By A.J. Brown
Connor sat forward in his father’s recliner. The arms had the wrinkles of usage and time, much like his father did, much like he was well on his way to having. The dark brown had faded to a light mud color and when he leaned back to sit, the foot rest automatically shot up, it’s locking mechanism no longer working. If you weren’t prepared for it, the seat would rocket you to a laying position, and if you were lucky, you remained in the chair and didn’t end up on the floor.
His hands covered his face, and if someone would have walked into the room right then, that person might think Connor was praying or crying … or both. He or she wouldn’t have been too far off. Connor had done his crying and he was certain there would be more to come. He had done his praying and he wasn’t too certain there would be much more of that to come, at least not for a short while. His peace had been spoken, though little peace was there to be had.
Ten minutes earlier, he pressed the red button on his cell phone, ending the call from his father’s doctor.
“He doesn’t have much time left, Mr. Barwick. You may want to call the family in for one last visit.”
“Okay,” Connor had said. “I will, and thank you.”
He set the phone on the magazine table next to his father’s chair and stared at it for a full sixty seconds as memories of beer cans and bottles and coffee cups sitting on it rushed back. Dinner trays with empty plates on them; the newspaper, turned to the ‘funnies’ as his father called them, a pencil with a knife sharpened tip lying next to it, use for the crossword puzzles; Louis L’Amour westerns faced down or dog-eared so not to lose its place. How many times did Connor come in there to say goodnight to his ‘old man,’ who had truly grown old in the blink of an eye, and found him asleep, the paper or magazine on his chest? How many times did he cover him up with the blanket Mom kept on the back of the sofa instead of waking the man up who didn’t sleep all that well?
He cried, but only for a couple of minutes. Time was short and if he was going to get to the hospital and … and what? Say goodbye? Or call a family that, after today, he will be the only remaining member of? Just what was he going to do? The thought of seeing his dad, a tough, rugged mountain man with tree trunk legs and forearms bigger than Connor’s thighs, less of the man he knew as a child scared him. He had watched him wither away, becoming half the man he had been, but still somewhat aware and with all of his faculties.
Connor stood on shaking legs, grabbed his phone and keys and left the house he had shared with his father for the last sixteen years, ever since Mom passed and Emily left him for another man. They had helped each other through that difficult time, leaning heavily on each other’s shoulders, but who would help Connor when Dad was gone? Whose shoulder would he cry on?
The drive was short. Connor didn’t want to be too far from his father in case something happened, or the doctors thought he was on his last legs, taking his last breaths. No, Connor didn’t want his dad to be alone during those last hours. He arrived at the nursing home—the Jerry-Atric Community, his father always called it—and took a deep breath. His legs still shook when he stood from the car and as he walked to the building and went inside.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Barwick,” the young lady behind the receptionist desk said. She had big green eyes and her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her smile seemed genuine and inviting and if he were younger and if things were different, he might have gotten up the nerve to ask her out, though she probably would have said no or she had a boyfriend, both of which were likely.
“Hey, Vanessa,” he said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. “I’m … umm … here to see my dad.”
The smile on her face remained but her eyes gave the story away. She knew this was the last time he would be there, at least to visit James Barwick. “Certainly, Mr. Barwick,” she said, her voice amazingly chipper despite knowing one of their residents would no longer be there after today. She stood, something she had never done in all the visits James had made over the last year or so. “Do you want someone to go with you?”
It was a nice gesture, one he thought was sincere. “No … ummm … thank you, Vanessa, but I’d like to be alone with my dad for a little while.” At this, he fought back the tears tugging on the corners of his eyes.
“Okay, Mr. Barwick,” she said and sat down. Normally, she would have said something like, ‘enjoy your visit,’ but today, she said nothing else. When Connor looked back just before he walked through the double doors that led to the detainment units (yeah, that was another of his father’s sayings about the place), he glanced back to see her looking at him with concern in her big eyes.
He pushed through the door and made his way down the hallway with its beige walls and white tile floor. There were pictures spaced apart every ten or so feet of lakes and oceans and flowers and rainbows, ‘all the things old folks are interested in,’ his father had barked one day as they went to his room after an outing to Vic’s Diner and the movies—a Clint Eastwood flick Connor couldn’t remember the name of.
A left, a right, and then another left and Connor came to Room number 19. On it was a false chrome and gold placard that simply read: BARWICK in bold letters. He reached for the handle, stopped just short of it and lowered his hand. He closed his eyes, took several deep breaths and then proceeded inside, his heart hammering, fearing what he might find. His father had been losing himself over the last year, sometimes fading from this world to visit other one. Connor didn’t know if his father knew when it happened, but Connor did, and seeing him with that far off stare in his eyes hurt his heart more than seeing him as a withered old man.
What he found was his father sitting in a wheelchair, his brown slippers on his feet, his blue robe draped over his shoulders and his reading glasses on. The wheelchair had been parked in front of the large plate glass window that looked out onto the Butterfly Garden.
James Barwick craned his neck to his right. Connor saw heavy, bruised bags beneath his eyes. There was a thick, red liver spot near his temple and his skin seemed pulled tight over his skull.
“Connor?” he whispered, his voice like sandpaper.
“Yes, Sir,” he said and stepped all the way into the room. The door whisked shut with a soft hiss.
“How are you, son?” James asked and reached a shaking hand out to him.
Connor hurried across the cool room, took his father’s hand. It wasn’t rough and calloused as it had been when Connor was a kid, but soft and weak, the bones beneath the skin brittle and the slightest squeeze would break a dozen of them. Connor sat on the edge of a seventies style chair with wooden arm rests and an ugly green cushion in the seat. “I’m okay, Dad.” The next thing out of his mouth felt lame, but it was what you asked people after answering the same question. “How are you?”
James looked up at him. His blue eyes had dulled over the years. “I don’t know, Connor. I’m dying. I know that much, but other than that, I can’t seem to remember much.”
Connor sat silently on the edge of the chair, his father’s fragile hand in one of his. He didn’t know what to say to that and couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t sound like a load of horse manure. Yeah, you guessed it, that was a James Barwick favorite. ‘Don’t give me a load of horse manure.’
His father took a deep breath. It rattled in his chest and when he exhaled it sounded like leaves rustling in the trees. “Connor, can you do me a favor?”
“Sure, Dad. Anything.”
James pulled his hand free of Connor’s and pointed a yellow-nailed finger toward a rolling table next to the bed his father spent all of his nights in over the last year. “Can you go get my book for me?”
Connor stood and went over to the other side of the bed. He reached for the book that sat open, pages down on the table. It had a white cover and Louis L’Amour’s name in a dull green font at the top. Several images formed a collage in the center of the book: the picture of a young man on a boat holding the circular float with the S.S. Steel Worker at the top and New York at the bottom; several keys from an old typewriter faded into a bridge which faded into the leaf of a tree Connor didn’t know the type of. Below the collage, in the same green and same font as the author’s name was the word YONDERING, and beneath it in a much smaller font that could have been a light brown or beige color was the word STORIES.
“Louis L’Amour,” Connor said when he handed the book to James.
His dad nodded. “Always was my favorite. He could write a great western.”
“I suppose so,” Connor said, having never read a Louis L’Amour book before.
“You should give him a read, son.”
“I just might do that.”
James flipped through the pages of the book, stopped when he found a white piece of paper folded between two pages.
“Is that your bookmark?” Connor asked.
James looked at it for a second, then nodded. “I suppose so.” He held the paper out to Connor. “Here. Take it.”
He did as he was told, unfolded it and read the words written in his father’s quivering print.
“When I am old and grey, and I have lost who I am and who I was, take me to my mountains, for there I shall find peace for my soul, and I will remember …”
Lisa D Walker
“Who is this Lisa D. Walker?”
James shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw the quote somewhere and wrote it down. I didn’t want to forget to give it to you.”
“Give it to me?”
James looked up at Connor. The younger man could see the life leaving his father’s eyes even as they stared at each other. James took a deep breath, his chest rattling, and when he released it, the sound of rustling leaves came with it.
“Son, I’m dying,” James said.
“Don’t give me a load of horse manure, Son,” James interrupted, his eyes holding a hint of Connor’s old father in them. “I know I’m not longer for this world, so I need you to listen carefully. Can you do that?”
“I’m dying. There’s no denying that. Worse than that is I’m losing myself, Connor. I don’t remember things. One minute I’m watching the news in the morning and the next minute, it’s night outside and I’ve lost a whole day. I don’t remember much about my childhood and I can barely remember your mother. I remember you, but I think that’s because you visit me from time to time.”
Connor wanted to say, ‘Every day. I visit you every day.’ He didn’t say that. He just listened.
James licked his lips and looked out at the world beyond the window. When he turned back to Connor, his eyes were wet and what little hope Connor had of him staying in his right mind for much longer faded. “I want to go back to the mountains, Son. Before I lose all of me, before I die.”
“Do you remember the little place up in Hendersonville where we used to take you when you were a little boy?”
“Yes, Sir. Uncle Waylon’s place.”
“It’s still there, Connor. It’s still belongs to the family. Take me there. Will you do that for your old man?”
“Dad, that’s a three hour trip.”
“I can hold on that long if you will take me.”
The tears no longer touched the corners of his eyes. They fell down the sides of his face and made his eyes look like glass.
“And don’t give me any horse manure about they won’t let you take me. You have power of attorney and I voluntarily moved into this prison. You can sign me out right now. Please, son. I don’t want to die here. I want to die in peace. I want to die in my home in the mountains where I was raised.”
Connor was going to tell him that very thing, that he couldn’t sign him out, not with him so close to death. But hearing his father’s scratchy voice pleading with him, seeing his eyes begging him, Connor couldn’t say ‘no’ even if it got him in trouble.
“Okay, Dad,” he said and handed back the piece of paper. James took it, placed it in the book and closed it.
It took Connor close to fifteen minutes to help his father get dressed. By then, James was more than winded, his breaths rattling harder and harder in his chest, as if he could hardly get air in his lungs.
“Let’s go, Dad,” he said and opened the door.
“Don’t forget my book, Son,” James said.
Connor went back to the table by the bed and picked it up. He handed it to James. got behind the wheelchair and slowly pushed him up the hall, making a right, a left and another right before coming to the long straight away that led back to where Vanessa sat, and beyond her, the door’s to his father’s freedom.
Connor hit a button to his right before reaching the final door that led to the reception area. A loud click came and the door hummed as it opened. He pushed his father out of the hall and stopped at Vanessa’s desk.
“I’m going to take Dad for one last ride,” he said.
Vanessa smiled sweetly, her eyes still touched with the sadness of knowing. “Okay, Mr. Barwick. Sign out, state your reason for signing him out. The time is one-fourteen.”
“Thank you, Vanessa,” he said, signed the log, though taking a little longer than usual to do so. When he was done, he set the pen down, gave her the best smile he could muster and pushed the wheelchair across the receptionist area to the automatic doors and out into the still warm afternoon.
By the time he got James into the car, his father was already zoning out, going off to that world he often did as his mind slowly died. He hoped he would come back once they arrived in the mountains.
The drive took almost four hours instead of three, the entire time with Connor checking his rearview mirror for police as a sense of paranoia sat on his shoulders and whispered bad things to him. He wasn’t breaking any laws, but he felt like he was. He felt like an arrest would happen and he would spend time in jail after his father died, due to suspicious circumstances.
He glanced at his father several times along the way, only to see him staring noncommittingly out the passenger’s window. He pulled off the interstate and drove along a main road until coming to a set of twists and turns that would lead them up the mountain. Halfway up, James stirred. When Connor looked at him, a shadow of a smile traced across his lips. At this, Connor smiled as well.
I don’t care if I go to jail, he thought. Seeing that smile makes it worth it.
Another twenty minutes passed before Connor pulled his truck up to a log cabin that had been built sometime in the nineteenth century. It wasn’t big, but from the outside it looked huge. The logs that formed its outer walls had blackened over the years and the windows held grey grime on them. The porch held a scrum of dust and leaves, as well as several old rocking chairs and a black as coal spittoon Uncle Waylon used to spit into. Brown, orange, red and yellow leaves covered the ground, thanks to the cooler fall in the mountains. The drive wound its way along the side of the cabin, where Connor brought the truck to a stop.
“We’re here, Dad.”
“Here?” James asked. His eyes weren’t quite focused, but they weren’t as far away as they had been. He wasn’t gone, and maybe, just maybe he was coming back.
“We’re home, Dad. Where you grew up.”
“Where I grew up?”
“Yes, Dad. Where you grew up.”
James looked at Connor with a quizzical expression on his face, his eyes like slits, his brow furrowed down. “Is Waylon here?”
“No, Dad. It’s just you and me.”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Connor frowned. He didn’t want to answer the question, but this was no time for horse manure. “Yes, Dad. He’s been dead for a long time.”
James nodded. “So he has.”
“Dad, are you ready to get out?”
“I suppose so, Son.”
In that instant, his father was completely back. His eyes had cleared and the unfocused, distant gaze was gone. With him back, came the realization.
“Are you okay?”
The in and out rattle of leaves came several times. “Never been better,” he said and reached over. His cold hand touched Connor’s and James gave him the most sincere, heart warming (and heart sinking) smile. It was the same smile of knowing Vanessa had on her face earlier that day. “Can you help me get out? I’d like to sit in one of the rockers on the porch.”
“Yes, I can help you, Dad.”
Connor got out of the truck. The cold here had more bite and he wasn’t expecting the sudden ‘take your breath away’ chill. He rounded the car, worried the cold would get to his father before he had a chance to get him to the porch. The worry was unfounded. James Barwick stood from the truck and took a deep breath. When he exhaled, there was no sound of leaves with it.
“Smells like home,” James said. “It smells like my childhood.
“Yes, it does.”
It was less than twenty steps from the truck to the stairs, and only three full steps up to the porch. Connor held his father’s arm as they made their way slowly from the truck and up the steps. By the time they reached the landing, James had all of his weight on Connor.
“Let’s get you in the rocking chair,” Connor said. He helped James turn, then lowered him into the rocker. It creaked and groaned beneath his weight and he let out a loud sigh once he was seated.
“Connor, pull up one of the other rockers. Have a seat beside me.”
The rocker scraped across the wooden floor as Connor pulled it up next to James. He sat, but didn’t rock and both his hands sat on the arm rests.
“Connor, you need to read Louis L’Amour.”
“I will, Dad.”
“I know. You can start with this book—start with where the paper is.”
James held the book out to him. Connor took it and set it in his lap. James reached over and placed a hand on Connor’s. He squeezed it, but it wasn’t very hard.
“Thank you, Son,” he said, the papery sound of his voice weak.
“You’re welcome, Dad.”
They sat, quietly, Son and Dad, for the last time together. Dad rocked gently back and forth, back and forth, the floor creaking with it. Connor listened as his father’s breaths grew shallow and the steady groan of the floor lessened until both of them ceased all together. His father’s hand fell away from his and dangled by the side of his seat.
Connor didn’t look at James, at least not right away. His vision blurred with cold tears. After several minutes, he wiped his eyes and took a deep breath. He picked up the book in his lap, flipped it over in his hands and looked at the cover. He wasn’t much of a reader. His father had known that. He opened the book, flipping through it until he came to where the sheet of paper rested between two pages. He pulled it free and looked at the title of the story on the facing page. Show Me the Way To Go Home.
My dad is a fan of Louis L’Amour, the great western story teller. But that isn’t where the story originated. It actually came from the quote by Lisa D Walker:
“When I am old and grey, and I have lost who I am and who I was, take me to my mountains, for there I shall find peace for my soul, and I will remember …”
I saw this quote and, seeing how my dad is from the mountains, I saw me going home with him–to his home, not mine. I will not lie and say this was an easy story to write. It wasn’t. It was one of the most difficult stories for me to pen, simply because of the content and the face that I know one day, in part, this story will play out for everyone.
(If you enjoyed ‘Home,’ please comment and share this post on social media. Thank you for helping me spread my stories to the world.)