15 Grandpa’s Last Christmas

“It’s snowing!” Russell’s face pressed against the window framing his image to the frosted glass.

“Looks like we’ll have a white Christmas,” his father said.

“Are we going to grandpa’s for Christmas, dad?” Russell asked. Russell’s grandpa had been sick for awhile and this would most likely be his last Christmas. Grandpa lived by himself in the mountains where snowfall could be heavy. Roads were closed before the holidays many years. Since grandma had died a few years before it became a tradition for Russell to see his grandpa on Christmas.

His father answered, “If the road is passable we’ll go.”

Russell acknowledged his father. The last time he’d seen his grandpa was during a summer visit several months ago. During that visit grandpa had mostly rested in his cabin saying he felt tired. Very unlike grandpa. He’d always been active. Either he worked the ground or he hunted or fished. But resting was foreign to Russell’s grandpa. Grandpa was Russell’s pal and he was very concerned about him. Watching the snow continue to fall he began to silently pray for his grandpa’s health and that he would be able to see him for Christmas.

“Does grandpa know we’re coming to see him?” Russell asked.

“He knows we’re going to try, son. But he knows if the road is closed we can’t make it.”

“What if this is grandpa’s last Christmas? We’ve got to see him no matter what.”

“Son, the roads will determine if we go or not. I can’t control how much it snows. As soon as I finish work on Friday we will get packed and leave early Saturday morning. The truck will go through deep snow, but if it’s too deep we’ll have to turn around.”

“I know we’ll make it. Grandpa isn’t doing very good and I have to see him.”

Russell knew his father felt the same way about grandpa and would do everything he could. The fact that grandpa didn’t have a phone or worried Russell. What if he’d already died and Russell didn’t get the chance to see him and say “goodbye” or “I love you, grandpa.” He would be devastated.

A buzzing sound diverted Russell’s attention. His cell phone had vibrated indicating an incoming text message. Grandpa may be old school when it came to technology, but Russell knew the advantages of these advances. Pressing a couple buttons on a vibrant multi-colored touch screen brought up a message from his good friend, Ryan.

Ryan wanted to know if Russell could play XBox with him. He’d just received a new game as an early Christmas present.

Replying, Russell declined the invitation saying he needed to pack for a trip to see his grandpa. His father had to work for three more days, but Russell didn’t want to be distracted from the focus he had. Grandpa was very important to him. Hunting or fishing with grandpa was always fun. Even working with grandpa had its rewards. Russell always enjoyed his time with grandpa and he learned from him as well.

One thing he learned was the importance of family. Grandpa was heartbroken when grandma died, but he told Russell about a thing called eternal marriage. He and grandma were separated but it was only a temporary separation. Later they would be reunited. Russell didn’t fully comprehend his grandpa’s words, but he knew it had something to do with grandpa’s faith and religion.

Russell and his father were baptized LDS. But they were not active nor did they pursue the doctrine of the church. Grandpa and grandma had been active all their lives. They had talked to Russell many times about the church and what they believed but they’d never been pushy about forcing him to believe as they did. He guessed they hoped their example would be enough.

Not having the same commitment did not equate to not loving his grandpa, however. He loved his grandpa very much. He’d felt the same for his grandma before her passing. Now with Christmas approaching Russell knew he must see his grandpa. It could be the last time he saw him. After the holiday there wouldn’t be another opportunity until summer.

After his father left for work Russell continued to watch white flakes fall to the ground, no two flakes the same. Yet all looking exactly the same to him. As each melded together with another to form a white blanket Russell found his despair growing. He loved the snow and all the activities, like skiing, associated with it. Too much snow, however, meant a trip to see his grandpa could be in jeopardy. The forecast on his phone did not look good. Snow was expected the rest of the week and into the next. Russell frowned with displeasure.

The drive to grandpa’s place was three hours. The first two hours on a paved highway and the last hour on a single lane Forest Service road which he’d been reminded too many times was not maintained in the winter. Russell knew if snow was falling in the valley it most certainly was falling in the mountains where grandpa lived. Curse the darn snow he fumed.

Russell considered his young life. He was fourteen years old, those years filled with good times and bad. His mother was killed by a person texting while driving when he was ten. For the last four years his and his father had leaned on each other. Two years later grandma died leaving his grandpa alone in their mountain cabin. Russell took on the responsibility of caring for his grandpa. He couldn’t physically accomplish the task living so far away, but he felt it was his duty. This feeling made it important to see grandpa for Christmas and make sure he was okay. He and dad would make sure there was enough wood chopped to keep grandpa warm until spring and enough food available to stave off hunger.

An eternity and several inches of snow later, at least it felt like an eternity to Russell, Saturday morning arrived. Dad finished packing the truck and Russell helped by getting breakfast prepared so they could eat before leaving. Cheerios with milk made for a quick meal with minimal cleanup. Russell wanted to be going. Grandpa wasn’t in good health.

“Eat up, dad,” Russell urged when his father finally sat down.

“Easy, son. Don’t get all worked up. I know you’re anxious to see your grandpa. I am too, but we have to eat and we also must drive safe.”

“Fine.” Dad always spoke with the irritating voice of reason at the most inopportune times. “But hurry!”

An agonizing thirty minutes later Russell and his dad pulled onto the highway. Patrols had scraped most of the snow to the side but the road was still slick. His father kept the truck’s speed at 50 miles per hour making life a veritable nightmare for Russell. Could he possibly go any slower?

Large flakes of snow started falling moments later adding to a rapidly growing frustration. If they had to turn around Russell wouldn’t be able to handle his disappointment. Wiper blades began swishing the snow back and forth across the windshield, streaks of setback laughing menacingly in Russell’s face.

“What do you think, dad? Will the Forest Service road be open?”

“I called the district office before we left. They said the snow is getting deep in places but it was opened as of this morning. The ranger would check later this afternoon and update the office.”

Russell checked his watch. “It’s ten thirty now. We should reach the turn off in an hour. With luck we should be at grandpa’s before that ranger can close the road.”

“Remember, son, the ranger doesn’t have to officially close the road. If the snow is too deep we will still have to turn around. I won’t put our lives in danger. Your grandpa wouldn’t want us to do that.”

“Grandpa won’t understand if I don’t see him for Christmas. I told him I’d be there.” Tears began indiscriminating falling down Russell’s cheeks leaving trails of sorrow.

“I will do all I can, Russell. I promise. Grandpa is important to me, too, you know.”

As soon as Russell’s father turned onto the dirt road he engaged the four wheel drive, not a good sign. They were immediately bucking eight to ten inches of snow. Their tires were creating the first tracks in the fresh snow. Russell saw concern in his father’s eyes and it spoke volumes. No way were they turning around. They just couldn’t.

Soon the drifts became deeper and the truck began to struggle. Even with four wheel drive engaged the strain on the motor couldn’t be ignored. Russell felt the jarring motion each time his dad bucked another drift. Each drift produced more of an adventure than the one before. His dad kept going, shifting to a lower gear, gaining elevation with each mile they passed. Russell’s heart swelled with confidence. He knew they’d make it and he’d spend Christmas with his grandpa.

Only a few minutes later Russell felt the thud of his heart, vibrant and happy not long before, dropping into his stomach, now filled with anguish and sorrow. His dad pulled the truck to side of the road. The snow no longer took the form of a drift here and another there that they could get a run at and blast through. Now it showed itself as a continuous blanket as far as they could see and the side hill told them it was at least two feet deep, maybe three.

“I’m sorry, son. We can’t go any further.”

“I’ve got to see grandpa. Can’t we at least try?”

“No, son. The truck may make it a hundred yards in that deep snow and then we’d be stuck. We’ll have to turn around and go home. Grandpa will understand and we’ll see him as soon as the snow melts.”

Russell’s mind raced trying to think of some way he could get to his grandpa’s cabin. “How much further is grandpa’s cabin?”

His father surveyed their surroundings. “It is at least three miles, son. Perhaps closer to five.”

“That doesn’t seem too far, dad. We could walk that far. You brought our snowshoes, didn’t you?”

Russell’s father looked into his son’s eyes. He saw hope mixed with possibility counterbalanced precariously by doubt and apprehension. “Yes, I brought our snowshoes. They’d be needed at the cabin to gather wood for grandpa and for hunting rabbits if we found the time, but we have all these supplies for your grandpa. We can’t just leave them here in the truck and there’s no way we can carry all of them.”

“I can carry my backpack and a satchel filled with food and you could carry a couple bags, dad. We can take what grandpa needs the most. Please, can we try.”

“Okay, son. Get as much stuff into two bags as you can and I’ll do the same. We’ll also need to take some water and a first-aid kit. I know how badly you want to see grandpa, but this is not going to be a walk in the park. When we get there, if we do, you’ll be tired and all your muscles are going to ache. This walk is all up hill, son, and on three feet of snow.”

“I don’t care, dad. Let’s get going.”

Just as they strapped their snowshoes on and his dad locked the truck new snow began falling. Under his breath Russell cursed. His father pulled his scarf tighter around his neck and started up the road. Russell kept pace but soon noticed his breathing become labored. When his dad turned around he waved him off and motioned for him to continue. Even if it came to crawling through the snow he would make it to see his grandpa for Christmas. Every moment he thought this could be grandpa’s last Christmas and that consideration gave him the motivation he needed.

After two miles they stopped to rest. “How are you doing, son?”

“I will make it, dad. If we stop once in a while to rest, I will be fine. I know I need to start exercising more instead of playing video games.”

“Yeah, all that exercises is your fingers and your bum,” his father joked.

The road led directly to the cabin Russell’s grandpa lived in which meant any chance of getting lost was remote. That, at least, was positive. The weather, on the other hand, was a major negative. Along with continual snow the lateness of the day was making it colder and shadows began to stretch out across the snow. Russell prayed again that they’d soon see grandpa’s cabin. He’d prayed every few steps for the last mile or so.

Taking another swallow of water and noticing his canteen near empty another feeling assaulted Russell. It wasn’t yet panic, but it was panic’s predecessor, fear. He still couldn’t see the cabin and suddenly he felt very thankful his dad was with him. Each step now made him feel foolish for pleading with his father to walk in such bad conditions.

Roundly another turn in the road Russell tugged on his dad’s coat, an indicator he could go no further without resting. Tears filled his eyes and rolled across his cheeks reddened by the cold. He removed his glove to swipe at the dampness. “I am so tired and cold, dad. I don’t know if I can go any further.”

“We will rest here for a few minutes. Then we’ll start again. Grandpa’s cabin isn’t too much further, son. You will make it. Remember how important it is for you to see grandpa for Christmas.”

The words encouraged Russell. Finding a reserve strength he got to his feet and they started walking again. The incline didn’t make it easy. Fifteen minutes later his strength seemed fully restored along with his smile. A quarter mile away sat his grandpa’s cabin and smoke spiraled upward out of a weathered chimney. If he could have ran that last quarter mile he would have, but the deep snow made it impossible.

Russell and his father reached the front door and entered the warm interior, not bothering to knock. Letting his eyes canvass the room Russell saw his grandpa sitting in his favorite chair, sleeping.

“Should we wake grandpa, dad?”

“No. Let him sleep. We’ll have plenty of time for visiting. Let’s get this stuff unpacked and put away.”

An hour later Russell could wait no longer. He gently nudged his grandpa’s shoulder. No response. He nudged him a second time. The rise and fall of grandpa’s chest told Russell he was alive. Then he opened his eyes and looked at his grandson. A smile creased his weathered face and his eyes lit up in recognition.

“It is so good to see you, Russell,” his grandpa engulfed him in one of his famous bear hugs. “Where is your father?”

“He’s outside chopping some kindling. He noticed you were getting low. Should I tell him you’re awake?”

“No, Russell. I will put my coat on and go help. It is my job, after all.”

“I will help too, grandpa. I can chop wood.”

“Of course you can. Each time I see you you’ve grown a little more. I believe you’re shaping into a fine young man.”

When they reached the woodpile father and son embraced. “How are you feeling, dad?”

“I feel okay, but it seems I sleep more than I should. Definitely more than I like.”

Russell stood next to his grandpa. He looked different than what Russell remembered. His shoulders sagged some and his waist was much thinner. Only a tightened belt and suspenders kept his pants in place.

“After I finish chopping enough kindling to fill the box I’ll go chop down a tree we can decorate for Christmas.”

Grandpa smiled. “When is Christmas?”

“It’s tomorrow, grandpa.”

“Goodness. I didn’t realize it was that late. I need to get a gift for you and your dad.”

“No, grandpa. Our gift is getting to spend Christmas with you. We love you.”

“I love you, too, Russell, but I feel bad. I’ll see what I have out in the shed.”

Later that evening after a tree was cut and decorated Russell and his dad and grandpa sat near the fireplace drinking hot cocoa and telling family stories of a wonderful past. Remembrance of past family adventures never seemed to get old. Russell knew each story, whether happy or sad, would be of great importance for the rest of his life and no one told a story like grandpa.

Christmas morning came after a few short hours of sleep. Russell awoke first. A few minutes later his father was dressed and preparing bacon and eggs along with potatoes for breakfast. They would wake up grandpa when breakfast was ready.

Russell ran out of his grandpa’s room. “I can’t get grandpa to wake up.”

His dad was immediately alarmed. “What you mean he won’t wake up? Did you nudge him or just speak to him?”

“I nudged him, dad, just like yesterday, but nothing happened. I didn’t see any movement. Something’s wrong.”

“Stay out here, Russell,” his father pointed to a chair. “I will go in and wake up your grandpa. He’s probably just sleeping soundly.”

Walking toward his father’s room he knew he wasn’t sleeping. It had been in his eyes the night before and in the stories he’d told. All of them had focused on grandma, his one true love. He’d sensed dying was close at hand. As he approached his father his suspicions were confirmed. No breath from his nose or mouth. His eyes were permanently closed.

He returned to his son. “Grandpa died during the night, Russell. Grandpa and grandma are reunited. They’re both happy again.”

Russell said, his eyes moist with emotion, “I got to spend grandpa’s last Christmas with him. I am happy, too.”

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