She was young and quietly attractive in her soft, pink, polyester dress. She stood alone looking down into the casket at the old man. He was neatly dressed in the new shirt she had bought for him, and his familiar sport coat had been freshly cleaned and pressed for the occasion. His lanky frame and soft, wavy, silver hair presented an image of reserved dignity. Mourners came and went in quiet reverence; but she lingered around the fringes of the gathering, returning now and then to look again upon his lifeless face.
She had only known him five years—five memorable, difficult years intermingled with happy days of young love and marital bliss. When she married his youngest son, she did not know she would be tried and tested then strengthened and molded by this aged man, feeble and spent, his years used up. How could she have known he would gently and unwittingly teach her priceless life lessons?
“Better lay claim to that little strawberry roan,” he had said to her on a hot, sultry, summer day. “When I’m gone, he’s yours.”
The southern sun was bearing down, and he was sitting on the old front porch of the home place. She slipped down out of the saddle. Buddy nuzzled her hand as she reached for the bridle. The little horse would likely soon be hers; for his owner had cancer, and advanced age did not bode well for recovery.
She was a young bride in her twenties, and this unlikely bequest blew her mind! After all, she was new in the family, and Buddy was the old man’s most prized possession.
He likes me! she thought, pleased by the realization.
The old man was old enough to be her husband’s grandfather, having sired his two sons in his fifties. Everyone assumed that death would surely take him first, ahead of his much younger wife, the mother of his boys. With cancer now ravaging his body, this assumption seemed a near certainty.
With no warning, the young woman learned Life Lesson #1: Never call anything a certainty.
In a quick moment, not many days after Buddy was verbally willed to her, the unthinkable happened. This weakened yet self-willed patriarch was behind the wheel of their little yellow 1970-model automobile when it rolled backwards, knocking his wife to the pavement, breaking her hip. The broken hip resulted in a blood clot—which resulted in a stroke—which resulted in paralysis—which eventually resulted in her death.
Life Lesson #2 quickly followed: Intrusion is not necessarily a bad thing.
The young couple moved from their newlywed home back to the old home place. For months, they cared for the invalid mother and the aging father until finally, mercifully, the mother passed away.
The family was bowed down in sorrow, but the old man predictably shed no tears. In the dark midnight hour, the young woman stared at the bedroom ceiling thinking she, alone, was still awake; then she heard low, mournful groans coming from the old man’s room. An indelible image of sorrow was forever etched on her heart.
She wept. She wept for herself, for her husband’s profound sorrow, and for the empty place left in the home. But mostly she wept for the old man, bearing his pain alone.
Soon thereafter, the young couple returned to their first home—a used, single-wide mobile home decorated with gauzy, red curtains and a hodgepodge of second-hand furniture. The old man came to live out his remaining days with them; and for the next four years, his presence—an intrusion of sorts—gave the young woman invaluable insight into his life.
He was born in 1896—nearly a century removed from the modern-day conveniences of the seventies. She could hardly imagine the world as he had seen it, a world that changed rapidly, decade to decade. Those changes were mind-boggling, going from plowing fields with a team of mules to tilling the soil in thirty-foot swipes with massive automated equipment. Automobiles (like the one that struck the death-blow to his wife) were non-existent, a world away from horse-drawn wagons and carriages he had used as a child. Jet airplanes that daily streaked across the skies were mere fantasies when he was a boy.
Still, the changes had come, swiftly and surely, and he had changed with the times, letting go of the old and embracing the new. Through it all, he remained strong and tough like the scrubby cedar that grew along the overgrown fence rows of his little piece of land.
The months inched along and became years. The young woman worked and watched and listened but not always with enjoyment. At times she was impatient with his feeble hands and repeated stories; and sometimes her tears fell out of desperation and desire to be alone with her husband. Still, caring for the old man was a bittersweet privilege, proof that he had instilled responsibility and goodness in his son, the man she loved.
Gradually, with the passing of time, she learned Life Lesson #3: Strength and courage are conscious decisions.
Conversation by conversation, story by story, the old man told of his eighty-plus years. He told of good times and happy times. He told of sad times and hard, grueling times that would have broken a weaker man. He told them factually and straightforward, as a part of who he was.
“I remember my daddy dying,” he said one day, lying back in his tattered recliner. “I couldn’t have been much more than four or five. I remember him calling me and my brother to his bedside and telling us, ‘Now, you be good boys and mind your mama.’”
Her heart broke as he related this story. His face remained stoic and unmoved.
“I put my first corn crop out by myself when I was ten,” he stated matter-of-factly. He laughed and continued, “I remember sitting down in the field and crying when I got the plow hung under a root and couldn’t get it out.”
She was without words, painfully aware of the easy, carefree childhood she had enjoyed.
He told of his mother’s early death. “Cancer, I guess…just like me,” he said with no emotion. “She had a lump come up on her side that never went away.”
He later told about his first wife, about her dying in childbirth and how he helplessly watched as the unborn child writhed within her as life ebbed away.
Still…not a tear.
Then came the day his allotted time was used up. Cancer won the battle. As the young woman stood over the old man’s casket and bade him goodbye, she recalled their time together and their many conversations. She thought about his staunch ability to conceal emotions, remembering the night he grieved alone in his bedroom. Now she understood. His grieving had been for more, far more, than the death of his wife. It embodied sorrows he had borne throughout life. He was grieving for his long-departed father and mother; for having to become a man while he was still a boy; for his first-love and for their unborn child; and for all the other unnamed sorrows that had passed without tears. Survival had never allowed him the luxury of grieving.
His courage in facing life’s obstacles rose to the top of his admirable traits, and Life Lesson #4 came to her: All gifts are not tangible.
She looks in the mirror and smooths back her gray hair. The years have been a blur, filled with good days and hard times; yet she has met them all with determination, just like he did. She straightens the family photo on the wall and smiles at the grandchildren huddled around; then from an old eight-by-ten portrait, faded with age, she sees a dapper old gentleman smiling at her. She sighs, for she is only ten years younger than he was when they first met; yet his memory is so clear, and he lives on, ever smiling in the shadows.
Buddy, the little strawberry roan, was long ago put out to pasture in the meadow of her memory. Still, when she recalls that summer day he was bequeathed to her, she knows with certainty that the little horse was not the only gift she received from this dear, old friend. Strength and perseverance were also bequeathed to her, though they were never named.