John dug the soil with his spade and then his fingers, scooping out the damp, black dirt and working the stones and rocks free. He made twenty-four holes, one for each of the bulbs he'd bought. He put the tulips in, one by one, and covered them with dirt.
Afterward, he started on the lawn. There was always more to do than time to do it. After the lawn, he worked on the carburetor in his car.
It was late when he came in from the garage. His wife had already put the children to bed. He tiptoed up the stairs and watched the twins, Molly and Grace, asleep in their bed then looked in on Kelly in her crib.
Time flies when you're busy and John was constantly busy. A growing family is expensive, with the mortgage, groceries and car payments. They were forever trying to juggle the bills to make ends meet and maybe save a little besides. That winter, he worked all the overtime he could and when a better offer came, he took it.
John became a salesman for an industrial equipment manufacturer and was soon spending long days on the road. He no longer had time to do the things he used to enjoy, the yard work, tweaking his car's engine, playing with his daughters. John used the company car and hired a lawn service. He tried to make it home for recitals and gymnastic meets, but oftentimes he couldn't. He was working hard, doing his best to provide for his family.
John soon became the regional salesman, with a territory covering five states. He was gone weeks at a time and rarely got home for more than a couple of days. John continued doing what he felt he had to, but a part of him felt frustrated, as if he was no longer part of the family. He was lonely and began to have misgivings.
And there were temptations on the road. There were others who traveled to the same places, men and women, good people who were lonely, as he was. They formed a small community, and within that community were all the relationships and drama found anywhere people spend time together.
John's next promotion left him flying all over the country. He did trade shows and visited national accounts, writing proposals and making deals. He was good at what he did and began putting money aside for college educations and maybe an early retirement. And he got used to the road, but the question of what he might be missing quietly haunted him.
John was often alone. But then there were nights when all the salespeople got together at a restaurant or a pub, just like a big family. And his work was important; their future, the company's future, was less than secure. He'd become committed. He'd made his choices. People were counting on him and he intended to see it through.
Then, after so many years of travel, John's boss finally retired and it was John's time to head the company's sales department. It was his time to be home.
His girls were in college by then. But during the next spring break, they returned to be together as a family once again and John was there to be with them. They spent the week shopping and eating together; they worshipped together on Easter Sunday. Afterward, they sat down together to a huge dinner that the girls had prepared. They talked long into the night and John was amazed at the people his children had grown into. They were older now, practically adults, with hopes and dreams and futures all their own.
The next morning, his girls started making their way back to school. They said their good-byes, hugged each other and hugged John, then got into their cars to head back to their apartments, to their friends, to their fresh, young lives at college.
John watched them leave and felt somehow unsettled.
"What fine people they've become," he said quietly.
He reached for his wife's hand and turned toward the house. Then he stopped, startled. "Look at that," he said. "Those tulips I planted years ago have finally come up."
His wife stared at him in disbelief. "John," she said, "those tulips have been blooming every spring for the last twenty years. Did you really never notice until just now?"
John paused, reflectively. He gazed at his daughters' cars driving away.
"No," he admitted. "I'm afraid I never did."
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