It was an overcast snowy Tuesday morning when Calvin slipped into his old work boots to go out to the barn and check on the cat and her new kittens. With coffee in one hand and an open carton of Half-and-Half in the other, he wandered across the yard, muttering obscenities about the chilly weather. Mother Nature had quietly dropped a six-inch blanket of snow overnight, a much-needed round of precipitation, and beautiful scenery for those people who may have been in a decent mood and had no place to go. Calvin was not one of those people. He was rather dissatisfied about quite a few things in life at the time. The snow and the new cat chores were just two additional inconveniences.
“Stupid cats, anyhow. Like I’ve got nothing better to do. Rosie thinks we have to keep a dozen of ‘em around just to catch mice. If they’re so great at eating mice, why am I spending all that money on cat food every time we go to town. Dumb cats.”
He approached the barn door, and looked up to notice several long icicles overhead. He imagined that, at any time, one might break loose and stab him in the shoulder. “Probably get killed just trying to give some mama cat a bowl of cream. How’s that going to look in my obituary…’Local Veteran Dies in Freak Accident While Feeding Cats.’ Man…the things I do for Rosie’s pets.”
As the barn door opened and let light inside, Calvin found the mother cat and her five nursing babies settled in a large cardboard box near the corner. The tired mama lifted her head a bit, just to make sure there was no danger approaching, but laid it back down when she saw that it was only Calvin.
He walked over slowly, and then poured the contents of the carton into Simba’s bowl just outside the box. “Here’s some cream for whenever you want it.” She was occupied with other duties at the time, however, and made no effort to move from the kittens.
Calvin turned around to the open barn door, and gazed out over the yard. It was quiet. There was only the whisper of an occasional breeze in the evergreen trees that closed in the property on the east side of the road. It was cold, but he wasn't inclined to close the door. For some reason that he couldn’t explain, he seemed to be mesmerized by the white yard, the frost-covered hedge posts, and the undisturbed sea of snow in the pasture beyond.
Just inside the barn door was a pile of old items that Rose and her sister had gathered during one of their frequent rummage sale runs back in the fall. There was a box of canning jars, an old bicycle that was missing its chain, a lamp that was purchased because Trena had thought it might be an antique, a rusty cast iron skillet, and an old wooden folding chair that had a couple of slats missing. Of all the items, the chair was closest to Calvin, and the one that interested him at this particular moment. He positioned it a few feet away from the open door, faced it toward the outside, and then sat down to take a few more sips from his coffee mug. With each drink, the steam from the hot beverage would rise, and temporarily fog over his eyeglasses.
Saying nothing to the cat and her new litter, Calvin remained spellbound by the winterscape, the snowy scene undoubtedly taking him back to boyhood memories, when such mornings would have meant there would be the fun of sledding and snowball fights. It was as if he could actually hear the voices from so long ago. And, in that silent meditation, he was suddenly transported back to 1968, when he was only twelve years old.
“Better keep your eyes open, Big Brother! I’ve got a slush ball with your name written all over it!” A tightly packed snowball whizzed overhead.
“Heck, I’m not worried about it, Andrew! You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with that arm. You throw like a girl.” He responded to the attack with a snowball of his own, but also missed the mark.
After a few more exchanges, the boys got tired of throwing, and decided to build a snowman. The snow that day had been just wet enough to pack well, and rolling it around to form the large base had been pretty easy. Eventually, the project started to take shape. The younger brother briefly disappeared into the house, and then returned with a large carrot. He stuck it into the snowman’s face, where the nose ought to be located, and then teasingly said, “Oh look, Cal. His nose is almost as long as yours!”
Not to be outdone by the ten-year-old, Calvin decorated the snowman’s head with an old feathered hat that their mother had recently tossed into the trash. He teased back. “Look now, Drew. Now it looks more like you.”
“Hey, Calvin, what say we go up to Conroy’s Hill with the toboggan? I’ll bet the Burton twins are already up there, and the downhill path is probably already packed down smooth. We could go a hundred miles an hour down that thing.”
“Nope. Remember last time? Mom said Conroy’s Hill was too steep, and too close to the creek for sledding. She said she’d scalp us both if she ever caught us up there again with the toboggan.”
A devious grin came over the younger boy’s face. “But, Mom’s not home, Brother. Went to a baby shower over in Crestville, and won’t be home for two or three hours.”
Knowing better, but lured by the thrill of a quick downhill run, Calvin grabbed the toboggan and followed his little brother over to the cliff-like pinnacle on Dave Conroy’s farm, a half-mile down the road. And just like Andrew had assumed, some of the neighborhood kids had already begun the routine of climbing the steep incline and diving back down at break-neck speed. The hillside was full of laughter, excited screams, and some good-natured dares.
Finally reaching the top, Calvin and Andrew climbed onto the long shiny toboggan and got a push from one of the Burton boys to get started. “Don’t forget to lean left when you go past the open gate in the fence!” The ride was slow at first, but got much faster after they passed the first fifty yards. It was obvious that the downhill trips of the previous sled runs had packed the path down to form an icy trough, and there was little else to do but hold on and follow the slick track to the bottom. Trees seemed to fly by on the side, and the leading edge of the toboggan was throwing a fine mist of snow into the riders’ faces. Almost too quickly to notice, the boys raced by the gate that they had been warned about. In the excitement of the moment, Calvin forgot to ‘lean left.’
A split second later, the brothers and their sled left the path that would have safely ended in the Conroy pasture, and instead veered off down the rocky slope, aimed directly toward the frozen creek below. They held on tightly, hoping to find a soft place to bail out of the ride. Unfortunately, the slope was too steep, and their only option was to wait until gravity had taken its toll. On through the rough terrain, they skimmed over about a hundred rocky bumps before going airborne over a crevice and crashed into a large boulder near the creek’s edge.
Calvin had fallen to one side of the sled, and Andrew on the other. He raised his head from the snow to see what was damaged. The boards of the toboggan were badly broken. Worse than that, Andrew was sprawled out in the snow, and moaning in apparent pain. His wrist was laying at an angle that was not normal to the human body. “Oh, no! Drew…don’t move. Let me see if I can get home.”
“It doesn’t hurt that much, Brother,” Andrew said as Calvin toted him back to the house. “Anyway, just tell Mom that this was my idea. No use in both of us getting a licking.”
“Shut up, Andrew. I’m the oldest, and I was supposed to be looking after you. I messed up.”
That evening was not a pleasant one for the boys. A broken promise, a broken arm, and a very unhappy mother.
Calvin was momentarily awakened from his memories by the mewing of some of the new kittens. He resettled himself in the rickety old seat. Placing his feet against the frame of the partially opened barn door, he pushed back so that he was resting on the two back legs, a precarious position, considering the age and condition of the chair. Then his staring continued, and he fell victim to yet another wintertime memory. He remembered that the year was 1974, and it was night of the Sweetheart Dance at the high school.
It had been snowing on that afternoon, as well. He heard his mother call from the kitchen. “Calvin…telephone.”
“Hello…yeah, Jeannie…Oh, no kidding?...Wow, that came on quick…So you don’t feel like going tonight?...Well, maybe I could come over and keep you company, then. ...Oh…well…alright. No, if you can’t go to the dance, I wouldn’t want to go by myself. Some other time, then?”
His mother had been listening. “Jeannie sick?”
“I suppose. She didn’t sound sick. Sounded more like she got a better offer.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
The sophomore brother had just walked into the room. Calvin quizzed him. “Hey, Drew. Have you heard anything about Jeannie finding a different date for the dance tonight?”
Drew didn’t answer right away, and instead suspiciously appeared to be withholding information. Finally, he responded. “Beats me. You know, I’ve told you before…Jeannie’s not really your type. I suppose you could call Diane, and see if she has a date.”
“Diane? Diane Marley? You think Diane is my type? Thanks, Little Brother, you sure know how to boost a guy’s confidence.” Diane was one of the girls in Calvin’s senior class, and had had a crush on him since 6th grade. Unfortunately, she was rather plain looking, and lacked the social graces that might have made her interesting to members of the opposite sex.
“Just saying Jeannie was never going to be your soul-mate. That’s all.”
It was only a few days later, in the hallway after American History class, that Calvin discovered the truth about the Valentine Dance. It was leaked out that Jeannie’s replacement date for the evening was none other than Brother Andrew himself. Two years younger than the would-be couple, and a full head shorter than the beautiful brunette that Calvin had fallen for, Andrew knowingly became the interloper, apparently without too much concern about his older brother’s feelings, or about what the consequences might be.
Calvin remembered that, after he was told who had stolen his date on that snowy February evening, he was too angry…too hurt to even put up a fight. He knew that if the argument progressed to fists, he would have been quite capable of doing serious physical damage to his own brother, and that he might not have stopped before something terrible occurred. He also knew that, with or without punches, their relationship would never, and could never be the same.
The split was deep. For decades, the two of them barely spoke. When they did talk, it was always brief and business-like. They had sat on opposite sides of the chapel during their mother’s funeral. They intentionally missed each other’s wedding, and neither of them even acknowledged the birth of any new children, their respective nieces and nephews, to the family. Those two brothers who had been so close-knit on that toboggan ride had become, for the most part, total strangers.
A short blast of wintery wind brought some of the powdery snow across Calvin’s face as he sat in the wooden chair, and he was again roused from the memories of that oh-so-miserable chapter from his past. He took another sip of the coffee, which by this time, had become too cold to drink.
And then he remembered that, just out of the blue, Andrew had called him on the phone last month, and wanted to talk for a few minutes.
After a quick hello, the younger brother got right to the point of the call. “Cal, I’ve got a problem. Kidneys stopped working correctly a few months ago, and they had to take out the left one. The other one is not much better, and the doctors say that, unless I can get a transplant pretty quick, I’ll be checking out before next summer.”
There was an awkward time of silence on the phone, at least for several seconds. Andrew was waiting to see if his brother’s hatred for him had been melted by the news of his illness, and Calvin was waiting to see if there was more to the story. He wondered if his brother was calling to ask him to donate a kidney.
And during this pause in the discussion, a war began to be waged in Calvin’s mind. He knew how important it was in this type of surgery to find a familial source for the organ, since the similarity of tissues is such a critical factor for a successful transplant. He knew that the situation was grave, certainly more perilous than the broken arm the two of them had protected on that walk home so many winters ago. He knew that his brother might likely be on the brink of death, that his widowed wife would be forced to make it on her own, and that many of the friends Andrew had made over the years would mourn his passing. Calvin also understood that it was a death that he might be able to prevent, if he was only willing.
Hatred is a strong emotion. Hatred has a long memory.
He finally broke the silence. “Drew,” he said calmly, “I think I know what this is all about. I think I know what you are about to ask of me. When we were in high school, you thought nothing about ruining what should have been the best days of my life…you stole something from me that I could never get back. You’ve had decades to apologize, but never made the effort. And then today…today, when I’m apparently your last resort, the only source for something you desperately need, you act as if nothing bad ever happened between us. I’m sorry about your illness…I truly am. But…the fact is…I don’t owe you a thing.” And then, without a word of goodbye, he quietly ended the call.
For the next few weeks, and even up to this snowy morning with the new kittens, Calvin had remained gloomy, heavy-hearted, and quiet. He had hardly touched a meal, had turned down multiple invitations to escort Rosie into town, and was not the least bit interested in his fishing, his hunting, his stamp collection, or any of his other favorite amusements.
The cats were quiet again, and Rose was the next one to interrupt the big man’s snow-gazing. She walked through the open barn door. “So…this is where you’ve been. I thought you might have gotten lost in a snow drift somewhere.”
“No. Just sitting here with these stupid cats.”
Recognizing his mood, Rosie came over to comfort her husband, putting one hand on his shoulder, and the other on the wobbly old chair he was sitting on. Thinking that it might help, she tried to start a normal every-day chat. “Wow. Why did I ever think we needed this poor chair? This thing is about to fall apart. Remind me to leave it out for the garbage truck next week. We’ve got all the junk we need in the barn without keeping broken down old chairs.”
She picked up one of the baby cats, looked it in the face, and stroked its back. The kitten mewed. Rosie looked back down at her husband and uttered a soft reminder. “You know, Cal, it’s about time to leave for the hospital.”
He sighed. “Yeah…but I guess it’s the right thing to do.”
“He is your brother, you know.”
Calvin looked up and nodded in agreement, and then got up to walk toward the house. Rose folded the chair and set it up over in the corner of the barn, next to a garden rake, a lawn mower, and an old broken toboggan.