Friday, August 5, 2022



             Chapter 41

The drive from Burns to Tanner was only five hours....across the central Oregon high desert and over the Cascades to the Willamette Valley. It should have been a piece of cake. But after a restless night spent battling dire premonitions of Nell’s condition, I was dead tired. 

To make matters worse, sometime towards dawn my thoughts had been hijacked by an even more distressing possibility. Perhaps my absence, and the way it had upset her, was responsible for her stroke. No wonder I was struggling to concentrate on the long straight stretches of desert highway. Damn it, I should have been there when she needed me.

I pushed on, forgoing needed rest breaks, focused on a single get to Nell as quickly as possible. By the time I pulled up in the driveway in front of our Tanner home I was bushed, but still in no mood for the sleep that wanted to have its way with me. 

Kathy must have seen my arrival from the front room. By the time I reached the porch steps she and Delaney were waiting in the doorway. I could tell they were glad, and perhaps even relieved, to see me. “Thank you,” she whispered as she stepped forward to embrace me.

“For what?”

“For coming.”

“You didn’t think I would? I told you I was on my way.”

My daughter rolled her eyes, registering her transparent doubt. “I know what you told me,” she said, pushing herself away to arm’s length. “But after all the saber rattling that you two have gone through, I wasn’t so sure. That’s why I haven’t told her. I wanted to see the whites of your eyes before I got her hopes up.”

“She doesn’t know?” I had not considered that possibility. Was Nell up to that kind of surprise, I wondered. “How’s she doing? Will the shock seeing me be too much?”

We had worked our way to the living room before Kathy turned to explain. “Of course not. It’s exactly what she wants. She’s feeling kind of puny, but the symptoms are pretty well gone. Actually, she was very lucky. As strokes go, it was a mild event.”

“Do they know what caused it?” I asked. “Could they tell what brought it on.?”

“I don’t think so. We’ll probably never know for sure. It could have been something specific, or maybe it had been building up for a while. I’m not sure they can tell.” She had turned serious when she looked back at me. “But we all know she’d been under a lot of stress lately”

I shivered a bit at the intensity of my daughter’s pointed observation, knowing it was meant for me. A part of me wanted to debate the point, but it was not the time for that. Instead, I asked, “Can I see her?”

“Of course. She’s in the bedroom. She may be dozing, but all it takes is a touch to wake her up.” Finally, I was reading hints of encouragement in Kathy’s grin. She squeezed my hand and nodded toward the hallway.

The bedroom door was ajar. I pushed it open and peeked inside to find Nell resting quietly, apparently asleep. I tip-toed inside and sat down on the edge of the bed. A moment later the touch of my hand on her arm was enough to gain her attention. She rolled her head to face me and her eyes flickered open, blinking to focus on my face.

I watched as the fact of my presence registered. Then, through a weak little smile she asked softly. “What are you doing here?”

“I live here. Remember? It’s my home. Besides, I heard you were a bit under the weather.”

“You didn’t have to come back. There was no reason to change your plans on my account.”

“I didn’t change my plans. I was already on my way home. I was in Burns when the kids finally caught up with me, to tell me what was going on.”

Her eyes closed and again she drifted off. I pulled a straight-back chair closer to the bed and sat down, offering a silent thanks that she was doing so well. Obviously she needed her rest. Anything I had to say could wait until later. Then, a second later I realized that her quiet withdrawal was not a matter of sleep, but a retreat into her own thoughts.

“Why did you do that?” she asked without opening her eyes.

Her unexpected question startled me. By the time I glanced up she was staring at me. “Why did I do what?”

“Why did you come home so soon?  You can see that I’m fine. You didn’t have to hurry back. You always said there were so many places to see.”

I took her hand, reminding myself to take it slow. No matter what she claimed, she was not one-hundred percent. It would probably take some repeating and reemphasizing to make my point.

“I told you, honey. I was already on my way home. You may have been ‘fine’ here in Tanner, but I wasn’t ‘fine’ out there. 

"No matter how much I liked seeing all those places it wasn’t enough....not without you there too. Besides, by the time I got to Burns I’d already decided that I belonged here. Actually, by then I realized that I belong wherever you are. That’s probably the most important things I learned out there.”

Tucking a second pillow under her head, Nell was by then fully engaged in our conversation, ready to offer her questions. “That’s nice to hear,” she said. I sensed at once that her apparent approval would be including a “but,” or “except.” I had that right. 

“But what about your blue highways,” she asked. “That’s what you went to see. Weren’t they as interesting as you thought they’d be? It’s hard to imagine that you’ve cured your wanderlust so soon.”

It felt like we were close to what Taylor Caine had called ‘compromise time'....that moment when our disparate dreams might finally find a common ground. After bumping heads for so long, was there a way to make that happen?

“Of course they were interesting." I patted her hand, trying for a convincing smile. "I’d like to see more of them. And I would never claim that my wanderlust is cured. Maybe I’m just getting more realistic in my old age.”

“I’m not sure what that means. Has anything really changed?”

Back to the drawing board, I was telling myself. A better explanation was in order. “Just about everything has changed,” I explained. “At least for me. I met some good people. Saw some very nice places. 

"There were things I know you’d enjoy seeing. And that’s what I’m hoping we can do together....see some of those places and visit some of those people. But I’m thinking we could do that in small doses, a few weeks at a time.”

“And Tanner could still be home?” came her timid question. “We could still live here, in our own house?”

“Yep. Right here. This would be home, like it’s always been. In fact, from what I hear I’m first in line for a brand new job, at least for a while. The girls tell me you’re supposed to take it easy. With Kathy working and Delaney in school I suppose that means I’ve been promoted to chief nurse.”

“I don’t need a nurse. I need a husband, a stay-at-home husband.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “You need a stay-at-home husband and a helper. As for me, I need a full-time wife and a sometimes traveling companion. So we both need something. I’m hoping we can fit all that together in one package and be a team again.”

“A ‘helper’? Is that what you said? That you’d be a helper?”

Nell’s dramatic doubt had me laughing. “I can do that,” I insisted. “I can help. I may hire someone to deal with the yard and garden, at least until you’re ready to tackle all that again. But when it comes to the house, and especially helping you get back on your feet, I can do that. It will be my new job. And when you’re ready to go traveling, I’ll be the tour director.”

Of course Nell was full of questions. But at least she was listening, hopefully willing to consider the possibilities. In fact, if I was reading her right, she was willing to give it a try. 

“You’d have lots of help,” she reminded me. “Delaney will be here after school, and Kathy comes back on weekends. They’ve been such troupers, even before this last craziness.”

Throwing back the covers, Nell draped her legs over the edge of the bed and sat up directly in front of me. Tugging her house coat modestly around herself, she was ready to offer the rest of the family news. “But I can’t promise how long all that good help will be available.”

“Where’s it going?” I asked.

“Didn’t Kathy tell you? Gary called. His boss is going to let him work from here in Tanner. He’ll be here in a few days. That was enough to get our daughter all excited. They’re already making plans to go apartment hunting next weekend.”

“How about her transfer to Tanner? Is that still a possibility?”

“Oh yes. One of the nurses at the Tanner home is leaving next month. Kathy is sure she’s first in line to replace her. Hopefully that means we’ll have the three of them together, here in town. 

“And wait ‘til you have a chance to visit with Delaney," Nell continued. "I’m not sure you’ll even recognize her. It’s like she’s a new person. Remember how grouchy she was? Well, no more. I think she’s finally feeling at home here in Tanner. And believe it or not, I swear she’s looking forward to school. Who would have guessed?”

“What in the world brought that on?

Nell’s knowing nod seemed to frame her reply. “”I think it has something to do with your young friend Antonio. Near as I can tell he’s become her friend too.”

“Oh, my God. Not again.” 

I was grinning as I reached for her hand. “You know what all that means? If the girls move into their own place, the two of us will be here all alone again. Are you sure you’re up to that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked. “We’ve had years and years of practice, haven’t we? Besides, if Gary’s coming back that means we’ll have the whole family here in town for holidays and such. That sounds pretty good to me.”

“Me too.” 

About then I had a new sense of how my friend Taylor Caine must have felt as he watched his own broken family coming together again right before his eyes. 

“We’ll all be in one place,” I nodded. “That’s the important part. It’s another one of those things I learned out there on the road.”

“How did you learn that?”

“Well, I met this cowboy, a fellow I hope you’ll get to meet someday.” 

I paused, wondering where that notion had come from. A second later I realized it was a very good idea. I owed that lady of mine....the one who had allowed me to go off and be opportunity to meet the fellow who had pointed me back toward a truth I had been reluctant to accept.

“He helped me understand that there are all sorts of dreams for us to be chasing. There’s more than enough to go around. And there are lots of ways to make them come true. My problem was I got hung up on just one of those ways. Once that got hold of me I wouldn’t let myself look at anything else. 

"My cowboy friend helped me see the truth of it. There are lots of things that matter. But in the end, family matters most of all.”



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