Harry sighed. He hadn’t really expected there would be.
“Your heart’s failing,” Dr. Snellgrove said. “You know that.” Then he frowned. “I see you’re using the cane instead of the walker.”
Harry hated that blasted walker. “It’s at the house.”
“Harry, it’s December.” The physician looked exasperated. “The last thing you need is a fracture.”
Harry dismissed Snellgrove’s concern.
“I’m well aware that I’m dying,” he said, leaning toward the other man. “What I’d like is your best guess of how much time I’ve got.”
“Why is it so important to know?” the doctor asked.
“Because of Rosalie,” Harry murmured. “She’s forgetful and gets confused now and then, and I don’t think she’ll do well living on her own.” Harry worried about his wife constantly. Even their children didn’t realize how bad Rosalie’s memory had gotten in the last few years.
Paul Snellgrove reached for Harry’s chart and glanced at the top page. “You’re still in your own home, right?”
Harry nodded. He and Rosalie had raised their two beautiful daughters in that house on Walnut Avenue. Lorraine and Donna now lived and worked in Seattle and had raised their families there. One or the other came home at least once a month, sometimes more often; his sons-in-law were frequent visitors, as well. Kenny, Lorraine’s husband, had strung all their Christmas lights last week and brought him and Rosalie a tree. Oh, yes, Harry knew how fortunate he was in his family, how blessed.
And his grandkids…The four grandkids were adults themselves now and making their own way in life. Being around his grandchildren did Harry’s heart more good than any of those pills he gulped down every morning.
“I want to move Rosalie into Liberty Orchard, that new assisted-living complex, before I die,” he explained. “It’s the best solution for her. For everyone.”
The physician nodded. “Anything stopping you?”
“You mean other than Rosalie?” Harry joked. “I just need to convince her. That might take some doing, so I have to know how much time you think I’ve got.”
The young physician calmly appraised him.
His daughters agreed their mother would need help sooner or later, but didn’t feel the urgency Harry did. They didn’t understand that he couldn’t leave this life comfortably unless he knew Rosalie would be properly looked after.
“Tell me straight up,” Harry insisted. “It shouldn’t be that difficult to tell an old man how much time he’s got left.” He let the challenge hang between them.
The physician rolled the stool back a couple of inches and made a gesture that was more revealing than anything he might have said. “Harry, I’m not God, so I don’t know for sure,” he murmured, “but I’ll be honest if that’s what you want.”
“I do,” he confirmed.
Dr. Snellgrove slowly exhaled. “The truth is, you could go at any time.”
The words rattled Harry. That wasn’t what he’d expected to hear. He’d assumed he had a couple of months, possibly until spring. Maybe he’d even last until summer. He took a minute to absorb the reality of his situation, then nodded and said, “Okay.”
As if he feared he might have said too much, the physician launched into a lengthy explanation of cardiac rhythms and stenosis and congestive heart failure.
Most of his words slid off Harry; instead, the thought of dying reverberated in his head. When would it happen? Would he have time to arrange for Rosalie’s care?
“Don’t overtax yourself. Use your walker,” Dr. Snellgrove was telling him.
“I will,” Harry promised.
“Rest as much as you can,” the doctor went on. “And, Mr. Alderwood—Harry—you’ll have to stop driving. It’s increasingly unsafe.”
Harry nodded; he’d already accepted that. More arrangements to make…
No problem there. Harry didn’t have the energy to do much more than take the simplest outing. Most days were spent in front of the television. He liked those court shows best, and the Weather Channel, too. The older he got, the more important the weather seemed to be.
In Leavenworth this time of year, it was mostly cold and snowy. The stores around town counted on that snow for their tourist business, especially this close to the holidays. The entire month of December was a Christmas extravaganza here. Every weekend, there was a parade featuring an old-fashioned Father Christmas, a chubby Santa and even the Grinch, followed by a tree-lighting ceremony.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” the doctor asked as Harry rose awkwardly to his feet.
“You got a new heart for me?” Harry managed a grin.
The other man’s face saddened. “Sorry.”
Harry thrust out his hand. He wanted to convey his thanks for everything the doctor had done and for his honesty. “Merry Christmas, Doc. And in case I don’t see you again, Happy New Year.”
Snellgrove shook his hand warmly. “All the best, Harry. To you and your wife.”
In the waiting area the nurse handed him his coat, which hung on a peg on the wall. He wrapped the scarf Rosalie had knit him twenty-five years ago around his neck. He still wore it every winter. Rosalie was no longer knitting, which was a shame; she’d been an accomplished knitter. Their kids and grandkids had been the recipients of sweaters and mittens and hats, all kinds of beautifully made things.
Time was…He paused and smiled as he placed his hat on his head. Time was…That phrase came to him more and more often these days. He waited a moment, then slipped his arms into the sleeves of his thick wool coat. It felt heavy on his shoulders, heavier than it had when he’d put it on earlier that morning.
He wished Nurse Ratched a courteous “Merry Christmas” and prepared to leave.
Leaning on his cane, he opened the door and steeled himself against the cold before he made the short trek to his car. Like the doctor, his daughters didn’t want him driving anymore or going out on his own. They were right. He’d talk to them about selling the car; maybe he’d call them tonight. In the meanwhile, he’d drive very, very carefully.
The skies were dark and overcast, and the cold cut right through him. He climbed into the driver’s seat, then started the engine. A blast of cold air hit him as he turned on the defroster. He shivered; it seemed he was always cold. According to the doctor, being cold indicated poor circulation. In other words, Harry’s heart was giving out, and this was just another symptom.
With his gloved hands on the steering wheel, he waited for the windshield to defrost.
He could die anytime.
With that, another realization hit him. He had to convince Rosalie to move as soon as possible. But his wife could be a stubborn woman, and Harry knew he was going to need help.
Bowing his head, he closed his eyes. Harry believed more fervently now than ever, although he hadn’t been as faithful about attending church and reading his Bible. But when he did go to Sunday services, he walked away with something he could use in his life—a sense of God’s benevolence and a desire to be right-minded and honorable. The Bible was filled with wisdom—and some darn good stories, too. Rosalie generally went to services. The church was only a few blocks away, and every Sunday morning, his wife was there. Their next-door neighbor drove her or one of the girls did, if either happened to be visiting.
Another thing Harry didn’t make a regular practice of was prayer. He regretted that because he believed God answered prayers. He didn’t want to bother the Almighty with his own paltry concerns. Seeing that God was dealing with the big stuff like global warming and the problems in the Middle East, it didn’t make sense to Harry that He’d have time to worry about one old man. An old man afraid of what would happen to his wife after he died…Only Harry didn’t know where else to turn.
The inside of the car became his church. With his head bowed and his eyes closed, he whispered, “Okay, Lord, my time’s getting short. I want you to know I accept that. I understand you’ve got much bigger problems on this earth than mine, and better things to do than listen to an old man like me. Nevertheless, I hope you won’t mind if I ask for your help.
“It’s about Rosalie, Lord. The house is too much for her all by herself. Without me there to look after her, I’m afraid she’ll burn the place down because she’ll forget to turn off a burner or start a flood because she forgot the bathwater was running. I know you love her even more than I do and that’s a comfort. Show me how to convince her to move into that fancy new complex. Let me warn you, though, Lord, my Rosalie can be stubborn. But then, I guess you’ve noticed that.
“Lord, when I’m gone, you’ll have to take care of her for me.” He paused and decided he was taking up too much of God’s time, so he added, “Amen.”
When he glanced up, the cloud cover had broken and sunshine burst upon the snow, making it shimmer with light. Harry watched it for a long moment, feeling good. The problem now rested in God’s hands.
Harry’s prayer rose upward, higher and higher through the snow-laden branches of the evergreens. His petition to God whisked its way past the thick white clouds, carried by the warm winds of his love to the very desk of the Archangel Gabriel. There it landed.
“Harry Alderwood,” Gabriel muttered, turning the pages of the massive book that detailed the prayers and lives of the faithful. “Ah, yes, Harry.” Gabriel remembered the older man. Harry didn’t pray often and seemed to believe he shouldn’t bother God with his petty concerns. Little did the old man know how much God liked to talk to His children, how He longed to listen to them.
Having the ear of God and sharing His love for humans, Gabriel felt tenderness for this man who was so close to making the journey from life into death. In many cases when death was imminent, the veil between Heaven and Earth was especially thin. Harry accepted that he was dying but he clung to life, fearful of leaving behind those he loved—especially his wife, Rosalie.
Harry’s days were few, even fewer than the old man realized, and that brought a certain urgency to his prayer. Unfortunately, Christmas was only eight days away, and Gabriel was swamped with requests.
Two prayers had now reached him, almost simultaneously, from the small Washington town of Leavenworth. The second was from Carter Jackson, a small boy who felt he could trust God more than Santa.
Carter’s prayer wouldn’t be any easier to answer than Harry Alderwood’s. Requests like this got even more complicated at Christmastime. Heaven was busy, busy, busy. There was work to be done, prayers to be answered, angels to be assigned.
Gabriel studied the list of available Prayer Ambassadors and saw that his three favorite angels were indeed free. Shirley, Goodness and Mercy were close to his heart, but there’d been problems with them in the past.
Lots of problems.
Mercy, for example, tended to become too engrossed with the things of Earth. Gabriel shook his head in a mixture of amusement and irritation. No matter how short-handed he was, he dared not let those three visit Earth again. Giving Mercy the opportunity to be around forklifts and escalators was asking for trouble.
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