The Pinion Pine Treebysophist801©
"That's all?" It was the same little old woman. Her grandmotherly impatience was beginning to show and I got the impression she was hoping for something a little juicier.
"No, the man was an old friend who was in the Army and was being deployed January 3." Janice stepped closer to me so she could look me in the eye as she spoke. The gesture of moving closer and waiting to make eye contact was not missed by the crowd. "Before Tom and I were married the man, whose name is Jack Baumgartner, were, well, we had been intimate. We knew long before I married you (she was speaking to me and close enough to touch me) that things would never work. He was military and would be gone a lot. I was young and a little on the wild side. It wasn't the sex that attracted me to Jack. I think it had been the draw of uniform and fact he was risking his life for his country."
"Lady, you need to get your priorities in order fast or God will smite you! Do you have any idea what it takes to keep a marriage together for 47 years?" Cheryl seemed stunned into momentary silence. "I thought not. It may be romantic at first then it is hard work and hanging together through the tough times. It is combat and your primary comrade is your husband! No wonder her left you?!" The older woman turned to retrieve a shopping cart. "I don't need to hear any more. Merry Christmas young man and Gog bless you."
The older woman gave me a hug then disappeared into the grocery store. Yes, older women married 47 years can get away with being instantly judgmental.
The rest of the crowd began to go about leaving the Vons or going inside to do their shopping. Only the two teenage girls remained. They were dressed in jeans and flannel shirts looking like they were farmer's daughters. They would occasionally stop to whisper to one another. There were no little-girl snickers from either of them.
"So, Janice, after sleeping with soldier-boy what is it you want? Why are you even here? Last Christmas Eve wasn't enough for you?" I had tried to refrain from saying anything cutting, derogatory or mean spirited. As soon as the words slipped from my lips I regretted my utterance.
After taking a breath Janice spoke.
"I want you to come back to me. I want Tom's father back. I want to make amends. I want to love you and only you and I want to put a star on our families Christmas tree." The two teenage girls seemed to be holding their breath. Janice stood before me, a single tear slipping down her cheek.
"I want to be the one to fix dinner for you Christmas Eve." If you had not experienced a long year of living alone trying to cope with the fall out of your marriage then the impassioned words would be moving and most convincing.
I was beginning to realize I was just a tad bit doubtful and my anger and hurt would not simply "go away". There were just a few questions I needed answers to and wasn't getting them. That was probably why I was really getting angry.
I stopped ringing the bell and just stood looking at Janice, the woman who was still my wife. Reconciliation, in my mind, was not going to happen. It would not be as easy as sharing a meal. There was still an "elephant in the room" and too much hurt to sit back, smile, and say OK. I'd spent a year re-building my life and was very, very guarded.
"No." The words slipped from my mouth softly. I think the two teenage girls had stopped breathing. My "no" meant there were things not yet processed or understood.
"No?" Janice had a little-girl look that was ever imploring. It was full of sadness and questions.
"No, means I can't go back to you. I live here, have a job seeing clients who depend on me . . . and I am the best bell ringer the Salvation Army has." I think Janice was trying to smile.
"You are asking me to give up a lot to return to a life that ended badly. Besides I don't really know what I did to drive you into the arms of another man and I don't know if it will ever happen again . . . to see you turn away from me, to deceive me, the way you did last Christmas, is something I don't think my mind and heart could bear a second time." Janice came just a little closer to me, stood on her tip toes, and kissed me softly on the lips, then on the cheek.
It was the first time since before last Christmas Eve anyone had kissed me. Judah's' kiss of betrayal flooded my conscious thought. Janice had no reason to betray me now but the image of being sold-out came to mind nonetheless.
"I think I understand. I will find a way. Before I leave would you like to meet your son?" If there was one thing that would make me drop everything it was the prospect I really had a son. After all it had been a son, the birth of a baby boy whose parents could not find a place to sleep for the newborn, that was the promise of salvation. It was a son that could melt my protective heart making me forgive everything.
I just nodded my Ok. It was enough for Janice to walk across the driveway to her car to get Tom Jr. who was asleep in the back seat car seat. I still had no answers. There had been no apology.
My bell ringing began again as Janice walked back to me with my son. My son? I knew I wanted "my son" to be in my life, even if I was marred with a heart-ache memory. At the same time I did not want to be held hostage, so to speak, by a baby. Birth should be something joyful, something that brings people who love each other together. Did I still love Janice? Was my anger and hate too much to allow us peace of mind?
"Tom, meet your son, Tom. Tom, say hello to your Daddy." Tom junior was less than 4 months old so he had grown out of the ugly-baby appearance. What makes a newborn beautiful isn't their physical appearance it is the miracle of the conception and birth. It is the miracle that is beautiful even if the conception is scarred with sin and deception.
"He's beautiful . . . you must be very proud . . ." Remember I was just meeting this infant for the first time! Internalizing he was of my flesh and blood would come later.
"He is the only thing that has kept me alive. When he was born I made a promise to him that I would find you before Christmas Eve." Tom Junior seemed to be waking up with the sound of his mother's words. He had too much of the "newborn" look for me to see any real familial resemblance and I think it may have been a look of doubt that triggered Janice to speak.
"He is yours Tom. When he was born the blood tests confirmed a blood match and I also had a DNA test done to make sure, to be able to prove to you he is your son and . . ." Janice did not complete the sentence. She had said enough to tell me she needed to be sure who the real father was.
"Tom, please believe me when I tell you there is no one else in my life. Tom Junior reminds me daily of what I did to our marriage and your love. I will live with that the rest of my life, a kind of stigmata. I am so sorry for hurting you!" Then Janice turned to take Tom Junior back to her car. Without looking back at me she got in and drove out of the parking lot.
If the sound of her voice while ringing the Salvation Army bell was weird the brief meeting with "my son" was even stranger.
When I turned to look at the two teenage girls they were watching me and holding each other as if sitting in a theater watching a soapy girl flick. The tears in their eyes told me they were not afraid but reflected the sadness I'd lived with for the past year. At that moment I felt estranged from a family I had never really known. If it was not for the bell-ringing I think my sanity and self-control would have completely slid away.
As I made the 42 mile dive back to Mammoth Lakes I had much to consider. I live in a small but comfortable one-bedroom apartment in Mammoth Lakes. The hardwood floors and stone fireplace give it a clean but warm feeling. Before I got back to Mammoth Lakes I received a phone call from the Hospitall asking me to come is and do an intervention for a 58 year old man who had attempted suicide.
It was Christmas Eve day and the number of people with anxiety and depressive disorders was five-times what it is when the sun shines and there is nothing to look forward to. I was thankful I was able to help other people rather than ruminate over my own problems.
By the time I finished my rounds at the Hospital I realized I was exhausted as well as confused. The gentleman who had attempted to committ suicide was an alcogolic who lived alone, had drank too much and was lonely. I think what made me feel especially tired was the thought that I could be all alone in 20 years, depressed and suicidal.
The thing I was looking forward that Christmas Eve was going to Midnight Mass, which would be at 8:00PM in the cold and snowy town of Mammoth Lakes. SoI hurried back to my apartment when my last patient gave me a hug and left. By the time I slipped into a sweat shirt and pulled my gortex parka over my head it was snowing heavily. I smiled as I began the four block tromp through the snow. The blue Christmas lights put up by the City seemed faint and the wind chilled me to the bone.
My thoughts turned to what my son might be doing the eve of his first Christmas. I was kicking at lose snow as I remembered my dog would want to go out to pee and play. Pee and play? If only life could be that simple?
I did not smell the roasting prime rib as I keyed my front door, probably because it had been so cold outside. After all, it was Christmas Eve and the only thing I was looking forward to was a hot toddy, bowl of soup and company of my faithful furry friend.
"Tom! It is about time you got home." I stood in the doorway, stunned to see my father with a mug in his hand. There had already been a plethera of surprises. "Come in, come in! It is too cold to stand there with your mouth open."
What was my father doing in Mammoth Lakes in my apartment?! I had not seen my parents in more than a year!
Before I could say anything further my mother rounded the wood columns supporting the high ceiling roof and gave me a big hug only a mother knows how to do. Keep in mind I had not seen or spoken to my parents for the entire year. Seeing them made me feel guilty but good.
"Get your jacket off and come eat. We don't want to overcook the prime rib . . . your timing is very good." I must have had the deer-in-the headlights look on my face.
As my mother spoke I heard a baby cry from my single bedroom. "Cheryl will be right out; Tom Junior had a little accident and is probably just hungry."
"Accident?" Cheryl was here?
"You know, he filled his pants." I was still too surprised to speak. When Janice emerged from the bedroom dressed in a Christmas apron and carrying our son I realized I was not going to be able to fight what was happening. Everything felt, right? I was wondering how we would all be able to sleep in the single bedroom apartment. Then I realized it didn't matter, things were going to be alright.
"Tom!" Janice came over to me with our son in her eyes, wrapped her free arm around me and kissed me. "Merry Christmas Tom." She whispered the three words in my ear then kissed my ear. I noticed she was wearing the earrings and pendant I'd given her last Christmas. "They look nice, don't they!? We need to eat if we are going to make Mass." Janice wanted to go to Mass?
Janice, Tom Junior and I went to Mass. I needed to drive my four-wheel drive FJ. Though the snow was deep we made church with three minutes to spare! It was inside the church that I first held my son. With Janice beside me and my son gurgling I don't think I heard a word the Priest said.
My parents did not stay with us that night, opting to stay at the Rafter's Lodge. They also did not go to church with us, saying they were too old and cold to be out on Christmas Eve freezing to death. With Tom Junior bundled in a portable basinet it was like sleeping with Janice for the first time. No, we did not make love that night, but we did do a little cuddling.
It was also the first time in a year I actually slept through the night. When I woke the next morning Janice was sitting up in bed, her night shirt pulled aside to allow Tom Junior access to a beautiful breast. As she suckled Tom Junior, who seemed most content, I thought I was suddenly very fortunate.
There were still unanswered questions and I would not be able to move on until I had honest answers. But those questions could wait. Yes, I would be able to forgive whatever transgressions Cheryl had committed but I would need to know the extent of the transgressions.
"You still have questions, don't you?" I leaned on one elbow as I watched Cheryl breast feed little Tom.
"Guess so . . . if you ever knew me then you understand I will never be able to pretend nothing happened." Cheryl cradled Tom Junior's tiny head as he hungrily sucked. Mother and son were beautiful. Cheryl seemed somehow at peace even if it was a practiced peace.
"You know, the moment I received your email message, and saw the photograph of Jack and I, I knew what I was doing may have destroyed our marriage. As I was showing the photographs you sent to Jack your brother walked up to our table and just stood there looking at me. Harry just shook his head and walked back to the table where he'd been sitting with his friends from work."
She stopped to think for a minute before continuing, adjusting the diaper she was using to catch Tom Junior's spittle.
"For what it's worth I never slept with Jack . . . I think I wanted to but could never get past my Catholic guilt. So I had a couple of dinners with him and agreed to meet him Christmas Eve for an early dinner at the Chart House. When you took the photographs we were reminiscing about our youth, earlier years, when we were carefree and I'd thought in love." I watched Cheryl as she spoke wondering, trying to remember why I'd fallen in love with and married her to begin with. I'd always, until last Christmas, trusted her. I'd always found her to be witty, intelligent and an incredible lover.
My expression must have shown the depth of my doubt. Cheryl, who appeared the ever-loving mother, let little Tom's head fall from her breast, exposing her extended nipple that dripped the last few drops of her milk, Tom appeared content and seemed to fall asleep in her arms.
"I remember looking at the photographs of Jack and me, seeing images that seemed foreign to me. I could see me with my little-girl-love-struck expression and instantly feeling sick and repulsed, not because they were images of ugliness, but because I immediately began to experience what you must have felt!"
"Cheryl, you will never, not in this lifetime, experience my sense of pain, shame and inadequacy." I'd interrupted Cheryl and waited for her to continue.
"Maybe so, but over the last year, giving birth to our son, being ostracized from friends and family, left me realizing the depth of how I must have hurt you. I'd already begun the process of trying to find you, knowing that making amends might take me the rest of my life. But I needed to find you to explain, apologize, to tell you I now know you are the man I love and want to spend my life with."
Cheryl stopped speaking long enough to let herself breath.
"At the same time I am a realist and know you may not want me in your life . . . but your son . . . you needed to know your son."
Cheryl pulled her bra up to cover her breast then re-adjusted the stylish flannel shirt. Cheryl had let her hair grow long and her face had filled-out becoming a little rounder than I remembered, probably from having a baby. After adjusting her shirt she seemed to sit quietly rocking Tom Junior softly, stopping to kiss his forehead.
I'd spent the last year trying to forget Cheryl and her Christmas Eve betrayal. Cheryl had spent the last year giving birth, alone, and beginning the process of raising our son, alone. Other than what was in front of me, mother, child, and the crackling of a fire-place, I realized I did not really know Cheryl. I wondered how much pain and suffering we needed to endure before moving on with our lives.
Cheryl, still rocking our son, continued her story. "By the time I got home last Christmas Eve, I sensed more than anything else, that you were not there. The smell of prime rib along with fresh baked apple pie seemed to slap me in the face rather than greet me. After calling out to you for the hundredth time I collapsed at the table you had set for us. That was when I discovered the diamond ear rings and necklace, your card and noticed the lit Christmas tree we'd decorated a few days earlier. I regretted all of the arguments we'd had, especially the one over the angel and the star." Cheryl was now crying as she spoke and I realized she wasn't wearing any make up. It gave her a clean, innocent appearance.
I realized, more intuitively than cognitively, that Janice was not hiding anything from me.
"As I held your wonderful gift I made a pledge that, one day, I would find a way to make things right between us, even if I had no idea where you had gone. By Christmas day I found myself alone, praying you would walk in the door. You never did."
There was a long silence as I slipped out of bed heading for the bathroom. It seemed like a good place to let my dog out to pee and play in the snow before grabbing a cup of coffee. When I returned Cheryl had put Tom Junior down in the middle of my bed and was cleaning up the small kitchen that was off of the great room.
"Cheryl, I have one more question."
"Whatever happened to Jack Baumgartner?" She must have known I was going to ask this question because she did not hesitate to respond.
"After the photographs appeared on my phone, and I would learn later, everyone else's phone, I left Jack sitting at the restaurant table. I'd shown him the photographs so he would understand why I left as abruptly as I did." Cheryl seemed to force herself to breath as she continued. "I have not seen or heard from him since that night. He was supposed to deploy in early January for someplace overseas but that I cannot confirm."
"And, if you are wondering, I have not had any desire to know what happened to him either. I'd already risked everything and swore I would not jeopardize anything in the days between then and now." Then and now was the time between last Christmas and this Christmas. "That was when I sent out my text message to you and everyone else on your distribution list." I remembered the text message as if I'd just received it. It read, "The man sitting next to me is Captain Jack Baumgartner. I know him and am afraid I have made the single biggest mistake of my life." At the time the message was not enough for me to call Cheryl, to return home or re-think leaving her.
Later that morning, after the snow plows had cleared most of the streets in Mammoth Lakes, Cheryl asked if we could go see our Christmas tree I had just smiled nodding yes.
By the time we were on highway 395 from Mammoth Lakes to Bishop, it was easy to find the decorated pinion tree. The sun was shining and the ornaments glistened brightly. After parking the FJ and stepping out into the cold morning the first thing I noticed was the star perched on top of the tree.
There were also at least a dozen or so vehicles pulled to the side of the road, some trudging through the snow to take pictures. Some people, with children, had walked over to the tree to appreciate every ornament. One older man, who appeared to be alone, had stooped to leave a single wrapped present beneath the tree. Like a little kid who shakes his wrapped presents to guess what is inside, I fought the urge to do the same with the old man's pinion tree gift.
"Tom?" Janice held my arm and snuggled close for a little added warmth.
"Yes?" I was mesmerized by the decorated pinion tree.
"Can I come home?" I didn't have to think about my answer. Janice, my son and I had been separated far too long.