The Last Trip
Janice paced the floor. The sheers on the front window gave a clear view of the street. Weekdays, at five-thirty in the afternoon, as punctual as a homing bird, her husband drove up the quiet, tree-lined street, and she knew he would be home in five minutes.
“Honey, I’ve made reservations for the tenth of January. We’ll fly to Los Angeles, with only an hour stop-over in Atlanta,” Janice said after he threw his car keys on the counter. Smiling, Steve gave her a bear hug.
“Thanks, Jan. That was quick.”
“It’s a good time to go right now. At the end of January, work will get hectic for me and there’ll be no let-up till summer,” Janice said, thoughts raced through her mind. Steve wasn’t well. She had known it months ago, when she hinted for him to check into the hospital for tests. He’d laughed it off. A little brown bottle with tiny nitro pills joined a grouping of vitamins and pain relievers, after his last doctor’s visit.
“I don’t need those pills. Since the accident my chest has never been right,” Steve had said. Janice chose to believe him.
Five broken ribs where the steering wheel had hit his chest three years ago, might well make him feel bad at times.
In October, something about Steve began to change. Janice couldn’t put her finger on it at first, but when he asked to go to church with her for the first time in twenty-four years, she knew that her prayers were being answered.
“Jan, I keep thinking of Bill and Joel. I know if I could just talk to them about God, they would listen to me,” Steve said one day in December.
“I don’t think so, Steve; we’ve talked to all our relatives over the years and haven’t convinced one of them but your sister.”
“It’s different this time, you’ve tried, but I haven’t.” Steve said his voice low, almost mournful.
Janice hadn’t said anything, but in her heart, she resolved to make his wish come true. A few days later, she stood in the kitchen by the phone and felt the urge to make flight reservations and now, seeing the relief on Steve’s face, she felt good about it.
“Let’s fly to Los Angeles to see Bill and little Timmy for a couple days. From there, it’s a short flight to San Francisco. After Frisco, Frank can give us a scenic tour in his Cessna to Eugene,” Steve said, the old excitement sparking a fire in his eyes. “We’ll spend a few days with him and Darla. From there we’ll rent a car and take the scenic route along the coast to Seattle.”
“How long’ve you been planning this?” Janice’ blue eyes grew large, her open mouth curved into a smile. Whatever his heart desired, she was game. Seeing the light in his eyes calmed her lingering worry over the drawn, tired look on his face.
The tenth arrived too soon, but Janice had left nothing undone. The trip went smoothly.
“Dad, here we are!” Bill bellowed standing in line at the L.A. airport, waving his hand. In his arm, he held two-year-old Timmy, a Eurasian toddler with black eyes and milky skin. Kim, Bill’s wife was not with them.
“Here’s your poppa!” Bill swung his son toward Steve, at which Timmy screwed his face and began to cry. By the time they arrived at home, Timmy and his poppa were the best of friends.
“Jan, we won’t stay long, maybe we’ll get a flight out to Frisco tomorrow afternoon,”
Steve said sadly before he turned the lights out that night. Janice had quickly realized that Bill and Kim’s marriage was.
Steve had come thousands of miles to talk to his son about his faith, but he hadn’t begun to break through the wall of bitterness that pervaded Bill and Kim’s home. When Steve suggested they curtail their visit, Janice knew that he had given up trying.
In San Francisco, Steve began coughing and bowed out of dinner at the wharf. The room was too cold for him, sweat beaded on his pale forehead. He retired early.
Frank called to let them know he was on his way to pick them up the next day.
When Frank soared high above the mountains in his Cessna with Steve beside him, reminiscing about the good old days, Steve almost seemed himself. Nevertheless, the nagging, dry cough hung on.
The pleasant stay at Frank’s home in the mountains ended with a bittersweet goodbye. At the end, Frank confided that he had, after much soul-searching and studying, become a believer, giving up his staunch position as an agnostic. The men parted with a firm embrace, both grinning awkwardly.
Janice felt the weight of Steve’s obvious illness obscuring their happy moments. His cough now required continuous attention. He spent most of his time sucking on cough drops, which gave him minimal relief.
Janice took the wheel of the rental car for the remainder of the trip north. The ride along the cliffs took her breath away. She had never seen such beauty before. Steve had begun his adult life in northern California when he was young. He conjured up stories he had never told before, directing her to take little detours to places where he had lived. For once, he brought to life the past he’d kept to himself throughout their marriage. She always felt he wanted to keep the book of his first marriage closed. Now he seemed not to care anymore, engrossed in the pictures of the past.
It rained in Seattle. The sky had been overcast for days. The dampness increased Steve’s coughing spells and he couldn’t get the chill out of his bones.
“Margaret is still in the hospital Steve, I hoped she would be home before you came. Maybe seeing you two will cheer her and help her come home.” Steve’s cough interrupted his brother’s concern about his wife’s illness.
“Steve, you can go see my doctor tomorrow,” Joel, said frowning. Steve looked feverish, his cheeks flushed, his eyes puffy.
The doctor sat straight-faced across from Steve at his polished desk after the exam.
“We’ll need to run some tests Mr. Braden, but your brother said you are visiting?”
“Yes, we’ll be flying home in a day or two,” Steve said looking at Janice.
“So let me give you some strong medicine to control your cough. Please don’t drive, and see your doctor as soon as possible.”
Joel’s wife, Margaret, was improved slightly. The promise of her soon return home eased the conversation at the dinner table. Steve laid bare his soul to Joel about his journey toward seeking God and the hope of an afterlife. Joel’s face contorted in exasperation. His hand came up in defense.
“That’s the same crap our parents stuffed down our throats when we were young. I can’t believe you finally took the bait,” he said, giving Janice a dark look. An intense argument ensued.
Janice excused herself and from a distance listened until the conversation played itself out. She had forgiven Steve for his refusal to listen to her all those years and for all the tears she’d shed. Somewhere deep down it sufficed to see her husband experiencing the same defeat with those he loved.
“Joel, I came in hopes that you would listen to me, but I understand. It took me a lifetime to come full circle. I’ll leave you with this thought- what if there is a life hereafter? Think about it. Call me when you’re ready to talk,” Steve said as they embraced in the parking lot of the airport the next day.
Janice walked on, followed by Steve. She suddenly heard Steve gasp and as she turned, the suitcases in his hands crashed to the floor, his hands flailed in the air, one coming up to grasp his chest. He sank to his knees, his face ashen his eyes reflecting pain.
“Steve!” Janice screamed frantically, “Oh God, help us!”
She knelt next to him, propping her jacket under his head. Several people ran toward them.
”I’ve called the ambulance,” a man said shutting the lid on his cell phone. Steve’s eyes took on a strange blank look. His face relaxed almost into a smile, serene. Janice had seen her grandmother die like that, whispering the name of Jesus as though she were in his presence. She felt numb, empty of fear, released from the dread of foreboding doom that had plagued her for months. The thing she had feared had come and now, it was all so simple. She knew Steve was dying and what she saw on his transformed face somehow took the sting out of death.
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