It nearly always comes toward the end of October: the great storm that heralds the final end of warm afternoons and the beginning of the dark winter. It is the great time of change for me. I usually bundle up by my roaring fire, a mug of cocoa in my hand, and contemplate life as I stare into the flames. At least, I used to contemplate life. Now, I think and weep again over Octobers passed and the great lesson they have taught me.
I have always been a man that looked constantly inward, as if there were some virtue to it. Loftiness calls it contemplation, but I have recently began to see it as a sort of conceit. Over the years, I had spun a tiny universe around myself, much like the caterpillar does, knowing every thread and speck within the cocoon, but having little knowledge of or interest in the world beyond. So, for the first twenty-seven years of my life, I lived a very solitary, very blissful life.
I suppose that I was striving for ultimate control of my surroundings -- to be master of my own destiny. But, of course, there are some things that one cannot oversee and are far too pervasive to ignore. For me, the biggest variable in my life was the weather. Hot and stuffy half the year and cold and bone-dry the rest; it was unpleasant most of the time and could not be depended upon. Even with great study, no one can predict the weather with any exactness. It will do what it will do, as if it had a will bent toward defiance. In the face of the elements, no one can feel secure.
Of such things come the storms of October.
In the first year I am thinking of, the storm came unforgivably early, cutting short the bounty of tomatoes I was enjoying. An obnoxious acquaintance of mine named Jeffrey caught the brunt of my anger over the killing frost, but I was beginning to suspect that he had other reasons for calling on me.
"Look at that!" I exclaimed, thrusting my finger toward a browning plant as we surveyed the remains of the garden. "Withering away!"
Jeffrey arched a brow. "Pity." Then he sighed.
I glared at him. I suppose one of the reasons I have no very close friends is that I may tend to be rather unfeeling toward them. "Pity what? Look at the neighbors!" My pointing finger swung, barely avoiding the fellow's head, to the yard just south of mine. "That cluttered tangle of a weed-patch still has a few good plants! Look at mine!"
Jeffrey did as he was told, then looked back at me with a disaffected look. "Pity."
There are only a few things that really upset an unfeeling person, and that is to have another person be unfeeling right back at them. I practically boiled and grew beet-red as I stammered out, "It's... it's... it's just not fair!"
At that, Jeffrey literally burst forth with a guffaw. "Fair? Someday I must teach you about fair..."
"Well," I shrugged, "perhaps 'just' would be a better word."
"Are you trying to say that justice is turning its back on your tomato dilemma?" He broke into a deep smile. "Do you intend on going to court over it?"
I turned up my face as if in thought. "I wonder if I could win..." Then I waved the foolishness away. "No. It would take too long and the judges cannot be trusted. It would be easier if I just steal a few through the fence."
Jeffrey stiffened, mock-aghast. "You? A thief?"
"Simply one who sets things right," I corrected. "But knowing you to be one of those 'men of faith and virtue,' I'm certain you would turn me in!"
Jeffrey cocked his head and stared at my wizened plants. "You know me too well, Alfred."
I nodded with a knowing look. "Yes, I do."
Yes, Jeffrey was one of those people who had, what I considered at the time, an over-developed sense of right and wrong. He seemed to possess an annoying supply of morals and actually took great pains to be true to them. He took it upon himself at times to lecture me about such things, when I couldn't chase him off quickly enough. Occasionally, he would even drag me into one of his little "service projects." This proved to be one of those times.
"You should get out more," he blurted as we stepped back into the house. He always spoke in very short sentences, dropping them like lead weights, and then eyed me, waiting for the reaction.
I gave him my best eye-brow arch. "Weren't we just 'out'? I go 'out' in my yard and work in the garden."
"And now, your garden is dead."
Was that an insult? My entire frame sank a few inches. Flabbergasted, I ventured, "And just what are you insinuating?"
Jeffrey cracked a crooked smile. "Just this: now that your garden is dead, you won't be going out as much. Therefore, soon enough, you should get out more."
"It wasn't my fault that the garden died," I mumbled almost to myself. I was getting a little perturbed as I thought about the neighbor's fortune and wondered if indeed weeds staved off the cold. "It was just bad luck."
"You should get out more," he repeated. "You should go out with me tomorrow."
I glanced up out of my thoughts about setting out weed-seed next year after the tomatoes had gotten up. "Tomorrow? What good would there be in us working in the garden tomorrow? We could hardly resurrect it now..."
Jeffrey smiled patiently and spoke very slowly and distinctly. "I wasn't talking about the garden."
"Well, I was!" I spat, getting a little hot that he was not sticking to my train of thought. "I..." Jeffrey raised his hand and laughed. "What?"
"I will pick you up around ten in the morning. Please be dressed."
I must have looked confused. "Should I wear my gardening clothes?"
Jeffrey heaved a great sigh. "I will be here at ten." He began going to the entryway. "Dress to go out."
Still having weeds on the brain, I was about to ask if he would be bringing a trowel, but he was already gone.
* * *
I like my neighborhood and always have. I don't know the neighbors, as I never took the time to actually meet them, but I like the way they keep the grounds around their tiny houses tidy, just as I do, except for the one to the south who insists on a weedy garden. I suppose they are all nice people, who keep to themselves as I do, and since they are likely compatible with me, and I think I am rather nice, they must be as well. A tidy logic!
"Nice neighborhood," Jeffrey offered shortly as I settled into the passenger seat of his car. It was a few minutes after ten o'clock
I nodded proudly. "Yes, It is very well-kept. I like to think..."
"Do you know your neighbors?"
It was already beginning. I could hear the sound of a sermon already percolating within Jeffrey's brain. I looked at my companion side-long and cringed. "I see them when I am about and wish them a good day. We are cordial."
Jeffrey glanced at me often as he pulled the car into the lane and we motored off. I was getting nervous about him not concentrating adequately on the road. "But do you really know them? If they were having a crisis, would you be aware of it and know how to help?"
Our car almost hit one parked on the left side of the street as Jeffrey kept his gaze on me. "Wha...who knows other people like that?" I grabbed the dashboard and looked out the windshield in some dismay as we approached another parked car. Jeffrey finally turned his gaze back to the road, gave a start, and jerked us hard to the right. I began to breath again. "I consider such things to be private and choose to stay out of other people's affairs."
"Hmm...," Jeffrey offered as he regained control of the wheel. "A very convenient philosophy..."
We very soon left the well-manicured lawns of my part of town and, crossing through the city center, found ourselves in the seedier side, where dilapidated trailers outnumbered run-down, boarded-up houses, all gone to weeds and trash.
I was getting suspicious. "Where exactly are we going?"
"To see a man." Luckily enough, Jeffrey was now looking where he was driving more than he was looking at me.
I smiled and relaxed. "Good. I was thinking that you would be taking me out to another roadside clean-up crew like last summer. I ruined a good pair of shoes on that!"
Jeffrey was busy scanning the surroundings. "No," he mumbled almost inaudibly. "No trash this time..."
I kept quiet for a time, thinking just what my acquaintance was up to. This had almost become a tradition with us -- Jeffrey spiriting me away to do some civic project that was usually distasteful, in the name of service or 'doing the right thing.'
"And who is this man?" I finally asked.
Jeffrey squinted out the window. "A friend of mine. Just met him."
I chuckled. "Then how can he be your friend? It takes a while develop that kind of relationship."
"I know what he needs." He said simply, as he turned his penetrating eyes back on me. "I also know what you need. I plan to help you both."
I grinned to put off how unnerved I was. "And what, pray-tell, do I need?"
Jeffrey turned his concentration back to his search. "You need to get out more."
We finally came to a stop in the gravel strip that served as a driveway beside a apparently abandoned rusty trailer-house. There was a car under a tilting attached carport, but it looked abandoned as well, rusted and unused. Unlike the other trailers nearby, it lacked the piles of trash lying about, but the high and brittle growth of weeds had caught quite an accumulation that had blown in from other yards. It looked as if the yard had never been cared for, as if the place had just simply been ignored, which assaulted my sensibilities.
"This is the place?" I questioned warily. "It doesn't look like anyone lives here."
Jeffrey got out of the car and I reluctantly followed suit. "Oh, yes. This is the right place."
I gave him an unsure look. "Has this man a name?"
"Eric," he said quickly, as if my questions were annoying.
"And what is this need he has, that you have so cleverly discovered?"
Jeffrey looked at me and smiled, almost coyly. "He needs a gardener." He motioned to the alleged yard. "Isn't it obvious?"
We were invited in quickly enough, as Eric seemed to have few visitors and wanted more. He almost flitted about, commenting that he wasn't expecting a visit and urging us to ignore the mess. This was difficult for me. It was not trashy, as I had heard such places invariably were, but it was very unkempt. Clothes lay in piles, some folded, most not, and there was a literal mound of dirty dishes that filled the sink and overran onto the counters on either side. Eric himself was very casually attired in a jogging suit, complete with sneakers, and sported a scrawny-looking beard, which he scratched at as he spoke. "Please," he said cheerfully, as he moved a pile of clothes off of the couch behind us. "Sit
I tried to relax as the springs of the couch dug uncomfortably into my bottom. Jeffrey was already chatting with Eric about little pleasantries, like the frost. "Oh, yes!" The oldish Eric laughed. "A good thing I had no garden this year! The frost came so early!"
"Yes," I ventured with a sour look. "It took my tomatoes way before their time..."
Eric's eyes practically glittered. "You have a garden? Wonderful! I used to keep one myself, but I just haven't had the opportunity lately." He appeared in his sixties, but looks can be deceiving. "What else do you grow?"
I sighed, not really wanting to be dragged into the conversation. "Potatoes, green beans, some sweet corn, and a few ornamentals."
The old man brightened, if that were possible from his former jubilance, sprang from his chair and took a small pot down from a shelf high up in the kitchen area. He presented it to me. "Here is my little garden this year..."
Before me, Eric held a leaky pot with drab pansies struggling in pathetic soil. "It's wonderful," I lied, hoping to be convincing.
Eric, whether he believed me or not, barreled ahead, glad for someone to talk to. "I used to keep a big garden, you know, back at the old house. Squash and pumpkin, broccoli and okra..." He breathed in the memory as if it were fresh air after a good rain. "We practically lived off that garden! It was so wonderful! I really miss that!"
Jeffrey piped up then. "Yes! That is why Alfred came with me!" I stared daggers at him as he spoke the words. "Alfred is going to help you have a garden!"
"I am?" I said quietly, but Eric practically exploded with excitement at the thought. It would have been inexcusably rude to break his heart that way. "Yes, yes, " I managed, putting on my best smile. "Of course. A garden. This coming spring."
"Oh," chimed in Jeffrey, almost seeming to enjoy pulling me into this. "It will take much of the winter to clear the ground and prepare it properly, don't you think, Alfred?"
I tried to keep my sulking private. I turned my head as if to look through the wall at the back yard, which I had seen was a tangle of old growth weeds and wire. "We will have to hurry, actually, to get things ready before planting."
Eric clapped his hands like a school-girl. "This is wonderful! I am so grateful!" He took our hands in his and nearly shook them off. "Jeffrey, Alfred, you don't know how much this means to me!"
A sudden crash interrupted Eric's reverie and he sheepishly excused himself to a room behind the kitchen. The moments were drawing out and Jeffrey seemed to busy himself in his own thoughts. My own boredom was only broken when there was another crash from behind the kitchen and something tore through the room, flying right in front of Jeffrey and I. I barely caught the sight before it disappeared into the opposite end of the trailer, behind a slammed door.
Eric came out quickly from the kitchen, with a strained smile and an apologetic look in his eyes. "Sorry about that," he ventured quietly. "Be right back." He slipped through the door where the blur had disappeared through a moment before. In a moment, Eric was back in sight, tugging by the hand, out of the next room, a woman who looked as if she had just escaped from prison.
She appeared to be quite old, with cropped hair and wearing a jogging suit much like Eric's. She fidgeted about herself in a most uncomely way and her eyes darted all around the room, as if she were expecting some horrible thing to jump from behind a mound of dirty clothes and throttle her. She never made eye contact with either Jeffrey or I, but it was obvious that our presence agitated her quite a bit. I wanted to say something, but I didn't know if anything proper would come out of my mouth.
"Alfred," the old man said quietly. "May I introduce Anne, my wife."
* * *
"What in blazes was all that?" I ranted in the car as Jeffrey took me home.
Jeffrey was, for once, quite attentive to the road. "Hmm?"
I fumed. "You say that I need to get out more, and then you take me to this place where a man and his hyena live!"
He raised a brow. "I think I will try to forget that last comment."
"So now," I continued, my fire just beginning to get hot, "I am doing a garden for an eager-beaver old man and his possessed wife..."
Jeffrey began to decelerate, right in the middle of the road. We coasted to a stop next to a building straight out of some horror movie. "I can't believe you just said that! Are you truly that rude? Do you care that little? Have you no compassion?"
I gave him my most incredulous look. "What are you talking about? I have just been on a field trip to the psycho ward and you lecture me about compassion? What am I supposed to think? I wish you would come to the point and tell me why you took me there!"
He sat there for a moment, trying to compose himself. I suppose that gave me an opportunity to calm down myself. "I guess I neglected to tell you the reason for visiting Eric and Anne."
"Yes," I answered softly, though still strained. "You did neglect that one little thing..."
"Eric desperately needs someone to talk to and do things with. He mentioned to me once that he enjoyed gardening and I immediately thought of you." He wasn't looking at me, but out the windshield.
I nodded my head. "Probably because I talk too much and Eric wouldn't mind that!" I was really trying to be sarcastic.
Jeffrey paused for a moment to consider. "I hadn't thought of it quite that way before, but yes," he began to chuckle, "you really do talk too much."
I was trying to be indignant, but the laughter was contagious. He was right on that score. After a good laugh, we continued our journey.
"So, you got me into this," I sighed. "Now what am I to do?"
Jeffrey smiled. "I knew I could count on you, Alfred!" He thought for a moment. "Just help him raise a garden. The rest will come in time."
I gave him a side-long look. "What do you mean by 'the rest'?"
He wouldn't answer, even when I prodded him quite hard, and he wore that infuriating, knowing little smile.
* * *
The winter came on slowly, though frosts soon came on back-to-back. The days were not overly cold yet, but, after my own garden was put to sleep, I really would have preferred to stay indoors and sip the cocoa of my private contentment and simply wait for spring. Instead, several days a week, I would journey to Eric's trailer and work on the yard. Jeffrey accompanied me for several weeks, while we were doing the strenuous work of clearing the lot of yellow, hardened weed the height of a man. Eric would help for a few minutes, as he could, but he was quite nervous about leaving Anne alone for too long. "She might hurt herself," he would say. It seemed to me that if she hurt herself badly enough, he could put her into some home and save himself much grief, but I thankfully kept such thoughts to myself.
Once the worst of the old growth was cleared, I was dismayed to find that the ground was really quite good -- in fact, it was much better than mine at home. It gave rise again to thoughts of fairness and justice -- why was such fertile ground to be found in such an unlikely place? Why did my neighbor's half-tended weed patch always outperform my well-worked plot? Why wasn't life more ... structured? It seemed so wrong that my labors sometimes did not seem as profitable as others' laxity. Why was Eric's ground more fertile than mine? For a logical person like me, the world sometimes seemed a madness. These were the dark thoughts that occupied my time as I ached behind a grumbling roto-tiller, pushing old manure into the dark soil. Jeffrey conveniently had other projects going when the jarring work commenced.
On most days, after I was sufficiently beaten, Eric invited me inside, fed me processed and tasteless food, and would talk at me. I am never sure how much I actually listened to these little chats, as I would offer nothing but grunts, as if I were acknowledging his words, as I shoveled in the gloppy food so quickly that I had not a chance to taste it. I must have gotten something out of these times, because I can convey the thrust of Eric's story, thought I might leave out some detail.
Eric was a very successful businessman in his younger years, even by my high-brow standards. I believe he was in automobile parts manufacture. In fact, he was successful to the point that he never had a worry for money. He had a nice house in a very exclusive part of a distant town, often went to a gentlemen's club to socialize, and basically lived the life of a wealthy man. He was also married to Anne.
In those days, Anne was very different from the creature I knew. She was very much the rich man's wife, but, as Eric tells it, she never let it get to her head. Like Jeffrey, she was very moral and charitable, using her influence and money to help those in need. To hear Eric tell it, she was nigh on to perfect.
Everything was wonderful in their lives: They had friends, success, causes to keep them busy, and, most of all, they had each other. Eric, at this point in his narrative, would break down and weep, for in the midst of this joy, on a late fall night, came one of the storms of October.
Eric and Anne were returning from a charity benefit and were quite giddy with the money that was raised to make improvements to an inner-city youth center. Anne was talking on-and-on about what the money was going to do and they were both basking in the glow of the evening. The weather, when they left the benefit, was getting chilly, but nothing else seemed amiss. Halfway home, snow began to fall and within minutes, it was becoming difficult to see.
Eric wanted to pull over and wait out the storm, but Anne said that they were getting so close to home that she wanted to go on. They proceeded slowly and as carefully as they could, though the storm was approaching blizzard proportions and it was difficult to see the road. Anne was still talking on when a truck appeared out of the swirling white directly in front of them. Eric awoke in the hospital with several broken bones, but was otherwise in one piece. Anne fared worse and was in critical condition long after Eric was mended.
Most of a year passed and the hospital decided there was nothing more they could do for Anne. In spite of protests from friends, Eric chose to care for his wife himself instead of institutionalizing her. In short order, Eric sold his business, their home, and a majority of their possessions. A few friends threatened to have him committed for such insanity, so he fled the town and relocated to this trailer house in another state. When I first heard it, I thought he was crazy as well, throwing his life away when it could have been so easy to just solve the problem by putting Anne in a home, but I decided again to be still.
So, Eric was in a new town where he was unknown, except as a trailer-court recluse. The proceeds from his sales allowed him to buy the trailer and lot outright, pay his taxes for many years, and also pay a woman to bring groceries weekly. I suppose it had never occurred to him to hire a housekeeper, or none would stay on when they discovered Anne. As part of some plan, Eric had created this shadow of a life for his wife and himself, and I must admit, I pitied him greatly, but not enough to put aside my thought that he was simply a fool.
Time passed and spring came in perfect season. Rains came in good measure and both Eric's and my garden began splendidly, if I might say so myself. Jeffrey had not been idle in the winter months, although we never met at Eric's trailer again. He had arranged for a friend of his to clean the trailer weekly and another to cook something every other day from Eric's larder. I actually grew to enjoy my time at Eric's place and sometimes even went when the garden needed no tending.
The old man was always glad to see me, always fed me (and the fare improved as well), and always had a nice chat with me. Over time, chats it became, for Eric had an almost magical way of drawing out people and getting them to talk about themselves and their feelings. I'm afraid the old man knew more about me than my own mother, but it was never a problem, for Eric was a soul that could be trusted with secrets and one's inner-most thoughts. I was becoming quite jealous of Eric's talents.
We gazed out at the expanse of land behind Eric's trailer, which we had decided to break out into garden completely. Row upon row of vegetables were flourishing, much better than my tiny plot at home. Eric, when he felt confident enough to leave Anne alone, enjoyed just strolling along the rows, plucking up the occasional weed and smelling the green growth as the sun warmed him and the gentle breezes ruffled his unkempt hair. When I was with him, I would walk along with him, wishing that this were my garden instead of his. Oh, the injustices of life...
It was on a beautiful day in July, unseasonable mild and somewhat cloudy, thought not depressingly so, that I arranged an adventure. Eric and I's relationship had grown to the point that, when Jeffrey's other friends came to clean and cook, we would leave Anne in their care and go for drives. On this one occasion, Eric wanted to see his old house, so he dressed in his best, which was quite faded now, and we made the three-hour trip, mostly in silence.
An old friend of Eric's had, in compassion for him, bought his house and most of the furnishings himself and was living in the place. I suppose Eric was quiet because he had little notion of what his old friend would think and what he would say. Eric pointed out to me an incredible mansion and shyly mumbled, "There it is."
Apparently Eric had not contacted his old friend ahead of time, so there was a very awkward greeting at the door. "Hi, Jim," the old man said quietly. "I came to see the old place and how it's holding up for you. This is my friend Alfred." I shook hands with a distinguished gentleman who seemed to be trying to find a way to say "no," but had no appropriate way of doing so.
Eric was very surprised to find that the place was much as he had left it. We didn't tarry long, as Jim was clearly unhappy with the visit and Eric was getting very emotional. After about fifteen minutes of wandering about, the old man finally broke into tears and left the house without saying good-bye. I thanked Jim for his letting us in and quickly excused myself. I found Eric in the passenger seat of my car, strapped in, snuffling and very anxious to leave.
"Are you all right?" I gave Eric my most compassionate look when the town was safely miles behind us.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Alfred! I didn't mean to be rude. I just..." His voice cracked before he could finish.
I laid my free hand on this thigh. "It's okay, Eric. I understand how much you must miss living there."
"No," he said, composing himself. "No, it's not that." He took a deep breath. "It was just so," he shuddered, "spooky."
I looked at him, puzzled. "How so? I mean if you are willing to talk about it."
He paused and drew a long breath. "It was just so much like we had left it. Exactly as it was, actually. I kept expecting Anne to come down the stairs in her evening dress, rushing off to some fund-raiser..." He shuddered again and began to sob.
"Well," I said half to myself. "I was glad we got to look at the place..."
We dropped into silence for a few miles, then the old man started talking again. "I guess I was just not ready for being in the house we had spent so much time in together, you know, before..."
"Yes," I answered quickly, before he said something that would make him cry. "I know."
My plan failed. "It was just so wonderful..." He couldn't continue as fresh tears came into his eyes. I found mine dampening as well as I thought of the wonderful things Eric had told me about their life before the accident.
We rode on like that for some minutes and then a thought came to me. "It is such a shame that you had to sell that house."
"It was necessary," Eric countered, now dry and looking out the window at passing farms. "They wanted to separate us." I could only assume "they" meant his friends, people like Jim.
I ventured to express my true feelings. "Well, things probably would have gone better if Anne had gone to a home somewhere..."
Eric turned to look me in the face. "What do you mean by that?" His was not a pleasant face then.
"I...," I stumbled on, ignoring an impulse just to let it go. "I just imagine how much nicer your life would have been without Anne to care for, spending time with your friends, perhaps meeting someone else..."
His face grew pale and he stared at the dashboard. "You are just like all the rest. I don't understand you people." He turned back to the window, shaking his head.
"What? What did I say?" I was dumbfounded! "What am I supposed to say or think, Eric? You had a wonderful life, and you let the accident ruin it!" Then, I really put my hand squarely in the hornet's nest. "Anne probably wouldn't even care or know where she was if she were in a home..."
Eric rounded on me, his face nearly purple with rage. "Is that all she is to you? Some vegetable to be stored away somewhere?"
I opened my mouth to retort but I never had time. "She was the most wonderful person in the world, much better than I ever was! Is some mental hospital the reward she deserves for all she has done..." He began to break down. "For all the love she gave me..."
He jerked back to look out the window and I wondered if he would ever talk to me again. "I'm so sorry, Eric. I didn't mean to hurt you. Please help me understand..."
I took him a few minutes, but he faced me again, very pale now. "I don't know if I can help you understand, Alfred. Have you ever loved someone else so deeply that you would give everything to be with them?"
I sighed, not pleased with the honest truth. "No. No, Eric, I haven't."
"I pity you, then." He extended his hand, as if he wanted to touch me and somehow impart the feeling to me. "It is the most wonderful thing in the world!" His eyes nearly rolled back into his head and he broke in to the most blissful smile. "It is like ice cream on a hot afternoon! Spring after a hard winter! The smell of fresh earth and flowers brought on a breeze after a light rain! All those things together, multiplied by billions!" His face took on an almost heavenly glow as he looked at me. "Anne's love was all that and more. It enveloped me like a warm blanket on a cold night that you hope never ends..."
I shook my head. "But..."
"It wasn't more than a week after we met that I knew I wanted to be with her always." Eric closed his eyes again. "I can still remember our wedding day and how she just lit up when she saw me looking at her from the altar. I knew then that I was hers and she was mine, and that, no matter what, we would always be together..." His voice trailed off, as he continued on thinking of the scene in his mind. I didn't want to interrupt him.
Suddenly, his eyes opened and he looked at me. "You know, Alfred, you promise things when you get married."
I shrugged. "Yes, all those things about loving each other and caring for each other..."
"Not just things, Alfred. Promises. Promises before God."
I cracked a smile and half-laughed. "Well, I don't know of anyone who takes any of that seriously. I mean, look at all the divorce..."
Eric was staring at me without a bit of jest. "I take those promises VERY seriously." That "very" seemed to drive a stake right through me, because I knew the old man meant it. "I promised Anne and God that we would stay together through thick and thin. I think that includes accidents and what comes afterwards."
I fell silent. Eric turned back to look out the window. "Somewhere," he mumbled, "beneath that crippled mind is the woman I devoted myself to. She gave me fifteen wonderful years of joy and happiness. I owe her. I owe her everything. She is worth more to me than a big house, a growing business, or so-called friends."
He fell silent and I too was wrapped up in my own thoughts as we finished our journey.
* * *
While others looked after Anne, Eric spent increasing time in his garden, leaving me with less and less to do. I visited him less frequently, but seemed to treasure each time more than the previous one. I began to notice, more and more, how tenderly Eric treated Anne, though she never seemed to acknowledge him particularly or return any affection. I would sometimes catch myself shaking my head at the futility of his love, which seemed so misplaced in my mind. But still he continued to do his self-appointed duty, day after day, until I could hardly stand to watch him.
The lucious summer turned to fall and harvest, and Eric's garden was fabulously plentiful. The woman who shopped for the groceries was given a break that stretched for nearly two months, as Eric enjoyed his first garden in years. On my few visits during that time, I was loaded with vegetables, even though I had plenty of my own, as Eric was stuffing himself silly as it was and Anne had recently become a very light eater. One late afternoon, as the sun began hiding itself earlier and earlier, Jeffrey helped me take Eric's large produce gift home and get it into the kitchen.
"So," he remarked suddenly, "have you discovered why you helped Eric?"
I straightened from bending over the sink. "Other than the garden, I'd have to say no."
He gave me that penetrating look. "Do you read much in the Bible?"
I stared at him. "Sometimes, though not lately. Why?"
Jeffrey smiled. "Somewhere in the New Testament, it says that Jesus laid down his life for his friends."
"So?" I gave him a smug look. "It seemed to me like a cop-out of sorts. He could have done more if he would have lived longer instead of letting the Romans get him."
Jeffrey started, as if I had committed some sin. He bowed his head and nodded. "Very interesting, very logical. Jesus himself said that the greatest love was to lay down our lives for others." He took a step nearer, engaging me more fully. "Let me ask you this: If you had a friend that you loved dearly and they needed your help, would you help them?"
I shrugged. "Certainly."
"What if the help your friend needed required you to leave your home and work and life behind? Would you still help?"
I was about to give my answer in the affirmative, but the truth and Jeffrey's penetrating gaze tore me. I bowed my head in shame. "I probably would not."
"If you were truly his friend and loved him as much," he said softly, "you would gladly give up everything to help him."
It stung me to hear such a thing and know that I was not such a man. In my little devised world, I thought I could love that much, but now the reality of myself was laid bare and I was a small, self-absorbed, uncaring person. I never have felt so poorly as I did as Jeffrey finally nodded. "You know," he said simply, "Death is just one way of giving your life for someone else." He turned toward the door and left me to my painful thoughts.
Then, late in the month of October, after nearly all the produce was in, came a storm.
Jeffrey called me a few days after the frost and I met him at a church in the poorer part of town. Anne had taken a chill in the drafty trailer the night of the storm and come down with pneumonia. Eric was unaware of seriousness of her illness and she died the next night in her sleep. I stood beside him, with my arm around his shoulder at the funeral, but he would not be consoled. The woman that he had dedicated his life to was gone.
I went by his house a few days afterwards and tried to persuade him to come out with me for a drive. He just sat on the couch, staring at the floor and hardly acknowledged me. I tried a few more times and even tried to force him out on the last, but he struck out at me in anger, just wanting to be left alone. I left him that day feeling little pity and much anger, thinking him more a fool than ever before, determined to wash my hands of the whole affair. Little did I know that this would be my last opportunity to see Eric alive.
Eric died just a few months after Anne, on a particularly snowy day. Like Anne's, only a handful of people attended the funeral, Jeffrey persuading me to come in spite of my falling-out with Eric. I could only shake my head, knit my brow, and mumble about how foolish Eric was and what a waste his life had been. Jeffrey took me home before the funeral ended, so I would not "pollute" the other mourners.
I am not one to dream especially, and I never remember what happens in them, but on the night of Eric's funeral, I dreamed a dream that may very well frame my mind for the rest of my life. I sincerely hope it does, for it has profoundly changed me and given me a new perspective on many things.
In my dream, I saw Anne standing anxiously by a portal, talking busily to a man whose back was turned to my view. Though she was younger than the crippled woman I had known, I knew immediately this was she: what she must have looked like before the accident. Anne was all of the most wonderful attributes Eric had described: bubbly, vivacious, beautiful, kindly, and charitable. It is hard to say how I could see that with just the short vision I had of her, but those things just seemed to gather around her so obviously.
Anne could hardly contain herself and the man with her took her hand. Then, through the portal, stepped a tired, disoriented man, a younger version of the old man I had known as Eric. Anne leaped forward and threw her arms around her still confused husband, who, at first haltingly, then with recognition, wrapped himself around her just as tightly. They had lost nothing, I finally realized. All those years that I had accused Eric of wasting were worth every second to him. She had loved and appreciated him all the while, but could only now express it.
The man that had waited with Anne turned to greet the new arrival and I found myself looking upon the face of the Savior Jesus Christ. Eric saw him that same moment and, bringing Anne with him, fell to his knees and kissed his feet. With tears of gratitude, Eric washed the feet of the one that had taught him so well how to truly live the greatest love. The Savior raised them to their feet, embracing them, and took the couple by the hand and led them to the paradise that awaits those willing to follow Him.
So now, as I sit out the storms of October, sipping my cocoa and straining to see into the fire, I think of Eric and Anne and the life he gave to her. A long procession of lost opportunities parade past the stage of my mind, and regret wells up within me, causing tears to fill my eyes. There is so much that can be done to lift others, and yet most of the world resembles how I was, comfortable within the shell of my world, surveying with selfish pride my perfect little garden. There are so many other gardens out there in need of help, rich with possibilities that can be unleashed with just a few kind acts. There are so many lives to bless, just as the Savior did. He gave His life for us, should we not do the same for each other?