Along the Way

The holidays have been crazy and more time has passed than I would like since I have had the chance to post. However over the next few days I plan to wrap up my focus on eternity with a three part post, entitled “Along the Way.” The first post will be a story, the second a personal poem and the third an exposition with my final thoughts and conclusions on what to do in light of eternity. With no further ado, the story:

Part 1: Along the Way, a Short Story

The two elderly gentlemen at The Pleasant Valley Nursing Home shared more than just a room. Both had retired from successful white collar jobs; John as the director of an HR department and Dennis as a manager for a large grocery store chain. Both men had been married to the same woman for over fifty years before becoming widowers. Each man had three children, two still living. The men had come to share a room a few years after their wives had passed away and each man had suffered from a stroke. Both men still had full use of their minds, but very limited use of their bodies. And although their children had made very genuine offers for them to come and stay with them, both men had declined, stating that they didn’t want to be a burden.

With the condition of body and mind being what it was, the men spent many hours talking with the slow and deliberate speech that came as a result of the strokes.  Each man enjoyed reliving their glory days of the early 50s. John speaking of his stardom as a high school football quarterback in a Texas town that worshiped their star football players – – that is of course until he blew out his knee senior year. John just knew he could have been the cocky Joe Namath guaranteeing a Super Bowl win if it hadn’t been for the injury. Dennis liked to speak of how he had dated his beloved Martha since he was in the 10th grade and she in the 8th. As soon as they had both graduated high school they had married. He was 20, she barely 18. Neither had ever dated any other. Neither wanted to. They had “just known,” Dennis would say.

Carla, a nurse’s aide in her early thirties, would often stop outside and listen in on the men’s conversations.  Carla had a toddler, kindergartener and middle-schooler at home. She was a single mother who had taken the nurse’s aide job out of the desperation of trying to feed and clothes her family. At first she had despised the idea of taking care of and cleaning up after the elderly. But, as the months passed she had come to truly care about the residents and had found a certain peace came across her while she was at work caring for those who could not care for themselves. A peace very different from the hectic pace of being an under educated, under paid, single mother of three.

Carla had taken a particular interest in John and Dennis after hearing them swapping stories on several occasions. The two had come to intrigue her even more when she found out both were life -long church goes and claimed, as they put it, to have “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” With a life that had not gone at all how she had planned, Carla was doing a lot of searching.  And she was curious to see how these two men who claimed to “be saved,” and who already had a majority of their lives behind them, would look back on the lives they had lived. It became even more fascinating when she saw how these two men, with seemingly similar lives and faiths, actually differed so greatly.

The first such encounter had come when Carla was bringing the two men their dinner and they were discussing their wives. Being that she had never managed to make a relationship last longer than a year, she listened intently as she fed Dennis his dinner.

Dennis had already told of how he had first met Martha coming out of school and it was rare true case of “love at first sight.” He was now talking of the early years of their marriage. “We were so poor,” Dennis was saying, in between chewing, in his slow, somewhat slurred speech. “I started out as just a bagger at the store and was making $1.00 an hour, minimum wage at the time. Martha took in laundry that she cleaned and pressed to make a few extra dollars each week. But, we had nothing. Still, we couldn’t have been happier.  We would turn on the radio and dance around the kitchen and into the living room. There was only a tiny kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom in our apartment.” Dennis laughed recalling this. “Even as broke as we were, I made sure to get her something every month on our anniversary. Sometimes it was as small as a nickel candy bar from the grocery store. That was all we could afford! But always, a Snickers, because I knew it was her favorite. She was the love of my life. I worshipped her. And she knew it. And that was all that mattered!”

After this, John countered with his own story of his years of early marriage. “When Elizabeth and I first got married, it was the same way! I mean we couldn’t get enough of each other. And then came our first child, John Jr. Things were still pretty good with us for a while. But, after a while she started nagging me that I wasn’t spending enough time with the baby or giving her the attention that I used to. Well, I let her know she wasn’t giving me the attention she used to when we first got married, either, if you know what I mean. And quite frankly, the Bible teaches that the man is the head of the household and she needed to be taking the lead from me, not trying to tell me what to do.  Anyhow, about a year later she was pregnant again. Only, this time there were a lot of complications and the baby only lived for a couple of days. She was so depressed. I mean, I was sad, too. But this went on for months. And no matter how nice I tried to be, she was just never “in the mood.” Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I started to frequent Christy’s.”

“The whore house?!” questioned Dennis in surprise.

“I prefer to think of it as a place for gentleman in need of relief.  I mean I really had no choice. Like Paul says in the Bible, a husband and wife should not keep themselves from one another lest it may lead one to fall into temptation. So, her keeping herself forced me into it. But, I was very careful not to let her find out. That way it wouldn’t make Elizabeth any sadder than she already was. I mean, I still had her feelings in mind. Just needed something to tide me over until she snapped out of it.”

Dennis seemed eager to change the subject a bit and responded, “You talking about your baby passing reminded me of when we lost Linda. At the time James was 8, Mary was 5 and little Linda, my little darling princess, was only 2.” Even after all these years Carla could hear the emotion in Dennis’ voice as he talked about Linda. And after John’s crude reminiscing, it was quite endearing. “Martha and I had taken all three kids to the beach. I had James and Mary out about as deep as my waste, which was up to their necks! Martha had a tight grip on Linda near the shore, with her feet in the water. All of a sudden I heard Martha scream and saw her let go of Linda and reach down and grab her ankle. I didn’t know it then, but a jelly fish had stung her. And in the perfect storm of terrible fate a huge wave came and swept Linda away. Before we were able to find her, it was too late. She had drowned.”

At this point, Carla wiped a couple of tears from Dennis’ eyes, and her own, and with a big deep breath, Dennis continued. “Martha went into a deep depression. She blamed herself. She thought I would leave blame her for Linda’s death leave her. I just had to keep telling her how much I still loved her. That it wasn’t her fault. If it weren’t for the love of our church family and God’s power to bring redemption through even the worst tragedies, we would have never made it. I still remember when I got a deep sense that the only way Martha would heal is if she began to help others. So, I pushed and prodded her to begin volunteering at the orphanage in our town. She became a surrogate mother to so many of those children with her frequent visits and doting over them. Through giving them the love that she would have given our Linda, she finally began to heal.   That was a hard couple of years for Martha and I and our whole family. And of course, the scars from it don’t ever fully go away. But, in the end, Martha and I were closer together because of it and both of drew closer to the Lord.”

Carla had finished feeding Dennis and quietly slipped out.

******

Another time Carla had wheeled the two men out to the dining hall to watch a movie that was being shown to the residents. Before it started she brought each man coffee. Dennis, one cream and two sugars and John, two creams, no sugar. “Thank you Martha,” Dennis said.

“Carla,” she gently corrected him.

“Oh of course, of course. Martha always used to fix us each a cup of coffee in the evening and we’d sit together and talk. You fixing this coffee just the way I liked it reminded me of her. Why don’t you join us Carla? You a much prettier sight than John here.”

She smiled and said, “Why not?”

As she sat down, the three briefly chit chatted about the weather and such. After a while, John and Dennis began to talk once more of days gone by and Carla just eased down into her seat and listened.

“I really took pride in my job as store manager,” Dennis was saying. “I believe God calls us to give our best at whatever we do, but more than that I had worked my way up from the bottom. I had been a bag boy for a couple of years before they started letting me stock the shelves. They noticed that I worked hard and began letting me help with inventory and run a register. Finally, when Frank, who had been manager there for over twenty years, retired, they asked if I would like the position. Of course I was thrilled. For the next twenty-five years I made sure the shelves were always faced perfectly, the floors sparked and the customer service was impeccable. And it always did my heart well when I got to walk an elderly woman to the car and put her groceries in. But I’ll never forget the home deliveries I did to Ms. Smithburger. I delivered to her for over five years before she passed.” He chuckled thinking about this and added, “She was the meanest old lady I ever met. She would curse me if I was even just a couple of minutes past the scheduled delivery time, complain about how the last delivery of eggs hadn’t been fresh enough and ask why they couldn’t send a more handsome face to bring her groceries.”

Dennis laughed some more, but then got serious. “But, I knew it was only because she was so lonely. Her deepest regret in life was that she had been barren. And when her husband of 54 years passed away, she had no one. I was her most regular visitor. She just didn’t know how to handle the only kind face she saw and the hurt she felt. So, she tried to drive me away, too. But I didn’t let her. I kept delivering those groceries with a smile on my face and nothing but pleasant words for her. Often I’d even bring some flowers for her to put on her table and brighten up the room. You know she never did once thank me or have a kind word to say. But when she passed and her home was cleared out they found a note that she had left for me. It said that my visit was the only thing she looked forward to each week. She thanked me for showing her there were still decent people left on the Earth.”

As Dennis finished he had a contended, all be it, droopy, smile on his face. Without more than a few seconds of silence, John began his story. “I can definitely relate. I worked some long hours as head of my department. I really took pride in becoming the best. And I brought out the best out in my employees. I demanded the same long hours from them that I put in. And if something wasn’t done up to my standards, than it was re-done. A lot of people quit under my watch, but I know that the Bible speaks against the lazy anyhow. And boy was the team that we ended up with good. No matter what our company did, my HR department could spin it in a positive light before it ever hit the news.”

Carla had heard about enough. And as John continued telling Dennis of his many exploits as HR director, she slipped away to check on some other residents.

******

A few months later, Carla went in one evening to check on Dennis. Since John had passed away in his sleep a couple of weeks ago, Carla had been checking on Dennis a lot more often. Dennis had been terribly depressed and seeing Carla made him brighten up a little. When she went in she saw Dennis lying completely still in bed. She walked over next to his bed, “How’s my favorite patient doing?” she whispered.

When he didn’t reply, she put a hand on his wrist. No pulse. As it often goes when a spouse loses one they had loved for many years, life does not seem the same without the other. And Dennis, having already lost his wife and now losing the one whom he had shared his life with since her passing; it was just too much. However, as she looked down at Dennis, she saw a wonderfully peaceful look on his face, one nothing like the expression of terror she had seen on John’s face when he had passed.

At Dennis’ funeral, Carla thought back over the years that John and Dennis lived in room 134 together and the many conversations she had overheard the between two men. Both being devoutly religious, many of the conversations centered around their differing opinions on the matter. She had heard both men talked of specific moments in their life when they “accepted Jesus in their heart,” but outside of this agreement they differed in their views over most everything else on the topic. They debated once saved always saved vs. being able to lose your salvation, whether to tithe from gross or net income, Calvinism vs Wesleyanism, and pre-destination or free will.

Carla honestly did not have a clue what they were talking about during most of those religious debates. Yet, as she looked at Dennis lying in the casket, she thought of all she had learned about he and John and the way they lived their lives. Rand regardless of the fact that both men claimed to serve the same Lord, she had a hard time believing both of their souls had gone to rest in the same place.

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