From December 2003 True Romance Magazine:
A Christmas love story you’ll never forget
I was a waitress at the Wayside Diner right after I dropped out of high school. Waiting tables wasn’t much of a career. It was just a job. But quitting school at the start of my senior year didn’t leave me with a lot of career options, so I took the first job I could find.
And I didn’t stop to think about the hundred other things I would have rather been than a waitress. My mother was dying, and Aunt Edie, Mom’s maiden aunt, was getting on in years now. She needed help. Not that she would have asked for it, though; that just wasn’t Aunt Edie’s way.
For the past five years, she’d been doing her best to raise me and take care of Mom at the same time. It wasn’t easy. Taking care of Mom was becoming a full-time job.
“We’ll manage somehow,” my aunt promised when she took us in. She lived in a little white bungalow just off the Interstate exit. Thankfully, the mortgage was paid for. Even so, there was never enough money to make ends meet.
The small check Mom received from the government didn’t begin to pay for her medical expenses. Aunt Edie—a retired nurse’s aide living on a small fixed income—began to take in laundry. Somehow, we managed to get from morning to night. There was never enough left over for anything extra, though, like an electric wheelchair. When Mom could no longer push herself around in her old chair, Aunt Edie began to talk about taking out a mortgage on her little house. That’s when I knew what I had to do.
Of course, Aunt Edie tried to talk me out of quitting school. She shook her old gray head and wrung her gnarled hands. “Sarah Markham, your mother would stop breathing this very instant if she knew you were thinking about dropping out of high school, ” she said.
There was a long silence. I glanced at Mom in her wheelchair. Once she had been so beautiful. Pictures in the family album showed the laughing young wife and mother she used to be. But she didn’t even resemble the woman in those photos anymore. Mom’s body had been wasted by disease. MND was her curse.
MND—Motor Neuron Disease, a steadily progressive neuromuscular disease, has no cure. Most victims die within five years from the time of the first symptom—but not Mom. Seven years later, she was still hanging on. She had good days and bad days. On a good day, she was aware of what was going on around her. Even though her speech was slurred, she still tried to communicate. On a bad day, she would just sit there. This was one of her bad days.
I walked over to her, sat down on the floor beside her, and took her thin hand in mine. “Mom, I’m going to get a job,” I said.
She didn’t even try to raise her head. If she knew what I was saying, she didn’t let on. Looking across the room at Aunt Edie, I smiled sadly. Mom was dying. I knew it; Aunt Edie knew it, too. She was dying in little bits and pieces.
Once, a hundred years ago it seemed, I’d worn out my rosary beads praying for a miracle. When Mom first got sick, I prayed and prayed and prayed. I thought that if I prayed long and hard enough, she’d just get up out of that chair and start doing the things she used to do before she got sick, like making Christmas cookies.
Sometimes I prayed so hard that I could almost hear her singing “Joy to the World” while she cut out the dough. As I got older, however, it began to sink in. I knew Mom wasn’t going to get up and start making cookies. She wasn’t ever going to walk again. So I stopped praying for a miracle, and I stopped listening for strains of “Joy to the World.”
When I prayed for Mom—and I still prayed every night—I asked God to send the angels. I wanted the angel of mercy to come quickly. And I wanted the angel of death to take her while she slept. I prayed that it would be quick and painless. My most fervent prayer was that she would just peacefully close her eyes one night and never wake up.
Those are the kinds of things my heart prayed for now. From the time that I was very young, every prayer I ever prayed was for Mom. It never even occurred to me that I should be praying for Dad, too.
Always strong, always healthy, he was our rock. Every morning Daddy went to work at the lumber mill. He came home at night and never let on that he was dying, too. The pain in his heart was every bit as strong as the pain that wracked my mother’s body. He watched her being nickel-and-dimed to death. I guess it was too much for his heart to bear, but I wish he had kissed us good-bye.
I didn’t know or even suspect that Dad had pain of his own until that night. A single shot rang out. It shattered the stillness of that hot summer night. I knew, even before I opened my eyes, that somebody was dead. It was Dad. I’m not sure if Mom knew that our rock was gone.
Aunt Edie took us in after Dad died. I guess you could say she saved us from the state. If Aunt Edie hadn’t stepped in, Mom would have ended up at the state nursing home and me at the state home for girls. She didn’t have much in the way of material possessions. The only thing she owned was that little white bungalow. But she opened the doors of her home and her heart to us.
Now she was the one who needed help, and there was nothing she could say or do to change my mind about quitting school. I wouldn’t even budge.
Hours at the diner were long and the pay was lousy—just minimum wage, plus tips. After I got the hang of things, though, the tips were decent. I could see the relief in Aunt Edie’s eyes. But as time passed, it was the look in Mom’s eyes that I will never forget. She was like an animal in a trap. Her body, ravaged by the progression of her disease, had withered away to nothing. I was nineteen at the time. One night, when I got home from the diner, Aunt Edie met me at the door with tears in her eyes and said, “It’s time for us to let her go now.”
It was a day that we both knew was coming. No longer able to speak, Mom was now deaf and blind. She couldn’t even blink. And the state nursing home, which we had put off for years, now became Mom’s home. Every time I went to visit her there I held her hand, thinking it was almost over and wondering how much longer she could possibly survive.
But it wasn’t almost over. It took Mom another year to die. Her passing was not easy, either. Her mind was still alive, or so they said, but her spirit was trapped. She had been trying to die for years. Death was at her doorstep, but her spirit just couldn’t seem to find its way out of her wasted body.
“It’s a sin that they don’t just pull the plug,” Aunt Edie said. “They treat dogs better than this.” I didn’t know if the sin was in pulling the plug or in not pulling it, but I knew Aunt Edie was right about one thing: An old dog would have been spared such misery.
Sometimes when I touched Mom, she seemed to sense my presence. That day, as I held her hand, a single tear ran down her face. I’m sure she knew that I was there.
“Good-bye, Mom. I love you,” I whispered as I bent to kiss her. I didn’t know then that I was kissing her for the last time. But when the call came shortly after midnight, before I even opened my eyes, I knew that she was dead. At long last, she was free.
My life moved slowly forward. I didn’t have the confidence yet to move full speed ahead, so I stayed with Aunt Edie for the time. I kept my job at the diner and I began to study for my high school equivalency. After passing the GED, I started taking courses at the local community college. I still didn’t know what to do with my life. But while I was thinking about life, wondering where to go and what to do, waiting tables wasn’t so bad.
Even though a few of the diner’s blue-collar workers were tough customers, more than a little raw, most of them were regular guys. In high school I’d been a loner. Football games and homecoming dances had never been a part of my life. I was rushing home from school every day to help Aunt Edie with Mom. When I quit school at seventeen, I didn’t miss any of it.
By the time I was twenty-one, I would go out on an occasional date, but my virginity was still very much intact. It wasn’t out of any sense of morality, though. There was just no one I cared to be intimate with. I wanted to feel something; I’m not sure what, because I was having trouble feeling anything at all. So I pushed everyone who approached me away.
“The guys are starting to call you ‘Ice Maiden,’ ” Claudia, one of the other waitresses on my shift, said. “They’re taking bets on whether anyone will ever get close enough to touch you.”
Charlie Jett, an independent trucker who passed through about once a month, caught my eye and started laughing. He was tall, dark, and more than a bit handsome. He also had the greenest eyes, and when he laughed his eyes laughed with him. I found myself laughing, too. He’d been asking me out for the better part of a year. At first, he’d seemed to take it personally when I’d politely declined. But now he seemed to be teasing me, daring me to take him up on it.
If I hadn’t suspected he was married, I probably would’ve gone out with him. Some of the guys passing through had families on both coasts, and Charlie was just too good-looking to be unattached.
“I’m betting it’s me who finally gets close enough to light the fire that melts that cold, cold heart of yours,” he said.
I had to laugh. “You’re married, Charlie Jett. Don’t ask me how I know, but I just do.”
He took out his wallet and opened it in front of me. “No pictures, no grocery lists. Here’s my photo ID. And look at my hand. . . . ” He made a fist with his left hand and thrust it out for me to see. “No ring.”
“That doesn’t mean a thing.” I started to clear the counter. “A wedding ring is the first thing a married man pretending to be single would lose.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “What do I have to do to prove that I don’t have a wife and six kids waiting at home for me?”
I was wiping off the counter. “I don’t know, Charlie. You just look married to me.”
“What looks married about me?” he asked. Then he turned to Claudia. “Claudia, what looks married about me?”
“The only way I can tell if a man is married is by checking his ring finger,” she said.
“I can tell by looking in his eyes,” I said. Most of the time, that really was true.
Charlie got up to leave then, still shaking his head. He grinned as he picked up his wallet and started counting his money.
“Look into my eyes, Sarah Markham, and then read my lips. I am not now, and I have never been, M-A-R-R-I-E-D. If you want me to leave you a tip today, you’d better look a little deeper into my eyes until you believe me.”
“Okay, okay, I believe you.” I laughed.
Charlie put his money down, then took a phone card out of his pocket and scribbled a number down on the back. “I should have a few minutes left on this phone card, Sarah. My mother wouldn’t lie for me. The dream of her life is to get me married off before I reach the age of thirty. And the countdown has begun. She thinks if a man isn’t settled in his life by then, there’s something wrong with him—that maybe he’s gay or his equipment doesn’t work.”
That made me smile. “You look anything but gay,” I teased him, “but it’s hard to tell from where I’m standing whether your equipment works.”
“I didn’t ask you out so I could prove my manhood. I want to be with you. I can’t remember ever receiving so many rejections from one woman. Every time I ask you out and you say no, my confidence takes a nosedive. I promise myself I’m never going to ask you out again, but I always do.”
“Some men will do anything to win a bet,” Claudia said.
Charlie Jett’s green eyes met mine. He held my gaze, refusing to look away, forcing me to look deeper into his eyes. There was a long silence. For a brief moment, I felt something—I’m not sure what, but my heart was beating faster.
Without a word, before I had a chance to talk myself out of it, I took the pen from him and jotted my phone number down on a napkin. He looked at it cautiously, then grinned. “You’re letting me win the bet?”
“You mean, without even calling my mother?”
Charlie looked pleased. He was on his way out of town. He left for places unknown, promising to call when he came back through in a couple of weeks.
Later, much later, I lay in the darkness thinking about him and wondering. Never had I wanted to be with anyone before. But I found myself wanting more than anything to be with Charlie Jett. Lost in my thoughts, confused by my desires, the silence of the night was shattered when the phone rang. It was Charlie.
“Did I wake you?” he asked.
“No. I couldn’t sleep. I was just laying here, thinking.”
“What were you thinking about?”
I hesitated for a moment. “You.”
“I must have been reading your mind. I just had to stop and call you.”
We talked for awhile longer. Before we hung up Charlie said, “Promise me you won’t change your mind, Sarah. I’m afraid I’ll come back and you will have changed your mind, or maybe you won’t even remember.”
“I promise not to change my mind. And I won’t forget. I never break a promise.”
Charlie called me every night for the next two weeks. We were lovers in our minds and hearts long before our bodies became one. When he got back, he took me out to a small Italian restaurant in the old section of town. Because I had an appetite like a bird, we shared our linguini, as well as a bottle of red wine.
His face was illuminated by the flickering glow of the candles. I’d never been so warm or so happy. Whether it was Charlie or the wine that affected me, I’m not sure. It might have been a little bit of both. The moment was magic.
“I can’t believe you’re here with me,” he whispered later that night when we returned to his motel.
I’d never been with a man before. Part of me wanted to run as far and as fast as I could. But another part of me, my heart, wouldn’t let me go.
Charlie put his arms around me. He kissed the nape of my neck. “I’ve been dreaming about you for the last two weeks.”
“What did you dream?” I asked as he gently began to undress me.
“I dreamed that I got lost in your blue eyes and your honey-colored hair,” he whispered. “And I dreamed that I was with you . . . and that you loved me.”
My dress dropped to the floor and I stepped out of it. No man had ever seen me naked before that night, but I wasn’t even a little bit afraid. Charlie took me in his arms. “We don’t have to do this, Sarah,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “I love you anyway. . . . ”
“I want to do this.” I slowly began to undress him. “I’ve been dreaming of you, too.”
I had never wanted anyone or anything more in my life. A tremble went through my body.
“Please don’t be afraid, Sarah. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Not even a little?”
“Not even a little.”
“Then why are you trembling?”
“I’m not trembling with fear,” I whispered. “I’m trembling with anticipation.”
Charlie kissed me, caressed me. He was an infinitely gentle lover. And he touched me in all my secret places. “Oh, God, Sarah, you’re so beautiful,” he said.
But I couldn’t even answer him. I was too close to Nirvana. In the end, exhausted, I fell asleep in his arms. In the morning, he was still holding me. I knew at that instant why I had been born.
“It has never been like this for me before,” he whispered as he brushed a strand of hair from my face. “I want to be with you until the day I die. And if there’s an afterlife, I want to be with you for all eternity. I love you, Sarah.”
There was a long silence. I draped my arm across his chest and cupped my hand over his heart. “I love you too,” I said softly.
Under my hand I could feel the pounding of his heart. There was only one drum; our hearts were beating as one.
“I don’t want to leave you,” he said as we lingered over breakfast in bed. “But if I don’t get this load of fruit to Chicago by Monday, it might start to spoil, and I won’t get paid.”
“I know. It’s okay. I’ll be here when you get back.”
It took him less than two minutes to dress. His shirt was still open when he leaned against the door, coffee in hand, and I could see his reflection in the mirror as he watched me dress. Before I had finished he put down his cup and came to me.
“Will you love me, Sarah? Will you marry me? Will you have my babies?”
Without hesitation I said, “Yes, yes, and yes.”
“Then come with me now. We’ll drop off my load in Chicago, but I won’t pick up another one right away. Instead I’ll take you home to meet my family. I’m from southern Illinois, so it won’t take us long to get there. I told my mother about you the last time I called home. If I know her, every family member and friend I have knows about you by now. I can hardly wait to show you off. We can get our license, have our blood tests, and be married within the week. What do you say?”
Once every decision in my life had taken forever to make. But now, as I looked into Charlie’s eyes, I didn’t even stop to think about how swiftly the rapids were running. I loved him; it was as simple as that. I let myself be caught up in the swirling white waters of love.
“When do we leave?” I asked.
“Now, Sarah. Right now.”
Hastily, we drove to Aunt Edie’s house. I packed while Charlie waited for me in the front room. “He seems like a nice young man,” Aunt Edie said. Then she closed the bedroom door so he couldn’t hear her and said, “But you hardly know him, Sarah.”
I looked up to see tears in her eyes. “I love him, Aunt Edie.”
“I know you do. I can see it in your eyes. I just wish it wasn’t so sudden, honey.”
I closed the single suitcase I was taking, which contained clothing and a few necessities. Charlie had promised to bring me back in a few weeks for the rest of my things. I went to Aunt Edie and put my arms around her. We’d been through a lot together. The long and painful journey was finally over now, but I knew we’d always be connected by the past. I was going to miss Aunt Edie, but she didn’t need my income from the diner anymore.
The future was waiting for me, and my heart was powerless against the pull of love’s current.
While Charlie gassed up the truck, I said good-bye to my friends at the diner. “He didn’t have to take you away from us in order to win the bet,” Jake, a regular who’d been coming to the diner for years, laughed. Most of the truckers, union boys to the bone, had no use for independent truckers. But Charlie was different from most independents, never reminding them that he had his own rig. Most of them didn’t even know it. The ones who did forgave him. They treated him just like the other good old boys.
As soon as we were on the road, my soul began to soar. Never had I felt so free. I could have gone anywhere at that point in my life and done anything. But the only thing I wanted to do was to love Charlie, marry him, and one day have his babies.
We traveled up I-80, laughing and singing as we went. Storm clouds, which had been gathering in the western sky, suddenly burst and the rain came thundering down. The windshield wipers kept time with the beating of my heart. Charlie started singing, “You are My Sunshine.”
Visibility was zero, so we pulled off at a rest area. “When I’m alone I can navigate by intuition,” he said. “There’s nothing like a raging storm to get my adrenaline pumping. But with you beside me, I don’t want to take any chances.”
We stayed in the truck as the rain came pounding down. It was a cold rain that kept coming in torrents. I yawned and rested my head on Charlie’s shoulder. That’s when my eye caught site of a shiny metallic object in back of the seat. Charlie started laughing when I turned around and picked it up. It was a horn of some kind.
“What is it, a bugle?” I asked.
Charlie took the horn from me and kissed it lovingly. “It’s a trumpet. I picked it up at a pawn shop when I passed through Kentucky.”
“Can you play it?”
He shrugged. “In high school, I played in a band, but we weren’t very good. I didn’t play very well, anyway. I just couldn’t seem to find the time to practice. I don’t know why I bought it. God knows I don’t have the time to practice now.”
Charlie put the trumpet to his mouth and played. “What song is that?” I asked. He rolled his eyes and laughed. Then he made me guess.
“You Are My Sunshine?”
He laughed again as he put the trumpet in back of the seat. “That’s how bad I play,” he said. “If I was any good, you would have recognized it right away.”
“It sounded familiar. Aren’t you going to tell me?”
“No way. I’m going to practice until I get it right. Then you won’t have to guess and I won’t have to tell you what I’m playing. It’ll be unmistakable.”
The rain was letting up now. Charlie pulled me close as he started the truck. “The dream of my life is that someday I’ll have enough time to take it up again,” he said. “But wherever I go, I’m always late getting there. Sometimes I think I’m on the road twenty-five hours a day.”
“When you retire, you’ll probably get good enough to play in a marching band,” I said.
Charlie shook his head and gave me a wry smile as we headed down the highway. “Dream on. I’ll never retire. I’ll be working until the day I die. The only time I’ll ever have is when I get to heaven.”
I reached out and touched his arm. Just touching him made me tremble. “Then you had better use your time wisely when you get there. There’s no reason you can’t practice in heaven.”
Without taking his eyes from the road, Charlie kept his left hand on the wheel and his right arm around my shoulder. “I’ll wear out the scales when I get to heaven,” he said as he pulled me close. “I’m going to lay around all day on one of those big cumulous clouds. And I’ll practice until there’s no mistake about what I’m playing. The angels will probably kick me out of heaven.”
I leaned my head on his shoulder. “Hey, sleepy girl,” he said. “Close your eyes and go to sleep. I’m not going to blow you away with my trumpet anymore tonight.”
I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t really sleep. So I just started talking. As we drove into that dark night, I told him secrets that I’d never shared with anyone. Before we got to Chicago, he knew about the pain in my father’s heart that had made him end his life and about my mother’s suffering.
Later that night, at a motel just outside of Chicago, Charlie took me in his arms and said softly, “Promise me something, Sarah.”
“Anything,” I whispered.
“I’m not afraid of dying, but there are some things worse than dying. I’m afraid of living dead. Promise me that if push ever comes to shove, you’ll love me enough to let me go, to even help me on my way if you have to.”
Before my mother died, I didn’t know whether pulling the plug was the right thing or the wrong thing to do. It was a decision I could never have made then. But I knew that I could pull the plug now—and I would have pulled it in an instant to keep her from suffering.
“I promise you, Charlie, and you must promise me the same thing.”
“I promise. I hope I won’t be called to the test, but I’ll be strong and let you go if I have to. Love doesn’t end after death. It lives on with the spirit. It doesn’t matter who goes first or how many years pass.”
“If I die first, I’ll wait for you,” I said. “Even if you live for another fifty years.”
He held me gently for a long time without speaking. I could feel the rhythm of his heart so close to mine. “I’ll wait for you if I go first,” he promised. “And when you die, I’ll be there to hold your hand.”
Charlie and I got married. We settled down in Buckingham, Illinois, the Midwest town where he was born. His family became my family. In time we bought a house. We had a child, a boy we named Jack, after my father.
Charlie was so happy the day we brought our son home from the hospital that he rummaged around in the closet until he found that old trumpet. Then he heralded our son’s arrival into the world by playing a tune! I thanked my lucky stars that Jack was already awake and crying before his dad blew his horn. Once he started playing, though, the most amazing thing happened: The wailing stopped. Within minutes, baby Jack was asleep.
“Would you look at that?” Charlie marveled. “He must have gotten tired of trying to drown me out!”
“It was your music that put him to sleep,” I said. “Our baby knows what he’s supposed to do when his daddy plays him a lullaby.”
Charlie put his trumpet down and took me in his arms. “It wasn’t a lullaby. Don’t you know that marching bands don’t play lullabies? I was playing a march.”
I laughed. “Lullaby or march, it must have been just the right tune.”
Two years later, I gave birth to a little girl. We named her Annie, after my mother. No sooner did Annie come home from the hospital than Charlie dusted off his trumpet again. This baby was different from the first one, though; she was always sleeping. And Charlie, not wanting to startle her, went down to the basement to toot his horn with little Jack. He played for more than an hour and Annie never stirred at all. But I still couldn’t place the tune, and Charlie wouldn’t tell me. “Someday you won’t have to ask,” he said, grinning. “It’ll just hit you.”
With the birth of Annie, our family was complete. The only thing in my life that kept me from being one hundred-percent happy was the amount of time Charlie spent on the road. As his family responsibilities increased, he met his financial obligations by working longer and harder than he ever had before. I spent at least three weeks out of every month missing him, and wondering where he was and when he was coming home.
The night before he left on that run, Charlie gave me an early Christmas gift. He had never been good at keeping secrets. During the ten years of our marriage, every birthday and Christmas present had been given to me early. He couldn’t understand why I always made him wait until Christmas Eve to open his gifts.
“I have a present for you,” he said as soon as Jack and Annie were in bed for the night. Charlie had spent the afternoon hanging the outside lights on our house. But it was only the first of December. Christmas was still weeks away.
“You’re not tricking me, Charlie. You do this every year. Santa comes on Christmas Eve, so you’ll have to wait for yours.”
“This isn’t something you open. This is a different kind of present. What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted that I could never give you?”
I took a step away from him and looked into his green eyes. For a moment my heart stopped. There was only one thing he couldn’t give me. “Time,” I whispered. Tears were already filling my eyes.
Charlie stood there, grinning. His eyes were flickering like the lights outside the house. “My application for the small business loan was approved. I just found out today. I’ve already got orders waiting to be filled. When I get back, I’ll start looking for some good used rigs. Then I’ll be able to hire a couple of drivers. I can’t say I’ll never have to go out on the road again, honey, but it’ll only be in a pinch. I promise it won’t be often.”
I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him as tight as I could. I was powerless to stop my tears. That was the best gift I could have ever received. Charlie had been trying to get that business loan for almost a year, but the red tape was incredible. He’d about given up on ever being able to cut through it.
He left after breakfast the next morning. Before he went, he lifted Annie in his arms. “When will you be back, Daddy?” she asked, crying. Annie always cried when Charlie left, crying for him every night until he got back.
“I’ll be back before Santa comes,” he promised. Then he bent down and kissed Jack. “Take care of Mommy and Annie until I get back, tiger.”
Jack never cried, but he looked at his dad now with sad eyes. “Please hurry back, Daddy,” he said. “Don’t forget to be home by Christmas.”
“I won’t forget.” And then, right before he went out into that cold and blustery December morning, he winked at me and said, “Would you see if you can find that old trumpet of mine while I’m gone? I’m going to start practicing when I get back. This time next year, you won’t have to guess what I’m playing. You’ll be able to name that tune.”
I had to smile at that. In eight years, his playing hadn’t improved a bit. But I was looking forward to hearing him practice.
“It doesn’t matter to me what you play,” I said. “The only thing that matters is having you home.”
It was just starting to snow as he warmed up the rig. I watched from the kitchen window with Annie in my arms and holding Jack’s hand as Charlie drove out of sight. All I could think about was having him home. My heart had never been so full.
Knowing it was his last haul made waiting for him easier. I found myself getting into the Christmas spirit. While Jack was in school, Annie and I baked cookies, singing the same carols I’d once sung with my mom. She’d been gone for a very long time now, but tears still clouded my eyes when we sang “Joy To The World” that day.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” Annie asked.
“I was just thinking about your grandmother,” I said, trying to laugh away my tears. “I was thinking how much she would’ve loved to be here with us, decorating these Santas.”
Annie scrunched her nose and put a squiggle of red icing on one of the sugar cookies. “This one is for her,” she said. Then she looked up at me and smiled.
For a moment, one brief moment, I would have given anything I owned to keep that look of joy from ever leaving her face. She was still smiling a week later when I took her and Jack to Santa’s Village.
While Annie was an unusually happy child, Jack was not. As we stood in line waiting to see Santa, he fidgeted impatiently. When we reached the front of the line he tugged on my hand and said, “Daddy should be here with us, Mommy.”
All I could do was sigh and promise him that next year would be different. “Next year, Daddy will be standing in line with us,” I said.
Later that evening we trimmed the tree. I stood on a chair but still had to struggle to reach the top of the tree. That’s when I made another promise to Jack: “Next year, Daddy will hang the angel.”
When Jack and Annie had been tucked away for the night, I climbed the stairs to the attic. Charlie hadn’t played his trumpet in years. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to find it. But I rummaged through boxes and trunks until I finally found it in an old cedar chest. When I polished that old trumpet, it almost looked brand-new. I didn’t care what Charlie played. It didn’t matter to me if I had to guess for the rest of my life. I just couldn’t wait for him to start tooting that horn.
Tying a big red ribbon around the trumpet, I placed it under the tree. In the distance I could hear the faraway sound of carolers on the next block. To my disappointment, they never seemed to come down our little side street. So I sat there for a long time, listening to songs I couldn’t quite hear while wrapping presents.
I’d just finished wrapping the handmade afghan I’d made for Aunt Edie when the phone rang. I knew, even before I answered, that it was Charlie.
Static on the line broke up our conversation several times. I’m not sure of everything Charlie said, but I heard clearly the words, I love you. And I know that he said he might be late getting back. “I’m caught up in a Rocky Mountain storm,” he said. “The back roads are impassable. Most of the major arteries are treacherous, too. And I just don’t know when—”
“It doesn’t matter when,” I interrupted him. “Just stay where you are, Charlie. Don’t be driving on icy back roads with that big rig. You don’t have to worry about bruised bananas or rotting tomatoes. You’re bringing back auto parts, Charlie, so you’ll get here when you get here. Do you hear me?”
The signal was so weak that I wasn’t sure if he heard me or not. I couldn’t make out much of what he said after that, but I’m sure of one thing. I know he said, “I love you” before he faded out. And as I hung up the phone, I whispered, “I love you too.”
I should have known that he wouldn’t listen. I should have known that nothing, not even a raging blizzard, could keep a man like Charlie Jett from trucking home for Christmas.
He managed to get through that Rocky Mountain snowstorm . . . but Charlie never made it home. He drove straight into the ice storm that was sweeping down from the Upper Great Lakes. Just before dawn on Christmas Eve, less than a hundred miles from our front door, his truck went through a guardrail when he braked to avoid the multi-car pileup just ahead of him.
They say it’s a miracle that anyone survived that crash. Charlie was lucky—at least that’s what they told me. Trapped inside the cab of his burning truck, Charlie had sustained third-degree burns over sixty-five percent of his body. In addition, he had suffered internal injuries caused by a massive blow to his chest.
But he was still alive when I reached the intensive care burn unit. Charlie’s sister, Brenda, had stayed behind with Annie and Jack. But his parents were right there with me in the ICU waiting room.
Charlie’s mother kept repeating over and over again, “As long as he’s breathing, there’s hope.” I wanted so much to believe her.
His father said, “Charlie’s young and strong. He’ll pull through this, Sarah, you’ll see. He’s always been a fighter.”
At that point, I still had hope. Every few hours one of the doctors came out to give us an update on Charlie’s status. The head of the burn unit came over to talk to us. He was distinguished-looking, graying around the temples, and I didn’t notice at first that he avoided meeting my eyes when he spoke.
“Is he going to make it?” I asked.
Before he could answer, Charlie’s mother said, “Of course he’s going to make it, Sarah.”
“Is he going to make it?” I asked the doctor again.
He shifted uneasily. “This is one of the best burn treatment centers in the country. If we can get him through the next forty-eight hours, and if we can keep him free of infection, well . . . then we’ll be in a better position to tell.”
Because of the risk of infection we were not allowed inside his room. But finally, after twenty-four hours, we were able to view him through a glass window on Christmas Day. There were monitors and tubes everywhere. Charlie was swathed in gauze bandages from head to toe. But, as his mother kept pointing out, he was still breathing. Whether she was trying to convince me, or trying to convince herself, I’m not sure. It may have been a little bit of both.
Charlie made it through the next forty-eight hours. In the days that followed we took turns standing vigil outside his room. And then, one day, as I stood outside the window looking in, one of the younger doctors came out of the room and said, “Would you like to come in for a minute?”
I washed and scrubbed and put on a sterile gown and cap and mask. I wasn’t allowed to touch him, though. The risk of infection was still too great. But I was able to look into his eyes, and Charlie looked back at me. He tried to speak, but there was no sound. I knew what he was saying, though. He mouthed a single word: promise.
I nodded my head as I started to cry. “I love you,” I whispered. He didn’t try to speak again. He blinked his eyes one time.
“Will you wait for me?” I asked through my tears. He blinked his eyes again. And then he closed them as he drifted off.
I turned to go and caught the young doctor’s eye. He was standing just outside the room looking through the viewing window. “Are you all right?” he asked as I came out of the room.
I nodded through my tears as I remembered the words Charlie had spoken so many years ago. There are some things worse than dying. “Please help him,” I whispered. “He wants to go now.”
He didn’t look away from me, and he didn’t tell me that time would tell, or that tomorrow would be a better day. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Believe me, Mrs. Jett, I would if I could. But my hands are tied.”
He smiled sadly. However, my hands were not tied; I knew what I had to do. I had to keep my promise. Filled with purpose, I was suddenly very calm.
When Charlie’s mother came back to the hospital, I left. I should have gone home to Annie and Jack. Charlie’s sister had been with them day and night since the accident. She was sure to need a rest. But I didn’t stop to consider Brenda then. The only thing I could think about was Charlie.
Instead of heading home, I drove to a neighboring state, where I was sure there would be no wait. It was only four o’clock, but already it was getting dark. I saw the flashing neon sign as soon as I crossed the state line: b & b pawn.
The wind whipped at the hem of my skirt and followed me into the shop. I was the only customer there. “I would like to buy a gun,” I said.
The proprietor, a heavily tattooed man with long hair and yellow teeth, unlocked the glass gun case under the counter. I willed myself to look at them. The proprietor took out a small handgun.
“See how this feels,” he said as he put it in my hand.
It had no weight at all. I couldn’t take the chance of shooting Charlie and not killing him. “I think I might need something bigger,” I said.
He hesitated. “That .22 pistol is a good woman’s gun,” he said. “Great little piece for scaring off burglars.”
I put the gun down on the counter. “I need something bigger.”
He shrugged and took out another gun, a bigger one, and put it in my hand. “This is a .38 Special,” he said. “It’s a real man’s gun. It might be too powerful for you to handle, though.”
It was very heavy. My hand shook as I tried to hold it steady. I was only going to get one chance. There would be no time for a second shot.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
He looked at me curiously, then shrugged and handed me a form. “You’re the doctor,” he said.
I shuddered to think how eerily true that was. For an instant, one brief instant, I almost turned on my heels and ran. But something kept me firmly rooted. It was the look in Charlie’s eyes.
“Your information has to be called into the national crime computer,” he said as he looked at the clock overhead. “You need this tonight?”
I nodded. Everything in my mind was clear at that moment. I knew what I had to do, but I wasn’t sure what would happen or how strong my resolve would be if I had to go home and sleep on it. There was a chance that I might never come back. I didn’t want to take that chance.
“I’ll see if I can rush it through,” he said.
I guess he must have done just that. An hour later, as I was heading out into the bitter cold, he called out to me, “Haven’t you forgotten something, ma’am?”
Halfway out the door, I suddenly stopped in my tracks and turned back. “It won’t shoot without these,” he said as he held up a full box of bullets.
I parked in the underground garage and loaded the gun before I ever got out of the car. Then, with the gun concealed in my shoulder bag, I took the elevator up to the ICU burn unit. I stood outside the window with Charlie’s mother but the curtain had been drawn so we couldn’t see in. His bandages were being changed.
“He seems better today,” she said. “Don’t you think so?”
I tried to answer, but the words caught in my throat. I shook my head as Charlie moaned. He was in excruciating pain. All I could think about at that moment, as the gun weighted down my heart, was ending his pain and releasing his spirit. We stood outside Charlie’s room listening to his agony. Before his mother left, I stood with her for a moment in silent prayer.
She was praying for a miracle. I was sure of that. But I had stopped praying for miracles a long time ago. Instead, I prayed that it would be over quickly. And I prayed for a steady hand.
I also prayed that Charlie’s mother, the woman standing beside me in prayer, would understand that her son did not want to stay. But even as I prayed for her understanding, I knew that she would never be able to comprehend what I was going to do or why I had to do it.
Dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, she kissed me on the cheek. “Don’t stop praying, Sarah,” she said. “As long as he is alive, there is hope.”
I looked into her eyes for a long moment, but there was nothing I could think to say that would ever make her understand my promise. She really believed what she was saying. In her mind, as long as Charlie was breathing, he was alive. I knew, though, that he did not want to live like this. And I knew that I had to release him from his pain.
Inside my purse, the gun was growing heavier. As I watched her walk down the hall and out of sight, for a moment I almost faltered. I wanted to run after her, give her the gun, and ask her to please forgive me for even thinking about pulling the trigger.
But then I heard Charlie cry out again. It was a bloodcurdling scream. Suddenly every doubt I had was washed away with the tide of resolve. Charlie wanted to go. Every bone in my body told me that he was ready to go now. My love was being put to the ultimate test. It was time now for me to prove my love. I had to keep my promise. I had to help him die.
When Charlie’s mother left the curtain was still drawn. His bandages were still being changed. I stood outside the room listening to his agony. And then one of the nurses came out and said, “We’re finished now, you can go in, but just for a minute.”
I scrubbed and put on the sterile gown and mask. The young doctor was just coming out as I was going in. There was an empty hypodermic syringe in his hand. His eyes met mine. There was a long silence. Charlie was no longer moaning. “He should be sleeping soon.”
I walked in and stood beside his bed. The curtain was still drawn. We were alone. But I was not allowed to touch him. “I love you,” I whispered. He blinked his eyes.
With tears streaming down my face, I opened my purse, took out the gun, and pointed it at him. My hand began to shake as I took aim between his eyes. I wanted him to go quickly. “You promised to be there waiting for me,” I said as I cocked the trigger and waited for Charlie to blink one last time.
But Charlie didn’t blink. His eyes were wide open. And I knew at that moment that the pain was over. Charlie was a free bird now. His spirit had already left his body.
All of the monitors began to go off at the same time then. Quickly, I slipped the gun back into my purse. The young doctor with the sad smile was the first one on the scene. Once again, his eyes met mine.
And then, as other doctors and nurses converged upon Charlie, trying to bring him back, the young doctor suddenly disappeared. I was certain that he had seen the gun. And I was just as certain that he was going to call for security.
“You have to leave now, Mrs. Jett,” said one of the nurses. “You can’t be in here.”
She ushered me out of the room. How long I stood on the other side of the glass partition, I’m not sure. I remember that I prayed. I didn’t pray that they might revive him. I prayed that his spirit would be strong enough to resist their efforts. Between the prayers and the tears, I listened.
Suddenly the young doctor was beside me again. He was alone, but I was sure that security would soon be coming. It didn’t matter, though. Charlie’s spirit was free. If only they would please, please stop trying to bring him back. . . .
“Tell them to stop,” I whispered through my tears. “Please tell them to stop.”
“There’s nothing they can do,” he said. “Your husband was already gone.”
This time his smile was only half sad. The real sadness was in his eyes. He was around death everyday. He should have been used to it by now. But I could see in his eyes the unspoken words. Some things are worse than dying. I knew it and he knew it, too.
I closed my eyes and whispered, “Thank you.” But I don’t think the young doctor heard me. When I opened my eyes, he was gone.
Moments later, one of the other doctors, older and more distinguished, came out of the room and told me what I already knew. Charlie was dead.
We buried him on New Year’s Eve. It was gray day—cold and dark and dreary. Jack stood like a stone statue beside me, not moving an inch, fighting back his tears. On my other side was Annie. There was no joy on her little face that day. Clinging to me, she cried openly and without shame as Charlie’s ashes were lowered into the cold, dark earth. I cried too, not out loud, but in my head and in my heart.
Charlie had been a part of me. I didn’t know how I would ever be able to get to the end of my life without him. But I knew that there were two very good reasons why I had to try. I had to be strong, not just for myself, but for Jack and Annie, too.
After the funeral I went home to face the New Year—and the rest of my life—without Charlie. He had been a good provider. Mortgage insurance paid off the house. Double indemnity life insurance left me without any financial worries for the first time in my life. But having money in the bank didn’t keep me from grieving for my love.
I knew that on another plane, just like the spirits of my mother and father, Charlie’s spirit still existed. But my heart was lonely, very lonely, and there were times that next year when I wondered if the pain was ever going to end.
It was almost a year before I could bring myself to visit Charlie’s grave. The sun was not shining at all as I drove toward the cemetery. All of the trees were bare. “It’s over there, Mommy,” said Jack as we trudged over the frozen ground to the place where Charlie was buried.
Annie placed the Christmas wreath on the marker that read, charles anthony jett, beloved husband and father, rest in peace.
I stood in silence while my heart whispered, I miss you so much I could die. If he whispered back I didn’t hear him. Suddenly, though, fallen leaves on the ground began to stir. As I walked away from the graveyard, a gentle breeze passed through me.
Later that night, as we trimmed the tree, I stood on a chair to place the angel. And that’s when I heard the faraway and distant sounds. I closed my eyes. For an instant, one brief instant, I became part of another time and place.
“Mommy, put the angel up.” Annie tugged at my skirt and jolted me back to reality.
“The singers are coming!” Jack rushed excitedly to the window. I thought I heard the neighborhood carolers now, too. It sounded like they actually might be coming up our little street.
But as the sound drew nearer, I heard the drum, and then the cymbals. I knew that it wasn’t the carolers at all. I don’t know how I heard the trumpet over all of the other horns. But the minute I heard it, brassy and sassy, it hit me—just like Charlie said it would. I didn’t even have to stop to wonder. I would have known that melody anywhere: “When the Saints Come Marching In.” And there was not a single note misplayed.
“Put up the angel,” Annie said again.
I reached up to the top of the tree and smiled as I hung the shiny satin angel with the gossamer wings.
I don’t know what the angels in Heaven were doing that night. They were probably covering their ears. But I know the saints were kicking up their heels. As the drums grew distant, and the brass winds faded away, the carolers suddenly appeared, singing “Joy To The World.”
If I know Charlie, he is probably bouncing around on one of those fat old cumulous clouds right this minute, practicing his celestial trumpet. He’s waiting for me. I know that when I draw my dying breath I won’t be alone. Charlie will be there, just as he promised, ready to take my hand.