Hank Rolland had promised himself he would not call until after dinner. He needed time to prepare. Besides, he ought not appear too eager. Yet by two-thirty on that Wednesday afternoon thoughts of waiting were losing their appeal.
He had returned from Portland late that morning, fresh from a frank and very affirming conversation with Kelly and Eric. Once home he again reminded himself of the need for restraint. Rather than rushing off to see her right away, why not rely on a calm and casual approach? A call after dinner would be more appropriate.
By three-fifteen ‘calm and casual’ had lost out to 'anxious and eager.' “Hello there, friend,” Hank said when Grace answered the phone. “How’s your day going?”
“Are you home?”
“You bet I am. I’m here in Tanner and ready to come calling. If I’m invited, that is.”
“Consider yourself invited.” She paused to take a mental inventory. “I’m not sure what I’ll find for dinner around here. But come on over and we’ll come up with something.”
“I’ll come over. But after we’ve visited a bit we can go out for a restaurant dinner. Unless, that is, you’re determined to do your own cooking.”
In a matter of minutes, after a distinctly anxious drive across town, Grace Carson greeted him at her front door and ushered him inside.
“You said you might be in Portland for two nights,” she said as she led them to the kitchen, where she paused to pour their coffee, before motioning him on to the family room.
“And you were,” she continued. “There must have been a lot to talk over with the kids. Did it turn out okay?”
“The first night Eric was tied up with a Parents’ Night thing at school. So we couldn’t get together until last night.”
By then Hank was asking himself how he could explain what happened when they had finally met? It had been hard enough telling the children of his surprising need for a change. How would Grace respond?
“Basically,” he continued. “The idea was to let them know what I was thinking. I wanted them to hear me out, so that even if you decided I had it all wrong, they would know why I’d tried so hard.”
With that he scooted across the sofa until he was at her side. “Of course, I was hoping that by the time I put you on the spot you’d realize I didn’t ‘have it wrong’ at all.”
“What does that mean? ‘Put me on the spot?’ What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you get coy with me, lady. You know exactly what it means. I shouldn’t have to be drawing pictures for you.”
By then Grace was turning away, suddenly silent, unsure how to continue. For the last two days, since Hank’s surprisingly affectionate return, she had debated whether it was time to tell him everything. Now, even before he had heard her unlikely admission, he seemed willing to take them exactly where she wanted them to go. There was nothing to suggest he needed coaxing. So why muddy the water?
Yet in the end it was her own reluctance to hold anything back that dictated her response. If they hoped to find the best of whatever lay ahead, there must be no secrets, no false pretenses. In that light, it was not too soon to come clean. For a moment she sat looking into her folded hands. When she looked up at him there was no hiding her self-conscious smile.
“Do you remember when you called me from California?," she asked. "You told me that you’d been thinking about things. And I said that I’d let Sarah know that. Do you remember that?”
Her quizzical grin nearly had him laughing. “Actually, it was something I didn’t mean to say. It just kind of slipped out.”
“Oh, I caught it alright,” Hank replied. “Though I didn’t know what to make of it. I still don’t. I was sure that you’re much too sane to be playing such a silly game. Are you saying you really did talk to her?”
“Yes, I did.” Grace’s sheepish confession had taken on the sound of an apology. “You said that worked for you. So I thought I’d give it a try. Of course it felt kind of uncomfortable at first. But after a while it got easier, more natural.”
“So, what did you two talk about?”
“Lots of things. Actually I did the talking, mostly asking the questions that I had for her. As near as I could tell she was a good listener.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Things I wanted to know about....answers I was looking for. Just like you, I wanted to know where all this was leading.”
With that, Grace stood. While Hank sat quietly, wondering what to make of her “talking to Sarah” admission, she took the empty coffee carafe and walked to the kitchen. Minutes later, setting the newly-filled carafe on the low coffee table before walking to a back bedroom. By the time she returned he was sipping his coffee, trying to make sense of her strangely silent behavior.
Before he could ask his questions Grace handed him a single folded page. “I’m not sure you were supposed to see this,” she began. “You can tell that it’s from Sarah, to me. She left it with Pastor Williams. He gave the envelope to me after her Memorial Service. A lot of things that she and I had talked before about are in there. Things about you, about after she was gone. It was meant for me, but I think you should read it.”
By the time you read this I will have had my final send off. Please know that I will be leaving with a heart full of thanks for your loving care and support during these last months. There was no one else who could have turned the times you and I shared into smiles and laughs. Looking back, it is hard to believe that I could have felt so good about feeling so bad. Only you, and of course Hank, could have managed that.
Speaking of Hank, which is the other reason for this note, you have heard me worry and wonder about how he will cope and carry on. With that in mind I have a last favor to ask of you. I am not sure I know how to say this, but I must try.
I realize that Hank will have to find his own way through the hard times ahead. And I know there will be many of our friends praying for him, But in the end he will have to sort things out for himself.
However, if I knew that a very special friend was on hand to keep an eye on him, to be sure he doesn’t wander too far off track, that would be very comforting. Hopefully that special friend could help him fend off the Wiley Widows Brigade. You know how silly some of our mild-mannered church sisters can become at the sight of an eligible and slightly confused new prospect.
I know beyond a doubt that Hank needs someone in his life. I know him better than anyone, and I guarantee he would wilt and wither on his own. He may not believe that, or accept it, but it’s true. He needs someone. But it must be someone he has chosen, not someone who has finally worn him down.
All I am asking for is a caring friend to give him a nudge if it seems he has lost his way. As you can tell by now, I am hoping you will agree to be that friend. It is an unusual favor, I know. But there is no one else I would feel comfortable asking, so I hope you will honor me by accepting.
With any luck Hank will figure everything out on his own, and not need anyone’s help. But I would feel so much better knowing you were there, just in case. You know me, I will be praying for the happiest of happy endings.
Thank you, Grace. I will light a candle for you in heaven. (Assuming I get there.)
Scanning Sarah’s letter once, and then a second time, Hank glanced over at Grace....sitting quietly, sipping her coffee, anxious to hear his response, though half afraid of what he had to say.
“That’s her all right,” he finally offered in a hushed voice. “Looking out for me, just like always.”
“That’s who she was.”
“And asking you to be the ‘special helper.’ I guess that makes sense. I’m not sure what she thought you could do, but I’m not surprised she asked her best friend to do her favors.”
“I was surprised at first.” Grace was staring blankly across the room. “It seemed like such a strange request. It was loving, of course, in the way she was loving. Still, it’s not something a person expects to be asked to do.”
“Yeah. It’s different all right. But when I stop to think back over the last few months, since she’s been gone, it seems like you were always there to steer me in the right direction. Now I see why. There were times I hoped you were doing it because you wanted to. But I guess it was all part of your job. Eh?”
Grace reached out to retrieve the letter. Opening it for a moment, she focused on Sarah’s unsteady signature. Then, clutching it to her chest she said, “When I talked to her these last few days, when she and I were alone, I was hoping she could help me understand.
"I wanted to know if being that friend was supposed to be nothing more than ‘my job.’ Or was there more to it than that? So while you were running all over California, trying to figure things out, I was here in Tanner, looking for my own answers.”
Clearing her throat, Grace took a deep breath and prepared to offer her own secret. “I was asking her how I could keep an eye on you, like she wanted me to, when.......when what I wanted was to be the one you were looking for.”
“You wanted......?” Hank’s stumbling question was overtaken by the realization of what she was saying. “You mean, even after I’d run off, and even before I’d come back?” Gladys was nodding her affirmation.
He was struggling for an appropriate reply. “My God, I came back to convince you that I’d finally figured it out, that I knew what I wanted---who I wanted.
“I spent a couple hours last night telling the kids that I’d be doing my best to convince Grace Carson to throw her lot in with me. It sounded like a long shot at first, when I was driving back from California. I was sure it would take some serious arm twisting. But by last night, with Kelley and Eric, I knew that’s what I wanted.
“By then I was sure it would take all my natural charm to win you over. But now you’re saying it’s not like that at all.”
“Oh goodness,” Grace laughed. “Of course you’ve been your charming self. You didn’t really have to sell me on anything. But I’m glad you tried. I’d told Sarah over and over that I wanted it to be your idea. So when you came back, talking like you were, like you are, it felt like you were bringing me her answer.“
“And what was she saying? What was her answer?”
The surprising reality was sinking in. After months of assuming that Sarah’s revelation was meant for him alone here was Grace, offering her own understanding of what Sarah was telling her.
“You are Sarah’s answer,” Grace answered, taking his hand. “That’s exactly how it feels. It’s like she is saying that you and I, actually the three of us, are supposed to be together. When I read her letter again last night, it felt like that’s what she intended all along.”
Reaching down, Hank pulled her to her feet. With a perfunctory peck on her forehead he held her away at arm’s length. “Are you telling me that you and Sarah had it figured out all along? That you were just waiting for me to catch up. Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
“Why do you suppose?," Grace replied. "If it was going to happen, I wanted it to be your idea, not something I talked you into. Not something Sarah’s letter talked you into. I knew exactly what I wanted, but I couldn’t say anything until you knew it too. Remember, she said in her letter that it needed to be ‘someone he has chosen.’ That meant I had to wait until you made up your mind.”
Grace’s mischievous wink was suggesting another possibility. “Or maybe until it felt like Sarah was telling each of us the same thing.”
By then Hank was looking ahead, hoping to fill in the blanks that seemed to be surfacing at every turn. “Look, I promised you dinner. Why don’t we do that. I can tell we have lots more to talk about.”
Hank and Grace had their dinner that evening, a reunion of sorts, with a few drinks and a long, rambling discussion of the promise and perils of ‘moving on’ together. Later, in the light of a full moon, their stroll through Waterfront Park was a quiet time, as each of them processed thoughts of a pleasantly memorable day.
By the time they returned to Grace’s home their growing connection had claimed yet another victim. Somewhere along the way, Hank’s admonition that they “take it slow” had been trumped by an urgency neither of them had foreseen.
Later that evening Grace would make that point herself. Laying together in her bed, their passion spent, she rolled over to face him. “So much for going slow. Eh?” She waited for his response, but he had none. “You’re awfully quiet. I can’t tell if you’re disappointed or what.”
“Disappointed? Are you crazy?” Slipping his arm under her neck, he pulled her closer, until her head rested on his chest. “I’m just thinking how good it is to finally know that I’m exactly where I belong.”
“Are you sure? Maybe you were just caught up in the moment. What if it’s nothing more than a passing fancy.” She paused, then asked, “Do old folks like us still have passing fancies?”
“I don’t know,” he laughed. “But I can tell this is definitely not one of those. It’s what I call ‘change.’ I learned a thing or two about that on my trip. Turns out it’s another name for ‘moving on’ toward the right place.”
“How can you be sure of that?”
About then Hank was wishing she would stop asking her uncomfortable questions. Or at least, that he had better answers, ones that might sound more rational to a level headed, straight-thinking lady like Grace. For a moment he considered softening his message. But on second thought, no one deserved the truth more than she did.
“I spent a lot of time while I was in California talking to Sarah,” he said. “I wasn’t always sure she heard me. And there were times I probably wasn’t listening as well as I could have been. In the end I realized that I’d been looking right past the real answer. It took that dream, or whatever it was, to make me understand what Sarah had known all along.”
Leaning back enough to see his face, Grace was shaking her head. “I wondered about that before. How could you be talking to Sarah, when she was here with me?”
“That’s something else I learned. It seems that Sarah can be anywhere I am. At least that’s how it felt....like she was telling me that California wasn’t the right place to be looking. That it was time to come home, because what I wanted was right here. Like it had been all along.”
Snuggling closer, Grace allowed herself one last observation. “I just hope you’ll feel that way in the morning.”
She had closed her eyes, soaking up the warmth of him, and the surprising reality that he was laying there beside her. A moment later her reverie was interrupted by his quiet laugh.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“I just remembered. My car is parked in your driveway. It will still be there in the morning. I don’t know how nosy your neighbors are, but I know that some folks pay attention to such things, and like to tell their friends about it. You know how fast that kind of gossip can spread.”
“Let them talk. Who cares?”
Though he took heart at her spunky disclaimer, Hank was already hatching a better answer. “That’s fair. But, what if it was parked in front of a nice motel in Lincoln City for a few nights? No one would know about that. We’d have time to sort things out at our own pace, and keep the town gossips at bay. We could drive over in the morning. Wouldn’t that be better?”
“I suppose it would. I’d like that. But, we’d have to be back home by Saturday night. I’m leading the Guild discussion group at church on Sunday morning. We’re doing a session on Making Good Choices.”
“No problem. We’ll just make it a point to be back by then. Who knows, you might even have some new examples to add to the discussion.”