“From House to Home” is the bittersweet tale of happiness rising through the dark clouds of loss and sorrow. This story is not found in my current short story collections, but it will likely find its way into an upcoming book. You can learn more about my collections below:
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SUNLIGHT SEEPED AROUND the drawn curtains signaling a new day, just as our father’s days were coming to an end.
For several nights, my sister Kate and I sat at his bedside, listening for sounds of life. His final inhale was deeper, then peacefully released as a calmness washed over his face and a heavy silence filled the room. I signaled for Patty Nelson, the hospice nurse, to confirm what my sister and I already knew. The nights of taking turns at his bedside were over.
This moment had been inevitable for weeks, but I wasn’t ready. Shock, sadness and relief overlapped as they overcame me. Kate and I sat quietly for several minutes, my hand on hers.
We lost our mother to a drunk driver nearly twenty years ago. The pain of her death never completely faded. It was comforting to know our parents were finally together again.
“How long should he lie here?” Kate asked.
I thought for a moment. It wasn’t an easy question to answer. It was gut-wrenching to think of Dad leaving his home forever.
“I’ll call Fred at the funeral home. He’s probably been expecting to hear from us.”
I stood to leave, realizing neither of my parents would ever occupy this room or this house again. For my entire life, it had been their home, my home. As a child, the backyard was my universe. I’d often run into this very bedroom, fleeing nightmares, seeking their comfort.
Where would I find comfort now?
I picked up my cell phone from the dining room table and looked around the house before dialing. It was neat and well-maintained. Little had changed since I left for college twenty years ago. Knickknacks on the living room shelves had not been rearranged since Mom died. Evolutionary photos of my sister and me from preschool through Kate’s wedding still hung in the hallway, the paint two shades darker behind each frame. The home had been a source of security and consistency, but with Dad gone, it seemed more like a museum.
What will my sister and I do with all this stuff?
Dedicated to my legal career, I never married. Kate was recently divorced and childless. I was 38 and Kate two years younger. We both were running out of time to find someone and start a family, but it wasn’t a topic we ever discussed. For now, it was Kate and me. It would be up to us to decide what would become of our parents’ home.
“Mr. Thompson, this is Jason Randolph. Dad passed this morning.” I never understood why people said passed instead of died. I assumed it was because passed sounded transitional rather than final.
Fred Thompson was calm and professional. More importantly, he’d been a longtime family friend. That was life in Bluffton, North Carolina, population 4,200. Everyone knew everyone else.
“How are you and Kate doing?” he asked.
“We’re okay. Dad’s free of his pain. We’re thankful for that.”
“I’ll be over as soon as possible, unless you’d like a little more time alone.”
“No. Now’s fine. Dad never liked to waste time.” I smiled at the thought of my father telling me to get on with things.
I brewed a pot of strong coffee as Patty tended to final medical reports and packed her supplies. A middle-aged woman with a warm smile, Patty rarely talked about herself, but I learned she’d been providing hospice care for 15 years.
How did she deal with the constant emotional strain?
“Your father was a good man and very courageous in his final days,” she said.
For the first time, I saw the answer to my question in her moistened eyes. Patty spent weeks managing my father’s pain, putting her emotions on a back burner. It wasn’t her job to save my father, only to make his passing as peaceful as possible. She’d done that, and was finally able to let her guard down.
“Your being here comforted us all,” I replied. “We’ll never forget what you’ve done.”
We exchanged a tearful hug. She pulled back, patted her eyes with a Kleenex, and then departed to care for her next patient.
Kate appeared from the bedroom and joined me at the kitchen table. With bags under our sleep-deprived eyes, we stared into our cups of coffee, waiting for the Thompson Mortuary hearse to pull into the driveway.
“Dad didn’t want a large funeral,” Kate said. “He told me that Reverend Michael saying a few words at graveside would be enough.”
“Yeah. He told me the same, but Mom and Dad have dozens of friends. What will we do if a hundred people show up at the cemetery?” I asked. “I’d recommend a simple funeral at the church and then a family service at graveside.”
“You’re probably right,” Kate said, sipping her coffee.
It seemed strange talking about Dad’s funeral with him lying in the next room. It was almost like he was eavesdropping.
“We just can’t sell this house,” Kate said. “It’s home. It’s all we have left of Mom and Dad.”
“We don’t have to make that decision today. Why don’t you live here? The mortgage was paid off years ago.”
“And how would I pay my bills?” Kate asked with a frown. “My job’s in Chicago. There aren’t many opportunities for commodities traders in Bluffton.”
There would be no inheritance for my sister and me, not that we needed or expected one. Medical bills had swallowed up what little nest egg our father accumulated working 30 years as a machinist at a nearby Ford factory. The house was all Dad had to his name.
“What about you?” Kate asked. “I’m sure Bluffton has room for a young attorney.”
I’d recently made partner at a St. Louis law firm representing small businesses. It had taken ten years, but I finally received a slice of the firm’s profit pie. I had good friends in St. Louis and was an avid Cards and Blues fan, but it was my work that kept me there.
“Yeah. I’m sure I could make a fortune hanging out a shingle,” I scoffed. “There’s big money in small-town divorces and property closings.”
“It’s only sixty miles to your St. Louis office. Maybe you could commute.”
Kate didn’t appreciate the pressure and face-to-face requirement of corporate law. I shook my head, ending the discussion.
I rose to the sound of tires grinding on gravel and walked toward the front door. Fred Thompson had backed up the driveway and was opening the wide swinging rear door of the hearse. His nephew, Cliff, accompanied Fred, both dressed in dark suits. Fred was stocky, Cliff tall and lanky. As they stood beside the dark hearse, I had to force images of the Blues Brothers from my mind. I excused my ill-placed thought to my lack of sleep.
I’d attended high school with Cliff. A perpetual underachiever, he was lucky to find employment at his uncle’s mortuary. Watching them roll the gurney up the sidewalk brought back the gravity of the moment. Mr. Withers, a neighbor, slowed and stared at the hearse as he passed in his car. It wouldn’t take long for news of Dad’s death to spread.
I opened the door and waved Fred and Cliff inside. “Hi, Fred. Cliff, it’s good to see you again.” It really wasn’t, but I didn’t know what else to say.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Fred said, offering a warm handshake and a heartfelt look he’d perfected over the years.
“Thank you, Fred. And thanks for coming so quickly.”
I led them to Dad’s room. They rolled the gurney beside the bed, locking the wheels. Fred loosened the fitted sheet from beneath Dad, and the two men used it to lift his lifeless body onto the gurney, pillows and all. Fred then covered my father with a funeral blanket and tucked it underneath him.
“Jason, is there a suit or particular clothing you’d like your father to wear for his funeral?”
I went to his closet and pulled Dad’s lone suit from a back rack. “I guess this will work. He only wore it to weddings and funerals.” I wondered if my father knew the suit had one more funeral remaining.
“There’s no hurry to make final plans, but let me suggest Saturday afternoon for the service. That gives you and Kate three days to prepare.”
“Sure, that sounds fine.”
“Here’s a brochure with a few things you need to consider,” Fred said, taking a tri-fold flyer from his jacket. “Call me tomorrow, and we can discuss the arrangements.”
The two men wheeled Dad’s body out of the house and into the back of the hearse as Kate and I watched from the front door. My sister buried her face into my chest, sobbing, as the limo pulled away and disappeared down the street. I could feel the life being sucked out of our home.
I AWOKE SATURDAY to a bright sun and blue sky. It was a suitable day to lay my father to rest, but the ideal weather also presented an opportunity to work in the yard or play a round of golf. I was concerned funeral attendance might be sparse.
As it turned out, my worries were unfounded. Every pew in Bluffton’s First Methodist Church was filled with friends, family, former coworkers, and associates of my father. During the service, I visualized Mom and Dad looking down at the uplifting show of support.
Dad would’ve been upset with the cost of the funeral. The flowers, casket, headstone, memorial brochures, and donations to the Methodist Church and Reverend Michael came to a tidy sum.
“A pine box and grave marker is all I need,” he’d said more than once.
Dad worked hard his entire life. He put Kate and me through college on a blue collar salary. Giving him a first-class sendoff seemed the least we could do.
There were five family members at the graveside service: me, Kate, my mom’s younger sister, Aunt Mary, her husband, Uncle Edward, and my dad’s brother, Uncle Tom.
Unfortunately, that’s what Kate and I called our father’s older brother. Tom either didn’t mind the moniker or never made the connection. Uncle Tom was a happy, friendly man, but it was obvious that Tom emerged from the shallow end of the family gene pool.
Aunt Mary looked exactly like Mom: auburn hair, turned-up nose and a contagious smile. Kate and I had only seen Mary a couple times since our mother died. Seeing her this time brought back memories of Mom’s funeral. Mary wore the same black dress to her service.
It was approaching 5:00 p.m. when Reverend Michael read the final scripture and Dad’s casket was lowered into its final resting place next to Mom. Our family filed back to our cars and drove to Dad’s home where friends and neighbors had been dropping off food the past three days. The kitchen resembled a food bank.
Knowing Dad wouldn’t want us sipping coffee and tearfully reliving the past, I took the liberty of stocking the refrigerator with beer and wine.
“So, what are you going to do with this place?” Uncle Tom asked, tipping back his third cold one on the deck.
“Kate and I haven’t decided yet. With our jobs, it doesn’t make sense for either of us to live here.”
“I’d sell it if I were you,” Tom shot back. “What do you want with a forty-year-old house? The maintenance costs would eat you alive.”
I let his comment pass. There was no point having this discussion with Tom. He didn’t have a sentimental bone in his body.
After the sun set, we all settled into the living room and shared stories of Dad. The beer and wine had done their job. The mood was light, and in Tom’s case, maybe too light.
Tom rose from his chair and staggered to a nearby bookcase. He ran his hand over a row of photo albums and pulled the last one from the end of the shelf. Mom kept well-organized albums through my high school years. Dad took fewer pictures after he was widowed, but continued to chronicle major events.
“Let’s take a trip down memory lane. It’ll be fun,” Tom said, flopping back into his chair.
I exchanged doubtful glances with Kate and Aunt Mary.
“Look! Here’s your dad at his retirement party,” Tom announced, holding up the album.
The party had only been a couple years ago, shortly before he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a bittersweet memory.
“Tom, I don’t know if going through albums is a good idea,” I said. “Let’s just share stories.”
“Oh, come on. A few more pages,” Tom persisted, flipping through the album.
“I didn’t know your father had a dog. Who’s this?” Tom asked, pointing to photos of a yellow lab and a young boy taken in Dad’s garage and backyard.
“I don’t recognize the dog or the boy. Must be a neighbor,” I said, looking to Kate. She shrugged her shoulders.
“Here’s one of your dad with the same dog,” Tom said.
Dad was kneeling with his arm around the retriever. The photo must have been taken recently, during his chemo treatments.
I stood and took the album from Tom. “Let’s do this some other time,” I said firmly.
“We should let Jason and Kate get some rest,” Aunt Mary said, standing.
Uncle Tom had singlehandedly derailed the evening, but Mary was right. I was beat, and Kate’s eyes were heavy. After stacking dishes in the sink and putting food back into the refrigerator, we said goodnight to Mary, Edward, and Tom. Mary took the car keys from Tom at the front door and then drove the three of them to the Holiday Inn on the edge of town.
KATE AND I SPENT THE NEXT several days doing triage on the contents of the house. One stack of items was to be pitched, one stack to be donated, and the largest stack consisted of personal possessions to be stored in labeled boxes. It was unlikely the boxes would ever be opened again, but we weren’t ready to let go. Not yet, anyway.
We still hadn’t decided when or if to sell the house. After much discussion, we compromised, agreeing to leave the furniture, dishes, and linens in place, in case we ever wanted to visit.
It was late afternoon, and I was half done packing the garage’s contents. As I sealed a large box of Dad’s tools, I heard a boy calling, “Duke! Duke! Stop!”
I turned to see a large yellow dog galloping up the driveway and into the garage. The friendly canine ran to me, slobbering and seeking attention.
“Hi, boy. I think you’re at the wrong house,” I said, rubbing his head.
The dog stepped away and began sniffing the boxes, pacing back and forth, as if looking for something.
The source of the shouting then entered the garage. The boy appeared to be about ten years old, with disheveled blonde hair, wearing jeans, sneakers and a brown camo t-shirt.
“I’m sorry, Sir. Duke thinks Mr. Randolph is still here.”
I looked again at Duke and realized he was the dog in the photo album.
“You knew my father?”
“Yeah. If Mr. Randolph was your dad. He used to play catch with me and Duke.”
Duke continued to sniff anxiously at each box.
“He’s looking for tennis balls,” the boy said.
I smiled, walked to a nearby garbage can and reclaimed a couple of balls I’d thrown out earlier. I tossed them into the front yard. Duke quickly retrieved the balls and dropped them at my feet.
“He’s a smart dog. What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Rickie Jenson. We used to live on the next block, but we had to move last month. I was sad to hear about Mr. Randolph. Duke and I will miss him.”
“Where did you move?”
“Kansas City. We live with my grandma now.”
A red Volkswagen Beetle pulled to the curb at the end of the driveway. A blonde woman in snug jeans and a loose-fitting t-shirt stepped from the car. “Rickie, I thought I told you to stay in the backyard,” she scolded, walking quickly toward the garage.
“Duke took off. I had to catch him.”
“I hope Rickie and Duke haven’t been a bother,” she said, looking up at me.
Her eyes were a sky blue and her skin milky smooth. Her voice sounded familiar.
“No, not at all. I understand they were good friends of my father.”
She stared at me for a few seconds and then smiled.
“Jason, you don’t remember me, do you?”
“Karen? Karen Billings?”
“It’s Karen Jenson now.”
“I don’t believe it. Your hair’s shorter, but you haven’t changed a bit. It’s great to see you.” This time I meant it.
Karen was in Kate’s class, a couple years behind me. We’d dated before I went to college. She broke it off, not wanting a long-distance relationship. I hadn’t seen her since.
“So, Rickie tells me you’ve moved in with your mom in Kansas City.”
“Sometimes he talks too much,” she said, frowning at Rickie. He looked back with sheepish eyes.
“Why don’t you put Duke in the backseat? I’ll be there in a minute.”
Rickie grimaced, taking Duke by his collar and pulling him to the car.
“I was very sorry to hear about your father. He was a good friend to Rickie and me this past year,” Karen said, her voice trailing off.
“I’ve seen pictures of Rickie and Duke in one of Dad’s photo albums. He must have enjoyed their company.”
“Yeah, they were good friends–more than friends, really.”
Her eyes began to pool, and she turned to hide the tears.
“Is there something bothering you? Anything I can do?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Being here brings back memories. I wanted to come to your dad’s funeral, but didn’t think Rickie or I could handle another one so soon.”
“Rickie’s dad was killed in Afghanistan seven months ago. His reserve unit had been called up for active duty. He had less than two weeks to go before coming home.”
She continued to wipe away tears as they ran down her cheeks.
“Mr. Randolph was good for Rickie. They spent a lot of time together after my husband died. He told him what a hero Rickie’s father was, and that there was a special place in heaven for military vets.”
I can’t believe Dad didn’t share this with me.
“Is Kansas City home?” I asked.
“No, Bluffton is home. I grew up here. All of Rickie’s friends are here.”
“So why did you leave?”
“I couldn’t handle the mortgage on a teacher assistant’s salary alone. Mom asked me to come live with her, and it seemed to be a good solution. I promised Rickie after a month in Kansas City, we’d come back to visit.”
“Mom, are you coming?” Rickie called out, rescuing me from my thoughtless question.
“I’d better run. I’m sorry to lay my problems on you. You’re facing your own grief. I only wanted you to know how much we appreciated Mr. Randolph. He was a wonderful man.”
Thirty minutes earlier I’d been fretting over the task of packing and pitching Dad’s stuff, wondering what to do with the house, and feeling sorry for myself.
How self-centered could I be?
Karen turned to leave.
“Karen!” I called, following her down the driveway. “I was wondering. Would you like to have lunch tomorrow? Maybe a picnic? Rickie and Duke could come.”
“I’m sure you have a lot to do around here,” she said, surveying the boxes in the garage. “Are you sure?”
“A break would do me good,” I said. “Besides, you owe me. You dumped me twenty years ago.”
WE FOUND A PERFECT SPOT under a sprawling oak at the north end of Bluffton Lake and spread out a blanket atop the soft spring grass. Duke bolted to chase a flock of ducks from the shoreline, sending them squawking back into the lake.
Karen had made chicken salad sandwiches, and I carved up a watermelon for dessert. At first, the conversation seemed forced, but it flowed more easily as the food began to disappear. After lunch, Duke and Rickie played fetch and fished while Karen and I talked about old times.
Twenty years of separation seemed to dissolve with each relived memory. Our paths had taken different directions two decades ago, but it turned out we had much in common: sports, movies, and of course, small-town values. One afternoon of relaxation in the park wouldn’t erase the pain of our recent losses, but for a few hours, we escaped.
“This has been fun,” Karen said. “It’s gonna be tough heading back to Kansas City tomorrow, but like I tell Rickie, we’re only a few hours away.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean. As much as I’ve dreaded sorting through my dad’s stuff, I dread the caseload waiting for me in St. Louis even more.”
“So, have you and Kate figured out what to do with the house?”
“Yeah, we did. Last night we decided to rent it, and we think we’ve found the perfect tenant.”
“Really? You’ve already found a tenant?”
“Yeah. I hope so,” I replied.
Karen looked puzzled.
“I was hoping you and Rickie would rent it.”
Her eyes widened.
“Me? I can’t afford that big house.”
“You could if the rent was free.”
Her blue eyes locked on mine.
“Free? Why would you do that?”
“I thought about it all night. That house has been a home for more than forty years. Dad wouldn’t want Kate and me to hang onto a house when you, Rickie and Duke could make it a home.”
“Are you serious?” she asked, a grin spreading across her face.
“Yes, I’m totally serious.”
Karen leaned forward, wrapping her arms around me. As she released her embrace, her arms trembled with excitement.
“I don’t know what to say! This is too good to be true. Is there anything you haven’t told me?”
“Only one thing.”
“I hope you’ll let me visit.”
Copyright © 2019 by D.R. Shoultz
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without the author’s permission.