The Long Walk Home

Image by MARIE SCHNEIDER from Pixabay 

The morning air was crisp as expected in a high desert in late fall. Chelle kept a water bottle strapped to the belt on her side and a second in her hand. Goose bumps raised the hairs along her aging arms, even as the morning sun warmed her tired shoulders. Deceptive. The high desert was a great deceiver known to catch the ignorant unawares. Even with her waning senses, Chelle could already smell the pungent sagebrush as the coolness of morning dissipated before the rising sun. The afternoon would be a warm one for this time of year. But even the scorching heat would melt away at dusk. Chelle always kept a jacket for nightfall no matter how hot the day.

“Go back,” Chelle had stubbornly insisted as her son drove her home from church last night.

“Absolutely not,” James said, even as he made a U-turn at the next light. Though he continued to give arguments as to reasons why he should not, James knew if he didn’t do as his mother said, he would never hear the end of it for the next month. Or the next year.

Chelle’s dimming eyes may not see well enough in the dark to drive herself home, yet she had no trouble spotting the young woman shivering at the bus stop just past the church. “We’ll give her a ride home. She won’t be alarmed with me in the car.”

James pressed his lips together, deciding to keep his dissenting statements in his head this time.

True to her assertive nature, Chelle managed to coax the woman into the car. She knew that chiding her for not carrying a jacket wouldn’t be well received. The young must learn their own way.

“This is Tammy.” Chelle smiled as she nodded toward the back seat once she settled back in the car.

“Hi,” James said, embarrassment written across his face.

“Hello.” Tammie nervously played with her hands.

Chelle was too old to be embarrassed and much too old to waste time worrying what others thought of her. She had only a little time to impart wisdom to the next generation, and they had no time nor care to listen. They saw her as stubborn, mind wandering. Chelle knew better than they how she struggled to recall quickly the thoughts she had once formulated so well. It was easier for Chelle to put thoughts on paper, alone, when she could take her time. Focus. With others, she reverted to comfortable conversations of her earlier days, so well implanted in her mind that she could not forget. So Tammy got a history of this little town whether she wanted it or not. Then as she opened the door after the car pulled up to her house, Chelle handed her a tract and invited her to church next Sunday.

James shook his head as they drove off as if to say, “She’ll not come.” Chelle pretended not to notice.

Chelle frowned as she thought of James. She sat in the shade of a lone juniper to escape the autumn sun. She only had a little time before she had to begin the long walk home and prepare for lunch. So little time. How long the nights had seemed when James fussed through them as a colicky baby. How long the days when Chelle ran on little sleep and too much caffeine as James bounced off the furniture, yelling and waking his baby sister. Then how short the weeks grew as Chelle struggled to keep up with piling laundry, dirty dishes, James’s demands for help with his homework, Emma talking a mile-a-minute about a fight she had with her best friend, and Logan’s missing shoe. Why hadn’t she slowed down? Stopped. Listened. The work could wait, but growing children don’t. Before long they are gone. You didn’t listen to them, and now they aren’t listening to you. Chelle hoped it wasn’t too late.

Chelle pulled her notebook out of the small pack, still trying to catch her breath from the walk over. James wanted her to sell the house and move into town. He even went so far as to drive her around to a few homes and apartments he thought she should consider. But Chelle preferred the country.

“Anything could happen to you out here,” James argued during his visit Sunday afternoon. “It’d be thirty minutes before anyone could get to you. At least consider taking your cell on those walks of yours.”

“They aren’t just walks, son. They’re times of stillness and meditation. A time when my heart communes with God. A phone would be a distraction.” Chelle raised her hand as James tried to interrupt. “I know you’re only looking out for me, but I’d rather live my last days in peace and freedom than extend my life in a prison. Even someone my age needs a little adventure. I’ll bring my walking stick in case I have to fight off a coyote.” Chelle gave a mischievous wink.

James rolled his eyes. “The town isn’t a prison. If you would just consider—”

Chelle stood. “Making another pot of coffee? Of course.”       

A small victory, but one Chelle knew was only temporary. James would bring it up again, probably at lunch today. Chelle cracked open her timeworn notebook filled with her most intimate thoughts and prayers, favorite scriptures, and a few poems she had scrawled during days just like this. A lizard perched on the juniper trunk watching her. A raven cawed above her, and an invisible ground squirrel chirped from a sagebrush. Yes, the desert was deceptive. Many people only saw the cracked thirsty ground, the brown stubby grass, thorns, and heat waves shimmering in the distance. Where others saw death, Chelle soaked in the abundant life—if you were still enough, quiet enough, you would witness the thriving life from the tiny ants marching toward their promised land to a vulture soaring high above, from the outstretched arms of a Joshua tree to the tiny flower blooming in the juniper’s shadow. Chelle smiled at the little orange blossom. It didn’t worry that the afternoon sun would surely kill its glory, but rejoiced in the time it was given, however short. Time too was deceptive.

Chelle took her pen and wrote her thoughts in one of the last available pages. She stretched her left arm and flexed her fingers. A distant rumble caused Chelle to smile as a swift gust threatened to tear the pages from her hand. Chelle wasn’t afraid of the looming storm; the desert needed the rain. James would chide her of course, but the afternoon would not be so hot after all. Relief was on the way. Hopefully. Chelle had lived in the desert long enough to know that dark clouds were also deceptive, promising rain that never comes. Other times it dropped its life giving liquid in one small area while teasing the rest of the desert with wind bearing only the tantalizing smell of rain. Nothing was guaranteed in this life. Time least of all.

“For what is your life? It is even a vapour,” Chelle quoted softly to the lizard, who blinked and scurried away.

Chelle had heard a sermon once on this passage and it terrified her—the uncertainness of time. But not anymore. Her pen wavered in her hand, and she gave a short gasp. Pain filled her chest even as peace filled her heart. It was such a long walk home she thought, but she didn’t have to go alone. Chelle smiled and held out her hand.

The gravel crackled under the tires of James’s SUV as he pulled up to his mom’s house. He hoped she wasn’t annoyed with him about yesterday. Of course, she wouldn’t be. His mom was a lot of things—stubborn, independent—but never vindictive. She still prepared his favorites snacks when he came, making James relive his childhood. James knocked on the door as he entered. “Hello, Mom.”

Walking over to the fridge, James dropped a printout at the table on his way. He was sure he could get Mom to agree to the little house in town set in an acre surrounded by desert cypresses. You’d never know you were in town—could barely see your neighbors. James poured himself a glass of sun tea. Mom always had some ready for him. Much less acidic than boiled ice tea, James allowed the coolness to soothe his dry throat. If Mom gave him any argument, James would point out how church was just two streets over. Mom talked about joining the choir again, but her long drive would have kept her from being faithful. It’s the reason she had quit years ago.

James looked out the back window. He understood why Mom didn’t want to leave this place. He too hated the idea of his childhood home invaded by strangers or worse… abandoned to time and decay. It wouldn’t be easy to sell this place. Fortunately, it was paid off after his dad passed away, and Mom’s income would be enough for the new place. James would help of course—if she let him.

The back door creaked as James opened it. He let the screen crash behind him. It was unusual that Mom wasn’t back from her walk. Her life was so routine. James began to hike down the faint trail, but kept a sharp eye out for the place his mom would cut through the desert. He wished she’d stay to the path. James could hear his mom’s voice in his head when he’d suggested she not wander in the desert.

“Robert Frost may have taken the road less traveled, but I prefer to make my own.” Mom laughed at the look of dismay on James’s face.

James shook his head and smiled. They didn’t see eye-to-eye, but he had to love her spirit. It was her daring nature and positive encouragement that propelled James to achieve his dreams in life, even at the risk of failure.

“There’s no shame in failing, James. Only in not trying.”

A heavy breeze picked up and clouds obscured the sun. A drop fell, then two, then several more. James picked up his pace. Dried star thistle scratched James’s legs as he treaded his way across the arid landscape. If he’d known he’d be taking a hike, he wouldn’t have worn shorts. Fortunately, James had come along often enough to know which way Mom usually ventured… and her favorite juniper. A big raven cackled at the top of the tree. James thought the bird ugly, but Mom loved all the desert creatures.

“They all have a purpose under the sun,” Mom told him.

Thunder rumbled. James called out to his mom. Why does she do this? Any reasonable person would have headed back by now, but Mom adored the rain. Strange for someone who loved the desert so much. She sat with her back to the tree and eyes heavenward. The clouds parted momentarily and the sun streamed upon the juniper. The shade had shifted and a bright swath of sun lay across one of her legs. James thought it strange she hadn’t moved. He stopped.

“Mom,” he croaked. Then he ran forward only to stop again a few feet short.

His mom’s left hand rested across her notebook. Her right arm lay stretched out, palm up as though waiting for someone to hold her hand. A look of infinite peace rested on her face, the tiredness that often etched her wrinkles was vanished. James slowly reached down to close her eyes. Carefully, he picked up her beloved notebook. A raindrop fell on the page as the clouds once again hid the sun. Another drop fell—this time a tear, blurring the words. Mom had written the first several verses of Ecclesiastes chapter three. Across from that page was a poem. James wiped his eyes. Mom didn’t need him to walk her home today. She had taken her last walk home… and she hadn’t gone alone.

Brief is the flower upon the earth
Scorched by the heat of day
Once brilliant it fades away
By nightfall it rests in its grave
Its beauty returned to dirt.

Yet One has not forgot its hue
The thunder gives a mighty wail
Tears flow in the blustering gale
Until sunbeams give cheerful hail
To flowering life anew.

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