It’s fitting, I suppose, that his last full day on earth was Groundhog’s Day—a fun and fanciful day devoted to those spring-forecasting critters from the wild—the kind of critters that Albert Austin loved so much.
Surrounded by birds and wildlife, Mr. Austin had enjoyed life amongst the groundhogs and other critters for almost twenty years, there on top of the River Bluff.
Indeed. Albert loved all of God’s creation—with one possible exception.
The old gent was suspicious of scavenger buzzards. How often he’d pause to squint up at the sky above his house, eyeing the circling buzzards warily. “They’re waiting for me,” he’d say. “Just waiting for me to die.”
But there were no circling buzzards when Albert Austin came down to his final days. There were no groundhogs or other wild critters, either. Just a finch or two, perhaps, outside his nursing home window.
I sat beside my dear old friend in Room 313. He lay back in his recliner with his eyes closed—his breathing rapid and shallow, his pulse pounding in his veins. My friend was nearing the end of his journey. This old King of the River Bluff was getting ready to head across the river for a final crossing, but this time it would be the Jordan River, not the Mighty MO.
The old man’s eyes opened briefly, and he looked at me with his intense blue gaze. “H-H-a-p— Hap…?” He tried to say my name—the nickname that he’s given me.
I squeezed his hand. “Yes. Happy’s here with you. Now just relax, ok?”
His stared at me a moment, his eyes trying to convey what his mouth couldn’t say. But there was really no need for conversation. The words that might’ve been spoken, had already been said many times over.
I remembered the conversation we’d had, just days before.
“You’ll come to visit me in the cemetary…?” Mr. Austin had said. “And we’ll sit under the trees and talk and sing like we always do…?”
“And we’ll sing that song….? ‘When-you-come-to-the-end-of-a-perfect-day and you-sit-alone-with-your-thoughts…?’”
He’d fallen silent, then, and we sat thinking about all the times we’ve sung that song. How many Perfect Days we’d had, sitting there at his bluff-top retreat—there on his big, tree-lined deck—watching the beloved birds flutter about his feeders. It didn’t seem possible that those days were over, and that we’d finally come to the last line of that song… “Well, this is the end of a perfect day, and the end of a journey, too.”
No more boat rides on the Mighty MO. No more fireside chats while the snowflakes fell outside his windows. No more song fests and Tra-la-la-BOOM-dee-ay’s! This was the end of his journey.
I held his hand, and Mr. Austin drifted into a fitful slumber. Occasionally, he’d give a sudden jerk as he surfaced in and out of sleep. I wondered what he was dreaming about. Was he seeing a glimpse of eternity just ahead? Was there a death angel nearby, waiting to escort Mr. Austin along the final steps of his journey?
A breeze wafted through the partially opened window, stirring the curtains like the invisible hand of an angel. At the birdfeeder just outside the window, chick-a-dees fluttered about, but Mr. Austin no longer saw his beloved feathered friends. The sun sank lower in the west. It wouldn’t be long before the silent ushering of a soul into eternity would begin.
The door of the room opened and someone came in. I looked up startled, half- expecting to see the death angel standing there, but it was only a friend from the nursing home, pausing to say farewell.
The good-byes had begun.
For the next few hours a procession of people showed up at the door of Room 313. Dear old friends who had known Mr. Austin for decades…Newer friends that he had made there in the nursing home. Each one of them paused beside his recliner for several moments, to squeeze his hand, or to give a salute. Mr. Austin returned the salutes and handshakes—looking at each visitor mutely, fondly—unable to say what was on his heart.
It was a poignant process—this uttering of final good-byes. The laughter and tears and long conversations that had been woven throughout the course of his life had now reached their end. The only thing left were the final threads, to be tied up and snipped off one by one. It’s the tapestry of life, a panorama of one’s lifetime spread out for all to see. Mr. Austin’s tapestry was a beautiful one—a fact attested to by the multitude of friends who stopped by to say farewell.
At last, the door of his room closed and the curtains were drawn. The sun had set, and the time had come for me to say my own goodbye. It wasn’t an elaborate one. It was the same farewell we’d been uttering for several months, now. Ever since his health had begun to decline, we’d said our good-byes very Carefully—acutely conscious that each time we saw one another, it could be our last.
“Goodbye Carefully, Mr. Austin,” I said to him. It was our customary farewell, but this time it had greater meaning. He squeezed my hand one last time, looking at me with his intense blue gaze.
“Good-bye Carefully,” he whispered. There was so much more we wanted to say, but the end of our long conversations had come.
I blinked back the tears and walked out the door, leaving behind my dear friend.
Outside, the full moon rose higher on the horizon, a shining beacon in the night. It led me down the road and up the long driveway toward Albert Austin’s house on the bluff.
I drove past the buzzard tree—the big dead elm where the scavengers loved to park on damp evenings, draping their wings outward to dry. But there were no buzzards tonight. Just the dead, bare branches silhouetted in the twilight.
I stared at the ranks of dark trees surrounding the house. They stood like sentinels, guarding the acreage that Mr. Austin loved so much. Far below the house, the Missouri River ambled on through the twilight—a pathway of darkness, lit only by the lantern of the moon. I gazed at the far ridge just to the west of me. There I could dimly make out the evergreen trees that grew in the cemetery where the King of the River Bluff would soon lay in repose…The beautiful graveyard with its gentle slopes and towering trees, not far from the Mighty MO.
Somewhere out there, the feathered friends of Mr. Austin were settling in for the long night. All the critters of the wild were nestled into their dens and dark places. The ‘possums and coons and groundhogs.
And somewhere out there, the King of the River Bluff was preparing to go underground as well—preparing to go to his place on yonder cemetery ridge.
The night wind sighed through the bare branches of the buzzard tree. And I sighed, too, as I took a last look around Mr. Austin’s house.
I can’t understand the mysteries of life and death. I don’t know why on this Groundhog’s Day my wonderful friend had to be dying…When the promise of spring was just around the corner and a season of warmth and renewal was just ahead. But one thing was certain…as certain as the moon on the river, and the stars in the sky…As certain as the sun that would rise again tomorrow.
On resurrection morn, when the graves give up the dead—like the awakening groundhog, Albert Austin will come forth from his den overlooking the Missouri River.
And he won’t see his shadow at all…Because all shadows will be gone, all darkness will have passed away…And the eternal spring will have just begun.