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Time In A Bottle

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Time In A Bottle

by Nick

Chapter Six

Forgiveness is a pretty diverse word, if you ask me. It has so many facets to it, and unless you have to really beg for it, pray for it, or learn to give it away, you have no idea what a huge thing forgiveness really is. Over the years, I've had to do all three, and it hasn't been easy. Still, I had to do it, and now that I have, I know that it's not such a bad thing to ask for. It's an even better thing to give.

In the dictionary, that sits on my bookshelf, the word forgive is defined as to pardon or to overlook. I guess that for a book that offers simple meanings to words, that's adequate. Still, in my opinion, such a basic outline of the word's meaning is shortsighted and shallow. Ask anyone who's emotional well being has depended on the ability of another to forgive. Hell, ask anyone who's emotional well being has depended on their own ability to forgive.

I could go on for days about how blessed I've been that my wife and kids have rallied around me when my infidelity became the topic for discussion for so many months during counseling. Their understanding and resolve to stand next to me when I brought so much misery to the forefront of our family's structure was nothing short of beautiful. The greatest gift of all was when my son Ronnie finally forgave me and let me back into his life. Still, there's a more profound example of forgiveness that I can point to, and I never knew it was possible. Leave it to one of my kids, though, to prove me wrong.

"Mom, dad, I have something to tell you," Francis said, taking a seat next to us on the couch, nervously clutching her cup of coffee as if she were still the sixteen-year-old that we'd welcomed into our home so many years before. "I don't know how you're going to take this, but I have to be honest with you."

"Go ahead sweetheart," Mary said, sitting back as if she were bracing herself for some bad news. If only we could have known what Francis was about to tell us, we could have braced a little harder. Not because it was such a terrible thing, but because it was so shocking.

"I went to see Rudy last week," she said, her eyes shifting between us for an extended period of time. Now, mind you, I didn't mind that she went to see her biological dad, but considering the fact that she hadn't seen or heard from the man since the day he tried to kill her, I found it hard to process what she said.

"How did it go?" Mary asked, not sounding as put off as I felt. "How was he?"

"He's not doing too good," she said quietly. "The visit was hard, but I did it."

"What brought all of this on, sweetheart?" Mary asked, taking charge of the conversation with our daughter because I was still a little too stunned to speak.

"Counseling," she said. "I realized that until I can forgive him for what he did to me, to us, I'm never going to get it out of my head."

"What did he have to say?" I finally managed to ask.

"Not too much," she said, sounding a little disappointed. "Something good came out of it, though. We're going to have lunch this Wednesday."

"This sounds like something you really want," Mary said thoughtfully.

"It is," she said, but then she added, "That doesn't mean I'm going to forget what happened."

"We know that honey," I said.

"I just want you two to know that no matter what happens, you're my real mom and dad," she said emotionally. "There's nothing in this world that Rudy or Eva ever gave me, physically or emotionally, but scars. You helped me heal them, and I love you for it."

"You know we love you too," Mary said, wrapping her arms around Francis. "You'll always be loved as long as your father and I have breath in our lungs."

One of the most surprising things that happened in the wake of our counseling was the re-emergence of Eva in the lives of her kids. Mary and I had encouraged them to reach out to her, even if it was a little heartbreaking for me to do. I knew it was the right thing, though. We expected her to be a little guarded at first, but she surprised us by expressing her gratitude to us and welcoming her kids with open arms.

Another surprise was the way Mary and I were able to regenerate our friendship with her. I was honestly a little more than uncomfortable about forging such a bond with a woman who thought nothing of walking away from her kids for years without so much as a phone call while Mary and I tried to pick up the pieces of her shattered family. We went through months of agony, watching Paulette, Shelly and Hank wait by the window for their mother, who we knew wasn't coming back. There's nothing more hurtful than the look on a little girl's face when you have to find a gentle way to explain to her that her mother abandoned her and moved overseas.

Still, I was in no position to judge, I figured. Lord knows I've made my fair share of mistakes, and part of the circle of forgiveness means being able to give it away. In time, I grew more and more comfortable with her presence in our kitchen, where she and Mary had taken to sitting at the table over coffee and Virginia Slims every morning to visit.

One of the real positives that came of our resumed friendship with Eva was the way the girls were able to get to know their mother again on comfortable terms. In the walls of their home, where they'd grown up for the most part, they were able to re-acquaint themselves with someone they now regarded as a stranger.

Eva kept her chin out and held her head up when they confronted her one Saturday morning about their childhood. She very calmly explained to them, in her thick Dutch accent, that she was afraid of Rudy. She told them that she was too afraid to come to their defense because of the way she'd been battered by him so many times before. She then rolled up her left pant leg, revealing a long, deep scar that had obviously come from a knife wound that went untreated. It looked more like a valley that had been carved out in her calf muscle, and I for one was speechless.

The girls gasped and Mary looked horrified at the sight of the results of Rudolf Van Kemp's rage. She related to all of us that she was making him lunch one afternoon while the kids were at school, and out of nowhere, he got up and started ranting in Dutch about Black Magic and accusing her of casting spells on him. He then proceeded to choke her until she was unconscious. When she woke up, she said, it was because of the sudden pain of being carved up with a butcher knife.

Talk about bravery. This woman's voice never broke once as she talked about the unspeakable horrors her husband put her through. She confessed her failure to protect her kids, but she also admitted to fearing for her life.

"Once I knew he was in jail and you were safe," she explained. "I knew I had to leave. If I had stayed with him, they would have put you back with us. It hurt me more than anything, but staying away was the best thing I could have done."

That morning, I learned a valuable lesson about life and all of its back-stories. Sometimes we think we know everything, but we don't know the half of it. I'm not saying that leaving the country for three decades was the most admirable thing Eva Van Kemp could have done, but she was right. At the time, all she would have had to do was go back to Rudy and the kids would have been placed back in the home.

Still, I had memories in my mind of little Hank waking up in the middle of the night, screaming because he'd had a nightmare. Or of little Shelly, who didn't understand why she had a new mommy and daddy. Of being up in the middle of the night with Francis when she was starting to have contractions. All of those false alarms, and the fear she faced. The fear we faced with her, because we had no idea what to tell the kids. Watching Paulette withdraw from other children and not understanding it at the time, but finding out later on that she was being teased at school because people knew about her situation.

Maybe the most painful memory, though, was the day Jerry moved away because he couldn't forgive Francis for going to the police. In his mind, it was her fault that their family was torn apart the way it had been. He didn't understand at the time that normal families just didn't function the way his did. It was all he knew, and he loved his mom. He knew, though, like Francis, Mary and I, that she was long gone and that she wasn't coming back. Trying to explain that to a kid with convictions as strong as he had was impossible for Mary and I, and in the end, we had to let him go.

Throughout the years, I automatically placed fifty percent of the blame for all of that on Eva Van Kemp. I couldn't work it out in my mind how she could be with a man who beat her five kids so mercilessly. When we lost Raymond Jr. I was especially bitter about it. I mean, we would have gladly hired men to sit on either side of our kids with over sized feathers and fan them while they sat on thrones if it would have brought them back, and here were these people who heaped nothing but pain and suffering on their children, who were still living and breathing.

Of course, being short sighted, I failed to see the obvious. I failed to see that these weren't their kids anymore. They were ours, and we were giving them the life we thought they deserved all along. At least we tried to. There were things we didn't do right, and they suffered in other ways. I don't have to go back over all of that, though, because it's all been said. Mary and I both know what we did and what we didn't do, but it's too late to change that.

What we could do, though, was see things more clearly. We could understand Eva's decision to leave, and to stay away. She trusted us. We were her friends, and if I'd have known it at the time, I would have been as honored as I was while I was sitting at the kitchen table next to my wife, listening to her talk about her difficult life.

____________________________________________________________________________

Planning for a family reunion isn't an easy task, especially if you're married to someone who wants everything to be perfect. Of course, a reunion was the last thing I thought Mary would have ever dreamt up, but I think she had an ulterior motive. In fact, let me take that back. I know she had an ulterior motive.

"It's not going to kill you, Ray," she said, steadfastly holding her ground when I objected to the idea of renting a banquet hall for the reunion. "This is going to be something nice for all of us, and we're doing it. That's final."

I opened my mouth to protest again, but she held a silencing hand up in front of me, and my shoulders slumped. So, resigned to my fate, I got on the phone and called the hall, booking it for early October.

It was no coincidence that the date of the reunion fell on the same week of our fortieth anniversary, which I thought was going to be spent by my wife and I in a quiet, candle lit restaurant. After that, I figured, we'd go home and spend the evening alone. Maybe we'd share a dance, or we'd have a drink. But most importantly, we'd be alone.

As soon as we told the kids about the reunion, though, those plans went out the window. All of the sudden, we were bombarded with ideas for tying our anniversary celebration in with the reunion. According to Francis and Paulette, Mary and I weren't to part with a dime for any of it, either. I appreciated the thought, but there was no way I was going to let my kids pay for a celebration Mary and I had planned.

Of course, after I tallied it all up, I decided that it might have been a good idea to take the kids up on their offer. I never would have, though. Instead, I paid for everything over their protests and told them to keep their money for something more substantial in their lives. I got the feeling that they took a little offense to my refusal of their money, but I knew they'd get over it in time.

One Saturday morning I was awoken with a kiss on the forehead by my wife, who was all made up.

"Ray, Eva's here and we're going to the mall for a couple of things for the reunion," she told me. I sat up sleepily and grumbled something to her about driving carefully, then my head hit the pillow again.

I honestly had no idea the damage two women armed with charge cards could do until I witnessed the carnage for myself. When my day started and Mary announced that she was going to the mall to pick a few things up for the reunion, I took her literally. Having been married to her for forty years, though, I should have known better.

"Raymond, there's more in the car," she said, practically forcing her way in through the front door with a plethora of shopping bags from Macy's, Home Depot and Sam's Club. I walked out to the car and almost fainted when I saw the sheer volume of the merchandise in the trunk. All I could think was that taking a part time job at Wal-Mart as a greeter to pay for all of the stuff she'd bought would make the bills that I knew were coming in the mail a little less bitter of a pill to swallow.

I was being overly dramatic, though. Besides, Mary was going to great pains to make sure things would be perfect. We had a caterer hired, and there would be an open bar with a bartender. Ronnie and I had been working diligently to make sure there would be enough tables and chairs. Mary stayed on our case about it, though, and wanted to be involved in what we were doing at every level.

In the meanwhile, she was working on travel plans for Robert Jr. and Samantha. October wasn't exactly a convenient time for them to attend a family reunion, especially because Robert had to miss school, but Samantha was still excited about making the trip. For his part, Robert called us almost every night for a month before their visit because he was so excited.

When we went to the airport to pick them up, I couldn't believe how much he'd grown on us again. He just kept getting taller, and his dark hair was getting longer too.

"He doesn't want to cut it," Samantha complained on the way home from the airport. "Lately he's been bothering me for an earring too, but I told him he could hang it up."

"Do you think you'd want to go get a haircut with Grandpa?" Mary asked him hopefully, and he shook his head with a big grin.

"I like my hair, Grandma," he said cheerfully. "I'm going to let it grow past my shoulders."

"Oh no you aren't," Samantha protested, and all I could do was chuckle to myself in the front seat because I could remember having long hair when I was in my mid-twenties. It was right around 1966, and Charlie took me to the side and let me know that if I didn't cut my hair he was going to dock my pay two dollars a day. That was all the motivation I needed to get it cut, and I never let it grow long again.

I really can't say why, but I was nervous the morning of the reunion. Maybe it was because we were all getting together as a family for a formal affair that was happy for a change. After the funerals and the difficult counseling sessions, we were finally gathering for a celebration of our family and all of its members.

Francis was conspicuous by her absence all day. Something deep down inside was afraid she wouldn't show up, but I knew her better than that and admonished myself for doubting her presence at our family reunion. Being October, you'd think that it would be cold outside, but it was actually rather warm. So warm, in fact, that I jumped in the pool at six thirty in the morning. I dove in at the deep end and swam up out of the water, where I was pleasantly surprised to find my grandson Robert, who looked more and more like his dad every time I saw him, standing on the deck.

"Can I go swimming too Grandpa?" he asked. In place of a verbal reply, I pulled my arm back and sent the biggest splash of water at him that I could, then I went back under and swam to the steps, where I got out and took my place behind him on the diving board. I watched his perfect form as he took his dive, and shook my head in amazement when he disappeared under the surface. When I took my turn he giggled and splashed me, and I found myself chasing him around the pool all morning.

Spending time with my grandson that morning turned out to be one of the highlights of my day that held the promise of a lot of good memories. I admired the way he was so mature and well behaved most of the time, but at times, he could be childish and immature the way a ten year old was supposed to be. When we got out of the water, we decided we were hungry. I thought about cooking breakfast for everyone, but I wanted more quality time with Robert Jr. So instead, I woke Mary up and told her I was taking him out for breakfast. While I was in my room with Mary, Robert Jr. was telling his mom the plan.

"Is it ok if I order a big orange juice?" he asked politely as we looked our menu's over. "I promise to finish it."

"You get whatever you want, son," I told him with a smile. He looked so serious as he studied his menu, looking over the different offerings and giving it all serious consideration. When the waitress came to take our orders, I marveled when he ordered a Feta cheese and spinach omelet with a side of bacon and asked for fruit instead of fried potatoes.

I knew I shouldn't have done it, but on the way home, we stopped at the mall. It was still early, but some stores were already opened. We walked to FYE and I let him pick out a few CD's from groups I'd never heard of. He looked happy, though, and that was enough justification in my mind.

"Do you have a case to put them in?" I asked, and he shook his head.

"Not with me," he said. "But I have one at home."

With that, I grabbed the nicest CD pouch I could find and put it on the counter. I smiled when I saw him admiring another CD, holding it up to one he had picked out as if he were trying to decide which one to get. I couldn't see making him choose, so I took both CD's from him and placed them on the stack with the rest. I knew Mary would have had a fit if she knew how much I'd spent on Robert Jr. that morning, but it was so worth it to me. It pained me that he lived so many miles away, and that we only got to see him a few times a year. In the meanwhile, he was growing like a weed and we didn't get to see it happen every day. So, right or wrong, that morning was my way of showing him how much I loved him and how badly I missed him and his mom when they weren't with us.

I wasn't sure what to make of a group that called itself Jimmy Eat World. It sounded a little vulgar to me, but the music wasn't so bad. We listened to it on the way back, and my heart melted as I listened to my beautiful grandson singing along with the CD as it played. It broke my heart that he would be leaving again in a day, but I took consolation in the fact that he and Samantha would be coming back at Christmas. When we got home, I was sure the neighbors could hear the stereo in my truck, which must have come as a shock to most of them. Robert Jr. had it up so loud I could hardly concentrate, but there was no way I could tell him no about something as harmless as the volume on the stereo for one lousy ride.

The rest of the day went by pretty fast, and before I knew it, the time to leave had come. Samantha looked stunning, but all eyes were on Mary when she came down in her evening gown. She looked like a queen to me, and I was so proud to be her King. Robert Jr. came to me for help with his tie, and he looked like the perfect little gentleman in his coat and slacks. Somehow his hair complimented the suit, and even Samantha conceded the point when he openly stated the fact.

At the banquet hall, I took stock in the members of our family and was absolutely stunned. Somehow, over the years, our family had grown by such leaps and bounds, and now we had grandchildren and great grandchildren. When I let the thought sink in that we were great grandparents, I found myself floored. Yet, there we were, with the proof in front of us. I didn't necessarily feel old, but I definitely felt aged.

There was a podium, and each of our kids took a turn speaking. Ronnie went first, and I found myself wiping tears away as he spoke about how much love was always in our home and how he strived to be the kind of parent to his kids that his mom and I were. Francis, Jerry, Paulette, Hank and Shelly all went next, and again I found it hard to keep my tears in check.

One of the most touching speeches, though, came from Eva. When she spoke at first, it seemed like she was bragging about her children and their successes. But when she relayed all of it might not have happened but for the guidance and love Mary and I gave them, I wept openly with my wife. She thanked us for all we did for her family, then she stepped down and walked over to us. We both embraced her, and in Dutch, she told us that she meant everything she said and more that she didn't know how to express.

Mary got up and spoke next. She talked about the love in her heart for me, for our kids. One profound thing she said was, "I thank god for blessing me with the kids we have with us today, and for the ones that he took home." Her faith was still amazing after all of those years, all of the good times and all of the tragedies.

I was totally unprepared to speak, but I was called up to speak by my wife. Once she stepped up to the podium to speak, I figured I'd be called upon to do the same, but that didn't make me any better prepared. Still, I managed to find the words to express how I felt, even if they were less than eloquent.

"I guess the first thing I'd like to do is thank my wife for letting me know well in advance that I'd be giving this speech," I joked, and everyone laughed. From there, I was able to relax and say what came naturally.

"There's never been a time in my life when I didn't feel blessed to have so many people in my life who I love and who have always loved me back," I started. "The fact that everyone's here speaks volumes about the strength of this family. We've been through rough waters, and we've sailed smoothly. My wife and I have felt love and loss in the same breath, and we know the joy that comes from having so much. Not materially, but in human terms. We've raised nine beautiful kids, and the return on the investment we made in our family has been a thousand times what we put into it. God has blessed us with so much, and the fruits of those blessings are all sitting in the room with us. Whether you married into this family, were born into it or came to us as a gift so many years ago, you're part of that blessing. So are Raymond Jr., Robert and Richard. Without them, we wouldn't be the family we are now, and I give God the glory for that. I just want everyone in this room to know that I love you."

It's funny. They say that it's better not to count your blessings. Instead, they say, make them count. A lot of us look for ways to make our blessings count, but we don't even know we've been blessed until we look around one day and see what we have. I spent so many years being bitter about my life, second-guessing my choices and wallowing in my own misery, and I didn't see what I had.

Raymond Jr. passed away in 1976, and all I could do was lament on what went wrong. I made a lot of mistakes and bottled up a lot of bitterness I felt toward Mary for what she didn't do. That whole time, though, I didn't realize that I had eight more blessings. When Robert committed suicide, I did it again. I did it so much that I wasn't watching things happen around me until Richard was gone.

I'd be remiss if I went back through the events that followed Richard's death. They've been told, and it's already been spoken. But we did get a great gift in the wake of that tragedy; the preservation of our family. Mary and I are recovering. The kids are recovering. Eva's recovering, and somehow, Francis has been able to find a way to forgive her dad for the horrors of her childhood.

My only wish is that the boys could have seen this day with us. Is it perfect? No. But does it have to be?

Looking around that banquet hall at my family and all of its generations, I was struck by the reality that we'd survived. We'd accomplished so much, and yet we struggled for so long that the mere fact we were there seemed surreal. Somehow, though, life went on. Even when it was ending, we were surviving and this was our reward.

I took my seat and felt Mary grip my hand with all of her might. I turned and gave her a quick peck on the lips, then she rested her head on my shoulder as the music started. We smiled simultaneously when we both heard the familiar strains of Jim Croce's guitar, and we knew it could only be one song. The words were so profound, yet so appropriate for how I was feeling at the moment. Not just for my wife, but about my entire family and all of my days.

If I could save time in a bottle,

The first thing that I'd like to do

Is to save every day till eternity passes away,

Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever,

If words could make wishes come true

I'd save every day like a treasure and then,

Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time,

To do the things you want to do

Once you find them

I've looked around enough to know,

You're the one I want to go

Through time with.

If I had a box just for wishes,

And dreams that had never come true

The box would be empty,

Except for the memory

Of how they were answered by you.

But there never seems to be enough time,

To do the things you want to do

Once you find them

I've looked around enough to know,

You're the one I want to go

Through time with

"I love you Raymond Moore," she said with a tearful smile.

"I love you too, Mary," I told her. "May I have this dance?"

The End

Lyrics for Time In A Bottle ©1972 by Jim Croce and ABC Records

A Special Thank you goes to Talonrider for editing. I'd also like to thank Yaalc, Graeme, Camy, Xiao_Chun and Meis for beta reading.

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