The Christmas tree, festooned in the empty house was the last straw. Faced with the prospect of spending Christmas alone for the first time in my life, the decision had been made quickly. A few phone calls and some hurried packing followed. With a last look a house that no longer was home, I backed the truck down the driveway and sped away from my thoughts.
Other homes in the neighborhood were similarly decorated, and there lights twinkled in the growing gloom, highlighting my haggard face with garish colors. Meant to cheer, they mocked me as I motored out of town, seeking the anonymity of the highway.
I was mourning. It seemed as I reflected that often of my times of grief came during the holidays…cruel in its expectation of joy. When I was but a boy of 11, my paternal grandmother was taken by a stroke near Christmas. We were three states away, and drove through the night to be with family. A few years later my maternal grandfather died just before Christmas. We were with family again, but the Christmas celebration, such as it was, seemed dream-like, everything unfocused and in slow motion.
This Christmas, grief again had crowbarred its way into my life. I was again mourning death. This time it was the death of a marriage and dreams, rather than the loss of a loved one’s life for which I grieved. The pain made all the more intense because I had not only lost a marriage, but my children were spending Christmas with their mother and her family. My family lived far away, and I felt that the kids would have a more normal holiday if they spent it with the extended family of my ex-wife, rather than with just me. But now I was alone.
Those who have experienced the loss of divorce know the truth of the statement that it is just like mourning a death, except you keep running into the corpse. This Christmas I was running as fast as I could to avoid the corpse…running west.
Tires crunched on the gravel overlaying caliche at the entrance to the ranch. Down the quarter mile driveway, I saw no lights from the cabin. The key was where I had been told it would be. I let my black Labrador Bandit out of his crate to stretch and explore the familiar smells around the place. I paused before opening the door and listened…only distant lowing of cattle could be heard above the whisper of winter wind curling around the eaves.
I grabbed my bags from the truck and stowed them inside, Bandit in tow. The cabin was completely silent and cold, lacking central heat. Warmth this night would come from a space heater and the heat trapped by my sleeping bag as I tried to sleep on the couch. Bandit, who somehow seemed to understand my grief, never left my side. His graying muzzle warm on my chest as it heaved with sobs, his brown eyes soft with wisdom from some unknown source.
I woke in the grayness of December dawn. Bacon sizzled in the pan while coffee dripped into a pot that showed the scars of hard water and many other morning brews. I drained the bacon on paper towels and fried two eggs in the grease. Though I had no appetite I forced myself to eat, and did so in the same detached way you fill your car with gasoline, knowing it is necessary for motion. It was strange…food had no taste these days. My weight had dropped but I didn’t care.
There was no running water in the smaller cabin, so I walked to the ranch house to shower and shave. My steps were slow and sluggish, as though I were slogging through mud. My eyes were red and swollen as they had been for weeks as I existed in the twilight of reality with no direction or dreams.
The hot water from the shower stung. It felt good to feel something…anything. The effects of coffee and breakfast slowly began to awaken me and I took more notice of my surroundings. I passed by a window that faced a small lake behind the ranch house. Ducks were loafing on the water, and cows cropped grass in the pasture. The sun in the east was late to work this day, preferring to stay under the blankets of clouds that covered his face.
The ranch was deserted. Mr. K, the owner, had gone to
Following breakfast, I found some work to do. There were a few things Joel asked me to repair during my stay. The first was to remove a small cedar tree that had taken root at the corner of the cabin, threatening to damage the foundation. I found an axe and a grubbing hoe in the machine shed and set to work. Bandit lay nearby, babysitting.
It felt good to swing the heavy hoe, the muscles in my shoulders awakening from their long rest. I fell into the old rhythm, and with satisfaction felt the bite of steel into earth and wood. The scent of cedar perfumed the hills. I grew warm and peeled off my vest to continue the assault.
Once the cedar had been removed, I drug the carcass to the burn pile, and wiped the sweat from my forehead, and noticed with the blisters on my hands. It had been too long since they had known honest work. I wondered what my grandfathers would have thought, their own hands hard as iron from a lifetime of welding and farming. The clouds had broken, and the sun was cheering the countryside.
Inside the cabin, long unused, I threw open windows and set to cleaning the kitchen and living room, the only 2 rooms I needed. I needed water for my task, but the water had been shut off due to a leak under the kitchen sink. A quick look and a few scribbled noted later, I jumped in the truck and headed 16 miles to town for some plumbing supplies.
Ranching and farming towns have a unique culture. Sometimes a bit rough on the edges, but there is something…something that feels vaguely like home there. I stopped in the local hardware store, asked the clerk for what I needed, and was soon on my way. I spied a coffee shop off the main square and shuffled in to see what they had to offer. Pleased to find a friendly face and good coffee, I found a book and stayed an hour or so, getting lost in a Louis L’Amour novel. It was good not to think too much this week. The busy little shop shoved aside my loneliness for a time.
Leaving the coffee shop, I strode back to the truck, parked out front like a horse tied to a rail. I turned it toward the ranch, hoping to get the repairs on the sink completed before the short day burned out its allotment of sunshine.
As I returned, Bandit, the old soul, was there to greet me. How is it that a dog can provide such comfort? Can anyone demonstrate unconditional love better than they?
In an hour the sink repairs were done, and supper was on the stove. The television didn’t work. Just as well. Somehow
The following morning, I decided to go out for a possible duck hunt. What luxury a man has who has no schedule or demands on his day! I grabbed my shotgun and coat, and pulled on my boots. I finished the last of the coffee and made another pot for when I returned to the cabin, smiling smugly at the convenience of having running water in the cabin.
As we left the cabin and navigated the various gates to the lower pond, we passed through a stand of live oaks that would hide our approach to any ducks on the water. I spotted a single duck winging toward the pond, oblivious to our presence. It was a long shot, one of the longest I have ever attempted. To my surprise, the duck fell to the water, lying dead with wings outstretched.
I gave Bandit the line, and commanded “BACK”. He rocketed toward the bird for an easy retrieve. However, we discovered that day that ducks can play possum. At Bandit’s approach, the “dead” duck dove. Bandit swam in a circle and looked back at me as if to say, “what do I do now boss”? Frankly, I didn’t know. Fortunately the duck surfaced right near the lab, and with surprising quickness he grabbed it, and brought it back to me…and I swear he was smiling.
It was then I felt…I knew this Christmas would be special. I didn’t have a tree and presents, but I found simple joys like running water and hot coffee. A good meal and special moments in the field with Bandit. This year I wouldn’t see the Christmas of mall Santas and Wall Street greed. I would see the babe in the manger, but in a new way, stripped of everything but His essence; His mission; His grace. I would learn to love and live again because the God of second chances, whose mercies are new each morning. And here it began…