I heard a faint beep and stuck my hand into my coat pocket. My rubber clad feet stopped in the field and I glanced down at the phone. Three small letters lit up my screen.
My mouth curved up against the cold air. Oh, how I had missed those letters flashing through the day.
I unlocked the home screen. “I feel like walking…”
My cold fingers responded. “Meet you out here?”
I announced he would be joining us, and the small ones cheered.
I raised my eyes in the November chill and took in the sight before me. Graceful evergreens stood shoulder to shoulder, still sentinels on the mountainside, surveying the homes below. I wondered how long they had been there. How many goodbyes from the people below had they witnessed over the years? How many yellow ribbons had they glimpsed blowing in the Northern wind? How many cries from the valley had echoed around their branches, how many tears from reunions had watered the earth, feeding the roots like a late autumn rain?
I let the swirling current tug at my seams for just a moment.
My eyes lowered until they landed on a dark coat and baseball cap walking in my direction. The small ones had spotted him too, and they began to run. My breath caught in my throat, and I returned to land.
The smallest one caught him first. She gripped his hand hard in her tiny one and didn’t let go. He had been gone for half of her life, yet she knew him. The shyest Sparrow on our land always flew to him now, remembered him like a dream, like a feeling, like the worn blanket she insisted on clutching.
We began to walk together.
Thanksgiving crept up on us this year, flowing fast and hard like a Northwest current. Had it really been a year? I couldn’t remember any of that day 12 months ago. Not a single detail of the holiday.
This year would be different, I vowed as we knocked on the door. And it was, because he opened it.
Coats and boots filled the entryway as hugs were passed around like sparkling cider. My arms lingered around his neck just a bit longer.
Bing Crosby played softly in the kitchen as we gathered around the tables, pieced together like puzzles to fit the numbers that we didn’t have last year. The hum of voices filled the room and the little ones chattered excitedly about eating in the decorated dining room – a tradition saved for holidays. They tell me we didn’t do it last year. I don’t remember.
I remember other things in chaotic flashes from the past year and a half. The anonymous letters I wrote. To the system. To the legislators. To the mayor, the governor, blasting out messages from a burner phone inside of a dark car in a parking lot with public WiFi. They couldn’t connect the message to me. To him. Could they? He was hunted inside of a rotting building. How on earth had they managed to have connections behind the walls? But we found that too. The powerful have long arms. I thought of my babies, sleeping at home. I remembered the evil wishes for them, spoken outside of the courtroom. How far could they go? How far would they go? We had no choice but to communicate in code, like smoke signals across the state. He was suffering, and my hands were chained as they tried to shout the truth on a small screen.
I feared anonymity was the difference between his life and death. Why wouldn’t anyone listen?
He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve it.
It was just before Christmas last year when I tried again. The Seattle Times bit, chewed on the story, and spat it back out. The accusations were too big. So I sent proof. “The timing wasn’t right.” It began to rain on my dark car as the hours passed in that parking lot. I used cash and got more minutes for the phone and kept trying. Again, again, again.
I remember his birthday. Walking out of the store in the darkness as the first snow of the year began to fall. Knowing he had no coat as it fell on him. I remember the little Sparrow watching the flakes drop to the pavement like tears on top of her tears as she stood beside me – her long, sterling hair blowing in the wind. Floating down, down, down.
I remember driving by his house for the last 12 months, past the window that always had the curtains drawn. The lights were always off. He used to be there, and I used to wave at that lit, open window – every single time I used the long gravel driveway. He was almost always there, working. I knew he would smile and wave back as the family came and went. “Why do you always wave, mom? Nobody is there anymore,” my little one said, as I never broke the habit.
“One day he’ll be back,” I always answered, praying I was right. “I never want to forget to wave.”
Even in our timed calls, he always told me to lift my eyes higher, to look 19 miles upstream instead of the swift current around my legs. “God is working there,” he said. “Out of sight. Around the bend. Don’t be afraid.”
I clung to those words, but sometimes it felt like I was standing in the ever deepening waters while I watched him drown downstream. God, 19 miles is too far.
I jolted back to the present and looked around the table as Bing sang softly in the kitchen.
Most of us had spent 11 Thanksgivings in this house. Some as a family of 4. Then 5. Then 7. Before we knew it, we were 12. Today we were 13; breaking bread with a new friend who had come from those long months – united by blood and sweat, tears and faith.
I could still hear the voices of the ones who had welcomed us here, floating across the table like ghosts of years past. They called us family. The wounds had yet to even scab over, and I wondered when the pink scars of new skin would come.
My eyes moved upstream to two men smiling over warm plates at the head of the table. They both remembered last year. I wondered if they would ever be able to think of the holidays and not remember the things they had witnessed. The things they had endured.
Once our table held the ones with a mission to love on the broken. Then they did everything in their power to break us, burning bridges as they ran.
Now our table looked different, full of broken bottles weathered to sea glass by the relentless waters. Two men returning from war. Yet despite their pain, they held no matches. Only tools. They were ready to rebuild. They had survived. They had even built a haven within hell for the others while they were there. They looked 19 miles ahead back then, and now they were home. Here. At our table. Warm and fed. Tortured by memories, but with us in the present.
I look down today and I don’t know where my feet are. I don’t know if we are all wet or dry, in the river or finally dragged onto the sidelines by strong arms. If I’m honest, I think we’re both. Some days are easier. Some days I find myself panicking in the current, staring upstream, looking for God.
But I know one thing – he walked through the valley of the shadow of death and made it home. God didn’t rescue him like I wanted Him to, but He did save him. And one day, three small words showed me the power up the stream:
I know I will remember this Thanksgiving.
As I walked home that night I turned around. I waved at the window.
The light was on.