The Race of Life — Chapter 16 (A #NaNoWriMo16 Story)

Not too many spectators were still visible on the trail. Mark was still on this river trail for a few more miles before turning back towards the town, so he wasn’t expecting to see too many. Still the sight of people lining up to watch random strangers run by was an odd thing for him. Sure, many might be out there looking for loved ones, but they were only going to see them for a few minutes before needing to either find a new vantage point, go home, or sit and watch the other runners.

You wouldn’t have the perspective of seeing the entire race or be able to see the finish if you were in the middle of the race course. Ultimately, a long race like a marathon seemed to be a boring event to watch in Mark’s opinion. Still, he loved the encouragement and felt he probably didn’t need to judge people based on that. Perhaps, it was an act of charity. Mark could actually learn a thing or two from them about being charitable.

Mark would occasionally donate to a cause or two. However, the acts of service were lacking on his end. Grace loved to help out, whether it was at the local food pantry or the homeless shelter. Her big heart was far bigger than his. She never asked for him to come along. He never pressed the issue. Part of him knows that she would have liked him to be there. Once again, it was another case where he was not standing by her.

He didn’t want to think about this anymore. He closed his eyes hard and tried to go somewhere else.

A well-appointed living room built up around him. It was the same house he had been living in just after the wedding. The same house they nearly lost. Now, just a couple of years later, it was a home. It was a two story house that they lived in. The cool feature of the house, which Mark really liked, was the second story loft setup. This allowed for a very high vaulted ceiling in the living area, making it seem even more spacious than it was.

Two tan couches met perpendicular to each other, with space for walking. A fireplace was on the far wall across from one of the couches. Across from the other was a large flat screen TV surrounded by shelving and storage areas. A large, wooden style brown table extended the length of the couches in the middle of the floor. The floor itself was hardwood — the table was actually on a rug.

It was a Saturday, and a rainy day at that. Mark was lounging on the couch, working on his laptop. Currently, he was spending a little extra time on a project for his employer. He always spent a little time on work related things at home on the weekends. He found it relaxed him during the week to know he was caught up. Since Grace occasionally had assignments on the weekends to cover events and different stories, it gave him something to do while she was busy.

After a couple of hours clacking away in his code editor, he uploaded what he needed to his company’s server and put his laptop to sleep. He sipped his coffee as he stared out the window at the pouring rain. The fan was circulating the air in the cavernous house, keeping it from becoming too stuffy. It was certainly muggy outside, but the air conditioning was taking the bite out of that inside.

The cloudiness outside underscored the sudden ringing of Mark’s phone. He scrambled for a moment to find it, realizing it must have fallen out of his pocket and into the couch. He reached in and grabbed it just in time to see who called right before it went to voicemail.

It was his Mom.

He just stared, not believing his eyes. It had been six years since the last time he had heard from them. He still had the message on his phone from graduation day. As angry as the voice on the other end was, it was still his mother. Whenever he felt that he really missed them, he would listen to the message to remember who they were and also why they were no longer talking. Why would she be calling now after all these years?

His heart pounded as he navigated to the voicemail on his phone. He put the phone to his ear and waited for the message. A woman’s voice that he recognized as his mother’s was coming through his speaker.

“Mark, this is your mother. This morning, your father had a heart attack and passed away.” She continued to speak but Mark heard nothing after that statement. Even though years had done nothing to fix the rift between them, this hit him like a punch to the stomach. The wind was knocked out of him as he did the best he could to breathe. Did he hear that correctly? He had to listen to the message again to catch it all.

“Mark, this is your mother. This morning, your father had a heart attack and passed away. As angry as I am sure you are with me, I think you need to come back and be at the funeral. Your dad would have wanted that, as his only son. Bring that girl if you want, but you should be here. It will be on Wednesday.”

After a minute, the tears came. His father was gone and he never got to say goodbye. They never got to play catch again or talk about life again. He never got to hang out with his wife or got to visit their house. Mark had done so much since the last time they had spoken that he never got to share in. This sting would not go away easily. His stomach ached hard, and he knew what was about to happen. He raced to the bathroom, making it just in time to throw up in the confines of the porcelain.

How would he tell Grace about this? After all, he knew she felt a little guilt for the complete lack of his parents being involved with their lives. It wasn’t, of course. His parents needed to get over themselves. That being said, that was how she felt and this could only make it worse. He also wondered if he needed to go alone. He didn’t want to cause his mother any more pain than she was feeling. The presence of Grace might set her off, especially as emotionally compromised as she must be.

And who would take care of her? Mark’s father was the breadwinner of the family, and well into her fifties, his mom wasn’t likely to began a new life. He wanted nothing more than to hug his mom tight right now and tell her he would take care of her.

Mark took a half an hour to compose himself before calling Grace. He didn’t know when she would be coming home, but he had to tell her while the feeling was still fresh. The phone rang a few times before she picked up.

“Hey Mark. I was just about to make the drive back. What’s up?” She asked playfully, unaware she was about to be blindsided.

“Well, I hate to tell you this, but my mom called me today.” The words came out flat, but they had their effect. The line went silent for a moment.

Grace replied “Wow. Mark. What was that all about?” Now her voice expressed some concern, but mostly curiosity. He couldn’t sugar coat it — he had to be honest with her.

“She called to tell me that. Umm. My…” — and he choked up as he had to say the words out loud, making them feel more true — “father passed away this morning.” The tears had come again.

“Oh my God Mark. I am so sorry! What can I do?” He knew she was feeling the guilt now.

“Babe. It isn’t your fault. They made their decision. I made mine. I just have to ask…” At this point Mark had made up his mind. He wanted to go alone. “…I want to make it as easy on my parents as possible. I think…I think I should go alone. Would that be okay?” He wasn’t sure what to expect.

“Mark, I totally understand. I’m here for you. Whatever you need. Send your mother my love and let her know that I really do want to get to know her. I’ll see you when I get home. I love you.” She paused, and then added something else. “And I can’t thank you enough for choosing me.” With that, the call ended.

The days passed, and Mark arranged his time off to head up to the funeral. It was going to be a long, five hour drive. He regretted as soon as he got in the car the fact he was going alone. It was going to be a long trip so early in the morning. After the funeral, he would be heading back. He didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone in the family to let him stay.

The drive felt as long as it was. Mark even pulled over a few times to rest his eyes. Caffeine was his friend as well — he polished off three cans of Diet Mountain Dew Code Red before he finally arrived at his destination. When he arrived at the church, the pit in his stomach made a return. All of these people he hadn’t seen for six years. Not his family. Not the people from church. No one. What would they think of him when he walked in? Better yet, what would he say? These people broke it off. They missed his wedding. So many layers existed between them that he hoped they could just all forget about it today and mourn and celebrate the life of his father. For the six years they didn’t have, there were twenty two that they did.

He exited the car and began his walk through the parking lot toward the entryway of the church. Wearing a black shirt shirt with a grey tie and black pants, he matched the motif of the occasion and the wardrobe of most of the other people. As he approached the front doors, froze just moments before going in. The last thing he wanted to do was make a scene. But more than anything he wanted to hug his mom. Regardless of what had happened, that had to be okay. And maybe, just maybe, it would relax everyone. Even though this circumstance was not about him, he knew his appearance would attract attention.

Slowly, he strode into the foyer. Relatives and family friends were softly engaged in conversation, barely noticing the new individual occupying their space. Instead of saying hello to Uncle Greg or Aunt Louella, he made his way straight into the church sanctuary.

Up in the front was an altar area. It was much smaller than the church he had been married in, and much more of a modern type of design. At the altar was the open casket, revealing the body that once held the soul of his dad. It was a jarring sight, one he hadn’t thought of during his time to prepare. He had thought so much about his interactions and what he might say to his mom and family that he didn’t even think that he would be encountering his father’s body. Tears came through his eyes, and he hadn’t made the hundred foot trek to the front where his father lay yet.

Sitting in the front row of the church was his mother. She was wearing a black shirt and black pants. In the six years since he had last seen her, he could tell the years had worn on her. Six years that he knew nothing about. He didn’t know about the trials they went through, the fun they had, or the stories they shared. Mark missed so much. Her hair was much grayer and the lines of her face was more numerous. She had lost weight and was looking thinner than he remembered.

He approached her cautiously, sitting alongside her.

“Hello mom.” She turned and started bawling. Mark did the only thing he could think of, the instinctive action. He reached out and hugged her tightly. Both of them were now crying, and embracing tightly. Six years of emotion packed into this moment. Mark knew this didn’t make everything okay, but he couldn’t help feel that it was a step in the right direction for them.

Mark stayed by her side during the entire ceremony. It was sad and tearful. His uncle gave a heartfelt eulogy about the life of his dad. He even heard a few stories he hadn’t heard about his father. The church was packed with people coming to pay their respects. It amazed Mark just how many lives his father touched. He could only think of one that he didn’t — Grace’s.

The ceremony ended with the pall bearer’s walking the casket out to the loud cries of those who would miss him most. Mark couldn’t believe this was really going to be the last time he would see his dad.

After the trip to the cemetery and the burial, they gathered back at the church for fellowship and a meal. Mark didn’t really want to go — he knew that every conversation would have the potential to turn to him. But, he wanted to be there for his mom, so he came along. Mark gathered a small plate of food from the line, nodding politely at the church volunteers serving. He knew them as older members of the church. Taking a seat at the table next to his mom, he awaited the questions that he thought would more than likely come.

But, his worst fears were never realized. Whether they were just being nice on this saddest of days, or if they were over it, the conversations were civil. They asked about his job, his house, and even his wife. He kept glancing over at his mom, but she didn’t noticeably react to anything. It was nice to be able to fill his family in on his life over the past six years. So many things had changed, and now, after an hour of talking, it seemed like nothing at all had changed.

When it came time to leave, he walked out with his mom. It was time to have a more difficult conversation.

“Mom, I am so sorry that I haven’t been here. I am sorry about dad. And I really want you to be in our lives. But we need to bury the hatchet and you need come and meet my wife and get to know her. I promise you, you’ll love her.”

His mom didn’t answer, just staring ahead into the parking lot. Mark wasn’t sure if she was just searching for the words or not, but he didn’t like the silence, so he spoke again.

“I know it will be hard now without dad around. Let me take care of you. We can. You just have to let us.”

He waited again. Finally, she spoke.

“Yes. I’d like that.”

Mark smiled slightly. He responded “I’ll call you when we can come up and visit for a weekend. Please let me know if you need anything.”

As he began to walk away his mom grabbed his arm. She spoke. “Can you stay tonight? I don’t want to be alone in the empty house for at least a night.”

He turned and hugged her tightly. “Of course mom, anything for you.”

Mark reverted back to the race. He knows that they day didn’t fix everything. Too much had happened for it to be that simple. But it was the first step and he knew things got better from there. Knowing he did it once, he had to believe it could happen again. Unlike a run, where every step can only wear you out more, life wasn’t so simple. Some steps healed. For his mom, it took a few. For Grace — he felt that it would take a marathon.

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