By John Thomas Tuft
Eight-year-old Billy lay quietly in the hospital bed. Without irony, his favorite song, Just Breathe by Pearl Jam, played on the iPad under his pillow. The Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis made it an honest to God struggle to breathe, each and every solitary breath. And it explained the whispers and gurgles of the equipment used to help his failing lungs stand a fighting chance. The absolute, unequivocal miracle was that he had survived a take no prisoners, no holds barred disease for this long. But that’s the kind of kid Billy’s mom and dad were raising. In fact, they had just stepped out to go have some late lunch while Billy tried to take a nap. Billy figured that he was too old for naps, but you do what you gotta do in these kinds of situations. That’s according to Grandma Vernie, his favorite person in the whole world. Just please don’t tell his mom that. She wouldn’t understand what goes on between special friends.
Grandma Vernie wasn’t his real grandma, mind you. When the IPF started and mom and dad went around with their worry faces and tried too hard to smile, Grandma Vernie, the widow from next door, just kept on treating him like an ordinary, dyed in the wool, kid. “Gotta cough, Billie? Cover your mouth. Nobody wants to kiss a barn door!” Billie had no idea what that meant, but the way Grandma Vernie said it meant it had to be something grown up. And maybe a little naughty. And if he got a little too wound up when the two were playing a board game and he started getting too intense because he hated to lose and groused about it, she’d say, “Well kiss my foot and call me an angel! Your head’s gonna bust right out of your britches you’re so goldarned important! Nobody misses you if you’re the only winner in the world, child.” And somehow that was enough to do the trick.
A couple of afternoons ago, Grandma Vernie had showed up, leaning heavy on her cane. “My arthur-itis be actin’ up, child. Mind you, I’m not complainin’. Fat lot of good that does folks, ya hear me?” And, of course, Billie heard her. She knew enough not to fuss at him about being sick and he appreciated that fact. She handed him a box wrapped up as a fancy gift. “I brought you Pap’s old mistifier. It vaporizes the water so you can breathe it easier, child.” She filled it with water, plugged it in on the table next to Billie’s bed. “Where’s Pap?” asked Billy. “Oh child, he done caught the train to be with Jesus. Don’t pay that no nevermind, now ya’ hear me? I’ll be catching that train soon enough myself.” She stopped short, looking at the boy in the bed, tears threatening to break the dam of grief in her eyes, as he asked, “Is the train coming for me, Grandma Vernie? Remember you said, friends gotta be square or the bread don’t rise.” Her whole body trembled as she whispered, “Oh child, if the train be acomin’ for you, it better be arunnin’ over me first.” True friends can speak of these things.
So Billy lay there this afternoon, watching Pap’s mystifier ‘spootin’ up puffs of vapor like steam from a railroad engine. As he watched, the train came around a bend in the distance, the whistle starting low, then getting louder. He could see it stopping at a farm outside of town. Then some people got on. Doors slid open, big boxes filled with mysterious gifts were loaded onto huge freight cars. Then the train pulled out and to his amazement a big, black as midnight, puppy with a smile on his face, leaned out the window of the engine and waved. Billy laughed at how silly he looked in an old blue and white striped engineer’s hat. Behind the engineer puppy stood an old man, dressed in a fancy white suit. He doffed his fancy hat and waved a cane at Billy as they drew near. It looked suspiciously a lot like Grandma Vernie’s cane, noted Billy with wonder.
The next thing Billy knew, the train stopped and the black as midnight puppy and the man in the pure white suit were motioning to him to come aboard. He hesitated. “Come on,” said the puppy. “We’re going to go through a big tunnel. There’s a beautiful lake on the other side with lots of sunshine.” The man in the white suit added, “And clean air. Lots and lots of fresh, clean air. I tell you, it’s the truth. Friends gotta be square or the bread don’t rise!” he added with a big laugh that went through Billy like Christmas morning. And he got onboard the train.
When his mom and dad returned that afternoon, they were greeted at the nurse’s desk by the doctor and the chaplain. It was hard news. Very hard news that no one wants to hear. And they were truly mystified when the nurse brought them a cap. An old railroad engineer’s cap with blue and white stripes. And they cried. They cried very hard. Because how could they know? But to this day, if you make your way to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and make your way to the benches in the main concourse, you will see her there. An old woman, leaning on a cane for support, holding a box wrapped like a fancy gift, watching the train schedules. True friends can speak of these things…or the bread…
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.