The cries roused Herman, but his memories kept him awake.
Peaches and Christmas, dreadful day that it was, and a girl dressed in calico and lace.
“Lily, what’s wrong?” Reflected from the snow outside mid-afternoon sun blazed through the window. Herman squinted against it and raised a gnarled hand to his brow to shield his eyes. He’d fallen asleep right in the middle of reading the Farmer’s Almanac. Right in the middle of trying to determine the best days for pruning peach trees next spring.
“Lily? You say somethin’?” He looked across the room to where his wife was taking a nap on her bed. “Where’s John? Nah!” He drew a shaky breath. Cobwebs of sleep still draped his mind. Yes, every fruit farmer knew that a good pruning is the key to a successful harvest.
His son always helped. “John, time to prune.” Herman tried to get up, but his arms lacked the strength and his lower body refused to cooperate.
Disinfectants mingled with bitter medicines and human suffering assailed his nose and all at once the cobwebs dissipated, cotton candy dreams thrust under a stream of water. Herman thumped the armrest of his wheelchair with his hand. Unable to bear the truth he’d turned to the almanac in an attempt to erase the horrors of his life. Impossible. He could no more hope to attend to pruning than he could stand on his own two feet. He was a crippled old man in a nursing home. John was far away. There were no trees anymore.
And it was Christmas Day.
“Ohhh.” The piteous cries that first awakened him pulsed through the hallway.
“Nah!” Herman craned his neck toward the door of the room he shared with Lily.
“Oh. Ohhh. No.”
The moaning unnerved him. “You okay?” He mustered his loudest voice. “Hello?”
Grasping the wheels of his chair, he inched forward. Grab, pull. Grab, pull. “Hello?”
Darned nurses. Where were they when you needed them?
At a snail’s pace he moved into the hallway. The hub of the chair grated a scratch into the wall. Grab, pull. Grab, pull. Arthritic fingers gripped rubber and metal. Grab, pull. He shuffled his feet against the floor in an effort to speed himself along.
Christmas wrote itself on every surface. Gaudy wreaths and bows on doors. Trees and lights and popcorn garlands. A bulletin board with glaring red letters: Today is December 25.
Herman moved his head rigidly from side to side. He didn’t need a reminder. A piece of emotional shrapnel, the anguish he associated with Christmas had embedded itself in his soul.
Grab, pull. He kept track of his progress with the tile squares on the floor. There were eighteen squares between he and Lily’s room and the room next door; he knew from visiting Miss Annie, Lily’s girlhood friend. She’d occupied the room until two weeks ago. Herman pulled his lips into a tight grimace. Now she was gone, death had taken her in the night.
Nine squares. Halfway there. He paused. His near-century-old body throbbed with exhaustion.
“Oh. Ohh. Awh.”
Herman’s chest tightened. “Hello?” No answer. Hallway empty. No one in sight.
Grab, pull. Darned old fool. What did he think he could do? Lily couldn’t withstand anyone suffering. She’d expect him to help. But how? Grab, pull. A rivulet of perspiration trickled over the rough terrain of his cheek. He dabbed a crooked forefinger at it. Thoughts of Lily bathed him in bittersweet pain.
He could still remember the moment he first saw her. Harper’s Mercantile. Spring of 1932. He’d stopped to buy flour. With him one step away from the door she walked out, the most breathtaking girl he’d ever seen.
He was twenty. She was seventeen.
Grab, pull. Grab, pull. Memories drove him as the tile squares inched beneath the wheels.
That day Lily wore a calico dress. He’d never forget the color. Azure. Like the soothing waters of some far away ocean. The lace at the neckline, against her milk-white skin, made the spring day turn summer. He nearly dropped to his knees when she looked at him. Those jade- green eyes of hers taking in his work boots and torn overalls—all he could afford at the time— she smiled her approval.
“Now here’s a man who doesn’t mind hard work.” This to the friend accompanying her, Miss Annie.
Three months later they married.
Grab, pull. Five squares left. Grab . . . pull. Images of his bride drifted through him. Lily.
Radiant in her wedding dress. Lily. Damp with sweat on the bed as she proudly presented his son, years later a daughter. Lily. Ever beautiful, dancing with him in the moonlight on their twentieth anniversary, their fiftieth, and then on the unprecedented mark of seventy years together. Surely, they’d teased, eighty was in the bag.
That was before her mind began to go.
Herman’s throat spasmed. Lily now retained scant recollection of their years together.
Most days she didn’t even know who he was.
Herman felt alone and angry. Tears of frustration pricked at his eyes. Gone was the Lily he’d shared his life with—gone was his life. Why hadn’t God been merciful and allowed them to die before it came to this?
At the nurses’ station Christmas carols blared from a radio, the lyrics salt in old wounds.
Grab . . . pull. Miss Annie’s room. Herman bit his lip and reminded himself the room no longer belonged to Lily’s friend. Now another poor soul was imprisoned in it, awaiting the inevitable.
He tapped on the half-open door with his knuckles. “Hello? You . . . okay?”
Head turned to the wall, the figure in the bed issued a feminine whimper that tugged at his heartstrings.
Grab, pull. He moved closer.
“Mr. McClure.” The crack of the nurse’s voice made him jump. “You know Miss Annie’s gone. What are you doing in here?”
“Nah!” Herman growled. “Came to see what was the matter . . .” His voice trailed off then softened. “She was cryin’.”
“Yes,” answered the nurse, “Nell’s had a rough day.”
The name unleashed a rush of sentiment. Herman rubbed at the stubble on his chin.
“What’d you say?”
“I said she’s had a rough day.”
“No. The name. What’s her name?”
“Nell.” The nurse pointed to a tag on the bed. “She’s having a hard time getting used to being here.”
“None of us like it much.” Herman bristled. “Just what happens when you’re old.”
“Ah, but for Nell it’s different.”
The nurse smoothed the woman’s hair, drawing Herman’s attention to something he hadn’t noticed. Instead of white or silvery gray the figure in the bed had hair the color of chestnuts. Young looking.
The nurse took a hold of the handles on the wheelchair. “Almost time for Christmas dinner, Mr. McClure.”
“Christmas. Nah! What’s wrong with her?” Herman bolted the words. “How old?”
The nurse pushed him into the hallway before responding. “Nell has a neuromuscular disorder. She’s lost the use of most of her body. Her family can’t care for her anymore.” She paused in front of the bulletin board. “Today’s her birthday. She’s twenty-three.”
The words pierced Herman’s heart. “Her folks comin’?”
“Take me back.”
“Take me back.”
“Mr. McClure, it’s almost time for your medicine . . .”
“Not for another hour. Now I’m askin’ please, or I’ll do it myself.” He groped for the rim of the wheelchair.
She leaned over and cocked her head. “You sure?”
“Course I’m sure. Nobody should be alone . . . today.”
“Alright, but only for awhile and only if it doesn’t upset her.”
The nurse positioned Herman next to the bed. “Nell, you have a visitor. Mr. McClure from next door. He’d like to stay with you for a few minutes. Is that okay?”
Herman made out a nod—ever so slight—in the affirmative.
“I’m going to turn you over so you can see him.”
The eyes of the young woman searched Herman’s face. As the impact of her condition settled on him his chest constricted, stealing his breath. Only a girl she would never have the chance to dance in the moonlight on her anniversary, give birth to her children, or walk in the soft dirt of a peach orchard hand in hand with the one she loved. And, by the looks of the feeding tube attached to her nose, she would have no Christmas dinner.
Embarrassed by his own selfishness he couldn’t meet her gaze. He let his head drop. His mind raced trying to think of what to do, what to say.
And there was something more.
Long-ago lodged in his soul that emotional shrapnel, festering for decades, tore into his senses. He fought back tears. Then, thinking of how Lily would face the situation, he rallied courage and spoke.
“I had a daughter once.” He stuck out his chin in determination, “Her name was Nell, too. Nellie Hazel. It’d been a terrible winter. She had the croup. Couldn’t lick it. She died on this day back in 1944, just seven-years-old. I haven’t celebrated a Christmas since.”
Overcome, he let his tears brim and spill down his face. Tears for his Nell, who never lived out her childhood. Tears for Miss Annie, whose passing he’d not yet mourned. Tears for Lily, losing herself to dementia. And, tears for this Nell who, so young, bore burdens he couldn’t even comprehend. Why? Why did life have to be so hard? Why was there so much pain, suffering, and sorrow?
Herman looked up through his tears into Nell’s eyes.
She blinked twice, slow and deliberate, as though to communicate she understood his grief.
He reached out and placed his hand on hers. “Happy birthday, girl. I’ll be comin’ round to visit, that is if you can put up with a cantankerous old man like me.” He forced a smile.
Nell’s eyes smiled back.
From behind him came the sound of shuffling. His wife appeared at his side.
“Nell!” Lily clasped her hands in front of herself like a joyful child. Moving to the side of the bed she began to sing, “Away in a manger no crib for His bed the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head. The stars in the heavens looked down where He lay . . .”
Herman couldn’t be certain how Lily knew Nell’s name. Did she see it on the tag? Or had her mind convinced her this was the child she lost so many years ago?
It didn’t matter.
The fan on the nightstand billowed the hairs on the top of his head, a three-quarter halo of white. Lily sang, radiant. Nell’s eyes smiled with increasing light. Herman looked from one woman to the other. Could it be that suffering was the catalyst to bring about the best in folks? If so, it would appear God knew the same thing fruit farmers knew: a good pruning is the key to a successful harvest.
“ . . . Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray.”
Warmth wrapped Herman, a quilt of serenity. He knew it wasn’t a coincidence that brought Nell into their lives on this particular day.
“Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care and take us to heaven to live with Thee there.”
He closed his eyes. The words of the song reminded him of the soothing waters of some far away ocean—azure—the color Lily wore that first day when she’d been dressed in calico and lace.