Hank Anderson could hear them talking around him. They thought that he couldn’t, but he could – every word. The Illness that confined him to a hospital bed left him weak, and the struggle to move or speak had become too unbearable. But his ears – they worked just fine.
All this fighting and squabbling over a simple set of switches, he thought. Stupidity. Even if they left him hooked up to the dammed machines, it would only be a matter of hours, maybe days, until the cancer finally took him. Better to get it over with quick. Besides, he promised to meet Anne, and she’d been waiting for him for over twenty-five years. It was time – time to go to her, to be with her in their house in the clouds. That’s what she had called it, their house in the clouds.
Hank met Anne in a coffee shop back in 1973. She had to be around twenty-five years old back then, he figured and Hank was attracted to her from the moment he saw her, sitting across the dining room, tucked into a small booth reading. Feeling his gaze, she peeked over the top of the book and smiled at him.
If someone were to ask Hank what the first thing was that caught his attention about Anne, he would have said her eyes. She had the most beautiful brown eyes he’d ever seen. The kind of eyes a man could get lost in, Hank would often think.
He got his cup of coffee and made his way to where she was sitting. She looked up at him as he approached, smiled, and then returned her gaze to her book.
“Is there someone sitting with you?” He asked
“Do you see anyone?” Not bothering to look at him.
Hank was amused by her answer. We got a smart ass here, he thought.
“Well, umm…What I meant to say was, may I join you?”
Anne glanced up at him again, saw his haggard expression and relented.
Six months later, they were married.
Hank was a strapping, young, twenty-six year old man at that time. He sold life insurance door to door back then and didn’t make a lot of money, but he managed to earn enough to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, and the three children who came soon after. Everything was perfect in their lives. Hank and Anne took care of their little family the best way they could and enjoyed the benefits that came from hard work and true love.
In 1983, Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was thirty-two years young at the time, and the doctors seemed to have high expectations. For good reason too, since the tumors shrank and they were able to be removed after only one round of chemotherapy. It was branded a miracle – full recovery. Anne was given a new lease on life, and the Andersons continued to chug along through life together.
The second time that Anne was diagnosed with cancer was in 1985. She went to the Doctors for a check-up and came home with a death sentence. It seemed that the good ole experts had counted their proverbial chickens before they hatched and now had egg on their faces. That time, the cancer had spread unchecked through her body. The quacks gave her six months, but told her that with some of the newer treatments, she could possibly last a year – Anne declined. She said that a better quality of a short life was more important to her than an agonizing long one. Reluctantly, Hank supported her decision. With nothing left they could do, the doctors prescribed Anne pain killers and sent her home to die.
Hank and Anne didn’t take the time they had left together for granted. They lived every day as if it were their last. Often, during that first year, Hank would wake up and find Anne staring at him with teary eyes and a warm smile.
“You okay Hun?” he would ask her.
“Just enjoying the moment,” she’d say. Enjoying the moment became her favorite response to everything. It was all she could do.
One night, toward the end of that first year, Anne shook Hank awake.
“What’s wrong Baby, are you okay?” Hank said.
“I was just wondering something, but I don’t know exactly how to word it.”
“What is it Hun? You can ask me anything.”
“Oh… I was just wondering if you plan on, you know, getting remarried after I die.”
Squinting her eyes, she stared at him with her famous ‘you’re full of shit’ glare.
“Seriously, Baby” Hank said “I look forward to eternity with you. If they have weddings in the afterlife, we’ll do it all again, okay?”
She snuggled him a little tighter. Hank noticed tears beginning to run down her cheeks and gently wiped them away with his hand.
“Truly, and don’t go thinking that you’re off the hook once you get up there either. I better not show up and find you wrapped around the arm of James Dean!”
“James Dean?” She said, snuggling her face against his neck. “He’s hot.”
They both started laughing, which led to kissing, which led to…well, you know.
It was good for Hank to see her smiling. It renewed his strength in a way. Later on, after she’d become noticeably sick, but before she was on permanent bed pan status, they stayed up in the reading room talking to each other and enjoying each other’s company. They talked and laughed like they did when they’d first met. Nothing was sacred. They talked about politics, they talked about the neighbors and the kids, but mostly, they talked about heaven and what they planned to do there when they were together again.
“What do you think its like?” Anne asked.
“I don’t know,” Hank said. “Whatever you want it to be like, I guess.”
“Do you think that you can really do anything – be anything?”
Sitting close together on the sofa, flames snapping in the fireplace, Hank pulled his wife close to him and squeezed her tight. “I do, Baby,” he said, staring into the fire. “I really do.”
“Well then,” she said. “I know what I’m going to do to occupy my time until you get there.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m going to build us a house. That way, you’ll be able to find me, and we can have a special place just for us – our own little place, tucked back in the clouds. We’ll have a large porch where we can just sit and drink cold tea, and look down on our children and grandchildren together.”
“A house in the clouds?” Hank asked.
“I can’t wait to see it.”
“You’ll really meet me there?”
“You know I will.”
When Anne passed away a few months later, Hank figured that he would follow her within the next few years. He’d already been having heart problems by then, but as the years churned by, he realized that God wasn’t going to let him go so easily. If it hadn’t been for their children, he may have tried to speed things along, but he promised her that he would look after them.
After the children were grown and gone, Hank retired from his job and spent most of his days at his home, waiting. A visiting son or daughter would often swing by the house and find him sitting on the back porch, glass of tea in his hand and staring up at the sky. He would spend hours like that, imagining himself sitting on a porch with Anne, holding hands at their house in the clouds.
He could hear them in his room again – the quacks and the kids. They were talking about him like he wasn’t there.
“The court made a ruling on the matter, the do not resuscitate order stands.” The doctor said.
“He’s our father,” Ricky, Hank’s oldest son said. “We think that we know what he wants better than some stupid court.”
Hank had heard enough. He gathered what little strength he had and called his oldest son’s name.
“Ricky, come here.”
All three of his kids gathered around his bed, but it was Ricky who spoke to his dying father.
“Papa?” He said. “Papa, can you hear me?”
Hank managed to lift his hand and Ricky held it.
“Papa,” Ricky said. “They want to let you die. Tell them that’s not what you want.”
“Come…Closer…,” Hank rasped, “all of you.”
Ricky, James, and Jessica all leaned closer to their father. Jessica, his only daughter, gently pulled his long, unkempt grey bangs away from his fading green eyes.
“What is it, Papa,” Jessica said. “Do you need anything?”
Tears welled up in Hank’s eyes as he looked at each one of his children. We did a great job, Baby, he thought. They’ve grown up good and right.
“What can we do for you Papa?” James asked. Crying, he leaned down and kissed his father’s pale forehead. Before he could pull away, Hank surprised all by grabbing his son’s head and looking into his eyes.
“Let me go.” He said
The machines were switched off soon after. As Hank’s life faded, he saw visions in his mind that he hadn’t been able to recall for many years. Snap-shots of his childhood and the rest of his life played out before him. He relived his wedding and drank in the happiness that he saw on Anne’s face. He saw his children being born again and experienced again the awesome feeling of becoming a father. When the life inside him drained away completely, he was smiling.
“Welcome home son.”
“It’s so bright,” Hank said to the voice. “I can’t see you.”
From out of the light, a form emerged. His mother, looking like she did when she was very young, walked toward him.
“Mom?” Henry said.
“I’ve missed you so much Henry.”
“Is this heaven?” He asked.
“Not quite” She said. “You have a choice to make son. You can move on and create your own paradise – a world that only you can imagine, or you can choose to be reborn. The choice is yours, but you must make it, there is no turning back.
“Easy,” Hank said. “I’m moving on. I promised Anne that I would meet her. She’s waiting for me.”
His mother placed her hands on his shoulders and looked at him tearfully.
“What is it?” Hank asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh Henry,” she said. “Anne chose to be reborn.”
Hanks mouth hung open in disbelief.
“But, she promised me,” he said. “We had a plan.”
“She said that if fate brought you two together once, then perhaps it will bring you back together again.”
Hank thought about his mother’s words for a moment and then made his choice.
“Don’t run off too far, Yvette!” the little girl’s mother called out. We’re going to be having the cake and ice-cream soon.”
“Okay, mommy,” the Yvette said. With all of the kids at her sixth birthday party, the swings at the playground were constantly being used. When she saw one empty, she ran for it. After a few attempts, she managed to get herself onto the swing. Grunting and twisting, she couldn’t seem to make it work.
“Daddy, come push me!” she yelled to her father over her shoulder.
“I’ll be right there, sweetie!” he called back from his usual place at the grill.
About half way across the playground, she saw a boy about her age. The boy was squatting down on his bare knees, shoveling sand into a red plastic bucket with a small, matching shovel. The swing forgotten, Yvette worked her way off it and skipped up to where the small boy was playing.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
“Making a house,” the boy answered without looking up. “I wanna make houses when I grow up.”
“Can I help?”
The boy let out a long sigh.
“I guess. Do you know how to make houses?”
“Sure,” Yvette said, “I love houses!”
The boy finished packing sand into the bucket, flipped it over, and then gently lifted it, leaving a perfectly round tower of sand. He stood up with the empty bucket and handed it to Yvette.
“You get the sand and I’ll make the house okay? Next time, you can make the house.”
“Okay,” Yvette said, smiling. She reached out for the bucket, but as she looked at his face, she found that she’d forgotten all about making houses. She stood there, staring at him. He must’ve seen something in her face too, because he stared back at her, studying her face.
His eyes, Yvette thought, staring into the boy’s brown eyes, so pretty.