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The last thing I’d ever write

December 2, 2014  

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The note above was penned by an eighty-five-year-old man named Robert. One day last month, he drove his car down a steep rural road to look at a pond. When he tried to drive back the way he came, the car rolled off the path and became mired in a ravine.

Robert was unable to walk out of his situation due to back problems that left him only able to get around with the help of a walker. He had no food. The only water he had barely filled an 8 ounce bottle. He honked his horn until the car battery was depleted.

Robert sat there, alone in his car, for two days.

With no food, little water, and temperatures in the upper 90s, he realized things didn’t look good. So he grabbed a pen and began writing on the car’s armrest.

Look closely and you can make a bit of it out. The first—and Robert said the most important—was that he make sure everyone knew it was an accident. Robert didn’t want anyone thinking he committed suicide. He wrote that the car’s wheels spun out. He asked that his family give him a closed casket.

About forty hours later, Robert was found. Turns out that final note wasn’t needed after all. As you can imagine, the whole ordeal changed him. Robert has a new outlook on life. He understands its delicateness. He knows every moment is precious.

It’s a good story with a happy ending. But me, I can’t stop thinking about that note.

What would I tell my family? What would I tell you? What would I say if I could never say anything more? Those questions have preyed on my mind since reading Robert’s story. I figured the only way I could start thinking about something else is to go ahead and write my letter.

So here it is, the last thing I’d ever write:

Dear All,

I don’t know how I managed to get myself in this mess. I think a lot of times you can’t see the trouble that’s coming until it’s on you. This is probably one of those times. I guess I should hurry. I never used to think much about time. Suddenly, time seems pretty important.

To my family, I want to say that the very last thing I want to do is leave you behind. You need to know that as much as I’m ready for heaven, I’m thinking the angels will have to drag me there. But don’t worry, I’ll find me a bench somewhere near the gate and wait for each of you.

To my wife, I’m sorry I was never the man I wanted to be. I’m thankful you overlooked that. Take care of the kids. Raise them to believe like you and fight like me.

To my son, there are few things more difficult in life than knowing how to be a man. I’ll give you a quick summary—work hard, laugh much, pray often. Love dignity rather than money. Face your darkness. Let your word be your bond. You’ll do well in life if you cling to those things. Know that I will always be proud of you.

To my daughter, you’ve taught me more about faith than anyone I’ve ever known. Remember this: we seldom have any choice as to the wars we must fight, we can only elect to face them with honor or cowardice.

To my friends, I know it may appear at times that I prefer silence to speech and solitude to company, but you mended the gashes I had rent into my own heart. Whatever goodness is in me was fostered by you.

I ask that you dispose of my remains as you see fit. I have no preference. Whatever flesh and bone is left behind is not me, it is merely an empty house that God has deemed I’ve outgrown.

Do not mourn, laugh.

Do not look back, look forward.

Live intently.

And last, know that all that separates the two of us is but one stroke of heaven’s eternal clock. Life is but a dream. Death is simply when we wake.

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Thanksgiving Leftovers

November 24, 2014  

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

I know where the Parkers will spend this Thanksgiving, and you can bet there will be leftovers. They’ve learned their lesson.

Can’t blame them, really, for what happened a few years ago. That Thanksgiving—2011, if I remember right—was the first one Clay and Dorothy Parker spent on their own. Their kids had come in all the years before, two sons and a daughter, their own kids and spouses in tow. Clay isn’t sure how it came to be that his children had ended up flung all over the country, other than that modern bit of philosophizing a lot of parents offer: “They got out of college and had to go where the work was.” In this case, “work” meant Oregon and Wisconsin and Texas. All three are a long way from Virginia.

The Parkers tried, I’ll give them that. For five years they all gathered on the hilltop where Clay and Dorothy live, the driveway full of rental cars and castoff luggage, what was now four families trying to reconnect as one. But on that Thanksgiving of 2011, that all changed. One son had promised his wife they could visit her family that year. The other son became snowbound. And the daughter? Well, I guess lawyers are too busy some years to pause and give thanks.

So it was just Clay and Dorothy in that big old house on the hill, trying to pretend things didn’t seem so cold and lonely. Didn’t make sense for Dorothy to cook a turkey that year. Or make the stuffing. Or even the peanut butter pie. Clay got the idea that his wife had been cooking Thanksgiving dinners for almost forty years by that point, so maybe he’d just give Dorothy the year off. The two of them would instead head down to the Cracker Barrel by the interstate for Thanksgiving. Have someone else cook and clean up for a change. And friend, let me tell you this: Dorothy jumped all over that.

Turned out they weren’t alone. I’d always thought a restaurant would be a lonely place come Thanksgiving day (and so did the Parkers, both of them told me the same), but the Cracker Barrel was full to bursting that day. People everywhere, and all in a fine mood. Clay and Dorothy would never say so to their kids and grandkids, but I have it on good authority those two had the best Thanksgiving of their lives. Until that night, anyway.

You see, Clay’s a snacker. Always has been. Dorothy’s always on him about it, says the man will eat a dozen bad meals a day instead of three good ones and it’ll put him in his grave sooner or later. I won’t say much to that. I’m a snacker, too. But when he came down the steps that evening and took a left into the kitchen, thinking there wouldn’t be anything in the world better than a cold turkey sandwich with a little bit of cheese, there wasn’t any. Wasn’t any stuffing, either. And you might as well forget about that last piece of pie, because there wasn’t any pie to begin with.

And that’s when it hit him. All the joy that had carried him through that Thanksgiving, the laughing and the talking and the little sighs Dorothy gave as she thought about all those dishes she didn’t have to wash, that all faded away. Because, you see, Clay and Dorothy had just eaten and gone. No leftovers.

Big deal, you might think. And you’re right, maybe it isn’t. After all, leftover turkey is one of those things best left alone. My experience, anyway. But I’ve never forgotten what Clay said to me when I saw him down at the gas station a few days later, right after I’d asked how his Thanksgiving had gone and gotten more than I’d bargained for:

“Just ain’t the same without the leftovers, you know?”

I didn’t. But I’ve thought about it a great deal since, and now I think I do. By definition, a moment never lasts. It’ll all end at some point and give itself over to the next, and there’s no way of knowing if that next moment will measure up to all the bright and good in the one before. Like Thanksgiving at the Parker house. For one day a year, Clay and Dorothy have a family again. No need to email or Skype or talk on the phone, all their kids—all their life—is right there beside them. And even after those kids are left, Clay can sit down with his turkey sandwich and his little bowl of leftover stuffing and remember it all.

That’s what leftovers are to him. It’s his way of living a great moment all over again.

I saw him the other day, down at the bank. Said everybody was coming in this year, even his daughter the lawyer. Clay’s excited, and I’m excited for him. Dorothy wasn’t there. She was home, Clay said, cooking already. Had a whole list of things she wanted to make.

And then he smiled, thinking of all those leftovers.

***

In case you missed it, my friend and fellow author Amy Sorrells was kind enough to interview yours truly about my latest novel, In the Heart of the Dark Wood. She’s even giving away a free copy of the book. You can find both over at her website.

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The Gospel of Hank

November 20, 2014  

image courtesy of photobucket.com

Saturday afternoon, early November. Cold an dank. Mood? Questionable. Thirst? Very. So I pulled off the road along US Route 11 and into the parking lot of a no-name service station, the sort of which was what you’d expect for rural Virginia—dirty windows, questionable service, and people who made putting up with both well worth the effort.

People like Hank.

The man behind the cash register greeted me with a “Howdy” as I walked through the doors, each of which had been propped open by two twelve-packs of Budweiser. I nodded back and made my way toward the drink cooler in the rear of the store.

“BETTER ONES UP HERE,” shouted a voice.

I turned, and there beneath the mounted head of a deer sat an old man. His red suspenders clashed with his brown pants and blue shirt. He twisted in a vinyl chair and tapped his cane on the bin beside him.

“ICE MAKES ‘EM COLDER THAN THAT GOL’-DARNED ‘FRIDGERATOR CAN,” he shouted again.

“You got a point there,” I told him.

“HUH?”

“YOU GOT A POINT THERE.”

“AH,” he said and smiled.

I grabbed a Coke from the bin and swabbed the condensation with my shirt, nodding once more. The old man wheezed and coughed a hunk of phlegm into his handkerchief.

I took a sip and paced the store, taking stock of the sardines and canned vegetables, both of which had expired three months prior.

A mother and her brood of three came in just then, all of whom got their own howdy from the cashier. The kids made a bee line for the magazine rack while mom paced the aisles in search of an elusive Something.

“Do you sell salt?” she said to the cashier.

“LAST AISLE, YOUNG LADY,” the old man said, pointing his cane to the opposite side of the store. She smiled a thank you, and he smiled a you’re welcome.

He wasn’t done, either. In the next fifteen minutes, the old man had noticed the keys a customer had dropped, reminded another that his headlights were on, and squished a rather nasty cockroach.

“You have a pretty good helper over there,” I told the cashier as I paid.

He smiled and said, “Yeah, Hank’s been around forever. Used to own the place until he started getting sick.”

As if on cue, Hank began hacking again.

“So he still comes around?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said as he offered my change. “He’s deaf, weak, and the doc told him last month all those non-filter Camels have eaten his lungs up. But he still shows up every day wanting to help out and do somethin’.”

I shoved the change into my pocket and looked at Hank, who had made himself busy by using his cane to scrap half of the dead cockroach from the bottom of his boot.

I had to smile at the sight. Though I knew nothing of the man, it seemed so utterly Hank.

That a simple man in a no-name gas station on a fall afternoon could teach me something was a little unexpected, but then again there are lessons to be learned in most anything. Especially in the sight of an old man clinging to what little life he had left.

Strip away theology’s pretense and philosophy’s theories and we are faced with this one basic question when it comes to the conduct of our lives—what does God expect from us each day?

Over the years I had come up with many possible answers—to love Him and others, to do our best to leave the day a little better than we’ve found it, and so on. But after watching Hank, I knew the real answer to that question.

What does God expect from us each day? Simple.

To show up.

We can give God our hearts and our desires, give Him our minds and our talents, but if we don’t give Him our time, those things just don’t matter.

Poor Hank could have spent his last remaining days at home watching HGTV, but he didn’t. He still showed up in that little gas station every day willing to do whatever he could to help despite his weaknesses and infirmities. I think we should do the same.

Because no matter how wounded we are, no matter how broken and beaten, we can always do something to help. We can always make a difference.

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And the winners are…

November 17, 2014  

hat drawingThanks for helping make release week for In the Heart of the Dark Wood a great one!

The winners of the signed books are:

Jewel Jones

Dusty Foutz

Beth Holt

Congratulations to Jewel, Dusty and Beth and thanks to everyone for participating. There are more giveaways to come. You can get notifications of giveaways, reviews, interviews and other book news by joining the In the Heart of the Dark Wood Facebook Page.

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Release Day: Heart of the Dark Wood

November 11, 2014  

In the Heart of the Dark Wood cover

In the Heart of the Dark Wood cover

It’s always a special day around the Coffey house when a new book comes out. Today is one of those days. My fifth novel, In the Heart of the Dark Wood, is now available everywhere.

To help kick things off a bit, I’m giving away three signed copies. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment. I’ll put all the names in my cowboy hat and let the kids choose the winners, which I’ll announce back here on Monday, November 17.

As always, all the work I put into my stories would be impossible without all of you who take the time to stop by my tiny corner of the internet. You guys are the reason I write, and I thank each and every one of you for all the support you continually give.

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