It all started with a simple idea. Al Woodson had been in the living room checking out sites on-line and found something he thought was interesting.
“Ellen, listen to this.”
In the kitchen mixing up some dough for cookies his wife rolled her eyes. She loved her husband, but god, sometimes he came up with some hare-brained schemes, the most recent being his decision last fall to build a storage shed for all their gardening tools. Fine idea if you knew what you were doing, which he didn’t, but she had to give him credit for trying. At least it only leans to the right a little bit, she had thought at the time, when he’d finished and proudly showed her the completed structure, asking her what she thought. That, plus the fact it was in the far corner of the backyard, unseen by anyone but her, also helped.
“Looks fine, dear,” is what she’d told him, turning quickly away and suggesting, “Let’s go inside for some nice warm tea. How’s that sound?” Then, as they walked together to the back door, she looked over her shoulder one more time at the sad looking shed, which, in just those few short moments seemed to have tilted just a little further, and thought to herself, Oh yeah, he hadn’t wanted me to help, that was another plus.
“What is it?” she asked, gripping her wooden spoon and unconsciously holding her breath.
“They’ve spotted a whooping crane down in Nebraska.”
Whew. “So?” Ellen let out her breath, thinking this wouldn’t be so bad. Nebraska was a long way away from their home in Long Lake, Minnesota, so there couldn’t be any building involved. She poked the dough one last time before spooning out globs and dropping them onto the cookie sheet.
“I’ve always wanted to see one.”
Well, that was news to her. “Anyone take pictures of it?” She smiled to herself, wondering if he’d get her little joke.
Al was quiet for a minute before yelling back, “Funny. I mean I’d kind of like to see one live,” he said with emphasis on the live part.” Al had been an amateur bird watcher his entire life. A hobby not shared by his wife. “Want to go down there with me?”
Well, at least he got the joke, but now was he joking with her? She yelled back, “Ah, no thank you.” At least ten reasons rolled through her brain. She settled on one: “Remember, I’ve got that benefit to work on for my quilting group. Why don’t you ask Ricky?” Rick was their eldest son. He and his family lived south of Minneapolis in Lakeville, forty miles away.
“You sure you don’t want to come along? I don’t want you to feel neglected.”
Now he must be joking. Ellen was already picturing a week of free time: leisurely mornings sipping coffee and reading the newspaper, nice lunches out in quaint cafes with her friend Cathy or daughter Jenny, quiet evenings curled up in her favorite chair with a cup of chamomile tea reading the new book by her favorite author; oh, yeah, this could be a little holiday all of her own. Then she had a thought: maybe now would be the time to tell Jenny and Cathy about the tiny lump in her left breast. The one she’d recently found. The clinic had already done a biopsy – it was benign and being carefully watched over by her doctor who, at this point, felt surgery wasn’t necessary. But the lump was certainly part of her life now; something she was conscious of every waking moment. Something she was learning to live with. Something she hadn’t told Al about.
She suddenly remembered he’d had asked her a question, “No. I’m really busy, but you go ahead.” She envisioned the drive to Nebraska, the flat bleak late winter landscape rolling off to endless nothingness, a cheap motel room somewhere out in the boondocks next to a truck stop full of exhaust belching semi-trucks and a greasy spoon cafe next door where all they served was runny eggs and limp, cold toast. She gently touched the left side of her left breast. Nope, not her idea of a good time, in more ways than one.
“Your loss,” Al called back, joking with her.
No it’s not, she thought. Not by a long shot.
So Al did call his son, who wanted to go, but couldn’t get away from work but surprise, surprise, Rick’s twelve year old son, Nate, said he’d go along, or ‘Hit the road with Gramps,’ was how he put it. He’d be on spring break anyway that week so he’d thought to himself, Why not? Better than sitting home while his best friend Steve went with his parents to a resort in Arizona for the whole, entire week, leaving him with nothing better to do than hang around the house by himself with only his boring little brother to keep him company and not much else to do. Well, nothing to do, was more like it. Plus, he liked being with his granddad or, if like was too strong a word, he didn’t mind being with the old guy was more to the point. Sure, why not go away on a little road trip to Nebraska?
So, just like that, two weeks later during the third week in March, Al and Nate hit the road early Monday morning, leaving Ellen comfortably at home putting thoughts of breast cancer aside, settling in and relaxing with her second cup of coffee, her newspaper in hand and happily beginning her mini-vacation, while Nate zeroed in on his iPod with his Minecraft game, working on the Survival Mode, and Al happily seated next to him, be-bopping down I-35 on the way to see a bird he’d never seen before, with the cancer in his prostrate getting worse but only he knowing about it. Oh, and his doctor, too. But certainly not his wife.
“So what’s the story with that Minecraft anyway?” Al asked, glancing over at his grandson. He adjusted his butt on the seat (things were feeling a little weird done there today), and kept up a steady sixty-five in his three year old Ford Focus as they headed toward the Iowa boarder. “I’ve heard about it, but still don’t have a clue what it’s all about.”
After some cursory pleasantries when Nate first got in the car, he’d been putting up with nearly an hour of silence, other that the beeps and other strange noises coming from Nate’s hand held game on his iPod. He thought a little conversation was in order.
Nate was twelve, average height and thin, with a mop of thick, light brown hair that he was forever flicking off his forehead. He had expressive brown eyes, an easy smile and a good sense of humor. He enjoyed playing soccer and hockey and was a good student, with his favorite subject being math. In short, he was a pretty good kid, if Al did say so himself.
Every Thursday afternoon he drove the forty miles from Long Lake to his son’s home in Lakeville to be there when Nate and his younger brother Ethan got off the bus from school. He’d hang out with them for two or three hours until either his son or his wife got home from work, then head home again. At seventy one, Al figured it was time well spent, especially now with his health concerns.
Dr. Kashani had given him the prognosis nearly five months earlier telling him his cancer was in the very early stages and that the treatment right now was only to monitor it. Why at the time Al had chosen not to tell his wife he still had no answer. Well, actually, he did. Surprisingly, just such an occurrence was something he and Ellen had talked about off and on during their nearly fifty year marriage – what to tell or not to tell the other if one of them found out bad news having to do with a serious medical condition – cancer being right up near the top of the list, if not right at the top. Finally, last year, they had come to their final decision: they had both agreed to not burden each other with bad news regarding medical issues.
“We’ll just keep it to ourselves? That’s what you want to do?” Al had asked at the time.
“Yes, I think that’s the best thing, don’t you?” Ellen said back to him.
Both of them had been sitting at the kitchen table drinking their morning coffee. Al remembered the day had been sunny and bright, the beginning of summer. Not really the time to discuss what they were discussing, but there you had it. For some reason they had both decided on that particular morning to make a decision and end the discussions once and for all. So they did. Probably just to get it over with, Al had thought at the time and maybe Ellen too, but whatever the case, she seemed perfectly happy and relieved. In fact he remembered her saying, “Finally. I’m glad that’s over with. Now let’s finish up our coffee and go out and get those new plants in the ground.”
It was a complicated issue. He wasn’t sure it was the best option, but really, the more he’d thought about it back then, the more it seemed it was at least a reasonable, acceptable solution.
He had finished his coffee and stood up, “Ok. I’m glad that’s settled. Let’s get out in the garden. I’ve got an idea about a gardening shed I want to talk to you about.” He remembered that distinctly.
But now he was wondering, second guessing himself…maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do. What would happen now, after agreeing last year not to tell, what if he now broke the agreement they’d made and he did tell her about his cancer? What about that? Well, that was a very good question. He knew if he did let her know about his prostrate Ellen would worry and fret and it would add strain and stress to her life, putting undue burden on her to do what she could to provide care for him. Why put her through all of that? No, better to just let things run their course, like they’d agreed. He’ll deal with it on his own for now, at least during the early stages – under the supervision of his doctor, of course.
Which was what he was doing. Since the cancer was still in its early stages and he’d been told every male eventually got it, the long and the short of it was this: it was what is was. He’d just have to make the best of the situation. He rubbed his hand anxiously over his thinning hair. Man, the older he got, the tougher some choices were beginning for him to make. Add to that sometimes, like now, when he envisioned telling Ellen after waiting so long – she’d either be mad that he told her, therefore breaking the agreement they’d made, or she’d be mad he waited so long to tell her because…well, who knew why? But there was a very good possibility she might be mad. Well, scratch ‘might’ and insert probably. She definitely probably would be. It was a huge conundrum with no easy answer – one that was starting to give him a headache the more he thought about it. He tried to change the subject in his mind.
But before he did that, though, he did have one final thought – one thing he was pretty certain of and that was this: in the short run, no matter what he did he knew she’d be more than mad. Blown up furious would be closer to her reaction. He pictured her as a volcano exploding, spewing molten lava high into the air before falling to the ground in fiery conflagration and flowing over the land (him) in a burning, bubbling mass, destroying everything in its path. He shivered at the image and tried to erase it from his mind. Waiting, if not the wisest thing to do, certainly was the safest thing to do.
Shaking gruesome images of his wife’s anger from his mind, Al told himself that at least from a health standpoint, Ellen was doing all right. In fact, as far as he was concerned she was doing very well, and he was beginning to enjoy thinking more pleasant thoughts of his wife when Nate interrupted,
“Gramps, are you listening to me?”
“What? Oh, yeah, sorry…” Nate’s voice brought him back from a rare image of Ellen smiling and playfully tickling him, “What’d you say again?” Al glanced at his grandson and grinned sheepishly, “I was just thinking about the whooping crane we’re going to try to find.”
“Cool…Well, anyway, you wanted me to tell you about my game,” Nate said pointing to his iPod, and sounding to Al’s ears just the tiniest bit petulant.
So Nate took a deep breath and started again to tell his granddad about Minecraft and the various strategy levels, only occasionally letting his thoughts drift to the baggy he had hidden in the backpack he’d packed for the trip. Grandpa Al had said they’d be gone for three or four days and Nate’s friend Steve had suggested that while he was away from home he should try a joint or two.
“Here, you go, buddy,” Steve had said, slipping him the baggy on Friday, the last day of school before the week long break. “Check this out. I got it from my brother’s friend. He said it was really good stuff. From California, I think.”
Knowing it wouldn’t be cool not to take it, Nate had taken the baggy, brought it home and packed it away for the trip. Some of his friends had already tried it so maybe it was time he did, too. Why not, he’d thought to himself, what can it hurt? I hardly ever do anything my parents don’t want me to do. I get good grades. I have to take care of my stupid little brother all the time. Why not have a little fun and do something that’s not expected of me? Steve says it’s cool and I like Steve, so maybe it will be cool. Sure, why not give it a try? Such was his rambling reasoning at the time.
The joints, however, took a backseat to their Minecraft conversation which occupied them all the way into Iowa, through Des Moines and east on I-80 across the state. By the time they’d crossed the Missouri River, the border between Iowa and Nebraska, Al felt he knew more than he would ever need to know about Minecraft. The first level, the Survival Mode, seemed to be the one Nate liked best, even though he was now working on the fourth level, the Adventure Mode, and Al actually was beginning to appreciate the creative aspects of the game. But he had also agreed to have his grandson come along to talk with him and spend time with him, not just be a quiet driver with Nate a quiet passenger, lost in an electronic world of make-believe, not matter how creative it might be.
“Tell you what, Nate,” Al said, beginning the climb up the long hill away from the Missouri and coming into the outskirts of Omaha, “I like that we’ve been talking like we have and want to do it some more, so let’s make a deal. For the rest of the trip how about if you play your game for an hour, then let it rest for an hour. Then we can chit-chat some more like we’ve been doing. You know, talk. How’s that sound?”
Nate immediately set the game aside. “Sure Grandpa,” he said, turning in his seat. “How about right now?” He sat facing his grandfather expectantly.
Somewhat surprised Al said, “Well, sure.”
So they talked about school and sports and Nate’s friends. And Al told Nate about the whooping crane they hoped to see and other birds they’d probably get a glimpse of along the way. And after fifteen minutes the car went quiet as the conversation ground to a halt. Al looked out the window. They were now heading through the heart of Omaha, the mid-afternoon traffic rushing by on both sides. He signaled and got into the right lane, just to be on the safe side. He looked over at Nate who seemed perfectly content to be staring out the window watching the city and cars but who was he kidding? Al remembered very well being in sixth grade like Nate. Back then, sight-seeing from a car with an adult was way down on his list of fun things to do. If it was even on the list.
“You hungry?” he asked, thinking that when he was Nate’s age he was hungry all the time.
Nate turned and smiled exuberantly, “Yeah!”
Al smiled back. He really did get a kick out of being with his grandson, especially his enthusiasm over simple things. “How about we stop and get something to eat and then, if you want, you can play your game some more?”
“Only if it’s Ok with you, Grandpa.”
Al grinned to himself, thinking back to when he was twelve. It had been a good age. Innocent. He’d been healthy and happy and life had been fun and carefree, just like for Nate.”Sure, Naterellie. Whatever you’d like.”
Naterellie, Nate thought to himself. Why is he using a name he used to call me when I was three? Old people. Sometimes he just didn’t get them at all. Before he’d been interrupted, for the past few minutes he’d been thinking that what he’d really like to do was to try one of those joints Steve had given him. Maybe after they stopped for the night he could slip away and light up.
“That’d be great. But I don’t mind the quiet. If you don’t that is,” he looked over and laughed a little at his attempted joke.
Al reached for the CD player, “I’ve got some music from the sixties, you might like.”
Nate rolled his eyes, “That’s Ok. Maybe I’ll just go back to Minecraft for a little while, if that’s all right with you.”
Al smiled, enjoying their back and forth banter. He slowed down and pulled into the MacDonald’s drive-up. This trip is going pretty good, he thought to himself, ordering both of them Full Meal Deals. So far, anyway.
Except that about the time they left Minnesota and entered Iowa, he’d been feeling what he called ‘twinges’ occasionally in his lower abdomen. It was something his doctor told him was to be expected with his type of cancer. Among other things, moderating his diet was considered helpful and for most of the past five months he had been successful, cutting out junk food and eating more fruits and vegetables and grains. A Full Meal Deal? Well why not, he thought now, paying at the window and pulling out of the drive-thru, I’m on vacation.
Once back on the road, Interstate 80 took them southwest to Lincoln and then straight west across the state. About ninety miles from from Lincoln the Platte River passed close to the interstate near Grand Island, the third largest town in Nebraska. Just beyond Grand Island another fifteen miles west was Crane Meadows, a visitor center for those interested in learning about the cranes and other birds that stopped in the area during spring migration. That’s where they were headed.
Al estimated the drive to Crane Meadows from Lincoln would take just under two hours. While Minnesota was still experiencing winter with a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures in the twenties, Nebraska had seen temperatures rise into the fifties and sixties for the past few weeks and signs of early spring were everywhere. All of the snow had melted and to the passing eye the land looked dull and barren. Dead, almost. But there was life in abundance, you just had to look. Al pointed out to Nate numerous Kestrels sitting on telephone wires, red-tailed hawks perched on telephone poles, and big flocks of white, snow geese that blanketed the prairie potholes they’d pass. Ducks were flying everywhere, even squawking seagulls could be seen foraging for food on any open ground. The furrowed fields were rich and dark with moisture, waiting for the first tilling of the season and spring planting to begin. This was farm country they were passing through, and in a few months the landscape would be rolling to the horizon on both sides of the highway in a verdant sea of green from the newly sprouted fields of corn and soybeans.
Al glanced to his right as he talked. At least Nate didn’t seem uninterested in learning about the land there were driving through. He smiled to himself, realizing his grandson was probably humoring him more often than not on this trip, but that was Ok. He was enjoying being with the boy.
Half way to Grand Island, Al’s thoughts drifted back to when he was Nate’s age. Back then, he remembered having an attitude that, in retrospect, he was embarrassed to admit to. How his mom, a young, single mother whose husband had walked out on her and their three young children – how she had put up with him, her oldest child and the one she counted on to set a good example for his younger brother and sister, was beyond him. He remembered fighting with her daily and having never ending arguments, yelling at her about curfew, doing homework, how long his hair was – just about anything really and, in short, making her life much more difficult and miserable than it already was. He’d really been a jerk and as he got older and had kids of his own, he tried to make it up to her, but she kept brushing him off, telling him, ‘It really wasn’t that bad, Al. You were more help to me than you probably realize.’ Which was a generous comment from her to say the least, in Al’s estimation. But his mom didn’t seemed fazed by the past at all. She had gone on to re-marry and live a happy, fulfilled life. Finally, a few years before she passed away, she had been able to convince him that his memory was just different from hers. It made him feel good that she never held his behavior against him and, in the long run, maybe that’s what parents did – found ways to put painful events behind them, focusing instead on only good remembrances. One thing he could say, though, in talking to his mother and comparing what it was like being her son, verses being a parent with kids of his own, memories sometimes weren’t the most accurate measure when it came to analyzing the past. Whatever the case, looking at his grandson now he was pleased to see that at least Nate seemed a lot more leveled headed at his age than he had been when he was twelve.
“Are you doing Ok? Do you need to stop and use the facilities?” Al asked after talk of birds, farming practices and the weather (which was sunny and warm) had run its course and quiet had returned to the car. He felt he should say something to keep Nate talking. Like himself, Nate tended toward the quiet side, and Al figured if he didn’t initiate conversation the rest of the drive would be filled with silence (or Minecraft). What would be the point of that?
“No, I’m good, Grandpa,” Nate said, turning to him, “But I was wondering about that bird we’re going to see. What is it again?” He really wasn’t all that curious, but he was enjoying being with his grandfather and his dad had told him to be polite and not give him a hard time. Besides, what did it hurt? He liked school and he liked learning about things and he knew his granddad knew about a lot of stuff. It was usually fun to listen to him…if he was a listening mood. And, now he was. He was surprised to find that four hours of Minecraft was about all he could take at one time.
“Seriously?” Al asked. Nate smiled and nodded. “Well, then, let me tell you about them.”
It was an hour later with his granddad still going strong that Nate began to regret his decision, but he didn’t say anything, and instead took it for what it was: his granddad’s enthusiasm and excitement. Plus, he had to admit being with his grandfather really wasn’t all that bad. At least he wasn’t stuck at home with his little brother and nothing to do. Anything was better than that. Also, he was starting to pick up a little bit of his grandfather’s enthusiasm, and that wasn’t such a bad thing either.
By the time they’d made it past Grand Island to the Crane Meadows visitor center, he’d learned more than he’d ever thought possible about the two kinds of cranes they’d see: the sandhill crane, a tall, brownish-gray bird, which were very common and found in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands in the area. And the whooping crane, a brilliant white bird, of which there were less than five hundred in the whole world. His grandpa told him that seeing one would be a real treat. A very special treat.
“People call them ‘Whoopers,’ Nate. They are just a little bit bigger than the sandhill crane. There’ll be birdwatchers looking for the one that was sighted earlier this month coming from all over the world. The article I read was from a guy who traveled here from New York City. He came with his wife and they brought their daughter and her new husband. It was their gift to them for their honeymoon.”
Wow. Nice honeymoon, Nate was thinking as they pulled into the Crane Meadows parking lot. He remembered his mom telling him she and his dad had gone to Hawaii for their’s. Now that sounded like a very special place to go. The more he heard about birdwatchers the stranger they sounded. Of course he didn’t say that to his granddad, instead offering his standard response, “Cool.”
Al just smiled.
They got out of the car and stretched, getting the kinks out after having driven around four hundred and fifty miles. The day was still warm and sunny, nearly sixty degrees. There was the scented aroma of spring in the air with hearty plants starting to poke through the soil as the ground continued to thaw. Winter on the plains could be brutal with howling winds, blowing snow and blizzard like conditions much of the time. Today was calm and pleasant, perhaps signifying a symbolic turning point – a final breaking of winter’s grip and the birth of a new season, warm weather and new life for the plants, birds, animals and even the people who lived on the prairie. One could hope.
There were at least thirty cars in the parking lot. Crane Meadows was a gathering spot for not only visitors to the area, but also for birdwatchers stopping in to get information about the latest sightings of birds passing through in migration. It was housed in a remodeled gas station and held a fully stocked gift shop. A large, open room had been added on in the back which held displays in glass cases that told the natural history of the area, focusing specifically on the sandhill cranes, which had been stopping along the Platte River for an estimated ten million years to feed and rest on their spring migration from Mexico and New Mexico north to Canada and Alaska.
Standing next to the car and looking up, Nate was beginning to see why his granddad had made the long drive. The sky was alive with flocks of cranes flying overhead, each group spread out in an undulating ribbon of ten to twenty birds. His granddad told him the cranes were looking for food, primarily leftover corn from last year’s harvest, and they spent all day flying from cornfield to cornfield, stopping to feed and then to rest. Nate estimated there were hundreds of them in the sky. Off beyond where they stood he could see a sliver of the Platte River only a quarter of a mile away. All around them the land was flat, with only a few rare clumps of trees seen along the edges the river and the fields. But the fields weren’t bare. Two or three hundred feet away, there were about fifty cranes feeding in the corn stubble, slowly working their way across the uneven ground.
“The cranes roost at night in the river,” Al said as they walked to the building’s entrance. They stopped again and looked up, watching the sky some more.
They’d seen a few cranes east of Grand Island feeding in open fields, but now they were in the heart ‘crane country,’ as his granddad called it. He also said that the Sandhills ( he referred to the big, ungainly yet stately birds almost lovingly, Nate thought) liked the long stretch of fields and river between Grand Island and Kearny, town about thirty miles further west of them.
“What’s with that noise they make?” Nate asked, looking up at a flock of twenty five cranes as they flew over about one hundred feet above them. They were big birds. His granddad told him they stood about three and half feet tall and had wingspans of nearly seven feet. Their call was unlike any bird call he’d ever heard before, certainly not sweet and musical like a robin. The call the cranes made was a loud, rattling, bugle-like sound that was pretty weird to hear, yet was also kind of neat, Nate thought.
“Yeah, isn’t it different?” Al said, looking skyward and grinning. “It’s totally unique to the bird world.” He’d only seen and heard the cranes calling on television or YouTube. Seeing them live like this was blowing him away. “I think it’s beautiful. They have a larynx about twenty feet long and have a number of different calls they use to communicate with each other. You can hear them up to a mile away.” He glanced quickly at Nate. He could go on and on about the (majestic, in his opinion) sandhill cranes. He’d studied them for the last forty years, and they headed his list of all time favorite birds, but he didn’t want to bore his grandson.
He was surprised when Nate responded by saying his usual, “Cool,” like he actually meant it.
They both continued to stand mesmerized, looking overhead, watching the cranes flying over in never ending groups, oblivious to the people walking past them going into and out of the visitor center. Al had to agree. It really was cool.
After a few minutes he asked, “Do you want to go inside and look around? I’ve read they’ve got displays that might be interesting to see.”
“Sure. Yeah. That’d be great,” Nate said, and Al actually thought he detected a note of enthusiasm in his grandson’s voice.
“Well, let’s go, then.”
They hurried inside: Nate to see what there was to see, Al to find a place to sit and rest – those twinges in his abdomen were getting worse. In fact, they had been ever since they passed Lincoln. Just a little sit down, he thought to himself, that’s all I need.
He found a place to rest for a few minutes, letting the twinges subside, before joining Nate. He wasn’t really worried, just mildly inconvenienced. What the hell, he thought to himself, it’s probably nothing. Maybe something I ate.
They stayed half an hour in the visitor center, most of it spent in the large room in the back looking at crane natural history and studying the diorama displays depicting cranes in their natural habitat. Once he had rested a little and the twinges had subsided, Al warmed to being in the midst of crane information and soon became an ad-hoc tour guide for Nate, telling him that sandhill cranes mated for life and were very social birds. “Many people think that the spring gathering of them along the Platte River is a chance for families to get together and catch up on what’s been going on since they’d last seen each other over the past year. That’s why they’re so noisy and boisterous. They’re excited to see each other.”
When Al told him that Nate laughed and said, “All most like us when we get together for the holidays.”
“Actually, that’s quite an accurate observation. I might make a bird watcher out of you yet,” Al told him, smiling and enjoying Nate’s interest.
Right now, becoming a birdwatcher was the furthest thing from Nate’s mind but, then again, it didn’t seem so far out. He was surprised to find he was actually having a pretty good time. Being away from home was nice diversion and being with his granddad was turning out to be more fun than he’d thought it would be. And learning about the cranes was actually pretty interesting, although he wasn’t sure how much of that he’d be telling Steve and his friends back home. He walked over to a big window overlooking an outdoor feeding area that was covered with rambunctious birds flitting in the air, feeding from bird feeders or scratching around on the ground. Off in the distance were more and more groups of cranes flying by. The sky, in fact, was full of them. Everywhere he looked there were cranes in groups, both on the ground and in the air. He was enjoying counting them: the smallest group had been three, the largest had been thirty-five. He’d never seen anything like it before in his life.
“What do you think of all those different birds?” Al asked, coming up from behind. “See the ones at the feeder? Some of them we hardly ever see back home.” And he pointed out a big Harris’ Sparrow, a rufus colored fox sparrow and a purple finch, just to name a few. He didn’t want to overwhelm Nate, but truth be told, Al was in seventh heaven. He never expected that he’d be able to observe such a wide variety of birds. And the spectacle of seeing the cranes was way more than he ever imagined it to be. Estimates were that during a six week period including all of March, nearly five hundred thousand sandhill cranes visited the area. Some people, and not just birdwatchers, considered the springtime gathering of cranes along the Platte River one of the wonders of the natural world. He was beginning to see why.
Al checked the pocket watch Ellen had given him for Christmas. It had a painting of a two cranes on it, standing watch over a nest of two eggs in a remote northern swamp, probably in Canada. He smiled, thinking of his wife. Maybe someday he’ll talk her into coming down with him on a little vacation. Who knows? She might actually enjoy it.
He pulled his mind back to Nebraska. It was getting late in the afternoon so he suggested they go check into the motel he’d found on-line. It was seven miles further west down the interstate. “Do you want anything before we go?” he asked, thinking Nate would get some candy from the gift shop, but was surprised when his grandson said, Yeah, and hurried around the corner of one of the aisles that held tee-shirts and sweatshirts.
“How about this, Grandpa?” he asked, reappearing moments later.
Al laughed a delightedly. Nate had selected a tan Crane Meadows baseball hat with a sandhill crane in flight on the crown set against a pretty orange sunset.
“Looks good,” Al said putting his arm around the boy’s shoulder, “Let’s pay for that and then go check into our motel. After that, I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“That’d be great, Grandpa.”
And, for Al, the smile that appeared on Nate’s face right then and there made the trip a bona fide success. And they’d only just begun.
They signed in at the front desk of the Great Plains Motel just off I-80 and checked out their room. It had two beds and was neat and clean. Both Al and Nate felt it was perfect. Then they drove across the road to a big truck stop which was made up of gas pumps, a small grocery store and two restaurants.
“Let’s get some snacks before we head to the river,” Al told Nate, “We might stay out after the sun sets and check out the stars.”
They made a quick stop in the restroom. Al was happy that the twinges had diminished and were almost non-existent. Then they loaded up on chips, nuts, raisins and candy bars along with water and juice and headed the Wind River Observation Platform.
Right around this time, in the early evening with the sun sinking toward the horizon, the cranes leave off feeding in the corn field stubble three miles on either side of I-80 and make their way to their roosting spots on the Platte River. Some stretches of river are nearly two hundred feet wide and less than one foot deep. The cranes choose sandbars or areas were the river is shallow enough to stand but deep enough to protect them from roving predators such as coyotes and the occasional bobcat, usually not more than six inches of water. The sights and sounds of thousands of cranes filling the sky at sunset as they approach the river draws locals as well as visitors from all over the world. To accommodate them, Crane Meadows has built an observation platform near the bridge where the Wind River Road crosses the Platte River. That’s where Al and Nate, proudly wearing his new hat, were headed.
Al parked the car on the side of a dirt road a couple hundred feet from the bridge and they got out. They slipped on their jean jackets and Nate started walking toward the platform, but Al stopped him.
“Hold on there, Buddy. I’ve got something for you.” He went around back, opened the hatch and rummaged inside for a moment. Nate, curious, went to his side, then gasped. “Here you go,” Al said, straightening up, “These are for you.” He opened the carrying case and handed over a pair of binoculars. “These are an old pair of mine, but they work great. I just needed a stronger power because of my eyes. They aren’t what they used to be…” his voice trailed off for a moment, remembering better days, vision-wise, “Anyway, these are for you. Do you know how they work? How to adjust them?”
“Sure. One of my friends has a pair.” Nate lovingly took the gift in his hands. It wasn’t so much the binoculars themselves that made the moment special to him, but the fact that his granddad had thought enough to bring them along and give them to him. “These are so cool. Thank you so much, grandpa,” Nate finally said. He actually was quite touched.
Al smiled, happy he’d thought to bring them. He understood that nearly sixty years separated them and that Nate had other interests. As well he should, he was still a kid after all. If Nate hadn’t shown any curiosity earlier in birds he wouldn’t have made a big deal out of it, probably wouldn’t even have given the binoculars to him. But his grandson least had shown some interest, asked a few questions and listened to the answers. For Al, that meant a lot.
“Well, let’s head out. The sun’s not going to wait for us forever.”
Al got his own binoculars and each of them hung them around their neck. “All set?” Al asked and Nate echoed, “All set.” Off they went.
They walked from the parking area to the river past a grove of huge old cottonwood trees and then out into the open. There were thin wisps of clouds to the west and the sun was sitting just above the horizon, turning sky a brilliant hue of orange and red, almost like it was on fire. All around them the sky was filled with sandhill cranes streaming in from nearby fields by the thousands, the cacophony of their calls filling the air, making it almost impossible to talk and be heard.
But Al tried anyway.
“Nate, look over there.” He leaned close to Nate’s ear and pointed to the west. They had bypassed the observation platform because it was packed with people and had walked up to the bridge and were glad they did. From where they stood they had a panoramic view of the wide expanse of river, land and sky. The colors on the horizon had turned from orange and red to fiery crimson as the sun began sinking below the far tree line, over half a mile away. In about half an hour it would be nearly dark out, but right now thousands of cranes were silhouetted in the flaming sky as they streamed by in gently shifting patterns – coasting over the trees and then to the river, wings barely moving, floating along until they finally selected a place to land. Then they dropped down into the water and stood tall on their stork like legs, fluffed up their feathers and began talking loudly to their neighbors – ‘Socializing’ as Al called it. The sound of their vocalizations filled the air with a kind of wildness not often heard in this modern day and age; it was certainly something Nate had never heard before. He was speechless.
All around them, other bird watchers were looking on in awe, most of them whispering almost reverently at the spectacle before them.
Al showed Nate how to adjust his binoculars to get a clear view and they both stood, scanning this way and that up and down the river looking at groups of cranes standing out in the water, which in this area of the river was about ankle deep. When it became too dark to see clearly, the two of them put the binoculars aside and just stood watching.”Cool,” was all Nate could think to say, he too, whispering like the people around him as he followed his grandfather’s arm when he pointed out a particularly boisterous group of twenty or so cranes flying by. Then he slowly spun around in a circle, looking up and all around, mouth hanging open. At an age where he was not easily impressed, especially by anything having to do with nature or adults, Nate was fast falling under the spell of being outdoors at sunset with the phenomena of so many sandhill cranes flying by. He finally had to admit to himself how much fun he was having and how glad he was he’d decided to come on the trip with his granddad. Steve can have Arizona, he thought to himself, I’ll take the Platt River anytime.
The bridge was wide enough to accommodate people as well as cars. Careful to keep to the side railing and not in the road, Nate had a full range of view. To the west the sunset had now changed the sky to deep sienna-orange, so uncommonly real, he had to check to see if the sky was truly not on fire. In the distance, against that flaming backdrop, more and more cranes continued to almost magically appear into view from far out on the horizon, floating across the tree tops and then flying right down the river, coming so close overhead their soft wing beats could be heard and Nate felt he could reach up and touch them. Many of the birds continued in flight down the river past the bridge to the east, before dropping gently into the water where they were greeted by the raucous calling of all of the other cranes that were already there. Everywhere he looked, the sky was filled with cranes, calling or ‘talking’ as his granddad put it. He’d never seen anything like it or imagined anything like it and, he had to admit, it was more than ‘cool.’ It was pretty amazing.
People around them were friendly. Most were older, closer to the age of his granddad, but there were some families, too. Nearby there was a young couple who Nate overheard talking . Apparently they were from a small town in the area. They had a little boy about five years old who took a shine to Nate, calling him ‘Mister’ and pointing out various groups of cranes as they flew by, most of them now only thirty feet or so above the water. Nate showed the young boy his binoculars and how to use them and then grinned at how excited the boy became when he was finally able focus in on some people standing on the observation platform two hundred feet away. In their excitement they ‘high fived’ each other. Nate didn’t even notice the young boy’s parents smiling at them.
Messing around with the little kid was fun and Nate found himself having a really nice time. So nice, in fact, that he realized he’d completely forgotten about the joints he had back in the motel room. But now, for some unexpected reason they clawed their way into his brain and got him thinking about things other than the sights and the sounds of the cranes all around him. Grandpa Al was talking to some other old people, the young family had decided to call it a night (the little boy waving ‘Good-bye’ as he left), and Nate’s mind started wandering. First he thought about the joints he planned to smoke probably once they got back to the motel, which led him to think about Steve and his friends at William Blake Middle School back home. He wondered what they’d think of his spring break down in Nebraska on the Platte River. Probably not much, especially compared to more exotic places like a ranch in Arizona where Steve was, riding horses and what not, but that was Ok. Sixth grade had been a good year so far. They were the youngest class in the school, of course, but he and his friends were tight. They enjoyed hanging out together and that was good. But why now, standing out on a bridge in the middle of nowhere with the sky almost dark , the calls of thousands of cranes filling the air, and a bunch of people around him who enjoyed watching birds and talking about birds…why was he now starting to think about Katie Johnson, that cute little red head who sat one row over and three seats in front of him in Mr. Jensen’s history class? Katie, who had started to smile at him occasionally over the last month or so, and sometimes every now and then even said ‘Hi’ to him in class and in the lunchroom and at recess? Why think of her now? And, why, try as he might, could he not get her image out of his mind?
Geez, what’s the matter with me? Is what he was thinking when his granddad poked him and said, “Say there, young man, did you hear me? We should get going. It’s starting to get dark.”
Which it was. Nate looked around as if seeing the world for the first time. “Oh, Ok Grandpa,” he replied, shaking himself and started following along, still thinking of Katie, all thoughts of smoking that joint suddenly gone from his brain, her imagine now perfectly clear: her friendly smile, her red hair, her freckles. Cute little Katie. Katie, Katie, Katie…
Al was having a great time. From the moment they’d crossed into Nebraska, he’d felt energized and alive, his prostate concerns nestled far away in the back burner of his mind (except for those annoying twinges). Opening up conversations with Nate back in Minnesota had been a good idea and pointing out and identifying various kinds of birds as they traveled across Nebraska had been entertaining for both of them. In fact, Al was aware that Nate hadn’t used Minecraft once since they’d left Omaha; that said something.
Being at Crane Meadows had been a great experience and he felt not only did Nate learn something but so did he. And it especially had been fun to see his grandson unexpectedly pick out that hat, giving him the feeling Nate was really getting into the spirit of the trip. That was why he’d decided to give him a pair of his own binoculars, just to let him know he was appreciating the time they were spending together and was happy to be sharing the experience with him. And even though they hadn’t seen the whooping crane yet, tomorrow was always another day.
But the big plus so far had been the evening spent on the bridge. The sights and sounds of thousands of sandhill cranes coming in to roost on the river had been even more spectacular than he’d ever imagined it to be. One of the people he’d been talking with was a local bird watcher and volunteer at the visitor center. He said there were an estimated ten-thousand cranes coming in to roost on the river each night in the half mile stretch on either side of the bridge. Al believed him. It was a stunningly beautiful sight, in a way almost spiritual, and he guessed there were at least two or three hundred people out with them watching, enjoying among the cranes just as much as he and Nate.
Walking back to the car was tricky. With the sun now completely set, nighttime on the plains quickly turned so dark they could barely see. And why not? Al thought to himself, there was no ambient light like he was used to back home in Minnesota – no street lights, no lights from homes, no nothing. Out here the darkness was complete and, in a way, disorienting – he could only make out vague shapes and found himself holding on the Nate’s shoulder so they wouldn’t get separated. Fortunately some people had thought to bring flashlights, and Al and Nate followed a few of them back to where the cars were parked. With the help of an older couple parked nearby he was able to find his just fine.
“Nate, hold on. Let’s wait here a minute,” Al said, stopping his grandson from getting in their car. They both stood in the dark and watched as the other vehicles started leaving, headlights cutting in to the night. When sounds of their engines eventually trailed off into the distance the two of them were completely by themselves. They stood close to each other as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was a light breeze from the south, warm on their faces. The temperature was around fifty degrees, Al estimated, so they were comfortable in their jackets. In the background, about a quarter of a mile away on the river, the cranes were calling back and forth, settling in until sunrise the next morning. The thought of so many of them waiting out the night, anticipating flying off at dawn to continue to feed in the nearby fields, gave Al a sense of well-being unlike anything he’d ever felt before. Some deep part of him felt he wasn’t just visiting the area but truly belonged out on the great plains in the wide opens spaces with the cranes and the river. He smiled, thinking what Nate would say if he shared his feelings with him: ‘That’s weird, grandpa, really weird,’ he guessed, or something like that. And maybe it was, but that was Ok with him.
After a few minutes, their eyes finally adjusted to the lack of man-made illumination. But in the utter darkness, there still was light. It came from above.
“Nate, look up there,” Al said, pointing. They both looked and were instantly mesmerized. Above them the sky was filled with stars unlike anything they’d ever seen before. So many stars, in fact, the sky appeared to be hazy (the Milky Way, Al thought) and mixed in with countless other pin-pricks of light all set against a dome of darkness stretching first from horizon to horizon and then all the way to infinity – the end of the universe. Al had read of people describing such view, and realized then how hard it was. But with the stars, the inky blackness, the soft wind and the calling of cranes in the background nearby on the river…well, it made him think of long ago civilizations and how people were inspired to begin worshipping the night sky – it’s stars and planets, it’s beauty and mystery. He considered himself non-religious, but with what he was feeling, he could easily see how his ancient ancestors had come to hold the night sky in holy reverence.
“What do you think?” he said, quietly, suddenly feeling the emotion of the moment. He put his arm around the shoulder of his grandson. “Pretty amazing isn’t it?”
Nate truly was impressed. The star filled night sky was blowing him away like nothing he’d ever seen before, even on his iPod. He had only one thing to say in answer to his granddad’s question and that was, “Yeah, grandpa, it’s really cool.” He hugged his granddad back.
That was good enough for Al.
They stayed out on the night time prairie for a while longer, watching the stars, or “Watching the night,” as Al was moved to say. He was able to point out some constellations: Cassiopeia, The Swan and Orion. Nate picked out the Big Dipper. They even saw some falling stars, which Al explained weren’t stars at all, but just bits of cosmic dust burning up when they hit the earth’s atmosphere. But he didn’t want to get too technical and bore his grandson so mostly they just enjoyed the big night sky, and the expanse of the land, talking occasionally, pointing out things that interested each of them. It was as inspiring as being on the bridge watching the cranes.
Finally their necks became stiff from looking up so much, so they decided to leave, but not before making a pact to come back the next night. And they shook on it, too, marking the moment at extra poignant.
The motel was seven miles away and they drove on a dirt road that ran parallel to the river to get there. On the way they saw a family of quail race across in front of them, the little chicks like feathery ping-pong balls scurrying in a line behind their mother. A few miles further on an owl drifted by, it’s haunting white fact momentarily illuminated by the headlights before disappearing into the darkness. Al thought it might have been a barn owl, a kind owl he’d never seen before.
In fact, almost everything Al and Nate had seen on their trip so far neither of them had ever seen before; so much of it was new, all of it memorable for both of them, each in their own way.
In fact, who knows how things might have played out for them if they’d had more time in Nebraska? But when they got back to their motel after a dinner of scrambled eggs and toast at the truck stop (Ellen had been right about that), a tired Nate flopped himself out on one of the beds, started flipping through channels on the television and Al decided to take a shower. While he was soaping up, feeling like he was washing a truck load of Nebraska dust off of himself, a sudden and stabbing pain struck him in his abdomen. It doubled him over and he sank to knees groaning, the shower spray streaming over his back. Suddenly the pain intensified, cutting into him like the blade of a burning knife. He fought back the urge to vomit, clutching his guts until the pain subsided and he finally got himself under control. After a few minutes he struggled to his feet and turned off the shower, holding his abdomen and gasping for breath. His first thought was it had to be his prostrate doing more than just acting up; something was seriously wrong. His second thought was, ‘Shit, not now. Not when we’re having such a good time.’ And his third thought was, ‘I better get home and get this thing checked out.’ He never once thought about calling Ellen.
It took a while, but he finally got himself dried off and into his clothes. As he stumbled out of the bathroom and onto the bed, Nate rushed to his side, shouting, “Grandpa, what’s the matter?!” He helped his granddad lay down and pulled a blanket over him. Then he hurried to bring him a bottle of water.
“Thanks, Nate,” Al gasped. He took the water and drank a grateful drink before handing the bottle back. His instincts told him he needed to do something to calm his grandson. He contemplated for only a moment before deciding to tell Nate what the problem was. “Nate, sit here next to me,” he said, patting the bed, “I’ve got something to tell you.”
So he told him that he was having a little ‘internal problem’ was how he put it – not the whole prostrate thing, but enough to let Nate know that even if it sounded serious, it wasn’t all that bad (he was trying to convince himself as much as his grandson) and that they’d have to leave that next morning.
In spite of Al’s assurances to the contrary, Nate was still worried, “Do want you some aspirin, Grandpa? To help with the pain? I could run over to the store at the truck stop and get you some?” He couldn’t bear to see his granddad hurting. And if something really bad were to happen to him…well, he couldn’t bring himself to even think about it – they’d been having too good a time.
Al closed his eyes and fought back a groan for Nate’s sake. The pain was coming back. Aspirin might help. “Thanks, Nate. That’d be good.”
So Nate took it upon himself to run across the road to the truck stop to get a bottle of aspirin. He also bought a candy bar. He knew his granddad liked chocolate and figured it might cheer him up and help him feel better.
But in the midst of all the concern he was feeling for his granddad, there was also something else on his mind. On the way back from the store he stopped in the parking lot and took one of the joints out of his pocket and held it carefully in his hand. He’d transferred it there from his pack when his granddad was in the shower, thinking he could make an excuse to go outside to smoke it. Maybe now was the time. He hurried around to the back of the motel away from the bright parking lot floodlights. In a corner of darkness by an old shed he rolled the joint over in his fingers and looked at it, thin and white. What would it be like to light it up? Then he smelled it, finding the aroma not unpleasant. Yes or no, he thought to himself? He put his hand in his jeans pocket and touched the lighter Steve had given him. Should I try it or not? The wind was blowing steadily from the south, kicking up some swirls of dust. He tugged his new hat tighter on his head. Then he looked up. The sky was still studded with stars, just like an hour earlier when he’d been out on the plains with his granddad. Behind him, a half mile away was the river and he could hear the gentle murmuring of the cranes as they roosted for the night. He thought back over the day. It had been so different from what he’d expected when he’d first started out on their trip. Or like anything he’d ever experienced before for that matter. In a way, he kind of hoped he could come back. Maybe someday. He looked again at the joint and made his decision. Right now his granddad needed him. Who knew what would happen if he smoked it? He didn’t want to take a chance. He crumpled it up and tossed the paper and fragments to the wind and watched the pieces as they scattered away into the night. Then he did the same thing to the other two. There’d be enough time to try something like that when he got home. But not now. Now he had to get back to his granddad.
He brushed his hands off on his jeans, held tight to bag with the aspirin and candy bar and headed back around the corner into the bright lights of the parking lot. In the distance, the nighttime calls of the cranes on the river were carried to him on the wind, keeping him company all the way back to the room. He was glad they did.
In the middle of the night when Al went to the bathroom, there was blood in his urine.
They left early the next morning and were home at the end of the day just as the sun was setting. Al had called Ellen before they left, only telling her that he wasn’t feeling well and he’d talk to about it when he got home. He might have imagined it, but he thought he could hear something in her voice, like lava bubbling, but he let it pass. “Just let Rick know Nate will be home later today,” was what he told her, forcing the unsettling image of his wife turning into a volcano out of his mind.
Driving into the city, though, in spite of Al’s discomfort, he and Nate couldn’t help but think about the difference between the cold, snow covered ground and traffic congestion of Minneapolis, compared to the beauty of the wide open spaces on the plains and the spectacle of the cranes at sunset flying in by the thousands to roost for the night on the Platte River. At a stoplight just before they got to Nate’s home, they looked at each other and Al said, “It’s sure different than down in Nebraska, isn’t it?”
Nate nodded and said, “It is.” And it was, but he had to add,” It really is Grandpa but right now all I want is for you to get better.”
“I’ll do my best, Naterellie. I promise, I’ll do my best.”
Nate looked at his granddad and was moved to say, affectionately, “I had a great time, Grandpa. A super cool great time,” And he reached over and hugged his granddad.
And right then Al knew that the memory of being together in Nebraska was something that would last them forever. “Me too,” he said, fighting back a tear and hugging Nate tightly, “Me too.”
Maybe one day they would come back, but before Al could even consider thinking that far ahead, he knew his grandson had been right. He had to get better.
Four days later on a Saturday, Al was resting on the living room couch after completing his first two sessions of radiation treatment. He had at least four more weeks to go, five sessions a week. He was pretty wiped out.
“God, Al, you were such an idiot,” Ellen said for about the hundredth time, sitting down next to him, feeling his forehead and shaking her head. “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me about that damn prostrate.” Then she held up her hand, like ‘Stop. Don’t say anything.’ So he didn’t and let her talk; well, expound, was more like it.
The long and the short of it was she was angry at him (but slowly becoming less so) for not telling her about his cancer when he’d first been diagnosed, even though he reminded her what they’d agreed upon last summer, to which she’d replied, ‘That’s all just a bunch of crap, Al.’ So for now he just kept his mouth shut, his head down, and took his wife’s recriminations, figuring the sooner she got it all out of her system the better. For both of them.
At least she cares about me, he’d occasionally think, especially when her verbal barrages became too overwhelming, her tirades rolling over him like relentless tidal waves (no lava images now, but still, end result was just as bad). But maybe she doesn’t have to care quite so much.
When Ellen wasn’t raining down on him with her version of tough love, Al had a lot of time to think, and what his thoughts kept returning to time and time again was his trip to the Platte River and the time he’d spent there with Nate. When he’d got back home and gone to his doctor and started the radiation treatments, one of the things that kept him going was how much fun it’d been being with his grandson. Well, maybe fun wasn’t the right word. It was more than that.
The drive back to Minnesota had been different than the drive going to down the day before. Nate was definitely worried about his granddad and they talked about that, Al doing his best to allay his grandson’s fears and stressing that his old granddad was not going away anywhere just yet, trying his best to make light of the matter. But moreover, Nate seemed changed somehow. Different, but in a good way – a little bit more mature maybe, Al thought at the time. Sure, they talked about his illness, but they also spent a good portion of the drive talking about seeing the cranes, watching the stars and even about some of the people they’d met and talked with at Crane Meadows and out on the bridge. The interesting thing from Al’s perspective was that eventually the talk had shifted to Nate’s school and the kids he hung around with. When they crossed the Missouri River into Iowa Nate opened up and had asked about Al’s friends in school when he was Nate’s age and what they were like and what they used to do together, which lead to talking about Al’s first girl friend which lead Al to realize Nate was actually talking about himself. So, around the time they hit Des Moines, he found out about Katie and he even found out about Steve and the joints Nate had been given. So they had a lot to talk about. By the time Al had dropped Nate off at his parent’s, the relationship between grandfather and grandson had grown. They’d become much closer than before and a bond of sorts had been built between them from a sense of shared confidences that only comes about when two people have love and trust and respect for each other. Which they now did, each in their own way, and that knowledge was doing as much to make Al feel better as the radiation treatments. Even more so, as far as he was concerned. So, yeah, the trip had been fun, but more than that – it had brought the two of them closer together, and for that he was grateful.
Al was thinking about all of those things when the kitchen phone rang and Ellen picked it up. She talked for a minute and then said, “Yes, he’s fine. He’s good, Nate, let me get him for you.” She came into the living room and handed the phone to him, “Nate wants to talk to you.”
“Hi there, Naterellie, Al said,” looking at Ellen who rolled her eyes and left to go back into the kitchen, “How’re you doing?”
“I’m good. I just wanted to see how you were feeling Grandpa. I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner, but Dad said you needed to rest.”
“I’m doing fine, Nate. You don’t have to worry about anything. It’s good to hear from you.”
They talked for a few minutes about Nate’s school and friends…just catching up. Al was overjoyed to hear his grandson’s voice, and he could feel his mood brightening. Finally Nate said, “Grandpa, I was wondering if you’ve thought about going back to Nebraska next year.”
“Actually, I have been thinking about it. Why?”
“Well, we never did get to see that whooping crane you wanted to see.”
“I know. I checked on-line this morning. I guess it’s still there. Some people have reported seeing it a few miles west of where we were on the bridge.” Al smiled to himself. He had a feeling he knew where Nate was headed.
His grandson was silent for a few moments and then said, “Oh.” Al thought he sounded disappointed. “It would have been fun to see it when we were down there.”
“I agree,” Al said and his heart finally went out to his grandson, “You know, there’s always next year. I was thinking about maybe going back there. Do you want to go with me? We could start planning right now. I could order some maps of the area.”
The excitement in Nate’s voice was evident, and Al could actually visualize his grandson pumped up and smiling.”Study them, you mean? Maybe even find out where the one is that’s there now. Maybe it’ll come back to the same area. Didn’t you say they sometimes do that?”
Al smiled. It made him feel good to hear the enthusiasm in his grandson’s voice.”Yes, Nate, I did say that. That’ll be a good place to start to look.”
A little while later Ellen came into the living room. She’d been in the kitchen making up a healthy, brown rice and vegetable dish for dinner and was ready to take a break. She couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between Al and their grandson. It sounded like he was planning another trip. With Nate, again. Well, as long as he’s feeling better and gets his doctor’s Ok, she thought to herself, that would be fine with her. A good thing, probably. Dr. Kashani had told her the chances of her husband’s recovery after the radiation treatments were excellent. And, like Ellen figured he would, he also told her he was shocked beyond belief Al hadn’t told her about his cancer in the first place. Ellen had reassured him with a pointed expression that it would never happen again, not on her watch, and she noted that Dr. Kashani had actually shivered when he saw the depth of the conviction in her eyes.
But that’s all in the past, Ellen was now thinking, feeling Al’s forehead again before going to her favorite chair, sitting down and taking out the square of the quilt she was working on. In the background she listened as Al stayed on the phone talking with Nate about that crazy whooping crane. It sounded like they were making plans to go see it next spring. Ellen glanced at Al as she started her sewing. He was smiling as he talked, looking out into a far distance, seeing things only he could see and, she had to admit, looking lots better than he did a few days earlier. She was thinking that it was a good thing…this blooming relationship between her husband and grandson.
Ellen’s fingers worked her needle through the material. In the background Al’s voice dimmed as her mind now traveled toward the future, thinking that with him going back to Nebraska, she could already start to plan her next year’s mini-vacation. As her thoughts meandered, she unconscientiously touched the tiny lump again. She had decided to wait awhile before saying anything about it to Al. After all, with his shortened trip she’d not even had the chance to get together and tell either Cathy or Jenny.
Maybe I’ll tell them later, after all this has blown over, she was thinking as she went back, first to her sewing and then to wondering when she should tell Al. Well, certainly not now, she thought to herself. He’s got enough to worry about what with going through radiation treatment for the next four weeks, and then taking who knows how long after that to get healthy again. Besides, even though I’ve been berating him for not telling me about his prostrate when he first found out, truth be told, that is what we agreed to the beginning of last summer. When he got back from Nebraska and told me about it I just lost control. I was so worried about him. She looked at the pattern she was sewing without really seeing it. Whatever the case, now’s not the right time, she finally concluded. I think I’ll just wait.
Satisfied for now with her decision, she sat back, suddenly very tired. The cushions and side arms of her chair felt so comfortable right now, folding her in like a lover’s embrace, nice and warm and secure. She hands fell to her lap and her needlework went untouched. Her eye lids felt heavy and she closed them. In the background Al’s voice started drifting, becoming softer, quieter – something about a whooping crane. She had a sudden thought: maybe I’ll see if Al still wants me go down there with him next year. He and I and our grandson, all together. It might be fun. Our own special road trip. Just the three of us. She smiled, happily imagining her future with her husband. Pleasant thoughts. Then his voice faded away, away, away and finally was gone. Ellen sighed deeply and her head tilted to the side. A nap would feel good. She’d been more tired than usual lately – didn’t have the pep like she normally did. Maybe it’s old age or something like that, she thought to herself, drifting nearer to sleep, hardly thinking, except finally that yes, I’m sure that’s what it probably is, just old age. Her last thought was that maybe she should make an appointment and see her doctor. See what she had to say. Yes, that’s what I’ll do, she told herself, finally drifting off. Later on. First thing. Right after I wake up.