One Last Night

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No one truly cares for the final, dejected, withered leaf that falls from the gnarled silhouette of a hollow tree that has relinquished all others before the eminence of a dawning winter. Its fate is vastly unknown, for whether it cascades upon the pavement to congregate with its fallen comrades or drifts forever upon the last frigid, languid, autumn zephyr to float eternally within an ocean of its own sorrow and despair, no one truly knows.
“I love you, son.” The old man’s words echoed through the darkness like the reverberating chime of a corroded church bell; ancient and profound. The monotonous sentiment, although hinted with an inkling of the immense sorrow that it contained, did not so much pierce the silence as become enshrouded by it, swallowed by the totality of the night. The old man pressed the receiver to his ear, waiting, listening, half-expecting the usual response or, at the very least, an affectionate, “I know, dad,” but only silence answered him. He lied back, momentarily allowing his pillow to grace his wispy, silver hair, before turning his head to face the broad, hexagonal mirror upon the wall. Even through the all-encompassing blackness, the old man could still make out his eyes beneath the agitation of his furrowed brow. They were a dull gray, small and inquisitive, intelligent, sorrowful, doleful, and repentant and yet somewhere beneath the blank stare, deep within the recesses of the gaze that asked so much and offered so little, that pondered, fathomed, sought and mused though never once understood, there lied a somber acceptance.

The receiver, still pressed expectantly to the man’s ear, relinquished not the slightest notion of a reply as it hung, suspended soundlessly in a sea of night. The old man began to feel loneliness more intense, more potent than any he had ever known before and as his blank gaze once again fell upon the hexagonal mirror, he noticed that the eyes glistening from across the room were no longer his own. They were the eyes of a young boy, six years of age, who sat cross-legged upon the hard-wood floor, watching his father with a resplendent and quizzical zeal. The boy’s delicate fingers cradled a baseball and his intentions, from the fervent manner with which he surveyed his father and the anxious and erratic fashion with which he turned the baseball in his hands, were unequivocal. Still, the boy’s gentle voice inquired, “Daddy, can we play one game of catch?” and through a face that no longer seemed to belong to him, the old man beamed broadly, long ago, in a different world, in a different voice, one comprised of magnanimity and euphoria, the old man had replied, “Of course; as soon as I’m finished here.” The luminescence of the young boy’s eyes never waned, never betrayed any hint of disappointment and as his face settled into a calm and placid façade; the boy’s father continued his frivolous search for some document, the significance of which had long since faded away. By the time the boy’s father located the fruit of his endeavors and looked up into the placid face of his son, the resplendent eyes were no longer upon him. The calm and equable features, undisturbed through the serenity of slumber remained the same, with the absence of the inquiring gaze. The boy’s father, in one swift, gallant motion, rose from his work station and hoisted the sleeping child into his arms. The man carried his son, who snoozed noiselessly in his embrace, to the child’s room and placed him gingerly upon the bed, whereupon he bestowed a gentle kiss upon the boy’s forehead and promised in a solemn whisper, “Next time.” It pained the old man now to think of the myriad of occasions on which next time came and passed and the gentle face of his beloved son slowly matured into the handsome, placid serenity of a slumbering teenager, still waiting for the acquisition of his one and only request; the ball, worn and tattered, still clasped firmly in his hands.

Struggling to contain his misery, though from whom or what he did not know, the old man reversed the handsome features into the serene visage of the young boy, though this time there was some turbulence within the placidity, and the resplendent, inquisitive eyes welled with tears. It was on a night such as this, though long ago, in the world where the old man’s face knew elation and benevolence, though was, at that precise moment, marred with concern, and through the same soothing voice that uttered the broken promise in the night, beckoned the young boy to the bed. The boy’s mother, startled awake by the sudden noise, rose also to face the weeping child. Together they coaxed him into explaining the source of his fears and the boy explained (as well as a child could) that he was afraid of death and the fear had grown so eminent that the young boy could no longer sleep. It was a rational fear, an earthly fear and the boy’s parents welcomed him into their bed and as he entered the security of his parents’ warmth and snuggled between them, the old man, through that same compassionate voice that now eluded him, produced a poetic sentiment, the likes of which he had never been able to gather before. “Death is nothing to fear. It is merely the hand of God reaching out toward man and bearing us home, one by one or many at once to the true place of our birth. Although it seems that death takes away, it gives so much more. It promises that the departed and the bereaved will once again meet in a world where you won’t be afraid, and you’ll always feel loved, and you’ll never be sad or hungry, or alone, and” he added, with the return of his broad smile, “you’ll never have to wait to play catch.” With that, his hand sought the child’s in the darkness, clasped it tightly, and felt the boy’s firm grip in return. The man waited for the boy’s breathing to soothe and knew that he had fallen asleep and even then, the man did not surrender his grasp. “Your mother and I will always be here to protect you.” The man spoke these words more to himself than to his sleeping son and smiled at the prospect of his son’s grip refusing to wane even after sleep had claimed him which was, quite unlike the feel of the phone, that dangled limply from the old man’s fingers, the arm of which had been thrust carelessly over the side of the bed in an ultimate, silent act of defeat. Still, the old man’s thoughts remained with that night, so long ago, and the cruel irony of the manner in which fate was to make the man a liar for the second time in his young son’s life, though this time, there was nothing he could do. It was the very next night when the boy’s mother, the man’s wife was killed in a car crash. The news of the accident seemed to open up a hole within the man’s chest that would only grow deeper when he peered down into stoic, lifeless face of his wife. Her brilliant, onyx eyes, forever closed to the world, her dark, raven hair neatly combed beneath her delicate head, and her long, slender body that had lied by his side every night since their marriage, now lay before him, numb, motionless; dead. The man turned to his only reason for composure, the resplendent eyes of his son that once again began to well with tears. The man produced an empty smile, devoid of the euphoria that it had once known, embraced his weeping son and, as best as he could, repeated the words of the previous night though he felt, deep within his sinking heart, that he had already lost his son’s trust.

Unable to prevent the inevitable, the man watched the boy’s gentle face mature into the vivacious and wild integrity of a teenager, and then into the rugged, masculine uniquely debonair visage of a young man. It was with the same mingled sense of fear and pride that the man watched his son grow with which he regarded his son’s leaving for flight school and eventually to war. The old man’s fear and loneliness were momentarily subsided by his son’s frequent letters and sporadic calls. “I love you, son,” the old man would say and he would receive an affectionate “I know, dad” followed by a swift “I love you too.” “Come home,” the old man would continue and his son would respond, “I will.” The letters consisted of updates that the young man saw fit to tell his father as he intended not to burden the old man with anything too troubling, but in each letter, the young man would express a light-hearted jest that, although the old man did not quite know yet, cut deeply into the hole that still remained. “I’m still looking forward to that game of catch.” The old man’s heart sank each time he read those words, but by miniscule increments, much unlike the manner in which it fell when the old man answered the door on a chilly November afternoon that was to give way to a night such as this and found himself looking into the gaunt faces of military personnel. The old man heard not a single word of the foremost officer as he stood in numb disbelief. The young soldier, in a sense, had returned home. Shortly afterward, after the boy’s belonging were returned to the father including a worn, tattered, dilapidated baseball, when the look of incredulity had finally faded from the man’s face and was replaced with one of solemn remorse, the old man stood before his son’s coffin, much like he had done with his wife’s many years before, but this time tears flowed freely from his eyes and down the lines of his aged face. With no reason to contain himself, the old man cried, sobbed deeply, and mourned openly the loss of his son as well as his wife; everything that he had ever held dear. Tears burst from the gray, doleful eyes as he stood in majestic repentance with the words upon every letter echoing through his mind in the gentle voice of the young boy, the vivacious voice of the wild teenager, and the rustic baritone of the young soldier; “I’m still looking forward to that game of catch.” As the old man wept, tears streamed down the length of his face and onto his dark suit whereupon they were consumed by the blackness, much like his voice in the night. The old man extended his hand to grasp the cold, lifeless fingers of his son whose grip was not returned. It was the same as it had been the night before his wife had died, though bigger and colder, it was still the hand of his little boy. The masculine face before him, as serene as if it were sleeping, devoid of the bright inquisitive eyes that epitomized his son, was the same as it had been in that different world, long ago, when he waited patiently for one game of catch with his father. The old man and five others hoisted the young soldier and bore his body to the graveyard, the very same one that housed the soldier’s mother, the old man’s wife. The old man remained with silent tears streaming from his face, surveying the slow, dramatic decent of his only son into the earth, right next to his mother and as the man’s gray eyes drifted from tombstone to tombstone and came to rest on the plot of earth to the right of his son that was reserved for him when God chose to stretch forth his hand and welcome him home. He was reminded once again, of that distant world, so very long ago, when his son, unable to sleep, snuggled between his parents and the old man took simple solace in the notion that his boy would be nuzzled between them for all eternity.

Presently, the old man began to weep once more. He dialed his son’s number, placed the receiver to his ear for a final time and listened expectantly as his son’s phone vibrated in the darkness. He waited for his son’s voice, the voice of the strong young soldier who introduced himself and directed the caller to leave a message after the tone. The old man waited for the beep and spoke into the receiver, “I love you, son” and as his voice resounded through the darkness and was subsequently consumed by the silence, he looked into the reflection of his own eyes, dull and gray, small and inquisitive, intelligent, sorrowful, doleful, and repentant that asked so much and offered so little, that pondered, fathomed, sought and mused and finally understood. Deep beneath the furrowed brow, deep within the recesses of his blank stare, deep beneath the solemn acceptance, he came to an understanding that he had already acquired, long ago, in a different world. Death is nothing to fear. It is merely the hand of God reaching out toward man and bearing us home, one by one or many at once to the true place of our birth. Although it seems that death takes away, it gives so much more. It was then that the old man closed his eyes and relaxed and accepted the inevitable. As the receiver fell soundlessly to the floor and as the final, dejected, withered leaf fell from the gnarled silhouette of a hollow tree that had relinquished all others before the eminence of a dawning winter, the old man found himself staring into two sets of eyes, one of a profound onyx hue and the other bright and contemplative. The departed and the bereaved were once again reunited in a world devoid of fear and loneliness, pain and hunger, sorrow and regret. The old man heard the gentle voice of the young boy, the vivacious voice of the wild teenager, the rustic baritone of the young soldier; his son “I’ve really been looking forward to this game of catch.” The old man beamed broadly, a complete smile, comprised of euphoria and magnanimity, felt the hole within himself closing and whispered “I love you, son.” “I know, dad. I love you too.” The old man felt the hand of his son grope for his in the darkness and as he began to enter a new world, one similar to the one he had known so long ago, he uttered a promise that he intended to keep, “Your mother and I will always be here to protect you.”





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