Kerri stood on the wooden deck watching large, colorful leaves floating down through hazy sunshine, covering the yard in another layer of fall colors, no matter how many times she raked them. She smiled pensively at the memory of two little boys raking leaves into a pile, then jumping in it with wild abandon.
The boys had grown up too fast. It seemed as if it were only a couple years between T-Ball and graduation. Then Blake was off to college and four years of football fame, and his twin, Blaine, went off to serve his country. She was so proud of them both. Only one thing clouded her memories…Blaine hadn’t come home. He went in for four years, and for those four years, they received letters, phone calls, and short visits. Then it all stopped.
She turned as Tom pushed the screen door open, carrying two cups of pumpkin spice coffee, their fall favorite. She took her cup and they sat on the swing. She glanced at him. “Are you feeling it, too? This time of year is such a bittersweet time. I miss them jumping over the steps and rummaging the pantry and fridge.” Tears rimmed her eyes. “Do you remember how many years it’s been since Blaine’s last letter?”
He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her toward him. “Not without looking at the letter again. It’s been a few years.” He paused and smiled. “Yeah, I miss my boys, but I don’t miss that grocery bill. We could have supported a small country with what those two boys put away in groceries.” He laughed at his joke. She didn’t.
Softly, she said, “I guess that’s the difference in being the mom instead of the dad. I’d gladly take that grocery bill if…” She stopped, wiping a tear from her eyes. “…if I could have them back.” He hugged her tight, then walked over to look over the railing where she’d stood moments ago.
Turning, he said, “Kerri, you have to stop blaming yourself. Blaine followed his heart. He was doing what he felt called to do. We couldn’t stop that, nor should we.” He studied her, his eyes loving her. “I pray every day we’ll hear something, anything.”
“Do you think I don’t?” Her voice was a whisper. “Tom, it’s been seven years since the last letter. I remember the date.” She ran down the steps, stopping just short of the pile of leaves. “Seven years, Tom!” She cried, her voice dying in the fall afternoon. She started kicking the leaves, scattering them, sobbing. “That’s how long my mother’s heart has been breaking!”
Tom walked slowly down the steps, taking her in his arms, brushing away the tears from her cheeks. “Yes, I know you’ve been praying, too. I wish I could change this for you… for us.”
His voice was soft and soothing. His deep and simple love had seen her through the hard years. She had tried to live a life of love, grace, and mercy. She never withheld anything of herself if there was a need. The suffering had made her heart grow weary, her faith grow dim. But it had to be breaking his heart, too. He tucked her head under his chin and released a ragged breath. “Father, we need answers. We know you have the situation in hand, but we’re losing hope. And without hope, what do we have?”
They stood arm in arm for a long moment, feeling leaves falling on them, then turned toward the house. She sighed. They would bounce back. Maybe not as high as last time, but life would go on. She opened the pantry and began preparing dinner.
Tom walked into the kitchen talking on his cell phone. “It’s great talking to you again, son. I’m giving the phone to mom. She’s excited to talk to y’all.”
“Hi, honey, it’s good to hear your voice.” She listened as he told her about his new promotion, her eyes lighting up when he told her they would be moving closer to home. Before she could get details, 7-year-old Janet took the phone, excited about making new friends and starting a new school. Then James, Janet’s twin, a whirlwind of words. He handed the phone to his mother, and Sherri’s voice came on the line. “Hi, Mom, are you all talked out?”
She laughed. “Almost. How in the world do you keep up with everyone?”
“The same way you did, I’m sure.” A chorus of voices faded into silence. “Thank goodness, Blake took them all outside to rake leaves.” She paused. “I listened to what everyone had to tell you, but no one mentioned the most important part. We’re coming for Thanksgiving if you and dad are going to be home?”
“Of course we’ll be home.” She told Tom to hush when he jokingly said something about reservations for a cruise. “When do you plan on being here? How long can you stay? You know we have enough room.” Laughing, she added, “Tom and I were just talking about investing in a local grocery store!”
“We’re actually going to come a little early. Like in two weeks?”
“So soon?” She raised her eyebrows, glancing at Tom. “Okay, then! We’ll be ready. Keep me posted on the exact day.”
She hung up, turning toward Tom. “Did Blake tell you when they were coming? They’ll be here in two weeks!” He pulled her close to him, as she rattled off a list of things to do.
The next two weeks passed in a flurry of shopping, changing linens and airing out bedrooms. She opened the door to Blaine’s room and crossed over to open the windows. She would put James in here. He would feel right at home. She paused, glancing around the room, taking in the awards, the pictures, the smells, the essence of her missing son. She whispered, “I love you, son. Your mama wants to hear from you.”
The night before their arrival, she fixed a casserole, ready for the oven, and a salad. It would be easy when they arrived, ready to eat. They also had Peach Cobbler and ice cream for dessert. She’d been busy baking cookies and working up dishes to freeze for Thanksgiving. The aroma of fall was wafting through the house again. She took a deep breath and smiled.
She was removing her apron and walking to the back when she heard laughter and shouting. She called to Tom, “I think they’re here.” They all came tearing around the corner of the house, Blake in the lead, Janet and James close behind. Blake yelled, “Hi”, racing into the pile of leaves, kicking and scattering them over the yard again. Sherri carried their youngest granddaughter, Lucy, following behind. Stepping onto the porch, they hugged, and Kerri took the little one, kissing all over her face.
Sherri laughed as Blake and the kids danced around the lawn. “Mom, forgive him, please. This is all he’s talked about since we left home. It’s like it’s a rite of passage or something.”
The day would be etched in her memory. They laughed and told stories throughout the afternoon. While the kids played in the yard, the adults sat on the porch, enjoying the cool fall air. Holding Lucy, Kerri watched them, quietly storing the moments deep in her heart. Blaine’s memory returned, keen and sharp. How she wished he were here, talking with them, cutting up with his brother and dad. She could almost hear his voice. Almost.
As the sun dipped below the trees, she stood and suggested they prepare for supper. The kids had come up onto the porch and were sitting around them. Blake got up and stood between her and Tom, putting his arms around their shoulders. Looking at the twins, he said, “I think we’ve kept the surprise long enough.” He looked at Janet, who jumped up and announced, “We’re going to live here, in your town!” James added, his voice tinged with excitement, “We’ll go to the same school daddy went to!”
“Oh!” was all she could manage, her mouth open. She looked at her son. “Really?”
Blake filled them in on the details while they ate dinner that night. She and Sherri began to clear the dishes when the doorbell rang. Blake went to open the door, and Kerri heard him bring someone into the living room. She followed Tom, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“Mom, Dad, you remember Jeff? He went to school with…with us.” They welcomed him in and offered him a seat. But he didn’t sit. He stood awkwardly, looking from one to the other. After several seconds of silence, his eyes settled on Blake. “Uhm, I’m not sure how to go about this, or even what it means, but… I need to give this to your family.” He handed a brown envelope to Blake. “It’s from…Blaine.”
Blake’s hands shook as he held the envelope toward his parents. Kerri, her face ashen, shook her head, her hands up, fending off the envelope. She tried to speak, but couldn’t force the words out.
Tom wrapped his arm around her, and told Blake, “Open it.”
Blake slipped his finger under the flap, pulling out a folded piece of paper. Something clattered to the floor. Everyone’s eyes fixed on the dog tags that lay in a clump at his feet. Kerri burst into tears, turning to leave the room. Blake touched her arm. “Mom, wait. Let’s see what the letter says.” She picked up the dog tags and held them close to her mama’s heart.
Blake unfolded the letter, but then looked at Jeff. “How did you get this?”
“You know we enlisted together and served together — for a while.” He paused. “We met up again at the air base the day we were supposed to head home. I thought he was coming along, but… he handed me the envelope and told me to hang onto it until he contacted me.”
Kerri whispered hoarsely, “You’ve talked to him?”
Jeff pulled out his phone. “Actually, I got a text from an unknown number. I’m not even sure it’s — yeah, it—it had to be him.” He turned the phone around to show Blake, who read, “Done here. Coming home. Please give Blake the letter.”
Blake scanned the letter, then read, “I’ve accepted a covert mission. The plan is to return when we’re done, but no promises. If you’re reading this letter, I’ll be coming home. Love you all, Blaine.”
Blake looked at Jeff. “When did you get the text?”
“Just a little while ago.” Their eyes were turned on him expectantly. “Haven’t heard anything else.”
After the kids were all down, the adults collapsed into chairs around the living room, exhausted, everyone consumed by their own thoughts. Kerri was afraid to believe he was alive. It was no easier now than the last seven years had been. She shook her head. How could a mission last so long?! Seven years?! What kind of people were gone that long, with no contact, no word? She was angry and bitter. Why would he do that? But — maybe he had been injured. Or captured. She sighed. She didn’t know enough to even guess, and certainly not enough to hold him accountable. She went to bed, leaving the others sitting quietly, her heart heavy, her mind in a fog.
The day before Thanksgiving was cold and dreary, but she and Sherri happily went about their preparations. They talked and laughed — and cried together, an aura of uncertainty hanging in the room. Her phone rang, and without a thought, she lifted the receiver and answered, “Hello?”
There was a moment of silence on the other end. “Mom?”
Her breath caught, and she swallowed hard as she sat on a stool. Was she imagining his voice? She breathed, “Yes.” She glanced at Sherri, who was watching her closely. She cleared her throat. “Where are you? Are you okay? Are you safe? Are you here?” Her voice began to shake, her hands weak. But she couldn’t stop talking, he might disappear. “Your dad isn’t here right now. Oh, son, I love you.” She began to sob.
He was quiet, then said, “Mom.” He took a deep breath. “It’s okay, Mom. I’m okay, and yes, I’m coming home.” Tom walked in the back door and she held out the phone, still shaking.
He took it, unsure who he was talking to. “Hello, this is Tom.” He waited.
“Dad, It’s me, Blaine. It’s so good to hear your voice. Is mom okay? We had just started talking when you came on the phone. Did she tell you I’m coming home?”
She could hear his voice, but couldn’t hear what was being said. Tom smiled, tears flowing down his cheeks. She nudged Tom. “Ask him when. Is he in the States?”
He put his finger over his lips and continued talking. When he hung up, they held each other, crying tears of relief over the last seven years of uncertainty and loss. Sherri and Blake joined in their hug. Kerri felt little arms wrapping around her legs. Lucy looked up. “Hug, too!” She picked her up, whispering through her tears, “Uncle Blaine’s coming home.”
Thanksgiving Day was dreary, a cold rain falling, mixed with sleet. Tom had the fireplace roaring, and the kids sat on the floor watching the parade. She and Sherri were putting the final touches on Thanksgiving lunch. The doorbell rang, and she caught her breath. They all stood still, watching Tom get up and open the door. She saw Blaine standing in the doorway. Older, yes, but so thin. And his eyes. She had always read his mood by his eyes. These eyes were guarded, solemn, filled with hurt and grief. She held her arms out to him, tears flowing freely. Nothing mattered, except…he was home. He came to her, wrapping his arms around her.
She stepped back as someone else walked in the door behind him. He pulled a woman holding a little girl into their circle.
“Mom, this is Tami, my wife. And Tara, your granddaughter.”
She had so many questions, so many emotions. She felt weak and unsteady, as she reached for Tom. He put his arm around her, and pulled Tami and Tara into a hug, too, including them in their little circle. To have him back was enough. To have others, too, was overwhelming, but if this was Blaine’s choice, she could accept it.
As they passed plates of food around the table, Kerri glanced at Tami. She seemed calm, outgoing and self-assured. “So, how did you and Blaine meet?”
Tami glanced at Blaine, who nodded his head. “I met him when he stumbled into our medical mission camp, bloody, barefooted and almost freezing. They triaged him, and since I was the doctor on duty that night, he became my patient.” She winked at Blaine, who looked down as he smiled. “He cleaned up very nicely.”
Blake looked sideways at his brother. “Seven years? That sounds sort of incredible, doesn’t it, not even a word?”
Blaine met his gaze evenly and spoke quietly. “One thing I have to say up front. There’s just not a lot I can say about those years. I was on assignment for about a year before I was captured. I spent five years in a hell-hole of a prison.”
Blake blanched. “Sorry, brother.”
“I escaped when some other prisoners caused a disturbance, and spent several months wandering unfamiliar territory, stealing food, sleeping in ditches. Well, you get the idea. That’s about the time I stumbled into the mission.”
Tami picked up the story. “We hid him for six months.” She smiled. “Long enough for me to nurse him back to health. And fall in love with him.” They all listened with rapt attention. “When we left, we hid him in our caravan until we could get him to an embassy.”
“They flew me to Brooke Army Medical Center, but I was quarantined for another six months. My…the brass…kept me from contact with anyone during that time. As soon as I was released, I sent Jeff the message. Tami and I got married a few days later.” He sighed. “And here we are.”
Later that night, Kerri slipped into bed beside Tom. He pulled her close, and she snuggled into him. Her two sons and their families were in their rooms, and she could hear murmurs through the walls.
Her sons were home.
Her mother’s heart was full.
I hope our story brought back memories of seasons throughout your lives. Fall is such a beautiful time of year, even if you live in the south where we aren’t blessed with the abundance of color.
Please share a season or change in your life with us. I think it connects people together. And encourages your Story Teller. Oh, and Happy Fall!
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