As we loaded the final box onto the back of the pickup, my buddy Troy Green sighed. “Well, that’s it.” He glanced quietly around the small yard and gazed at the house where he had grown up. An early winter breeze knocked the few remaining leaves from the trees.
“You know, even though I moved out 20 years ago, it still feels like home.”
I knew what he meant. We’d spent countless hours at his house when we were kids, shooting baskets in the alley, chasing the dog around the small yard, playing ping pong in the basement. Now his Dad was terminally ill, and Troy had decided to sell the house. His aging Mom planned to move in with him, his wife and kids.
I handed him a beer. He twisted off the cap and sat on the tailgate.
“Hey Dan – did you ever think about what it would be like to be 40?”
I sipped my beer and thought about what he said as he continued.
“I mean…. 40 years old, Dad’s so sick, Mom’s getting older, selling this house…” He made a sweeping motion with his hand “when the hell did all this happen? Seems like just yesterday we were out behind the garage and I was schoolin’ your ass in the art of basketball.”
I laughed. If ever a man was born with concrete feet and and bricklayer’s hands, it was Troy.
“I mean, how in the hell did I become the ‘man of the house’ so fast?”
“I suppose thats what they call the circle of life, my friend, and it appears we’ve reached the top.” A self proclaimed free-spirited bachelor, I had recently married and settled into a semi-responsible life myself. Like Troy, I felt somewhat unfamiliar with my new role too.
“Hmmmpphh”. He nodded his head and stared again at the house. “I think I liked it better down below.”
Troy leaned back and looked up at the sky. “You know how I always thought my old man was full of shit?”
“Yeah” I said, grinning as I remembered their knock down drag out fights from Troy’s teenage years. He was the poster child for a misspent youth.
“Well I’m starting to see things how he saw them. All the things he used to try to drill into my head – they’re finally making some sense. I wish he could see that I listened to him. ”
A light snow started to fall. I could see the glassy tears in Troy’s eyes. We sipped our beers and stared at the garbage truck making its rounds through the alley. I thought about his Dad – a man who I knew had a huge heart hidden underneath a gruff exterior.
I decided to change the subject. “You and Janet & the kids want to come over for Christmas next week? You can spend the morning with your Mom & Dad at the hospital and then come over late afternoon to eat. We’ll have dinner, watch the ballgame, and then you can head over and tell your Dad goodnight.”
“Yeah Dan, that would be nice. Thanks man.” He nodded his head slowly. “Thanks”
“Ma’am, I know you’re just doing your job, but Mr. Green is going with me for a few hours. He is feeling good today, he wants to be with his family, and I am going to take him there.”
The nurse stood her ground “Mr. Green is a sick man and he is not to leave this hospital without written…”
“Ma’am” I took a step closer and lowered my voice. “You and I both know Mr. Green is dying and probably won’t see another Christmas. He will be gone for 3 hours. If I take him back to his room, you are going to have to look in the mirror tomorrow morning and come to terms with the fact that you denied a man the chance to spend his last holiday on earth with his family.” I stared into her eyes and knew I had her. “Now can you please bring me a wheelchair?”
“You know, you always were a persuasive little som-bitch Dan.” Mr. Green laughed as I lifted him into my Jeep. “Whenever I’d come to the mound to get you, you’d always talk me out of it.”
“Yeah, and I’d always get us out of the inning too, wouldn’t I?” We laughed about old times and relived the memories of the many baseball games we’d shared when Mr. Green coached our high school summer baseball team. “Always made you look like a genius for leaving me in, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you did you little som-bitch. Thanks.” He paused and touched my elbow. “Thanks for being such a good friend to Troy. Thanks for everything Dan.”
I smiled. “No worries Mr. Green.”
Everyone was settled in at the dining room table when I pulled into the driveway. Maggie had told them I was making a quick run to the store. I wheeled Mr. Green in through the back door and yelled “Maggie – set one more plate please. I saw my old baseball coach at the store and invited him over for dinner.” When we rounded the corner out of the kitchen, momentary shocked silence was replaced by joyous laughter, surprise, hugs and kisses. Troy’s Mom clasped her hands under her smiling teary face and Janet hugged Maggie. The kids ran over to kiss their Grandfather’s cheek. Troy shook his Dad’s hand and wheeled him to the head of the table.
We said a prayer and then Maggie brought out the Christmas bird. She put it directly in front of Mr. Green and I handed him the knife. “Mr. Green, will you do the honors?” What happened next is a happy memory that I’ll never forget.
“I’d be proud to!” Mr. Green leaned forward in his wheelchair and paused. He leaned back, placed the knife on the table and looked up.
“You know everyone, I think it’s time to start a new tradition this year. I’ve finally realized these two knuckleheads actually paid attention to what I’ve been trying to drill into their thick skulls for all these years.” Everyone laughed. “These two boys are now the men of the house, and it would give me great pleasure to carve this turkey with them. Boys?”
The picture Maggie captured at that moment is hanging on the wall right behind my desk. It shows three men with their hand on a single knife slicing through a turkey. One man at the bottom of the circle and two others near the top with smiles that will link them forever.