We’ll Meet Again
The carolers arrived at my front door on Christmas eve, about half past six. They were an impressive group, each of them skilled in vocal harmony, and dressed in black wool cloaks and red scarves. The men were stoic beneath vintage top hats, and the women similarly wore red and white bonnets to match their scarves. Cradled in each of their hands were brass chamber candle holders. The soft glow of candlelight surrounding them, coupled with their outfits and incredible singing abilities, were comforting displays of nostalgic holiday joy. If I hadn’t known any better, I might have thought I had been thrown back in a Dickens production. It was that good.
In the old days, this was common practice. In fact, I wondered how many carolers had graced these old granite steps over the years. How many families stood captivated — enchanted, even — by yuletide melodies as they peered out of this very same oak-framed doorway. I have always been mesmerized by this old Bangor victorian. Built by a wealthy lumber baron in 1855, it was built to last, and by the grace of God, almost all of its original features had been well preserved for one hundred sixty-two years. There have been many a time, since I bought it late in 2014, that the charm of the old, mahogany trim in the foyer, or the wide, majestic staircase leading upstairs, or the decorative tin ceiling in the kitchen, each had me so spellbound that I’d have given my left arm to go back in time. If these walls could talk, I would hang on their every word.
Outside, a fresh snow whispered through the night air. It clung gently to the carolers’ wool cloaks, blanketing the old neighborhood in a serene quietude. The scene was not once disturbed by a passing vehicle, and I closed my eyes to imagine the clacking of horseshoes, the crunching snow beneath a wagon wheel, as the Coachman awaited his caroling passengers in the roadway in front of what would one day become my house.
My story was interesting as it was, long before the night of the carolers. I have done well for a recovering opioid addict in eastern Maine. I include this as a highlight for one key reason: Irony. I never experimented with drugs or alcohol like many people do during those teenage years. In 1994 I was 23 years old. I’d never so much as drank a full beer or smoked a joint. I was driving some friends home from a party, when my vehicle was struck head on by an impaired driver. My car was totaled, and my best friend, Steve Jenkins, lost his life. I was in a coma for seventeen weeks, and spent the better part of the following six years in an out of operating rooms and physical therapy sessions. I had made outstanding progress, considering the extent of my injuries, but I still suffered from residual pain in my right leg, and an occasional night terror. As a result, my doctor sent me on my way with a pile of brand name prescriptions, and I obliged, having no idea how they would control my life in years to come. In those years that followed, I burned a lot of bridges, conniving and stealing, anything to scratch the itch. But eventually I got the help I needed. Sure, I was banged up, and I even found the courage to make some apologies for my behavior. In time I put myself back together enough to become a licensed substance abuse counselor. I’ve since written articles, self-help guides, and two award winning books, which have enabled me to travel the country for promotional and speaking engagements. This is not the life I envisioned, but I’m doing the best with what God gave me. I don’t consider myself religious — spiritual, if anything — but I do believe I have been blessed with second chances and beautiful moments like these to keep me in check.
The carolers paused a moment, then broke into Good King Wenceslas, and I’d be remiss without saying it brought tears to my eyes. You’ve heard this song a thousand times, no doubt, but few really know of its origin, or even its name. It tells the story of a Bohemian king braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen, which is December 26, otherwise known as the Second Day of Christmas. Most people don’t realize the traditional twelve days of Christmas, with its partridges, pear trees and golden rings, actually begins Christmas Day and goes straight into January. Just another factoid I’ve managed to wow people with over the years.
The group continued the song, and I closed my eyes, tears rolling down my face. I was reminded of my oldest friend, the departed Steve Jenkins, whose family always hosted the most elaborate Christmas gatherings in their home. The Jenkins family are brilliant people. They are well-read and know their history, so it came as no surprise that they often cited the full story of King Wenceslas. In the years before the accident, the running joke Steve had with his parents always hinged upon the arrival of the good King on the day after Christmas. “He’s on his way, folks!” Steve would joke. “Just a few more days before my alms arrive, and this peasant will live like a king! I shall grant to thee a feast — THE FEAST OF STEPHEN! — and we all shall fill thy bellies with London Broils and finest Maine potatoes from Doug’s Shop n’ Save!”
As we got older, the theatrics became embellished, and the menu more extravagant. I remember his mother setting the scene for him, anticipating a stellar performance as she cued up the record player. This was one of my life’s most favorite moments, and the memory of it was so vivid, I swore he was standing next to me.
As the carolers finished the song, I was surrounded by my young family, and some of the neighbors had come over to enjoy the show. It was so enchanting that my wife and I invited them all in, including the carolers, for hot chocolate and cookies. It dawned on me that it had been some time since I’d felt this much joy, and I didn’t want the impromptu social to end. Everyone was happy, everyone was engaged in pleasant conversation, and everyone seemed to be very peaceful in my home. I believe this should be every man’s ambition.
In the corner of the parlor stood an old man. He was dressed in a cloak and held a top hat in his hands. I hadn’t noticed him before. He seemed quite pleasant as he smiled, looking around at the group. I watched him for a moment, and eventually his eyes met mine. His smile widened, and he nodded. His old eyes sparkled, he winked, and casually I made my way to him.
“You have a beautiful home, son,” said the man, who I’d guessed had to have been somewhere in his late 80’s.
“Thank you, mister…?” I leaned toward him with my ear.
“Morse. Oliver Morse. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Mr. Morse, the pleasure is all mine. I’m Eric Wendell. Welcome to my home, won’t you have a seat?”
We shook hands for an extended period of time, longer than I was comfortable with, and long enough for me to have to look him in the eye.
“Thank you, but it’s not necessary. I’ve had my time here, now it’s your turn.”
“But you just arrived, how can you leave so quickly?” I said.
“Son, I’ve been here longer than you might think,” he said as his smile faded. His eyes grew tired and filled with tears. “And you are an excellent host. You have brought joy to a great many souls, and you will be rewarded.”
I loosened my grip and pulled my hand away, not completely sure of what door may have been opened. But Oliver Morse was very intriguing, and though my brain told me to walk away, my heart was compelled to hear his story.
“My Great Grandfather built your house” he said as he looked around, “and generations of my family occupied it up until the second world war, when my four brothers went off to fight. None of them left Europe alive, and my mother, my dear mother,” he began to tremble as he spoke, “She never got over it.”
“I am so, so sorry, Mr. Morse,” I said, floored by the emotion pouring from this gentle old soul. “I’m not sure there is a loss greater than a mother losing her child, let alone four at once. She must have been completely devastated.”
“Indeed. In 1953 my father boarded up the house and had her committed to Eastern Maine Insane Asylum, where she waited.”
Waited. In the moments after those words were uttered, I felt an icy chill run up my spine, as if his mother were standing behind me, her dead finger slowly climbing up the center of my back.
I knew what he meant, so I didn’t press it.
He continued, “It sat here until 1981, empty. The Victrola and the bookshelf by the stairs were both here when you moved in, weren’t they?”
I didn’t answer, because I wasn’t sure where this was going, and I had begun to feel very uneasy.
“It’s okay, son,” he said. ”I didn’t come here to cause any discomfort. I came here to help. I can help, if you let me.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Mr. Morse. What do I need help with?”
He looked at me inquisitively.
“I think a more appropriate question is what don’t you need help with.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“You are great at healing the broken-hearted, but who will fix you?”
“Mr. Morse,” I said, “What’s this about? Have we met before?”
“Indirectly, yes,” he stated. “I suppose you could say we have mutual interests. I am connected to people who desperately need your help. If you are willing to help them, they can help you in ways you cannot currently imagine.”
“Alright,” I responded. “Is it legal?”
He let out a hearty guffaw, which seemed to echo throughout the house, but none of the guests noticed. “Yes, Mr. Wendell, it is most certainly legal.”
“And these friends of yours, what is it that they desperately need?” I asked, cautiously.
“Let’s just say they are lost travelers who need to come home.”
“And if I can assist in their homecoming, what kind of help should I expect?”
“To begin with,” he said, “you must first allow yourself to be helped, which is something you struggle with. Then, you must allow yourself to believe.”
“Mr. Morse,” I said sternly, “I know we’ve never met, so why do I get the feeling you know more about me than you’re letting on? What’s the catch here?”
“There are things,” he said before pausing, “that people are not aware they are capable of. As I mentioned, you have accomplished so very much, yet you’ve never given yourself an inch of acknowledgment. There is tremendous joy in helping others, this I know. I am here to help you help yourself.”
“But first I have to help you, is that correct?”
“Not exactly. I know you more than you think I do. I know your weakness. It hangs on you like a ship’s anchor, constantly weighing you down. Your family doesn’t know it, but they depend on you to pull this anchor and move on. Otherwise, you’ll sink.” He paused, and lifted the sleeve of my sweater, revealing scars and track marks on my arms. “Again.”
I could feel my heartbeat increasing, my mouth turning to cotton and the sensation in my stomach that I was on the downside of a steep roller coaster. Don’t panic. You’ve been through this before. You got this. Come on. COME ON!
I hadn’t experienced a panic attack in several years, and I wasn’t about to let a stranger, however well intentioned, cause me one, in my house, on Christmas Eve.
I stepped back, surveyed the room, and grounded myself by thinking of every person in the house by name. It was a distraction tactic that had always served me well, and it seemed to work this time too. I regained my composure and turned back to Oliver Morse, who was no longer there.
Standing in his place was my dead best friend Steve Jenkins.
Jenksy stared at me with the same sparkly eyes as Oliver Morse, and didn’t blink once.
Nor did I.
I’d never experienced hanging out with ghosts, and in the moment I wasn’t quite sure that was the case, but it certainly registered in my mind. He was a walking, talking time capsule, dressed exactly how I had remembered him in stone washed jeans, white Reebok high tops, and a t-shirt that said “Coed Naked Billiards — Get Felt On The Table.” The shirt was, in itself, most peculiar, as it occurred to me that it had once been part of my wardrobe.
“Lookin’ good, Wendy,” he said casually. “I can’t believe you live in this museum. Hell, I can’t believe you still live in Bangor. When are you gonna bounce and make something of yourself?” he chuckled.
“Jenksy?” I muttered, though my heart was beating so loud and so fast, that I wasn’t sure I’d actually made a sound.
“What’s the matter?” he replied. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
He laughed, and I felt weak as the room spun around me.
“Settle down, cowboy,” Jenksy said, “I know this is a lot to swallow but I promise you’re gonna be fine. Focus on your breathing, or your face counting thing, whatever that is.”
It was really him. The teasing, the jokes, the sarcasm. It was all there. My best buddy since grade school, who died twenty-three years ago, was standing three feet in front of me.
“This isn’t real,” I whispered to myself. “Gotta be a dream. Maybe I’m cr — ”
“Oh this is real alright.” Jenksy said. “And you’re not cracking up. It’s really me, buddy!”
“How did you get here?” I asked, trying to come up with something, anything, to say. “Where’s Oliver? What is this?”
“This can’t really be put into words. Oliver’s kind of a rookie, hasn’t been with me long, but he is progressing well. Meeting you was his first exposure, and he handled it okay, don’t you think?”
“You don’t want to know what I’m thinking,” I sighed. The truth was that I wanted him to know. I wanted to tell him everything. The guilt, the years of pain and suffering, the amount of anguish, both physical and mental. I have been in my own personal hell.
“I do want to know, actually,” he replied. “But it won’t change anything unless you make it so.”
“How do I make it so?” I pleaded. “How do I fix this?”
“Fix? There’s no fixing. Only forgiving.”
“I’m still so angry,” I blurted. “It wasn’t your time. You should have fought harder. You should still be here. You should have a wife and family, and our kids should be opening presents together in the morning. I’d give anything to hear the latest and greatest King Wenceslas bit”
I was sobbing. My living room had gone empty, and I hadn’t a clue where the guests had gone. I didn’t care.
“Wendy,” he said gently, “we both know you’re not angry with me. We both know your anguish. It’s okay to feel it, but it’s time to take all that expertise, all that healing power you give to others, and turn it inward. It’s your turn now.”
“But I can’t change the past. It haunts me every damn day. Please help me, Jenksy.”
“That’s why I’m here. I cannot progress unless you do.”
At this point I had begun to calm myself, and some of that old sarcasm made its way back.
“What are you, my guardian angel?” I quipped, wiping my nose with the handkerchief in my pocket.
He laughed and said “Not quite, buddy. That would be Oliver. And what’s with the handkerchief? You are aware of the advanced innovation behind the tissue?”
“Huh,” I said, and chuckled at this old banter. It was like no time had passed at all. “I really don’t know what to make of this.”
“Remember what Oliver said. You have to believe.”
“Ok, ok,” I said. “Say I believe this is really happening, that you’re really here telling me to let it all go, to somehow forgive myself, the drunk driver, and you, you especially, for leaving. What happens then?”
“I can’t tell you that. Everything hinges upon your choice. You were given free will the moment you were born. Whatever you decide to do will have a result, perhaps even a consequence. If I tell you what to expect, it will influence your choice and you won’t learn anything from it. You can do this.”
I paused before replying. I knew what I’d wanted to say, and needed a few extra seconds to put it all together. He waited in silence.
“Twenty-three years. It amazes me how much time has gone by, yet here we are, hamming it up like we always did.”
He nodded, smiling. He was blurry through my watering eyes.
“I need for you to know how sorry I am,” I began, nearly choking on the sobs. “I need for you to hear me say that I’d give anything to have made a different choice that night. I’d have waited an extra minute, taken a different road home, whatever. You were my brother, and when you left, there was a hole that couldn’t be filled. It’s still there, but I’m finding better ways to heal.”
“I also want you to know I don’t blame you for checking out. The world is one hell of a mess today. I’m sure it’s much more tolerable where you are.”
That was more of a question than a statement, and he knew it. He smirked before responding, “Oh, it is much, much more tolerable. You can count on that.”
I continued, “This guilt has been intense. The drugs weren’t my choice, but over time I understood that they were the best method. I needed to kill myself slowly, so I would suffer longer, and satisfy the punishment I deserved.”
“But you’re still here. You never suffered enough, did you?” Jenksy queried.
“No. Somehow, despite how screwed up I was, I didn’t have the balls to end it. Eventually I snapped out of it, got myself together, and here I am. But seeing you now, hearing your voice, talking to you, perhaps I just needed to know it wasn’t really the end of the road for you. Is it safe to assume you’re still here?”
“Yes. All you need to do is think of me from time to time. I promise I will be here. And I was there in your darkest hour.”
“This other place, is it all you hoped for?”
“And more,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve been able to do. I’ve jammed with Lennon, tipped a few pints back with Bonzo, gone fishing with Hemingway. I can even fly.”
The joy I felt in hearing these activities, however silly they were to me, was the catalyst for moving out of the darkness. I wondered if I’d ever been so happy or known this much peace. He noticed, and nodded in confirmation.
“Atta boy, Wendy,” he said. “See how good that feels?”
“I get it now,” I said. “Can you stay a while?”
“No can do, Chief. DeLorean’s running,” he said as he winked. At that moment I knew it was real, all of it. Jenksy always found a way to insert Back To The Future into conversation. He knew every line. Perhaps this was his confirmation that somehow, things would go back to normal.
“We’ll meet again,” he continued. “Not anytime soon, of course, but someday.”
“Ok, my man,” I replied, as I always had. “If you see the boss, put in a good word for me.”
“I’m still looking for him myself,” he said, and winked.
Just then, a small gathering of cheers erupted from my kitchen, about fifteen feet away. I turned and was immediately drawn to the Christmas decor. And the furniture.
If I could have ventured a guess, I would have supposed it was my living room, sometime in the 1940's.
The air was thick with joy and love. In that moment I was overcome with gratitude, filled from head to toe with indescribable happiness. I turned to bid farewell to Jenksy, but he had already gone. A familiar voice called to me from the kitchen doorway.
“Won’t you join us, Mr. Wendell?” He said.
I made my way toward him. Other than the furniture, and beautiful holiday decorations, my house didn’t really look that different. A giant fir wreath hung from the stone chimney above the fireplace. On the mantle hung seven knitted stockings, each embroidered with different names. The Christmas tree was peppered with glass ornaments, covered with enough tinsel to be seen from space. Every surface available was blanketed in red or white cloth, including the sofa and chairs. Strings of garland dipped from the ceiling trim every three or four feet, and the aroma of balsam lingered in the room.
Tinny pops and crackles of an old record player filled the air, and as I made my way to the kitchen, I noticed the Victrola against the wall. Sitting in the same spot as it was in my home, I had wondered if any of the previous owners had ever moved it. I know I haven’t. Maybe it was stuck to the floor.
The radio was propped open, which was also something I’d never done. In it spun an old 45 by Vera Lynn. “We’ll Meet Again,” she sang, and soon all the men and women in the kitchen joined in chorus.
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when. But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through, just like you always do,’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.”
It was a homecoming, and it was beautiful.
By the time I reached the threshold, they all held each other in loving embrace. Two older people, presumably a mother and father, stood surrounded by loved ones, laughing, hugging, and celebrating as if they hadn’t seen each other in years.
Four of the young men, each of them dressed impeccably in decorated service uniforms, seemed to notice me simultaneously, and focused intently on my arrival. The older woman followed suit.
A fifth young man, also dressed in uniform, spoke as he appeared. The celebration quieted as I arrived.
“Mr. Wendell,” he said, “You have outdone yourself this Christmas.” I recognized his gentle voice, but his face, though very familiar, took me longer.
“You have, indeed. Your hospitality, kindness, and overall appreciation for all who have entered your home, especially those who lived and died before your lifetime, has been most greatly appreciated. You have gifted us eternal peace, and you will be rewarded. Quite the feat, considering you were only asked to do one thing.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
Here he stood, a younger version of the old man I spoke with in my living room. Was he the only brother to survive the war?
‘They never left Europe.’
‘My dear mother.’
They finally got their homecoming, and I’m witnessing it, seventy-two years later, in their home filled with love and joy. This home will one day become mine. I, too, will fill it with love and joy. I still don’t know how to put it all into words. All this time I have been looking for an explanation. Why was I chosen to reunite this family, who once lived here in my home? What did Jenksy have to do with it?
I also don’t know if I’m time travelling or if I’m in some other dimension. All I know is that the emotion is real. This was a gift. Someone out there — Oliver, maybe Jenksy — knew how badly I needed their guidance. I was put to the test to see if I could navigate the ethereal, and learned more about myself than I ever thought possible. My life will never again be the same. Peace has finally found me.
I don’t remember closing my eyes, but I remember opening them to find myself back in my home, surrounded by my own family and friends. My children were running around in a Christmas frenzy, no doubt excited for Santa’s arrival, all the while hopped up on cookies and cocoa.
Feeling like I had just woken up from a dream, within moments I began to wonder what in the name of Christ just happened to me. I could still hear that old Vera Lynn song in my head, and as I looked around the room, my eyes locked in on the old Victrola that I’d walked by a thousand times without notice. I sauntered toward it with extreme curiosity.
I didn’t even know how to open it. I ran my hand along the edges, knowing there must be a tab somewhere to lift. My fingers located a slight bow in the trim, not noticeable to the eye, and I lifted the lid.
It gave a loud creak. I must have been the first person to open this thing in decades. Through the cobwebs, on the turntable sat an old 45. We’ll Meet Again. Words and music by Vera Lynn.
I know we will, and this realization brings me tremendous comfort.
Sometimes, the healer needs the healing.