Why Henry Came Home
It seemed as if the whole world should be watching Henry Smith push open the doors of the hospital and step into the Saturday morning sunshine. It wasn’t though, which suited Henry just fine. He had to get out of that place. That’s what he told his grandson the day before, after the nurse who had checked his vitals disappeared into the hallway outside of his hospital room.
“I’ve got to get out of this place,” he whispered and not because he was weak, he seemed stronger than he had in long while. He wasn’t though. He and his grandson knew it and so did the doctor who popped in to give the old man some news. Bad news he warned the listening ears of Henry and his grandson before rattling off some numbers and counts which didn’t mean much of anything to Henry. He listened like they did. Henry was raised that way, respectful, even when getting bad news.
“You’re free to go if you choose Mr. Smith,” the doctor finally said after it was Henry’s turn to talk, to ask questions. What else could the young doctor say to the tired old fellow who started back at him with determined eyes; eyes that had watched the world around him slowly disappear, becoming a place peopled with strangers. Most who knew Henry Smith had long been gone.
“Things to do?” Henry’s grandson asked. He was the only one of the family who listened to the old man.
“Things to do,” Henry said back gathering the strength he would need to make it across the parking lot behind the walker he had grown to love and hate. His grandson pulled Henry’s pickup close to the door. That made things easier for both of them.
He had written them down, the things he wanted to do. It was short list, his grandson could tell, even though Henry didn’t share it with him. His grandson could read it later when everything on the list was done and he was gone.
“Where to first?” his grandson asked as they rattled out of the parking lot toward the four lane November cold creeping in the windows of the truck. The trucks window’s didn’t close all the way and made a whistling sound which kept the two of them company as they made their way toward the flower shop.
“Flowers for your grandma,” Henry said handing his grandson some folded money. Henry was saving his strength for the cemetery. That was where the two went next. It wasn’t far away and didn’t take long, but long enough for the roses his grandson had picked out brightened up the smell of the tired truck taking them there.
Henry followed his walker there and back to the grave site of his wife where he laid the roses his grandson carried. ‘Til death do us part he remembered as his tired eyes studied the plot next to hers and listened to its whisper.
Back in the truck the two headed home and with some boxes his grandson found on the back porch of his little house they gathered up all the food in the cupboard. He couldn’t eat it anyway, not being on a heart healthy diet. They took the boxes of can goods and jars to the food bank at the church but not before Henry made sure his flag was flying.
He listened to its colors red, white and blue, snapping in the stiff November breeze. He liked that sound. It reminded him of another time and another place and a world which wasn’t peopled with strangers.
From the food bank they made their way across town to what Henry still referred to as the county home so he could say goodbye to his friend. They had served in the war together. His friend didn’t remember Henry and hadn’t for a long time but Henry remembered him and remembered that he liked peppermints. Henry sneaked him two while no one was looking which his friend took with a smile that said thank you.
Tired after that they went home. Tomorrow they would go to church. His grandson didn’t have to wonder if that was on the fold paper the man had held as they journeyed about. It was a promise Henry had made and a promise Henry kept. Church had been important to his wife and now it was important to Henry who wished he had gone with her more when she was alive and not just on Christmas and Easter. He didn’t know.
And even though his grandson helped him with his tie that morning before church it was still too long. This was something Henry didn’t notice though not until he knelt to pray for a final time at the altar while the congregation gathered about him all praising the Lord. They had been waiting for Henry to come forward for a long time. They told him so when the hugged him on his way past them and out the front door of the church. He tried to hide his tears but having to hold onto his walker he couldn’t.
“God Bless you Henry,” he heard more than one voice say.
His grandson’s wife had fried chicken and made potato salad and iced tea. Being a dinner and a box kind of girl it wasn’t as good as he remembered his wife’s being. No one’s cooking ever was as good as his wife’s but he never said so. Henry kept things like that to himself.
Sunday Henry and grandson watched a ball game and Monday the two raked leaves. An early fall had left the yard aflame. Henry mostly held the leaf bags and talked about being in the war. His grandson did all the raking. They were getting close to the end of Henry’s list. His grandson could tell and this made him sad. He didn’t let it show calling Henry, “Old man,” and challenging him to a foot race which Henry won. No surprise and they both laughed.
“Bright and early,” Henry reminded his grandson before the boy headed home which his grandson echoed. He knew his grandfather didn’t like crowds not since he had to depend on a walker and standing in line. Henry Smith couldn’t stand for very long and he would be the first to tell you so.
“I’ll make sure you are first in line,” Henry’s grandson promised which seemed to satisfy the old man who stayed behind the door he closed on his way into the cold darkness outside.
Henry’s grandson kept his promise and the next morning the old man and his walker were first in line that was long and patient and made of strangers.
With his ballot, in one hand and a pencil in the other Henry Jackson navigated himself and his walker across the room. He remembered the hill he had climbed in the war under a rain of bullets, he remembered forty years of walking to and from the mill, and he remembered the walk alongside his wife on her way out of the church that final time. This was nothing he told himself still trembling weak and out of breath when he was finally able to pull the curtain behind him.
He prayed. He voted.
Then by what he would call a miracle he turned in his ballot.
On their way home he told his grandson everything he would need to know when he found him next morning and the two held hands. This was something they hadn’t done since Henry’s grandson had been the young one.
“It all went by so fast,” was the last thing Henry’s grandson remembered his grandfather saying when he found him the next morning still holding his little list which had a check by everything. Outside the window he could hear the sound of the flag red, white, and blue snapping in the stiff November wind. He wondered if his grandfather heard it too.
Edward Reed 2018
This is a work of fiction dedicated to my grandfather.