Jeff was late. Resentment, despair, and anger overcame my limited patience. I couldn’t take the holiday music and festive decorations a moment longer. Not when I was facing the worst Christmas of my life.
I worked my way past a crowd of carolers just coming through the door. Fresh air felt good on my face and in my hair in spite of the dismal gray chill. The sudden quiet, broken only by distant traffic suited my mood. I felt alone and cut off from everything I had once been. All I really wanted was Julie.
Except, I’d said goodbye to Julie.
Not Goodbye, see you tomorrow, but goodbye, and have a nice life.
I jerked my chair onto the path we had traveled so many times during rehab. Me helpless in the chair. Julie pushing.
Julie had been at my bedside when I finally regained consciousness. I don’t recall what I said to her, but it must have been pretty strange because she’d cracked up. I’d been in a drug-induced fog and hadn’t seen the tears mixed into her laughter.
She’d missed a whole semester of college to be at my side. But it was time to set her free. She didn’t need an anchor for the rest of her life. Julie loved to dance. I didn’t have legs to dance on. She dreamed of traveling to far-away places. I had trouble just making my way to the mailbox. Julie wanted kids. What if I could no longer give her even that? Julie deserved better than me.
Julie disagreed, but she hadn’t seen me struggling in rehab. She hadn’t seen me throw my specially-made prosthesis at the wall in frustrated anger. She hadn’t heard me screaming in pain. Or waking from a nightmare. She’d be better off if she never did.
My chair lurched to a stop when it left the paved path. I cursed and wrestled it forward. I hated my new reality. I’d been a track star in high school, excelling in high jump and hurdles. Now I’d never jump again and just getting out of bed was a hurdle.
Sweating and still cursing, I finally got myself down to the pond. When I’d asked Julie to bring me here three days ago, the sparkle in her eyes had told me she expected me to propose. Instead, I’d told her to take a hike.
All I’d ever considered being when I grew up was a cop. But in our family, military service came first. What kind of run-down police force hires a cripple? I had no idea how I was going to support myself for the next fifty years, never mind a wife and kids.
No reasons left to endure the desert my life had become. Julie had taken my heart with her, along with the sun and laughter and everything that had made the last few months bearable.
I didn’t see the goose until my wheels crunched into a pile of dead leaves, and made her flinch. She eyed me with alarm and tried to move away, but a broken wing made escape impossible. We gazed at each other in shared misery. Then her attention turned elsewhere.
A gander glided gracefully in and landed between us. They should have flown south months ago, but clearly her injury had kept them grounded. Somewhere I’d read that geese mated for life. The faithful male made soft sounds in his throat while his mate ate the food he’d brought her. Apparently deciding I was no threat, he took a couple running steps and soared back into the air. A few minutes later he returned with another offering.
Did the gander know his mate would probably never fly again? Perhaps instinct told him she wouldn’t, but it hadn’t mattered. She was his mate and if she couldn’t go, then neither would he.
My eyes stung. Julie had shown me the same kind of faithfulness, but I had turned her away. I’d convinced myself it was for her good. I back-handed tears that escaped down my cheeks. I’d been so busy thinking of what I wanted and couldn’t have that I hadn’t listened to anything she said. Hadn’t considered what she wanted that I could still give her.
The gander returned once again. He folded his wings and settled in beside his mate. The two sat peacefully in the chilly December air, content in each other’s company.
I’d been so wrong. Julie and I shared something special. It had survived the crazy tumult of our teenage years. It had weathered the separation of Boot Camp and college. It had been strong enough to bring her rushing to my bedside the moment the Army had deposited me at Walter Reed. Maybe she hadn’t seen the worst of my temper, but she hadn’t flinched at the sight of my stumps.
The love I felt for that smart, funny, generous woman had been the center of my universe for almost half my life. We were meant to be life mates. Just like this gander and his goose.
I wiped my palms on my jeans, then gripped the wheels with determination. Maybe it wasn’t too late to admit what a jerk I’d been and fix what I’d broken.
Jeff pulled up in front of Julie’s parent’s home. I’d picked her up here a thousand times and seen her run eagerly down the stairs to meet me. Now I prayed she’d even agree to see me. After the things I’d told her three days ago, I wouldn’t blame her if she sent her father to the door to send me packing.
Christmas candles winked in the windows and a wreath hung at the door. Then I noticed the newly built ramp. Raw, pressure-treated wood. A handrail at the appropriate height installed with the expectation that I’d be coming often and would want to manage on my own. Shame welled up in me.
Even Julie’s parents had accepted who I was now and had made adjustments. They could have wanted so much more for their only daughter.
Jeff opened the car door and unfolded my chair. I waved him away as I shifted myself from the car to the chair. If the Thomases still had faith in me, then I damned well wasn’t going to disappoint them.
Jeff squeezed my shoulder. “I’ll text before I leave to make sure you’re set.”
“Thanks.” I set the chair in motion.
As I neared the top of the ramp Julie’s dad appeared at the door. He held it open for me. “It’s about time you came to your senses, young man.”
“Yes, sir,” I agreed, pushing myself across the threshold.
Julie stood halfway down the staircase to the upper floor biting her lip. Her eyes looked puffy and raw. My heart contracted with guilt and the sudden fear at what her hesitation might mean.
Christmas music filtered in from the front room. I’ll be home for Christmas was playing, and I realized I was home. I’d finally come home to the only woman who could ever make my life feel whole again.
I was crying again, but I didn’t care. “I’m sorry,” I croaked. “I was wrong.”
Julie flew into motion, running down the remaining steps. She dropped to her knees and flung her arms about my neck. I heard the door to the kitchen close softly as her father left us alone.
I hugged her close for a long time, then gently pushed her away. I dug in my jacket pocket for the ring Jeff had obligingly stopped at the jewelers for.
“I’d get down on my knees, but I’m afraid I might not be able to get back up,” I began lamely.
“Yes!” she shouted before I even had a chance to pop the question. “Yes, yes, yes! This is the best Christmas of my whole life. I love you so much.” Her voice rose on the last word as tears spilled out of her beautiful brown eyes.
My hand shook as I pushed the ring onto her finger. It was turning out to be the best Christmas of my life, too. Barely registering the pain, I pulled her onto my lap and kissed her. I poured everything I was feeling into it, hoping she would know how very much I loved her, because I didn’t trust my voice at all.
I don’t know how Julie’s mom pulled it together, but eight days later, on Christmas Eve, surrounded by our families and friends and a zillion flickering candles, Julie became my wife. My soul-mate, my friend, my lover for as long as we both shall live. As we sat together in Julie’s living room, holding hands and accepting congratulations, I spied a new ornament on her tree. Two gray geese, their necks forming a heart with a holiday wreath encircling them both.
I pulled her closer. “Merry Christmas, little goose,” I whispered into her ear. “Merry Christmas forever.”