The individual’s hands were shaking violently as they gripped the heavy revolver. Convinced that they no longer had a purpose in life, the distraught person believed the steel blue weapon provided the only answer to their seething emotional pain. After enduring more than five decades of depression and mental anguish, the individual had been driven to take this desperate step because, without warning, the job that had been the focal point of their world had been terminated, leaving them without the crucial stability they depended on.
However, this particular humiliation was just the most recent in a long series of indignities that had plagued the person’s existence. But it proved to be the final straw. Sitting on the edge of the bed with the TV news blaring in the background, the individual’s body tensed as they raised the handgun, put the barrel in their mouth, and closed their eyes.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
It was a beautiful spring day in early May when seventy-three-year-old Joanna Kline got out of her car and walked a short distance to where she knew he would be waiting. Sure enough, as soon as she passed a long row of perfectly trimmed bushes, he came into view. For a few seconds, she stood silently some twenty feet behind her dear friend.
Although neither of them had ever felt even the slightest romantic interest in the other, she watched him with the comfortable affection that comes with years spent in the company of someone who, in a meaningful way, has made your life richer and fuller. As always, he was sitting on the same end of the bench they shared every day at this time, weather permitting.
All around the meticulously landscaped park, birds were singing and chirping, with an occasional warble standing out from the cacophony of sound, while squirrels defied gravity by performing acrobatic leaps in the highest branches of towering oaks and maples. Off to Joanna’s left, was a small lake where several dozen mallards were floating contentedly, adding to the serenity that wafted through the early morning air. At this particular hour, the entire park was the embodiment of peace and tranquility.
Taking it all in, Joanna made the effort to remind herself of how lucky she was to be here and to be able to see and appreciate the beauty surrounding her. She had learned long ago to treasure every moment of every hour and to never take anything for granted. As her gaze fell on her nearby friend, Joanna wished he could learn to feel the same way – but, sadly, she was afraid that at his age, it was never going to happen.
She was certain he would consider this to be just another day, but that was not the truth. This day was important because it marked the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of their friendship. Not that she expected Andrew Gardner to remember such a thing. Unfortunately, she knew full well that sentimentality was not part of his emotional makeup. However, she also knew that his life had not been easy, and even though he had never spoken about it, she suspected there were demons in his past that he had struggled long and hard with.
Her soft-spoken friend had an interesting and often annoying outlook that was diametrically opposed to Joanna’s. Their constant verbal sparring had continued unabetted over the last two decades, and she had no doubt that today would be no different. Consequently, she had no allusions that sentiment would play any part in their visit this morning.
She paused and prepared herself for the inevitable disappointment that would result from his failure to acknowledge how much this day meant to her. Then with her purse slung over her shoulder while carefully balancing two cups in a cardboard tray in her left hand, she strolled up behind him. “Good morning, Andrew. What a lovely day.”
He turned towards her. “You’re late. Must be your old age slowing you down.”
Joanna sighed. “Andrew, you are six months older than me. We are slowing down together. But the reason I’m late is that I stopped and got us coffee.” She set his cup next to him.
He nodded. “All right. That’s a good excuse. You’re forgiven – IF – you remembered the extra sugar.”
Joanna sat down at the other end of the bench. “Have I ever forgotten the sugar?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Then why are we talking about my memory?”
Andrew took a sip. “Wow! I hate to admit it, but it’s perfect.”
“You’re welcome. By the way, all that sugar is bad for you.”
“If I wanted to be nagged, I would’ve gotten married.”
Joanna tried her coffee and then said, “Some lucky woman dodged a bullet.”
Andrew happily ignored her remark and said, “And here you are stuck with me. You know, many people believe that it’s impossible for a man and a woman to have a platonic relationship.”
“I strongly disagree,” Joanna said. “I think it’s easy. Look at us. As far as your attractiveness is concerned, I’ve never been tempted. Not even once. Not in the least. Not in the slightest. Not –”
“Okay. I get your point. You think I’m repulsive, appalling, revolting, loathsome, repugnant -”
“Keep going.” Joanna giggled. “Let’s just say I’ve never been tempted to slide over to your end of the bench.” Knowing that the sanctity of marriage was a subject he loved to rail against, she wanted to avoid that lecture at all costs, so she changed the subject. “How is Riley today?”
Just the mention of that name made Andrew smile. “He is doing much better. Turns out it was nothing to worry about.”
“That’s good.” Joanna knew how crucial that relationship was in Andrew’s life. It was a relief that it wasn’t serious.
He took another sip of his coffee and said, “Now that I think about it, this coffee could’ve used just a bit more sugar.”
Rolling her eyes, Joanna said, “The way you like it so sweet, you should try one of those flavored coffees like a mocha or a caramel macchiato”
Andrew was horrified by the very thought of it. “No thanks! Those things are way too expensive.”
Joanna chirped, “Of course, you think that. You are the cheapest man in the world.”
Completely unfazed, Andrew responded with quiet assuredness, “I’m frugal, not cheap. There’s a significant difference.”
“That’s a fine distinction that only you are aware of.”
With genuine pride, Andrew declared, “I happen to have discriminating taste. I don’t waste money on just anything.”
Taking another sip, Joanna said, “Which explains why I always have to buy the coffee.”
“I’m in my golden years, and I’m on a fixed income,” Andrew replied calmly.
“Me too!” Joanna huffed.
Smiling sweetly, he said, “I appreciate your generosity.”
With her tone turning serious, Joanna said, “I’m generous because I’m just glad to be alive.” She added softly, “And you know why.”
He frowned but quickly recovered. “Okay, since you brought it up, let’s talk about death.”
“Why do you always want to talk about that? You worry too much about dying. Let’s talk about what comes after you die.”
“Sorry. I have no interest in that.”
Undeterred she said, “You need to relax and stop worrying so much about everything. You can’t control every situation. Everything in life is a gamble.”
With confidence, Andrew countered, “Except for death – which, of course, is a sure thing.”
Reaching up and massaging her forehead, Joanna offered a gentle rebuttal, “Death is just a doorway to something better.”
Andrew could not abide such talk. “No. No. No. Death is not a doorway to anywhere. Death is the end of the line. Death is nothing more than that unpleasant moment when your family begins to fight over all of your things.”
Joanna was disappointed in him. “What about an afterlife? What about heaven?”
“If you’re asking if I believe in eternity, no, I don’t. You live and you die. Hopefully, what you do in between doesn’t end up on the news.”
Unsure why she was bothering to pursue it, Joanna asked, “Have you ever been a member of a church?”
“Nope.” Andrew was quite happy to make his case. “Organized religion is a tax-free con game. Churches have always seemed a little too interested in getting their hands on my money. In that regard, it doesn’t matter which deity you prefer. They’re all broke. They always need funds.”
With her disappointment turning into mild disgust, Joanna responded, “If you will recall, I’ve already alluded to the fact that you are cheap.”
Andrew was just getting warmed up, so her criticism had no effect. “It’s just that if you can afford to tithe, you can afford to play the lottery – and I know which one I’d rather do.” He wasn’t about to back down on this subject. “And another thing, how many wars are fought over religious beliefs? Each faith is convinced that they alone possess the truth and anyone who doesn’t slavishly adhere to their particular doctrine is sentenced to eternal damnation. It’s endless.”
Still trying to reason with him, Joanna suggested, “Perhaps someday the major faiths from around the world will come together, and there will be peace.”
Andrew felt no qualms in expressing his misgivings about that possibility. “How can we ever have world peace when we can’t even let other drivers merge into traffic?”
Joanna realized she was teetering on the brink of having him accuse her of believing in unicorns, and, unfortunately, he was right. It is difficult to merge into traffic. She decided to pursue a different topic and question him about an aspect of his personality she truly didn’t understand. “Let’s talk about something else. Why do you dislike going out in public?”
“Because sometimes the public is there.” Andrew thought the reason for his reluctance was obvious.
“You are anti-social.”
Puzzled, Andrew disagreed. “I wouldn’t say that. I’m sitting here with you. What more do you want?”
“I want you to participate in life instead of just sitting in your apartment alone.” Since she had started down this road, Joanna went ahead and brought up a sensitive subject that irritated her to no end. “For the last twenty years, I have invited you to spend Thanksgiving with me, my brothers, my sister, and the rest of my extended family. And every year, you come up with some kind of lame excuse.”
Andrew replied stoically, “It doesn’t matter. Your family would hate me.”
“So what? Everybody hates you. You should be used to it by now.”
“Anyone ever tell you that you’re a sparkling conversationalist? I doubt it.”
Joanna did not hold back. “I’m sorry, but you are a grumpy, sarcastic, unfriendly, world-class pessimist. There’s more, of course, but those are the highlights.”
Of all those endearing traits, Andrew chose to defend the one that was closest to his heart. “What’s wrong with being a pessimist? It’s just another way of saying a person is realistic. If you ask me, optimism is nothing more than the conscious avoidance of reality.”
“That is ludicrous,” Joanna chided.
Andrew enthusiastically offered his opinion. “When things are sailing along smoothly, a pessimist knows better. When everything is going too well, a pessimist is smart enough to know that the other shoe is about to drop. Pessimism is based on the fact that reality always wins. After all, cemeteries are filled with dead optimists.”
As often occurred during their conversations, Joanna was feeling exasperated. “Let me ask you a simple question. Are you ever going to be happy?”
Andrew shrugged, “I’m 74. If happiness is going to kick in, it better hurry. But what do you know? You’re younger than me. You’re just a kid.”
Joanna shook her head. “Oh, come on. Six months is nothing.”
“That is six months of additional accumulated wisdom.” Andrew boasted.
“Which you keep well hidden.”
He did not like it when she offered unsolicited advice or opinions, but Joanna couldn’t resist. “Your problem is that you think too much.”
Andrew was ready with a response. “Trust me, you have your own lengthy list of issues, but I’m sure that thinking too much is not one of –”
“Stop right there,” Joanna interjected. “Over the years, I’ve enjoyed our mornings together in retirement. So don’t ruin it now.”
Focusing entirely on himself, Andrew said, “I did not retire. At least not willingly.”
Joanna had struck a nerve. Throughout his life, for a variety of reasons, Andrew had struggled to find steady employment. Changing her tone of voice, she asked gently, “How long did you work at the manufacturing plant?”
Despondently, Andrew answered, “Nineteen years. I thought my job was secure, but one day, out of the blue, my entire division was let go.”
“It was tough. We lost our retirement funds, health insurance, everything.” Then choosing to look on the bright side, Andrew said, “But, of course, I don’t like doctors anyway.”
Concerned, Joanna asked, “But you do go in for check-ups and things, right?”
“Uh, not really. I figure if you go looking for trouble – you’ll find it. Better off to just leave well enough alone.”
“That is ridiculous! You are so intelligent – but refusing to go to the doctor is not smart. And by the way, you did not feel that way when Riley was sick.”
“It is not.”
Frustrated, Joanna said, “You are like a child sometimes.”
Brightening, Andrew declared, “You are resorting to name-calling, so it looks like I just won another argument. I suppose we can remain friends.”
“For now – but don’t push it.” Then in a complete lapse of judgment, Joanna thoughtlessly said something she instantly regretted. “You should hang on to me, Andrew. It’s not like you have any other friends.”
She watched his expression change, and she knew she had hurt him. But before she could apologize, he said, “You are right about that. I’m lucky that you’re willing to put up with me. Thank you.”
Angry with herself, Joanna said, “Don’t say thank you. I just said something terrible, and I’m sorry. The truth is, I couldn’t wish for a better friend than you.”
“So, you’re saying that when it comes to friendship, it’s quality, not quantity that counts?”
“Good. And by the way, wishes don’t come true.” Andrew always relished any opportunity to share his worldly wisdom with her. Whether she wanted to hear it or not.
Glad to be able to pick up where they left off, Joanna felt equally compelled to make him see the flaws in his thinking. “You are so wrong. I believe with all my heart and soul that wishes come true.”
Andrew scratched his chin. “Sorry, I don’t think so.”
Joanna was almost at a loss for words – but not quite. “How can you say that? You know wishes come true.”
He wasn’t about to take the bait. Andrew didn’t like talking about that subject, and he avoided discussing it with Joanna at all costs. On any given day, they could talk about anything under the sun – but never that. Instead, he chose to sit in rare silence.
But today of all days, she was not going to let it go. Joanna was growing tired of the verbal gymnastics, so she got to the point. “Look, I understand that you don’t like to talk about it, but all those years ago, I only had one wish in the world – and you made that wish come true. And although it makes you uncomfortable to even mention it, what you did for me is the absolute, unequivocal proof that wishes do indeed come true. You may deny it, but you know they do.”
“Not for me,” he replied softly.
She stared at Andrew. He was a master at keeping his feelings under wraps, and that often made it impossible to read him. But as she studied his face, she thought she detected the faintest evidence of emotion.
In a measured tone, Joanna said, “Sometimes you don’t act like it, but you are a human being just like the rest of us, and, therefore, you have hopes, dreams, and wishes just like we all do. So, now it’s your turn. If you could wish for just one thing, what would it be? I’d like for you to tell me.”
Uncomfortable, Andrew said, “I don’t want to play this game. What I would wish for is pointless. It cannot possibly come true.”
“Well, if your big dream is to marry me, you’re right, it’s definitely not going to happen.”
Andrew retorted, “Don’t flatter yourself. If I was going to marry someone, she’d be a lot younger than you.”
“I’m serious. Please, tell me.” Joanna pressed him. “If you could wish for anything in the world, what would it be?”
She watched in stunned silence as Andrew’s eyes began to turn red and tears began to form. Embarrassed, he turned away from her. But after a few seconds, he turned back. “I’m only going to answer you because this is our anniversary.”
It took just a moment for his words to sink in, but then Joanna’s heart filled with joy. “You do remember that it was twenty years ago today!”
“Did you honestly think that I didn’t know what day this was?”
Joanna now felt a little foolish. Trying to save face, she said, “I assumed you did – but I had doubts that you would mention it.”
Making no attempt to hide his uneasiness, Andrew said, “I don’t like talking about it. You always make too big of a deal out of it.”
Shaking her head, Joanna said, “You saved my life, and for that, I will always be grateful. It is a big deal to me.”
“Of course…… It’s just that there’s a lot more to that day than you’re aware of.”
“All right.” Joanna wasn’t sure where this was going, but she was intensely interested. “I would love to hear about it.”
Andrew’s anxiety was rapidly increasing. He had never intended to share the details regarding his decision to help Joanna, but maybe he owed her the truth. With some hesitation, he said, “That day was just as important to me as it was to you.”
“I find that a little difficult to believe.” Joanna added for emphasis, “You are the only reason I’m alive today.”
There was a long pause as Andrew struggled with the idea of whether or not he should confide his deepest secret to Joanna. Finally, with a heavy dose of apprehension, he said, “When it comes to saving lives, it works both ways.”
Unsure what he meant but knowing this was unlike him, she asked, “What are you talking about?”
Andrew took a deep breath and said, “I’m going to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone…… All of my adult life, I have battled depression. For periods, it will ease up, but it never completely goes away. At other times, it rages, making my entire existence seem unbearable.”
This did not come as a total surprise to Joanna. Through the years, she had often sensed that he was dealing with some kind of inner turmoil, but whenever she attempted to discuss it, he adamantly refused.
Andrew continued. “I’ve told you before how I found out about your situation. I had the TV on, and I heard it on the evening news.”
“Yes, I had a subtype of AB-negative blood which was making it impossible to find a kidney donor in time. The local station was kind enough to do the story on me.”
Andrew was nervous, but he wanted her to appreciate what she had done for him, so he explained. “I’ve never told you what I was doing that night when the report came on the news.”
Joanna waited, not able to imagine why it mattered what he was doing.
In little more than a whisper, Andrew said, “That night when your story began, I was sitting on the edge of the bed…… with the barrel of a revolver in my mouth.”
Joanna gasped. “Andrew! Oh my God! You weren’t really going to –”
“Yes, I was. But just as I was about to squeeze the trigger, I heard the reporter say that a woman, who was about my age, had AB-negative blood and would not survive more than a few weeks without a transplant. Instantly, something snapped inside my brain, and I was struck by the tragic irony of our circumstances. There you were desperately fighting to stay alive while I was prepared to end my life. Suddenly, in a heartbeat, trying to keep you from dying became my purpose. It gave me a reason to live – at least for a little while longer.”
Overwhelmed by conflicting emotions, Joanna said, “My God, this is unbelievable. I had no idea you ever contemplated such a thing. But you said it gave you a reason to live for just a little longer. Did you still plan on using that gun at some point after the transplant?”
Sighing heavily, Andrew admitted, “Yes, I did. But what I didn’t count on was what a remarkable person you turned out to be and how you made me feel.”
“I don’t understand. How did I make you feel?”
The man, who for two decades had never let his guard down, dropped his head and said softly, “You made me feel like I wanted to go on living.”
Joanna’s chest heaved as she covered her mouth and began to cry.
Concerned, he asked, “Are you okay?”
With her voice breaking, she said, “Andrew, that is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“Well, all I can say is, it’s the truth. I just hope that finding out about my personal issues won’t change our friendship.”
“Absolutely not. It doesn’t change who you are to me. Besides, you can’t get rid of me that easy.” Joanna pulled some tissues out of her purse, dried her eyes, and said, “This morning has been filled with surprises…… But I’m not going to let you off the hook. I still want to hear about your wish.”
“You are relentless.”
Very gently, Joanna asked again. “Tell me, Andrew. What is your one wish in life.”
“You’ll just laugh at me when you’ll realize that it’s futile.”
She was mildly offended. “I would never do such a thing. I promise I won’t laugh at your wish – even if can’t come true.”
Because Andrew always downplayed any kind of emotion, Joanna had never seen him like this. Watching his obvious discomfort, she waited patiently for his response.
After an excruciating length of time, he mumbled, “All right. I’ll tell you.” He paused again, getting the words just right in his mind, then he cleared his throat and said, “If I could have just one wish in the world – it would be to see your face.”
The honesty of his words hit her with unbelievable force. Tears once again streaked down her cheeks as she looked at Andrew and then down at Riley laying at his feet. For the last seven years, the gentle Golden Retriever had faithfully served as her friend’s guide dog. In disbelief, Joanna asked, “Is that really what you’d wish for?”
Without hesitating, Andrew said, “You’ve become so important to me, it would be incredible to just sit and look at you.”
Trembling, Joanna said, “But what if you were disappointed? As you love to point out, I am old. I must look better in your mind than I really do.”
“Oh, I’m sure you look better in my mind, but that’s what makes our friendship so special. I enjoy being with the real you. The person you are on the inside. It’s who you are that makes you beautiful.”
“Andrew, I just don’t know what to say. I never knew for sure if you valued our friendship as much as I do.”
“But now you understand why I was reluctant to tell you about a wish that can’t come true. No matter how much I would love to see your face, it’s never going to happen.”
Joanna reached over and took hold of his hands. “I do understand. And if our roles were reversed and I couldn’t see, it would not affect how I feel about you. What you did for me was the ultimate act of compassion. I was a complete stranger to you, and yet you took a major risk and made a selfless sacrifice – which now has even more meaning because of what you said you were about to do that night. Without the transplant, maybe neither one of us would have been here the last twenty years.”
Reverting to his usual acerbic self, Andrew quipped, “You’re just lucky you didn’t need my corneas.”
Letting go of his hands, Joanna’s shoulders slumped. “That is in bad taste. You are terrible.”
Andrew held out his hands, palms up. “You just told me I’m compassionate.”
“I guess you’re both.”
Andrew shrugged. “Sorry. Joking about being blind is just a defense mechanism. Thankfully, people are a little more enlightened these days about disabilities than when I was a child. Growing up, I was always ‘the blind kid’. Then after I graduated from school and entered the workforce, I was ‘the blind guy’. For fifty years, I was never just Andrew, an ordinary man. So I developed a tough exterior and pretended like being defined by my disability didn’t hurt me. However, it was an act. It did hurt.
“But then we met, and you treated me like a person. Nothing more or less. You didn’t look down on me nor did you pity me. We were equals, and that meant the world to me – and it still does.”
Joanna was touched that he was sharing something so personal with her. He rarely mentioned his experiences being blind.
Andrew continued to open up. “My blindness has been challenging, but it has not affected me nearly as much as my depression has. It’s funny, people always think that if you have some type of disability you’re not susceptible to all the other horrors that afflict humanity. But people who are blind are just as likely to get cancer or heart disease or have mental health issues as anyone else. We are not special, and we are not inspiring. We are just human beings trying to make it from one day to the next like everyone else. But for whatever reason, you didn’t treat me the way other people did. You treated me like a friend.”
Joanna smiled, “You are so much more than just a friend. In countless ways, you are the best thing that ever happened to me. I can never repay you for what you did.”
Andrew nodded and said, “You have more than repaid that debt by continuing to be a part of my life. I know I don’t always show how much I appreciate you, but I am thankful we got to spend the last twenty years together.”
Joanna shook her head. “This is all so incredible. A few minutes ago, I was just thrilled you even remembered the anniversary. I was afraid you might not.”
Bragging, Andrew said, “I guess I rose to the occasion! Which reminds me. What time is it?”
“No, what time is it exactly?”
Joanna rolled her eyes again. “It is nine-twenty-eight. Exactly.”
“Close enough! It’s time.”
“Time for what?”
Fishing his phone out of his pocket, Andrew held it up and spoke a number. When a voice answered, he said, “Okay, let’s do it.” He dropped the phone back in his pocket and sat motionless.
Mystified by what was going on, Joanna asked, “What was that about it?”
“Just wait. This won’t take long.”
Still amazed, Joanna questioned him. “So, you not only remembered the anniversary, you actually planned something for it?”
“I find it a little insulting that you’re surprised that I’m a sensitive, thoughtful, and considerate guy.”
“No. It’s more than surprised.” Searching for the right word, Joanna said, “It’s more like astonished. I am in complete shock. This is a side of you I haven’t seen since your decision to save my life twenty years ago.”
Frowning, Andrew said, “It sounds so dramatic when you put it that way.”
“How else can I describe it? The doctors warned me that the end was near. I had been on dialysis for years and -”
“All right. All right. We hashed all that out already.” Andrew paused and then leering said, “I originally thought about getting you male strippers, but this early in the morning there can be a little nip in the air.”
“Gee, I’m glad you reconsidered.”
“Plus at your advanced age, strippers might have induced a coronary.”
At that moment a large van featuring the name of a local florist pulled into the parking lot. Joanna watched in amazement as a woman got out, went to the back of the vehicle, opened the doors, and pulled out a long gift-wrapped box. She carried it over to where the two of them were sitting and said to Joanna, “You must be Miss Kline.”
Stunned, Joanna replied, “Yes, that’s me.”
Smiling, the delivery woman said, “These are for you.” She handed the long package to Joanna as Andrew sat grinning like a little boy on Christmas morning.
Still trying to comprehend what was going on, Joanna said, “Thank you!”
The woman replied, “My pleasure. Have a wonderful day.” She returned to the van and headed out to make her next delivery.
Still reeling, Joanna turned to Andrew and asked, “What have you done?”
“Open it and find out.”
Carefully, she unwrapped the box, and when she saw what it contained, she could hardly believe her eyes. It was filled with breathtaking long-stem roses. “Oh, my God! They are gorgeous!”
Hardly able to contain his excitement, Andrew said, “There should be a card with a small note attached.”
“Yes, there is.” She quickly opened it and began to read.
Each of these twenty roses represents one year of your life and one year of our friendship. I can only hope they are as beautiful as you. Thank you for being my friend, and rest assured, I will always remain yours.
This was too much. Joanna slowly rested her chin on her chest as the tears flowed freely.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Andrew said. “I was trying to make you happy.”
“You did! You’ve made me so happy – and I’m sorry that I assumed you wouldn’t remember what day this was.” Joanna gushed, “This is incredible!!”
“Not bad for a grumpy, pessimistic, cheapskate, right? That being said, don’t get used to me being nice. That’s not going to last. Tomorrow will be just another day, and we’ll be back to normal – so don’t forget to bring the coffee.”
Joanna smiled warmly. “It’s too late, Andrew. I’ve seen the real you. You can’t hide it anymore. You are sentimental. You’re just a big softie with a kind heart, and no matter how gruff or blunt you try to be – I know the truth!”
As Joanna admired the flowers, Andrew listened to the sounds of the bustling city surrounding the park, and he thought about all of the people rushing by, everyone seemingly in a hurry to be somewhere else. It made him wonder if there could be anything worse than being completely alone in a world filled with seven billion human beings. He certainly didn’t want to find out, and that made him treasure his relationship with Joanna even more.
Smiling, he turned to her and said softly, “Twenty years ago today, it was a privilege to play a role in saving your life – and I promise that, for as long as I live, I will never stop being thankful that you saved mine.”