Luther went outside to bring in the reindeer and take down the lights. He put the ladder against the house and just as he reached the top rung, the ladder slipped and Luther fell.
Old man Barnes and Rufus had already made it back home, but two of the neighborhood children, out with their new sleds, saw him fall. They ran over to him and said, “book man. Are you okay?” When he didn’t answer, one of them told the other to run home and call 911.
When the ambulance arrived, the children were asked if they knew his name. “Book man,” one of them said. The medic said, “Mr. Bookman?” The child said, “no. Not Mr. Bookman. He is the book man. “Is there anybody at home? Wife? Children?” asked the medic. “No,” the children said. “He lives by himself. We call him the book man because he’s always buying books.”
The medics loaded him up and took him to the hospital. Shortly after he was taken to a room, Luther slipped into a coma.
Word quickly spread around the neighborhood about the beloved book mans’ accident. Old man Barnes had been able to get in touch with Cole and begged him to come to the hospital. What he wanted to say was, “maybe now you can actually find the time to visit this fine man you have disappointed so many times.” He wanted to say that, but he didn’t.
Cole said that he and his family would take the first flight out, and old man Barnes agreed to meet them at the airport, wondering of course, if they would actually be on the plane.
Old man Barnes went to Luthers’ house and found the familiar pillowcase full of books that he had just bought, still in the back of his beloved Chevy. He decided to pick one to take to the hospital so he could read to Luther. He had always heard that even when someone is in a coma, they can still hear and understand. He hoped that was true.
The book he chose was, “The Old Man and The Sea,” by Ernest Hemingway. When he put it on the front seat of his car, he stared at it for a moment. Scratching his head, he thought to himself, “I could swear Luther already has this book,” but that wasn’t very important. Seeing Luther was. He sat beside the hospital bed and quietly started reading, occasionally glancing at the sleeping Luther, hoping he would open his eyes.
Later that afternoon, it was time to drive to the airport and he surprised when Cole and his wife were actually on the plane. They had left Luthers’ little darlings at home with their maternal grandparents. “It was just easier,” Cole said.
Old man Barnes once again held his tongue. All Luther had dreamed about for the last several years was getting to see those little girls he called his darlings. Those little girls he had bought gifts for. Those little girls he had planned on helping build a snowman. Those little girls he hoped would giggle at the reindeer with moving heads. Those little girls who he said were the spitting image of their grandmother.
Old man Barnes was silent as he drove Cole and his wife to the hospital. When they walked into Luther’s room, there was an audible gasp from Cole. The doctor was just leaving and Cole asked for an update. He explained that there had been no change in Luther’s condition and truthfully, he didn’t really think there ever would be. Due to his advanced age and frail body, the trauma had just been too great for him to ever recover. At least that was his prognosis.
Cole took Luther’s hand and said, “dad, I’m here.” He was hoping to see a reaction from Luther, but saw nothing. Then, like a trumpet, they heard the sound that makes every nurse and doctor scramble to a room. The scream of “code blue,” signaling asystole on the cardiac monitor. Despite their valiant efforts, Luther passed away. Cole asked for a few minutes alone with him, and what, if anything he said, no one knew.
When he walked out of the room, old man Barnes knew Luther was gone. He was surprised and a bit angry when he saw that Cole had tears in his eyes. He was even more surprised at what he said, not even looking at old man Barnes or his wife. He was looking toward the room where Luther took his last breath.
He said, “you know, you take your parents for granted. You think they’re always going to be there. You get busy starting your lives when you’re young, and you forget the sacrifices they made for you, when they were young. You don’t have time for them, and you forget that they always had time for you. You think there’s always going to be a next time to see them. You think there’s always going to be a next Christmas.”
All those feelings and statements were too late as far as old man Barnes was concerned. “Your dad is gone,” he said, “and he will never hear those words. He will never hear the regret in your voice, nor will he ever see the tears in your eyes. Your sentiments are a little too late, son. Death is final and almost always brings sorrow and regret, but how easy it would have been for you to say those words while he was still alive. How much joy you could have given him if you had just once…just once…kept your word.”
What old man Barnes said made Cole feel ashamed and he broke down. After he gathered his composure, old man Barnes took him and his wife to Luther’s house. They walked in and saw the stockings still hanging on the mantle. The ornaments, carefully wrapped, still sat in a box, and the little angels, waiting for his little darlings, still sat on the floor next to the box.
Old man Barnes said, “Luther was a fine man, and he was beloved in the neighborhood. He smiled and said, “did you know that he was called the book man?”
“The book man?” asked a puzzled Cole. “I don’t understand.”
“No. I don’t imagine you would understand,” old man Barnes said. “He was called the book man and he called his books his treasures. He spent weekends buying them, and then building shelves to put them on. Besides you and your family, his books were his most precious possessions.”
“Come with me,” old man Barnes said as he led Cole down to the basement. Cole walked from room to room, stunned at what he was seeing. All of the rooms were full of shelves, and all the shelves were full of books. Luther had meticulously put all of the soft covers together, and all of the hard covers together. He had even organized them by color. Some shelves held books of unusual dimensions, which he arranged in such a way that from a distance, they almost looked like a work of art.
Cole sighed, shook his head and said, “he didn’t want anybody to know.” Old man Barnes, himself a bit puzzled, said, “he didn’t want anybody to know what?”
Cole smiled and said, “he didn’t want anybody to know that he couldn’t read.”
I Ka Hopena.