EMBRACING HOPE


It had been several days. The apartment that we had moved to with such hope and excitement was empty. Empty of spirit, empty of joy, empty of life.

Of course, I was still there, still breathing, still alive. But the reason that got me up out of bed on the most difficult of days, the one who had taught me about love, commitment and being a real adult, the one who’d saved my life every bit as much as I’d once saved hers was gone. Gone.

She was sick, we all knew that. For the last year, I had seen so much that told me of her coming demise. But hope kept me believing. I would see my 17-year-old cat jump, or meow or visit her litter box regularly, and I would hope. Maybe we would have another few years.

Maybe?

But then, over 24 hours, I could no longer hope, because hoping would have been cruel. There was no point in keeping even a greatly beloved pet around just to have them there. Still, even at the vet before she was put to sleep, I hoped my cat’s vet would scold me for being an over-reactive pet owner, and send us both home with meds for her and recommendations for me.

I had such hope upon entering the clinic. Going out was another matter. I left empty, as if something inside me had also been euthanized.

Hope can be a dangerous thing, especially if you are stubborn person like me. Over the years, I have placed hope in people that everyone else long since had given up on. I have placed hope in romantic relationships long after it was a foregone conclusion that I was doing 95percent of the work, and they, at best, were doing 5 percent. Still, some nice moment, some half-hearted gesture kept me going. If I didn’t have hope, what would I have?

Hope can also be healthy. If we didn’t hope for a good day, it would be hard to venture out. If on some level, I didn’t hope that my car would run, my job would be productive, my volunteer work would be satisfying, would I even bother?

We have to have hope. It is as essential as the air we breathe. Hope can keep our souls alive.

The week after my cat died, I felt like I was in a gray tunnel. Nothing felt good or right. My apartment was no longer home. I found myself coming in, and looking for my cat. A dozen, dozen decisions I was used to making in the morning and evening were no longer necessary to make. I no longer had to worry about being late home. I could stay out as long as I wanted! There was no pet to upset, no feeling of neglect on my part. There was total freedom.

And I didn’t want a bit of it.

I know now, that the life I lived for the last few years was actually unhealthy. I hovered. I fussed, I worried. I hoped, despite mounting evidence that my cat was not only elderly, but declining rapidly. Hope kept me from having to make the decision to take that final trip to the vet.

A few weeks later, I adopted a young cat, a Siamese male. He is as unlike my former pet as could be possible. You would think with a younger cat, there would be a whole lot more responsibility. However, there is much less. I had no idea how hard I worked keeping my former cat alive. How attuned I was to her behaviors, her routine, always on the alert for something off kilter. In the last few years, I’d made my whole schedule around making sure she had enough attention and care.

I was surprised at the overwhelming positive response from family, loved ones and friends when I adopted so soon. I felt in a way like I was just brushing my cat aside, as if she never mattered. The grief had moved inside me now, and was still very real and searing. It could not be seen, only felt. So, I expected judgment, maybe even wanted it, for bringing a new pet in my home so soon after my cat’s death.

That didn’t happen. Perhaps it is the sheer number of healthy people that I surround myself with now. After a small group at church, I sheepishly confided to a group member my concerns about how adopting so soon would be perceived. Her comment blew me away.

She told me I was embracing hope by welcoming new life in my world. Hope.

In this way, hope could be good. I could sit in the coffin of a place that my home had become, or I could willfully choose to bring life back into it. I chose life. Several weeks later, I don’t regret it.

The trees on my road are blooming right now. We just had two nearly back-to-back snowstorms, and this past Saturday was full of snow, freezing rain and sleet. Yet, the trees are putting out their blooms. Hope in the face of evidence that should have called the act hopeless.

I know trees have no living spirits within them, but seeing those blooms in the midst of sleet and snow stopped me short. There are times that despite what is around you, hope can be a good thing. A necessary thing. In fact, hope can be the only thing when you are walking in the dark night of your soul.

Soon, we will celebrate an empty tomb. The celebration of good hope brought to life. Even in the darkest of times, we may need to examine the deadness within, and look to those stubborn buds that insist on trying to grow. Hope, healthy hope is there. It takes root in the darkest of times.

Embrace HOPE.

 

 

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To Dig a Grave (new short story)


 

By Laura Kathryn Rogers

 

Even tragic figures should not be annoying.

This was my thought as I finished digging what I intended to be the grave of my brother, Aaron.

You’d think that every Cain and Abel story that could ever be told had been by now. I mean, what new light could be shed on the subject? The details are mostly the same. You have the overachieving brother, loved and praised by all, even by the God-figures in life.

And then you had me, the n’ver do well, the consistent disappointment. My best efforts made people cringe. My very best day, an embarrassment when put next to my stellar older brother, Aaron. Nothing he touched could fail. He was going to forge a path to stardom, be the epitome of every Dad and Mom’s all-American dream.

That he seemed to do this effortlessly just made me hate him more.

It was bad enough, all those years the locusts ate, standing in the deepening shadow of Aaron’s inspirational success story. Bad enough waiting, counting down minutes until high school was over and I could set out on my own, never see any of them again.

I would have done it too. Just as soon as I, diploma in hand, had turned 18 and could legally go, I was ready. Past ready. Aaron, by that time was a Fullbright scholar on his way to Oxford.

Yet, somehow I stayed in this small town after graduation, waiting for our parents to notice that I got a job, lived independently, didn’t ask them for a dime. I waited for the accolades that never were to come.

I would have done so much if I’d just had a little support, a fighting chance. However, there was one problem.

Aaron insisted on following me.

Not in the literal sense. But his presence was palpable. He was everywhere. Even the guys in my trade school had heard about him. Each time someone found out my last name, they asked about Aaron.

It wasn’t like Lane was an unusual surname. It was frankly, common as could be. However, no matter where I went, what small achievement I incremented on my scale of minor ambitions, Aaron’s name, his damn name, came up. “Oh yes, that’s wonderful, Jacob (me). Very good. It reminds me of something I read about Aaron Lane. You wouldn’t happen to be related would you? Now, he’s a genius of the first order.”

It was the same everywhere. Friends, employers, girlfriends. Somehow they all seemed to have heard about Aaron.

Of course, it was easy to know a little about him. He’d written two bestsellers while in his doctoral program at Oxford. He’d been on countless television shows, one with Simon Schama. He’d had his own PBS special for a while about tracing his roots.

During the show, any number of celebrities came and went, wanting to find out who they might have been related to in the shadows of history. In tracing our history, Aaron found that we were directly descended from King John, the tyrant king, and through him to William the Conqueror. Through another line we were directly related to Charlemagne. That was as far back as he could legitimately go, but wasn’t it enough? No wonder he was so great! It was in his blood!

Note that I say ‘his.’ When Aaron was on that show, he mentioned every damn family member in the tree. Almost. He somehow managed to leave me out.

Almost like I never had existed. No one but Aaron existed, it seemed. He had it in his mind that of the two of us, the decision had already been made. He was the only significant one.

There were more bestsellers, more television shows, more news and magazine stories. He became an in demand speaker on popular and social history, and turned down professorships at Harvard and Yale. One year, during some horrible storm somewhere, he got out and saved half a dozen lives. He was given the key to our town and to the city where he saved the people.

I was appalled. Hadn’t he done enough to eclipse me?

This triumph led to him running for public office, and easily becoming a U.S. senator from Maryland, our home state.

Last year, he made it to the cover of Time magazine as Man Of The Year. In the article, it showed his manor-style home, the home he’d had built for our parents on the property, his perfect blond wife, Paula, and adorable 3 children—Gretchen, Mark, and I don’t know the other kid’s name. They never let me meet the kids.

It wasn’t enough to be the most favored child of the two of us, it seemed that Aaron wanted to be so successful that no one would bother asking about me, his only sibling.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a decent guy, not really prone to bitterness. I had a good life. I too, had married, had a nice wife, Annie and two great girls, Meggie and Sarah. Our parents never gave them gifts, cards or the slightest recognition. Luckily Annie’s family adored our girls, and more than made up for my parents blindness. They were nearly grown now and hardly ever asked about our parents.

However, they did ask about Aaron. A lot.

They wanted to meet him. They thought that he was fantastic. He made history sound like fun on You-Tube videos. The legislation he sponsored was surely going to improve the world. Heck, he even sort of resembled the paintings of our Norman ancestors. Not like their plain Dad, who was nearly gray and showed his age. Who worked a boring job delivering snack foods to grocery stores. Why couldn’t I be more like Aaron? My children had a hard time believing we had been formed in the same womb.

I kept giving them excuses, but finally, I knew. Soon Meggie and Sarah would be out of the house, able to go wherever they wanted, and they’d go to him. He would win them over, be the perfect uncle. And I just could not have that. I could not lose one more thing to the brother I finally had to admit that I hated.

It wasn’t as if I were some home-grown psychopath. I never terrorized my classmates, hurt animals, vandalized property, assaulted sweet little old ladies. No, I was just beige in Aaron’s bright palate. So colorless that no one noticed me.

And, so, the year that he turned 45 and I turned 41 I decided it was time for him to experience some failure—of a permanent kind.

It was time for my brother to die.

Three days ago, I decided that the job had to be done. And quickly.

Aaron and his family were going to go to Europe on holiday. One of their many trips there, of course. They lived an amazing, opulent existence, when myself and my wife were struggling to just keep the bills paid. The unfairness of the inequities in our lives rankled me.

Aaron was a devotee of long-invigorating hikes. He loved them, and missed getting to do them as much as before he became a senator. Now, he had armed protection, and it didn’t seem kosher to force them to share his passion for sport. But this day, he’d gotten away from his secret service agent. Pulled on his expensive track shoes and left his fine leather loafers in his office.

Wink, blink, gone. Within minutes, he was deep in the woods that surrounded his mansion.

And I was there, waiting for him.

You see, my stupid brother didn’t think to fence the property. Some nonsense about wild animals getting caught in the fencing and hurting themselves. Well, golly-gee. Give the man an honorary sainthood. Aaron had thought of everything that would add to his blindingly already bright image.

Despite his success, he still lived in the same town, and so I was familiar with his comings and goings. Every day after I made my decision, I would sit just inside his woods and wait—hoping, hoping.

My family thought I was at the library. Never mind where I really was. They rarely seemed to care. I was the disposable, see-through dad, who just kept them fed, clothed and sheltered. What did I matter to them?

Finally, I would make this blandness work for me.

First, I had dug a grave. I wondered how hard it would be to drag his well-shaped, healthy corpse to that grave if I got him in another part of the woods, but he made it easy for me. He actually saw me first.

It didn’t occur to him that there might be something strange about his easily forgotten brother being on his property. When was the last time we had spoken? He saw me, and his bright blue eyes lit up in recognition.

He stepped forward, saying my given name with great pleasure, reaching out his hand. He noticed the hole behind me, and I think he started to ask about it. But, I didn’t give him time to ask. I shot him once in the temple. He dropped to the ground less than a yard from where his grave had been dug.

At last, I told myself, something was going my way.

He was lighter than I expected him to be, and so it wasn’t hard to get him in the grave. What was hard was what had to happen next. I had to make him literally disappear.

It would be tragic. All of it. However, I was ready.

I had made no speech to him, given him no explanation about why he had to die that day. I thought it was obvious. He had spent his whole life making me invisible, now I was going to return the favor.

The pathos of the situation amused me. Tragic, so tragic. The young, vital senator with everything to live for at the bottom of a hole on his fancy property. Who would think to look for him? No one had even known where he had gone! There would be no body to mourn, no over-wrought funeral that perhaps even had the President in attendance. No grieving trophy wife trying to look strong in the best Jackie Kennedy Onassis fashion. Only I would know where he was. And I wouldn’t be telling.

Could there have been room in the same world for the two of us? Perhaps. I would have been willing to share. If only he had. But Aaron had been selfish, selfish, his whole life, and now it would be my time to shine. Perhaps I would console his widow, be a ‘super’ uncle to his kids. Maybe I’d even use the sympathy vote to run for his terminally vacated senate seat.

And there wasn’t a damn thing Aaron could do about it.

I noted that the first shovelful of dirt had not landed where I had aimed it. I wanted to cover his face first. That handsome, ridiculously charming face. The eloquent tongue had been silenced, now it was time to make him totally obsolete.

Time for my total vindication.

I tried another shovel full of dirt. The same result. Again, again, again. No matter how many times I tried, not one of my carefully aimed loads of dirt touched his handsome, lifeless face. I began to grow anxious. Could he be annoying even in death?

Then, he sat up.

That made me scream. Because he was dead. I knew he was. He had to be. No one could take a direct shot in the head and live. Not even my perfect brother.

He looked at me and gave me a smile. Shook a finger at me as if I were still the pesky kid brother that was getting on his nerves. “Tsk, Tsk, Tsk.” He said softly.

He stood up, and using his powerful forearms, hoisted himself out of the grave. The dirt fell off him, as if repulsed by his perfection. We stood there, in an eye-lock that made me feel that I was in a surreal situation. One that was growing more odd by the moment.

“You should have known.” Aaron said, “I always win.”

Suddenly, he had me by my shoulders, and picked me up in the air like a hawk going after some prey that had no chance, no chance at all. Before I could scream again, I was in the hole.

I felt a leg break as I hit the ground. I knew I could not crawl out.  I was at his mercy. As I had been all of my life.

“Your turn, now.” He said quietly.

Suddenly I saw it, for the first time, on his face. Hatred.

The reason for the things he had done. The mark of Cain on his perfect features. It had been there all along, but I was only now recognizing it.

I saw it. I was Abel, not Cain. The things Aaron had done to shine had been out of hatred. All of his successes had been his way of striking at me, making me feel….the way I had felt my entire life. Inadequate. Unsuccessful. Unloved.

Now I knew the source of his hatred. My birth had kept him from being an only child. And that, my brother could never forgive. It didn’t explain my parents obsession with him and total indifference to me, but it explained everything else. This had been war, from day one. Only I didn’t know that he had actually fired the first shot.

I stared up at him, waiting for the inevitable. He stood at the very edge, his grin beatific, his teeth shining as if they’d been polished. He picked up the shovel and prepared to throw in the dirt.

Then, it happened.

I’m not sure how. His feet held up by the ground next to the hole no longer were secure.

I made a sound of pain as his strong body landed on top of mine. This time, he was dead. The bullet had been delayed, but it had ultimately done its work.

But now, the grave I had dug would not be for my brother alone.

It would be one that we would finally, forever share.