder you've got that 'deer in the headlights' look," Pete grinned. "It's a big thing, that first day on the job."
"Yeah. It was quite a day, too."
"You're telling me," Pete said. "I wasn't sure either of us would survive it."
"Yeah." Jim said, remembering that first eventful shift. Has it really been almost four years? It seems like yesterday. We've both been through so much since then. Whoever would have imagined we'd still be partners - and friends - after that first shift?