Returning the teakettle to the stove, he stumbled but righted himself before falling face first into the large casserole dish of Marti’s prize-winning cornbread dressing.
Cal placed both hands on the counter to make sure he was steady, then picked up the two mugs of steaming cocoa. He took his time, each step slow and deliberate as he made his way back to Marti in the family room.
The smile she greeted him with made his heart swell just as the sadness in her eyes gripped the same heart.
“Here you go, sugar plum. One hot cocoa, extra cocoa and no marshmallows.”
“Thank you, honey.”
This time the smile she gifted him with was genuine. The bright flecks of gold and amber in her dark brown eyes glowed and never failed to bring a smile to his face.
She was everything to him.
Cal set his own mug on the low table in front of the sofa before easing down next to his wife.
“That hip acting up?”
“Hips, knees, arms, elbows,” he chuckled, “I am joint pain personified.”
Marti sat forward, a worried look on her face.
“Should I get you a pain pill? Or would you like a rubdown with some of that new joint cream?”
Cal pulled her back close to him. “No, pumpkin. I am fine. This is our last night alone during our last Christmas-season here. I’ll not spend it lying around worried about aches and pains. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and the tribe is descending upon us. I’m cuddling with my woman while I can.”
Resting her head on his shoulder, Marti sighed. “I can’t believe after all these years, it’s over.”
“What?” Cal pulled away and raised her chin to see her eyes. “What’s over, Marti?”
She gestured around the room with one arm. “This. Our life on the farm.”
“No, Marti. This is not an ending. We’re starting a new chapter, taking a different path, going on an adventure. Call it what you will, but nothing’s over, pudding.”
“Cal, this is where you were born, just like your father… and his father. The cemetery on the other side of the apple orchard holds half of your family. This just seems wrong. I’m still not sure we should leave.”
“Are you kidding? I am grateful we can leave. Farms aren’t selling the way they used to. Cal, Jr. negotiated a great price for us.” He kissed her hand. “We’ve lived a wonderful life here. We’ve raised livestock and farmed just about every vegetable under the sun. We had a dairy farm and even had scenes from two movies filmed in the orchard. I’ve loved every minute. But it’s time for a change.”
“I can’t help but feel like it’s my fault we-,”
“Martha Ann Dempsey! We’ve had this conversation… several times. This is no one’s fault. There is no blame. We have worked side-by-side for fifty-three years, only taking time off when you had the kids, and then to visit them after they left and started families of their own. It’s past time for us to enjoy more of this life we worked so hard to build.”
She took his hand and brought it to her lips, planting a small kiss then holding it against her cheek.
“We have had a good life, haven’t we?”
Cal looked at her, considering her question. The laugh lines around her eyes had multiplied over the years, and the body once lean and robust from long days spent working at his side and taking care of their six children, was now soft and plump. The once dark chestnut hair was now snow white, but still long and thick. He couldn’t even tell a patch had been shaved away where the small bandage now rested over her right ear. All Cal Dempsey could see was the sixteen-year-old beauty who kissed him on the cheek for retrieving her school work after a gust of wind scattered papers everywhere as they walked home from school.
“No, we haven’t had a good life, cupcake, we have a great life, and it’s not over yet. Now drink up. Your cocoa’s getting cold.”
Reaching for their mugs, they drank in silence enjoying each other’s company.
Cal’s mug was almost empty before he spoke again.
“I love this cocoa, but I should have added rum to my cup.”
Marti grinned, shaking her head and cast a side-eye glance at him. “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”
He pursed his lips and looked up at the ceiling as though trying to remember and shook his head.
“No. No… not since lunch. You’re late.”
She giggled like a school girl, set her mug down and snuggled deep into his arms.
“I love you Calvin Thomas Dempsey, and I’m grateful for the life we lived here.”
“Six kids… six college graduates. Few folks can say that. They’re all happy and successful and would do anything for us.”
“There were days I thought I’d pull my hair out. TVs and stereos blaring. Six kids practicing six different instruments. Sibling rivalry. And they each had their own dog! What were we thinking? What a madhouse.” Marti grinned. “But, I’d do it all again.”
“Me too, peanut. Some of our friends went through some bad times, but we were blessed. No major kid rebellions or catastrophes. And despite droughts and floods, and skyrocketing prices, we’ve always made it. We did good, Mrs. Dempsey.”
Marti pressed her lips together stifling a laugh.
“What about ’94… when the washing machine exploded?”
Cal slapped his free hand against his forehead.
“I never realized how much water a washing machine held. That was a nightmare.”
Marti smacked his chest.
“Oh please. Between the manufacturer and our homeowner’s insurance, all you had to do was sign your name. I was the one who had to pack up dirty farm clothes and drive seventeen miles to the nearest laundromat.”
“And you did it with a smile!”
“Yes, I did!”
“You also smiled when I fell off the roof in ’96.”
She covered her mouth, hiding her toothy grin.
“Look at you. Over twenty years later, and the memory still amuses you. Shameless woman! Laughing at your husband’s pain.”
“Oh, you know I’d never laugh at your pain… and you only broke your wrist. But the sound you made as you dropped to the ground? That was priceless. I’m sure they heard it in downtown Shoney.”
Narrowing his eyes, Cal stuck his tongue out at his longtime bride.
Marti scoffed at Cal’s silliness and burrowed down into her husband’s side again.
He watched the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, content.
Cal thought Marti had drifted into an easy sleep when he felt her body tightened against him.
She fisted his shirt collar as he heard her first soft sobs.
“I’m scared, Cal.”
Wrapping both arms around her, Cal kissed his wife’s forehead.
“I know, sweetie pie, I know.”
Pulling away and sitting up, Marti swiped the errant tears away.
“I know you try to distract me so I won’t think about it, Cal. But what if the doctors are wrong? What if it’s not as easy as they believe? You’ll have lost your family home for nothing.”
Cal sat up, cupping his wife’s face. “Stop, baby. Please?”
He silenced her with a soft kiss.
“But nothing. Marti, we should have left here ten years ago when my knees started giving me problems. But I was pig-headed and stubborn as usual, and you never put up a fuss.”
“I only wanted you to be happy.”
“Make me happy now and stop acting as though you’re ruining my life.”
A lone tear slid down her face. Marti raised her hand to the bandage over her right ear. The biopsy proved the tumor wasn’t malignant, but it was increasing in size. Even with the good news the growth wasn’t cancerous doctors warned that might not always be the case. If it continued its rate of growth, Marti’s headaches would worsen, and she might experience some impairment to the left side of her body due to the pressure the growing mass could cause.
She pulled her husband into a tight hug, whispering in his ear. “I’ll try my love. I promise I’ll try. I know this is our last Christmas here, I just don’t want it to be our last Christmas together.”
He pulled back enough to see her face.
“Woman, I’ve got big plans for us. We’re officially condo owners. This time next month, we’ll be all moved in and you’ll be recuperating from your surgery. Then I’ll have these rotten joints taken care of and by summer, we’ll be professional senior citizens. Cute and annoying as we flash our AARP cards near and far.”
Marti laughed, caressing his cheek. “What am I going to do with you?”
Cal cleared his throat. “I was getting to that.”
“Well, this time tomorrow, it will be you and me… and six kids, three daughters-in-law, two sons-in-law, fourteen grandchildren, and three great-grands. It will be loud and crazy here. A 747 could land in the dining room and we wouldn’t know it.”
“So, I was thinking. You could trim a couple of slices off that steer masquerading as a rib roast and make me a snack…”
Marti raised an eyebrow. “Or?”
His devilish grin told her what was coming.
“You could take me in the bedroom and be my snack.”
Her grin matched his as she ran her hand over his chest.
“Calvin, Calvin, Calvin. Don’t you know people our age aren’t supposed to still be having sex? All the magazines say so.”
Cal scoffed as he released her and stood, showing his traitorous joints he was still in charge. He pulled Marti from the sofa and into his arms.
“Those articles are written by soulless thirty-year-olds using apps to find love. They’re all bitter they swiped left when they should have swiped right.”
Marti chuckled as she took his hand, leading him from the room.
“I believe I will take option B, after which you get option A.”
“Woo-hoo! I love the way you think, my little hot tamale.”
“Stop calling me food names.”
Her husband roared with laughter… and was still laughing when he closed the bedroom door.