Nancy Lane, a member of Willamette Writers, lives with her husband and their dog in Beaverton, Oregon USA. Nancy graduated from UCLA and worked many years in the aerospace industry, until retiring. Her short stories have appeared in Indiana Voice Journal, Bewildering Stories and Fiction on the Web. Her essays have appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and the AARP Bulletin. Nancy is currently working on an anthology collection of short stories with positive themes.
Seventy-seven-year-old Kathleen lay in her hospital bed as the young reporter, who wrote for a mid-week throw away newspaper filled with grocery ads, sat beside her. In the run-up to Veterans Day, his editor asked him to find a story about a war veteran but gave him minimal column space, only enough for a picture, name and that the veteran had served in a field hospital in Vietnam.
“Please include my maiden name. It’s Pierce. Anyone who knew me long ago won’t recognize me as Kathleen Howard.”
“Sure,” the reporter said, “Kathleen Pierce Howard – got it.”
“I’m feeling stronger since the surgery,” Kathleen said. “I’ll be out of the hospital before Veterans Day.”
Kathleen was wrong. The cancer had spread, and her hospital stay became hospice care. The former army nurse had only a few more days to live.
On Wednesday the newspaper landed on lawns and driveways throughout California’s San Fernando Valley, including the driveway of Encino resident Frank Randall, who shared his home with daughter Joan and her three girls. Frank’s youngest granddaughter, Abby, placed the newspaper on the kitchen table before leaving for school.
After the other house occupants left for work and school, Frank settled at the table with a second cup of coffee and unfolded the newspaper. He browsed the ads until flipping to the back page. There he found, below the fold, a picture of the woman he had secretly loved for almost fifty years.
Frank phoned the hospital. The nurse who answered wouldn't connect his call to Kathleen's room but took his number so a relative could return his call. Later Frank spoke with Kathleen’s daughter and planned to go to the hospital that evening.
“Mom, Grandpa actually stole my nail polish,” Kim wailed as soon as Joan arrived home from work. Kim had checked her vanity drawer to make sure Grandpa hadn’t also stolen her lipstick.
“Kim’s actually right, Mom,” Michelle chimed in. “I saw Grandpa go to Kim’s vanity and pick up her bottle of pink nail polish. He actually took it down the hall to his room.”
Thirteen-year-old Kim and fourteen-year-old Michelle grated on Frank. They had mastered the Valleyspeak dialect of native San Fernando Valley girls and used actually in every other sentence. Both girls obsessed over their beautifying possessions: hoop earrings, platform sandals, skinny jeans and tees knotted in back to make them tight-fitting in front. Frank imagined it would be many years before they would discover where real beauty comes from.
By contrast, ten-year-old Abby inspired Frank's grins and laughter. Each morning Abby helped Frank lift his prosthetic leg from a box beside the nightstand, and each night she helped him put the leg back in the box. She had named the leg and labeled the box, George Washington.
Joan asked Abby about the nail polish.
“Yes, Grandpa borrowed it. If he had asked Kim, she would've given him a lot of lip. So he just took it.”
“Why? What's it for?”
“It's a secret, Mom.”
“Do you know?”
“Yes, but I promised not to tell anyone.”
While readying dinner, Joan glanced out the kitchen window to the backyard, where Abby and Frank selected from piles of autumn leaves strewn by wind, choosing certain leaves, not the red or yellow ones, but brown ones, interlopers from the neighbor’s sycamore tree. Together, bent over side-by-side, grandfather and granddaughter tested the brown leaves. Joan wondered why they deposited some into Abby’s basket and threw others back among the not chosen.
Joan witnessed the love they shared and ached her other daughters hadn't also tapped into the man's heart. She ached even more at her own failure to do so. Somehow, Abby had pulled emotion out of her grandfather, while Joan managed only a cordial father-daughter dynamic.
After dinner, Abby disappeared down the basement steps and after a few minutes emerged with a plain, golden cookie tin. “Honey,” Joan said, “we have more decorative tins if you’d like.”
“No, Mom, they have Christmas figures or writing on them. I need a plain one. This is perfect.”
Abby took the tin into Frank’s room and closed the door. An hour later, Abby emerged with the bottle of nail polish, which she returned to Kim’s vanity, and Frank emerged carrying the golden tin like a football destined for an end zone run. He pulled his jacket off the hook by the door leading to the garage and left.
“Where’s Grandpa going?”
“To the hospital,” Abby said.
“Why? Is he sick?”
“No, Mom,” Abby said. She wondered how much she should say so her mother wouldn’t worry. “He’s going to see a friend.”
“Do you know what time he’ll be back?”
“He may be gone all night,” Abby said. “His friend is near death.”
Frank took a seat in the waiting area beside the nurses' station and placed the tin on the chair beside him. He stared at the clock on the wall behind the nurses' station - nine ten. He thought back to a clock on a wall in a field hospital in Vietnam, 1968. That bewildering clock had taunted him in his make-shift hospital bed. He had turned away and guessed a half hour had passed, but when he turned back, the clock had advanced only two minutes. He wanted the hands to speed, to deliver an end to his ordeal. He wanted the clock hands themselves to amputate his shattered leg.
That night in 1968, Kathleen had held his hand and told him the medic would return shortly after dawn. Another minute passed. She dabbed his sweaty forehead and asked him about his family, home, pets and girlfriend. The nineteen-year-old had stuttered his answers: younger brother, hard-working dad and homemaker mother; cookie-cutter style home in Torrance, California; dog named Frito; no girlfriend. The obstinate clock by then had given up only one more minute.
This night, the door to Kathleen's hospital room opened and a man and woman emerged. Kathleen's daughter, Meredith, introduced herself and her husband to Frank.
“Please go in,” she said. She dabbed her wet eyes with a tissue, and her husband put his arm around her shoulder. “I mentioned on the phone she's fearful. Who wouldn't be, I guess? She knows she has little time. Her pastor is on his way, and my brother is flying in from Chicago.”
Frank stepped into the room and placed the tin on the tray table at the end of the bed. He moved to the bedside and gazed at the woman in the bed, eyes shut, wispy strands of gray hair weakly defining a receding hairline. A single wire, connected somewhere beneath a sheet, led to a monitor. He looked up to see if he could discern anything about her condition from the constantly changing display of lines and numbers.
He looked back as the woman opened her eyes, Kathleen’s deep, emerald eyes. Frank thought of something his father told him two decades earlier. “Son,” his father had said, “you’ll reach that age, as I have now, when you can see beauty in women of all ages.” Frank saw beauty in seventy-seven-year-old Kathleen.
She mouthed, “Frank.”
He bent forward and stroked her cheek. Her smile washed away forty-eight years. She was again twenty-nine and he, nineteen and in love with the angel comforting him, his love made more poignant, not because of the age difference, but because she was engaged to marry a Midwest doctor. He would never have her.
Frank reached for the tin on the tray table and brought it near for her to see.
“Kathleen,” he said, “the night before the medic amputated my leg, I feared dying and feared even more living as a disabled man. You eased my fear. You were calm, even as bombs blasted throughout the night and robbed us of peace. I asked you if you had ever been afraid. Do you remember what you told me?”
“Frank,” she whispered, “yes, I remember. I told you about the sycamore leaves.”
Frank opened the tin and removed several leaves for Kathleen to see, putting them on the sheet by her right hand.
Kathleen stared at them and wept and then smiled. “Thank you, dear Frank,” she said. “These sycamore leaves, you made them funny instead of scary. How clever and kind. I knew on that night in Vietnam you had the soul of an angel.”
“Oh, Kathleen, you were my angel that night.”
“Frank, you are my angel tonight.”
Frank lifted her hand into his and then put his other hand on top to warm her coldness. “Kathleen, I wrote you so many letters after you moved to Chicago with your husband. I hoped you would divorce him. I finally gave up and got married, but I always loved you.”
Kathleen’s hand remained cold. The monitor flashed red lights. A nurse burst into the room, along with Meredith and two men Frank assumed to be the brother and the pastor.
Frank bent and kissed Kathleen’s forehead. She squeezed his hand and whispered, “I always loved you, too.”
Joan had heard the garage door open and close after two AM on Thursday. Frank still slept as she and the girls left for the day around eight. When Joan arrived home, the still house seemed a compromised comfort, solitude at last but no one to talk to. After school, the girls had gone to Orange County with her ex-husband for the Veterans Day weekend at his house. Frank’s scribbled note on the kitchen table told her not to wait up. He had accepted a dinner invitation with old buddies in Long Beach.
Joan peeked through the door peephole when the doorbell rang. She didn’t recognize the man outside but recognized the golden tin he held and opened the door. After introductions, Joan and Pastor Louis sat down in the living room.
“Your father probably told you about Kathleen Howard. I left him a voicemail shortly after she passed. Kathleen will be buried in Chicago, next to her husband. Her daughter asked me to return this tin.”
“I didn’t know about Kathleen,” Joan said. “I had no idea my father’s friend lived close.”
“Kathleen moved from Chicago when her husband died two years ago,” Pastor Louis said. “She wanted to live near her daughter. After Frank left the hospital, Kathleen told me she wasn’t afraid anymore because of the sycamore leaves, but she grew too weak to explain. Do you know their significance?”
Joan didn’t know. After the pastor left, she placed the tin on the kitchen table. She opened it and picked up a leaf, brown with a pink smiley face drawn across it, and beneath it, more smiley face leaves piled loosely. She put the leaves back in the tin and replaced the cover.
In the morning, Joan noticed the tin’s absence from the table. Frank poured Joan a cup of coffee and slid an omelet onto her plate.
“Who brought over the tin?” Frank said.
“Pastor Louis stopped by last night. He wanted to speak with you.”
“It’s probably too early to call him now,” Frank said. “I’m taking a shuttle to the airport. I’ll call him later. Kathleen’s funeral will be Sunday morning in Chicago.”
The doorbell rang.
“I’ll be back Sunday night.” He gulped his coffee and left with the shuttle driver.
After the long weekend with their father, the girls returned home Sunday afternoon.
“Grandpa said the funeral had a lot of people,” Abby said.
“You talked with him?”
“Yes, Mom, I called Grandpa while Daddy drove us home. I wrote down when his plane will come in tonight. I told him you and I will pick him up at the airport. That’s okay with you, isn’t it? I want to ask him all about his trip while you drive.”
“Yes,” Joan said. “I’ll be glad to pick him up. Abby, can you explain to me about the sycamore leaves?”
“Sure, what do you want to know?”
“Well, Kathleen’s pastor said the leaves made her feel unafraid. Do you know why?”
“Yeah, Grandpa and I picked out special leaves. They had to be sycamore and had to have lobes that were a little bit curved. You know, when leaves dry out they kind of curl, like claws. But we couldn’t use really dry ones because they might crumble when we drew smiley faces on them with Kim’s nail polish. They had to be brown so the pink would show up. We made sure they were just right.”
“But, Abby, what do they mean?”
“Oh, it’s about long ago, the night before Grandpa got his leg cut off. Nurse Kathy, that was Kathleen then, she stayed right next to Grandpa and made sure he didn’t worry about the surgery in the morning. He told me he was really upset, being only nineteen and far from home.
To calm him, Kathy told him how frightened she had been at nursing school. The campus had beautiful trees, lots of sycamores. She got out of class after dark because it was autumn and night came early. Several girl students had been attacked by a guy with a knife, but the cops didn’t catch him.” Abby stopped to check her mother’s reaction.
“That’s unsettling all right,” Joan said. “Go on, Abby.”
“Kathy had to walk alone to her dormitory. She saw scary shadows, and the wind pushed leaves along the cement. She looked back because she thought she heard somebody following her, but it was only the dried sycamore leaves scraping along the walkway. The sycamore leaves kept scaring her each time a breeze picked up. She had to turn around and look in case it really was the attacker.
Grandpa told me the night before he lost his leg forever, Kathy made him feel unafraid. He wanted to make her feel unafraid the night before she died. That’s why we put smiley faces on the sycamore leaves.”
Joan hugged Abby. “You and Grandpa helped Kathleen. I’m proud of you. You have a big heart.”
“It was Grandpa’s idea,” Abby said. “I just helped.”
“Grandpa has a big heart, too,” Joan said.
“Yes, Grandpa has a heart full of love. He told me he loves you and me and Michelle and Kim, and he loved Grandma, too, even after they got divorced.”
“How did that conversation come up? Why did he say that?”
“Because I asked him,” Abby said.
“Abby, how come Grandpa opens up so much to you? He never tells me anything about his feelings.”
“Mom, you just have to ask him. That’s all it takes. He’ll tell you anything you ask him.”
Joan thought about Abby’s words through dinner. She looked at the clock, seven thirty.
“What time should we leave for the airport?” Abby said.
“Traffic will be heavy because of people coming back from the holiday. I’m going to leave right now so there’s plenty of time. Abby, I’m going by myself.”
“Mom, I want to go with you.”
“No, Abby, I need to talk to Grandpa one-on-one tonight. Besides, you have to get up early for school tomorrow. You’ll be in bed before Grandpa and I get home.”
“I have to stay up to help Grandpa put George Washington into the box.”
“Sweetie,” Joan said, “I’ll help Grandpa tonight.”
“Mom, you don’t know how.”
“I’ll ask Grandpa how to do it,” Joan said.
Joan pulled into the LAX cell phone waiting lot forty minutes before Frank’s scheduled arrival. She watched the flickering lights of arriving planes while she thought of all the things she wanted to ask. But more than anything, she wanted to tell her father how much she loved him.