Someone once told me that life is like a line of dominoes. When you’re born, the first domino is knocked over. Every other domino after that represents a memory, person you meet, or impactful event that moves your life along. Some dominoes are easier to remember than others and some make you feel like your line has stopped; like you need to take a break from everything.
The one thing I remember most from my fourteen years of life is the day I lost someone very important to me. When I was two years old, the economy crashed and my family was forced to sell our house and move but we had nowhere to go. A kind old man, named Joe, offered to let us move onto his ranch in exchange for some help. The ranch in total was about 265 acres or either rolling hills and grasslands or steep canyons and cliffs. On it, Joe raised about 50 cattle, not just for the money, but for the joy of having something that he could care for. But as time went on, he couldn’t take care of everything by himself. So, we put a second house on the ranch and lived next door to him for eight years. My dad would take him to lunch everyday, they went to the grocery store every week, and he came to our house for dinner every night.
Joe taught me many things about not only myself, but the life I am living. He once said to me, “Annie, nobody’s life can be judged the same so live your life the way you want because you only get to live it once.” I was 8 years old at the time but that stuck with me more than anything else. Joe turned out to be the strongest, wisest, craziest, and sweetest man I have ever met. He cared for me and my family like we were his own. Over time, he became a part of us. We didn’t do anything as a family without him. I woke up every morning for eight years thinking about when we were going to get him for breakfast or lunch. My dad took him to business meetings and when I was home and bored, I would go visit him and make sure he was ok. We had some scares as he got older, but he always made it through. There were times we were certain we would lose him, but he always came back stronger than he was before.
Then came late November of 2014. I was nine years old in the fourth grade. Joe unexpectedly came down with pneumonia. I don’t think I realized how bad it was at the time. He ended up in the hospital. I remember going to visit him many times over the course of the month he was in there. We would bring him things like flowers, pie, and his dog, whenever he felt lonely or sad. I would go to sleep every night reminiscing about the 96-year-old man. All of the times we went to lunch or dinner, the stories he told, and the times we were afraid of losing him. In my mind I had come to the conclusion that he would be back. He’d walk out of the hospital on his own two legs and get right back to work on the ranch. I’d decided that in a couple of days, maybe a week, we’d be back to our normal schedule.
But a week past. Then before I knew it, two more passed behind it. At the beginning of the fourth week, me dad was sitting with him in the hospital like he always did. Joe couldn’t talk very well because of the oxygen mask but he had been griping about how much he hated the hospital. He just wanted to go back to his ranch to see his dogs and cows. He needed to keep things running. My dad kept reassuring him that if he would just stay there, he would eventually get better. Christmas passed, he was still in the hospital. Mom had wrapped his gift in bright red Christmas paper and put it under the tree for him. We had planned to give it to him the next time we went to the hospital to see him, but under the tree it stayed. It got pushed to the back by the other presents and was forgotten.
They day before New Years Eve I was visiting Joe in the Intensive Care Unit at San Marcos Hospital. It was a sad sight to see the man that had always been brave and strong lying in his hospital bed, helpless and weak. I wasn’t ready to let someone so impactful on my life go. It was an emotional time for not just me but for all of my family. After hours of sitting there, listening to the beep of monitors and the scuffle of nurse’s shoes on the tile floor, Joe looked at my dad. He mustered the strength to turn over and speak five heart-crushingly powerful words.
“I want to go home,” he said turning back onto his back. My dad tried to argue with him, telling him he would die if he went home. But Joe had made up his mind. He had told my dad before that if he was going to die he wanted to die in the place he had called home for forty years of his life. The place that his family called home at one point in time. The place he loved with all of his heart. So on New Years Eve, we brought him home. I remember the ambulance pulling through the gate and coming down the bumpy dirt road. I remember the paramedics setting up the monitors in his house just in case. And I remember our neighbor taking me to my best friend’s house for fireworks. In my mind, I thought that since he was home he would be ok. I put a smile on my face and did fireworks until I was too tired to stand. After going inside, I decided that I would call my parents to check in and see how Joe was doing.
“Hows Joe?” I asked with hope in my heart.
“Honey,” I could hear the sorrow in my dad’s voice; the shake in his breath. “Joe’s gone.”
I didn’t say anything after that. I felt the burn of tears in my eyes. The voices around me faded and I felt like I was alone. It was too late to go home, although all I wanted was to be with my family. I decided that I would go to bed. But I didn’t sleep. All I could think about was the fact that he wouldn’t be there for lunch or dinner when I got home. He wouldn’t be there to tell me stories about his baseball years. He was really gone. For a time, I felt a little empty. He had such a big personality and held such a big place in my heart that I felt like my life had to take a pause; like my line of dominoes was stuck.
Going home the next day to the ranch he had worked so hard to protect and keep alive was heartbreaking. I knew that it would be up to us to do everything he had taught us about the ranch, cattle, and the neighbors. His name still hangs on the front entrance to the place he called home for so long. Everyone who knew Joe before he died still reminisces about the lively old man. His memory lives on.
By Annie Stewart, Contributor
Stewart writes, “my story is about a person that changed my life in so many ways. Reading and writing have always been two of my favorite hobbies. I’ve never thought about submitting any of my writing until this year in Creative Writing.”