After freshening up a bit, Teacher and I headed back down to the car and drove over to the rehearsal dinner. It was being hosted at a ranch just outside city limits. A few cars were all ready parked in front of the ranch, but it was still a few more minutes before the official start of the rehearsal dinner. We walked up to the house and knocked on the front door. We were greeted with enthusiasm and smiles from an older woman who held a cocktail glass in one hand and tried to hug us one at a time. I called her the Widow. Usually, she was a poised and precise woman. But her wide, sweeping moments and the easy laughter and rosy cheeks made me suspect this wasn't her first cocktail. She was clearly having a good time, and I was glad to see her happy.
I've known the Widow for a few years now. I had also known her husband. Her daughter was one of many friends that I met in college. I was often invited to eat out with them whenever they came to town to visit their daughter. And I do like free food, so of course I accepted their invitations; I'd be a fool not to, especially since I was broke like every other college student. But I also enjoyed their company.
I haven't seen the widow in almost a year; that last time was when I passed through town and we went to lunch. Two years ago, her husband, a rancher, passed away from a heart attack. Her children were out of town when it happened. I was working in a city just an hour away from her when I was told of the news. It was kind of a shock to me, when I heard her husband had passed away. The Rancher was a larger than life kind of character, a true Texas original. He greeted people with a strong handshake and a welcoming smile, tipped his hat and said, "Howdy!" He wore cowboy hats and boots and sported large belt buckles with pictures and names on them. His favorite belt buckles were the ones that he won while riding in rodeos in his younger days. To tell you the truth, I liked those rodeo ones, too.
I used to luv listening to him tell his stories of traveling the rodeo circuit and the incredible wins and losses and near death experiences he had. Of course my friend would roll her eyes when her dad started telling stories, probably because she's heard them hundreds of times before. His wife would have this look of loving resignation on her face, probably because she's heard the stories more than anyone else. But like me, I think she saw how much fun Rancher had by retelling his tales of youth and adventure.
Rancher was a generous man, with a big heart. I knew he often volunteered a lot for Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army, donning the red uniform and ringing that bell in front of stores for donations for the poor. He often took time to help the neighbors with various projects. I guess when you live in the country, you rely on your neighbors a lot more. Even though he retired and had hired people to run the ranch for him, he was still active, often mowing his large lawn and mending fences. It was so hard for me to believe that he was gone. When I found out, I had just gotten off work. I drove straight to the ranch. Inside, I found Rancher's wife in the middle of a group of close friends and neighbors. Her eyes were red and swollen. And when she saw me, she reached out to me and cried. I went up to her and hugged her tightly and felt my own tears fall from my eyes. She told me that her daughter was flying into town. Then more people showed up and I moved aside to let them offer their condolences.
I wasn't sure what else I could do. I wanted to help her somehow, do something to ease her sadness and pain. I heard her talk about how unexpected it all was and she couldn't believe that he was gone. She had become a widow. She talked about all the plans he had made earlier in the week. He was going to start painting the barn the in a few days; he had all ready bought the paint. And he was going to mow the lawn the next day. That gave me an idea. The next day, after work, I took a change of clothing and drove to the ranch. My friend was there; she made it home. We hugged and she cried for little bit. She said they were leaving soon to meet the priest and would be back in a little while. I asked her to show me where the lawn mower was. She took me to the shed, where I changed clothes and then proceeded to mow the large lawn. It took me almost an hour to cover the vast stretches of grass around the house. And when I was done, I put away the lawnmower, changed clothes again before taking a nice cold drink of water and then drove home.
Over the next few days, I'd drive out to the ranch. While Widow and her children were planning Rancher's funeral, I was painting the barn. Rancher had all ready done a lot of the prep work. I figured I'd start on the front first, since it's the first place people looked at. I had to use a ladder to reach the top of the walls, and I almost fell a couple of times. It was hard work, but I did it gladly. It gave me purpose, and I felt like I was doing something for Rancher, something he wanted to do for his family. I spent the entire weekend painting that barn. I only had a few days left before my job ended and I'd be off somewhere else on another assignment. Someone from the big house would often bring me snacks and a drink. Sometimes, it'd be my friend when she wasn't busy or needed to get away from the people in the big house.
When I was done painting the barn, I decided to tidy it up a bit on the inside. It rained that day while I was moving around bales of hay to the loft. I had taken off my shirt because I didn't want it to get sweaty when I started the heavy lifting. I welcomed the chilly air because it cooled me down and made the hard work a bit more bearable. I was surprised to see my friend show up with lunch in a cooler. She braved the heavy downpour to come out to the barn.
I wasn't hungry, but I took a break and just sat with her and watch the rain come down heavily. It wasn't going to ease up any time soon. We didn't talk much, but sat there alone in our thoughts. Somehow, being next to each other was enough for now. The skies were gray and gloomy, as if they, too, were mourning the loss of Rancher. He would be buried the next day. That sudden realization made me sad, and it reminded me of my own father's passing. I felt my heart twinge at the memory of my own loss, and I suddenly found myself almost overcome with sorrow.
And maybe it was our shared grief that brought us closer than we've ever been. And when she laid her head on my shoulder, I closed my eyes and breathed in the sweet scent of green apples in her hair.