I Have Witnessed That Love In My Grandparents. Will Attach A Short Story I Wrote About It.Ribbons
By Tom Brosman
The old man was dying and he knew it. He could feel his body shutting down. There was no need to awaken his wife as she slept peacefully beside him. This time, the paramedic from Aberdeen could not bring him back. "I've enjoyed my life," thought Henry Chalmers, as he lay in the stillness between midnight and dawn.
His senses were keener now as death approached. He felt the bedspread, as if for the first time and noticed that the lace fringe around it had a snowflake pattern that he could make out with his fingertips. The arthritis that he no longer felt in his hands and fingers had robbed much of his sense of touch. "Strange, I can remember back when I was a baby, feeling the blanket my mother covered me with in my crib." He could smell again, smell each distinct odor in the room. He could smell the orange cleaning fluid that his wife used to clean their bathroom and he could smell his Old Spice, even after his shower, it was in his facial pores, from decades of use. He could see clearly now, without his glasses and with the illumination of the nightlight. He could see every grain in the oak dresser across the room and he could even make out the small "D. C." where his nephew Danny had carved his initials over three decades ago into the new dresser when the relatives were over for Thanksgiving. There were family pictures across the wall and a fishing picture of him and the boys with a stringer of rainbow trout from the Queets River. The biggest fish weighed four pounds and Janie had baked it, head and all, in a big blue roaster, and served it on a turkey platter. The boys felt like kings of the jungle when they saw the fish they caught, cooked with herbs and ready to eat with the steam rising from the leviathan of the Queets River.
Henry never regretted marrying Janie, though deep down, he felt she was too good for him. He lived for her touch and the smell of her perfume. Every day, since she was a girl, she had worn the same fragrance, "Sweet Blue Lilacs". He had never smelled it on a woman before or since he met her and to him, it was just one more thing that made her special. Only Henry Chalmers' Maker knew of the times when Henry was alone and the tears streamed down his cheeks as he thought about how good Janie was to him and how lucky he was that she was his.
Henry looked again at the dresser and saw his usher's badge lying beside his watch, it read "Henry Chalmers, Head Usher". He was proud of that badge and since he had retired from the railroad, it was the only real job he had. Henry enjoyed helping the people now, as they came and left the church. No job was too menial for the man who once drove trains. "I expect it is because of the ribbons and what I owe her," thought Henry. He could see both ribbons in a picture fr
Henry's tears dropped quietly on the linen pillow case as his mind wandered back in time, to when he met Janie. She was sixteen and he was nineteen. She was sitting in the bleacher in front of him with her girlfriends at a ba
Henry was a young, cocky boy who cared little for anyone else before he met Janie.
They dated for six months before Janie's dad gave them his blessing. Henry got a job at the BN Railroad, as an assistant fireman. It was hot filthy work, but he stuck with it and
before he retired, he had done most of the jobs on the rail line, from shoveling coal, to driving trains, to managing the rail operations in Washington and Oregon. Henry grew
up as a man in the railroad and found his reason for going to work, in the click of the tracks and the sound of the engines. Janie found her reason in making a home for Henry and the boys and giving of herself to her family, neighbors and even people at the nursing home. Henry thought it was a waste of a good woman to take food to old people and give a kind word to those she met.
The railroad man felt like the king of the earth the day he was made engineer and he stood in the cab and steered the big engine through the turns in the tracks between Seattle and Portland. He had little use for weak people, but he did allow that if Janie wanted to show kindness to the undeserving, that it was the only weakness he could
find in his wife and it was her business. The tears were falling quickly now, down the rugged cheeks that were aged with the wind and the sun, from eyes that had looked down a million miles of rail.
Henry remembered how arrogant he had been, even after their marriage and how he felt that a paycheck was his part of the equation and caring for the family was Janie's part. And care for him, she did. Janie loved the railroad man more than life itself and she spent every day showing him that he was her darling. Henry Junior was born first, then Mike and Danny. Mike became a railroad man like his dad and was a brakeman between Seattle and San Francisco for the BNSF. Danny was a preacher, which made his mama happy and Henry junior, the spitting image of his daddy, was killed in a firefight in Nam. It was Henry who fell to pieces at the death of their son and it was Janie, as always, who picked the pieces up. But then, Janie had always been the giver in the marriage. Where Henry was stingy with people and life, Janie was loving and kind to them, but that was before the ribbons.
By the time Henry was fifty-five, he and Janie had their house paid off and Mike and Danny were on their own. The BN had been good to Henry and he was eligible for a good retirement, in fact they offered it early. For most of his life, Henry secretly scoffed at other men. "If they would only have worked hard like I have and married a girl like Janie, they would be as successful as I have been." But the future and the ribbons had changed how he felt towards his fellow man.
On his fifty-sixth birthday, his boss from Kansas City called and offered him an early retirement. "Henry, take it, you have earned it. You have your health and you have your wife and home and it's time you enjoyed life" Henry accepted the offer. He only had two months left at the railroad before he retired. Henry put on his jacket and headed home early, to surprise Janie and take her out for a good dinner. "She could use a nice dinner out, she's been pale lately." Henry drove the big Lincoln home and parked in front of the nicest house on Cherry Street in Aberdeen. His motor home was covered for winter and he figured he would "uncover it" and Janie and he could spend the winter in Arizona, like they had planned to do for decades. Henry quietly let himself in to surprise the woman who was the center of his world and his reason for being. There was a noise from the bathroom, a retching sound, as if someone was throwing up. It was a sound that Janie had managed to hide from him for the past month.
Henry rushed to the bathroom as she flushed the toilet and walked toward him. "Hold me Henry, hold me as you have for thirty five years. I want to lose myself in your strength. I am so sorry, Henry, I have hidden it from you as long as I could, but you would find out soon enough. I have been to the doctor several times in the last few weeks. Henry, I have stomach cancer. It is terminal. It has gone too far to operate. Henry, I am so sorry to leave you alone, it's the only thing that troubles me. I have enjoyed my life with you and our home and family. This is the first time that I am at a loss as to how to love you and what to do for you when you are lonely and I can't be there." The woman sobbed in the big mans arms.
Henry was losing the one reason he had to live and all of his strength could not change the outcome. He called the doctor himself, feeling that a superintendent from the BN should get better service for his wife. Henry retired the following Monday. He nursed Janie at home until she had to go to the hospital. There were two people in pain on in the
house on Cherry Street, in Janie' last weeks of life. Her pain was from cancer and Henry's was from a broken heart.
The funeral was held at the cemetery, on a hill above Aberdeen. There were many relatives and lots of people whom Henry had never met, with stories about his wife, who had cared for them, or given a kind word when it was needed the most. Henry looked down the hill to where the railroad tracks snaked through the woods north towards Forks and for the first time since he was a young boy, he felt helpless in life.
In the weeks that followed, he did allot of soul searching. While he had been investing in himself, Janie had loved others. He learned to watch soap operas and eat TV dinners and for once, he showed kindness to people when he was at the store or on a walk. Henry had no idea of what to do with himself. Janie's death had changed all the rules that he had made up about life. He remembered her kindness and her kisses and her pot roast and her figure…and he spent his days in loneliness. Finally, when he could grieve no more, he started attending the church he had made fun of, where Janie had gone every Sunday. He volunteered to be an usher.
Six months after the funeral, on a soft fall day, the postman knocked on his door with a special delivery. He signed for the letter and sat down in his chair. "I already got my railroad check this month and I even sent a hundred to that pastor son of mine. What is it this time?" Henry put on his glasses and the hands that had steered a thousand tons of steel along two narrow ribbons, starting shaking. There was no return address and the letter was addressed to "Mr. Henry Chalmers, 1311 Cherry Street, Aberdeen, Wa.,…" in Janie's handwriting. With trembling hands, Henry read a letter from beyond the grave.
"My Dear Henry, As I write this, I am in my last days of life. The cancer has taken its toll. I am counting on you to have learned allot about life these past six months. My sister from Olympia will mail this, six months after my funeral. Henry, life is so much like a church potluck. Each of us brings a plate of food to share. Most people bring at least enough for themselves and hopefully for several others. Henry, you always brought an empty plate in life and I made up for your lack. I didn't mind it, you were a good husband and I have loved you dearly. You have been alone now for six months and I am hoping that you love people more and try to take care of someone besides yourself. You are my soul mate, Railroad Man, and I will meet you on the other side, but until then, I have one last gift for you. You need a wife and I took allot of care to pick her out for you. In this envelope you will find a blue ribbon with her initial on it. Please dress up in your suit and pin the ribbon on your lapel. You are to meet her at eight in the morning at Duffy's Restaurant in Hoquiam. Buy her breakfast, date her and marry her. She will have a ribbon with your initiasl on it, pinned on her dress." Across town, as Henry read his letter, another postman delivered a similar letter to a woman named Jennifer Layton, who had lost her husband to a heart attack years earlier.
Two senior citizens, as nervous as school children on their first date, met the next morning. Henry recognized Jennifer from church and Jennifer had seen Henry ushering the past few months. Henry and Jenny dated for several months. Jenny was a loving woman who was full of fun and she found Henry to be as caring and loving as any man she had ever met. The wedding was a simple one, at the Lutheran Church, conducted by Pastor Chalmers, a visiting pastor, who held Henry's hand and the hand of the bride and conducted the vows, as his mother would have wished them done. The Chalmers honeymooned in California, where the weather was warm.
Five summers had come and gone. Five winters of soft silver rain had fallen across the Harbor and Henry and Jenny had found comfort in each other. Both of them, every day, thanked Jane Chalmers for her final gift to them that had brought so much happiness.
There was a wall of white light in the room now and as Henry looked at it, he saw a door opening into it and a lone figure, waiting, beckoning in the light for him to follow…and the distinct smell of Sweet Blue Lilacs Perfume. Henry got up from the bed, as a man would get out of a car whose engine gave out. He looked down on his body and at the woman sleeping beside it and he thanked Jenny, quietly and reverently, he thanked her for five years of happiness and turned and and stepped through the open door to Janie.