BURNS, OR --- In one sense my Monday night in a cheesy Ely motel had been the most fruitful hours of my entire retirement adventure. There, instead of continuing my search for the meditative quiet that had eluded me for two weeks, I replayed my brief conversation with a no-nonsense outback cowboy, allowing his sparse words to nudge me down a more productive path.
Just twenty-four hours earlier Taylor Caine had been awash in his own angry resentment. A wet-behind-the-ears youngster, a ranch hand from his own bunkhouse, had captured his daughter’s affections and spirited her away from the family home.
Before the dust had settled on that distressing turn of events Taylor’s expectations for his daughter’s future, not to mention that of the Caine Ranch, had been turned upside down. By the time I left the ranch that afternoon he was, much to his own surprise, casting his young son-in-law as the possible answer to a prayer he had long ago stopped praying.
His discarded dreams of another generation carrying on the family legacy had been revived. The future he now considered would be different than his original vision....of a son to carry on the Caine name. The outcome, however, would be the same....even better in one way, since it meant that daughter Evie would remain a part of their everyday lives.
That evening, as I lay in my Ely motel room, revisiting that crusty cowboy’s sudden change of course, I was hoping it would translate into good things for the young couple who had shared a few hours of their life-altering day with me. At the same time I was bumping into fleeting hints of how those hours had impacted my own seeking, how Taylor Caine’s evolving life view might apply to me.
By Tuesday afternoon, when I checked into a motel in the high-desert cowtown of Burns, the fuzzy outlines of my own future had become sharper, more in focus. I was back in Oregon, in the process of completing my own circular journey, both literally and figuratively.
Two weeks and a couple thousand miles, through eight states and a bit of Canada, had brought me within a day’s drive of Tanner. In a less literal way I was closer to home than I had been in a very long time.
In the beginning I had set out to prove that my Blue Highway dream was a practical way for Nell and me to spend our retirement. Later, in the face of her determined opposition, I was forced to go it alone.
Yet, by the time I left Ely that morning I had begun to accept a newly revealed truth. As Taylor Caine’s outback epiphany had so plainly confirmed, family mattered more than my impulsive wanderlust. After my last conversation with Nell, brief as it was, I had not needed much convincing. But now I was sure. It was time to return, to complete my own family circle.
I would make that stop in Burns my last night on the road. It was time to share that news with Nell. I wanted her to know I was coming home, that I would be needing her help to fashion a new retirement....one that included both of us. I will admit to a tinge of anxiety when I repeated that intention to myself. Still, though it would take some getting used to, it was the right thing for us.
Back in my room, after an impressively tasty Basque dinner at a rather unimpressive-looking side-street restaurant, I fished my cell phone from the duffle bag and stretched out on the bed to call Nell. That was a good idea. Except no one answered at home. Fortunately, I could count on her her cell phone. So I called up her speed-dial line and punched “Call.”
“Where are you, Grandpa?”
There was an unexpected urgency in Delaney’s greeting when she realized it was me. By then I had questions of my own. Why was she answering Nell’s phone?
“We’ve been trying to call you all afternoon,” she said, hurrying on. “But your phone was never turned on.”
“I’m sorry, dear. I was on the road. I forget to do that sometimes. Anyway, why were you calling me?”
“It’s about Grandma. She’s here in the hospital. That’s where Mom and I are now, with her.”
With that she had my full attention. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, wanting to know more.... half afraid to ask.
“What happened? Why is she there?”
“When Antonio and I got home this afternoon Grandma was on the couch.” Delaney’s soft tears threatened to drown out her words. “She had a terrible headache. And she was all mixed up, really confused.
"It was like she couldn’t understand what we were saying. And when she sat up she got real dizzy, like she was going to be sick. Anyway, we called 911 right then. They brought her straight to the hospital.”
“My God. Do they know what happened? Why was she like that?”
Finally Delaney paused to catch her breath.Then, in a more subdued tone she continued. “When the doctor talked to us a couple hours ago, he said she’d probably had a stroke. I’m not sure what that means, but that’s what they think it was. All I know is it was really scary.” Before she could elaborate, her words were lost in the returning tears.
“Dad. Is that you?”
Suddenly, it was Kathy on the line, with her own urgent questions. “Where are you? Why couldn’t we get you on the phone?”
“I didn’t have it turned on,” I explained. “I’m in Burns right now. Actually, I’m on my way home.”
“Yeah, really. It seemed like it was time. I just wish I’d figured that out a day sooner. I’d be there by now.”
“You’re coming home? For sure? I know Mom would really like that.”
“Is she awake? Can you talk to her?”
“Of course we can. I’m out in the hall right now, but I can see her and Del talking. She’s hooked up to a monitor, to track her vitals. And they have her sedated a bit. But she feels pretty good. In fact, she wanted to go home tonight. The doctor had said her stroke was a small one, not too bad. But he’s insisting that she stay overnight, to be sure things have stabilized.”
“Could I talk to her?”
That seemed to set Kathy thinking. At least she was slow to answer. “The doctor wants her to stay quiet, with no stress or excitement," she explained. "Mom’s kind of dopey from the sedation. I’m pretty sure that hearing from you, especially that you might be coming home, would qualify as excitement. I think we ought to let her rest for now.”
I wanted to argue the point. But at that moment it sounded as though I was hearing ‘nurse Kathy,’ not ‘daughter Kathy.’ In that case I had to respect her advice. There was, however, another point to be cleared up.
“Honey. I said 'I am' coming home. It’s not a matter of ‘might be.’ I’ll get to Tanner by noon tomorrow. You can count on that.”
“If you are, I know that will perk her up. Hopefully she’ll be home by then.”
At that pint Kathy paused a moment before offering her own editorial observation. “And I’ll bet her first question will be the same as mine. How long will you be staying?”
My initial panic had subsided as I sank back against the headboard, offering my silent thanks that Nell was apparently okay, and wishing I was there with her. About then I knew for sure that Taylor Caine’s cowboy insight had been spot on, exactly right.
“I can’t guarantee that I’ll be staying forever,” I said, returning to Kathy’s question. “But you can be sure I won’t be going off again by myself. Whenever and wherever we go, it will be the two of us, your mother and me.”