Valentine

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By Sean Dietrich

She has a box of to-go food in her hands. I overhear the man at the barbecue joint counter say she is missing two pounds of brisket.

The man apologizes to the people in line, then he tells her it will be coming right up.
“Don’t forget extra sauce,” she calls out. “The sauce is for my son, he’s a Dipper.”

Well, I can relate. I’m a Dipper, too. If it can be dipped, I dip it. French fries, for example, were designed by God to be ketchup delivery vehicles. Don’t even get me started on salads. My salads consist of a single sprig of lettuce with nine cups of ranch dressing.

She looks at me and apologizes for holding up the line at the counter.

The woman is about seventy, I’d guess. Maybe a little older. White hair. Slim. She takes care of herself. She’s wearing workout gear.

I don’t know what she’s doing in the to-go lane of a greasy barbecue joint. Usually, people who exercise a lot don’t openly consume cholesterol in public smokehouses. It just doesn’t fit the health-and-fitness thing.

Seeing someone like her in here feels like seeing a Church of Christ preacher at the blackjack table sipping a whiskey sour.

“You ordered a lot of barbecue,” I say because I have a gift for pointing out the obvious.
“Oh, it’s for my son,” she says. “He LOVES barbecue, and so does his fiance, and they’re gonna need something for their road trip. Something that will hold them, they leave tonight.”

And we are knee-deep in a conversation. Her son and his fiance are driving toward Canada tonight. She’s staying behind to watch his kids.

“My son’s getting married this weekend,” she goes on. “They’re doing a private ceremony, just the two of them, way up in Canada.”

She tells me the Canadian province where they’re traveling. It is a French word, but I won’t even attempt to spell it. Spelling was not my bess subjet in scool.

She tells me her son’s story.

Her son’s wife died a few years ago. Cancer. The tumor popped up overnight. One day the girl was a young, healthy person having a routine physical; the next week she was receiving hardcore radiation.

“The radiation was the worst,” the woman says. “God, it was hard on Hailey, that was her name. We watched Hailey go from being so strong to a skeleton.”

When Hailey died, she left her son with a boy and two girls. The woman tells me that her son was so depressed he stayed in his back bedroom and wouldn’t come out for nearly a year.

“I really thought we were going to have to get professional help,” she says. “He just wouldn’t snap out of it. It’s so hard to watch your children suffer.”

A little over a year ago, as a last-ditch effort, one of her son’s childhood friends booked a hunting and fishing trip to Canada in hopes of helping him. The friend wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, he dragged her son northward to a remote Canadian region, whether he wanted to go or not.

She laughs. “We practically had to threaten him to get him out the door, he didn’t wanna leave.”

They hunted and fished in a lodge located in the serene wilderness. She says that it was in this place where her son remembered what it felt like to be human again. In the evenings he and his buddies went out to restaurants, they laughed over beers, they told stories, they caught lots of fish. He stayed almost four weeks.

Enter his fiancé. He met her while in Canada. It was a chance meeting. She was not Canadian. Her Texan accent stuck out like a sore thumb when she was in Maple Leaf Country.

The woman says, “When he came back home, he was like, ‘Mom, I met this girl, and she’s from TEXAS! And she’s SO COOL!’”

And that was all she wrote.

The woman starts to get wet eyes. She touches the corner of one eye so that her makeup doesn’t run. She doesn’t say anything else because she doesn’t have to. She is a mother.
Anyway, her future daughter-in-law is a proud Texan with the no nonsense attitude often associated with people who wear spurs. And her son is like a new man.

The woman adds, “She was made for my son. He’s kinda soft spoken; she’s all up in your face.”

I have one of those at home.

Thus, the couple returns to where they first met. They’re going to tie the knot, then do a mini honeymoon in a nice lodge. Right now while you read this, they are probably still driving. And life is somehow moving forward again.

“My son is so happy.” She sniffles. “I just know Hailey is looking down and smiling on us. She wouldn’t want us crying for her anymore. She would want us laughing a lot, she would want us to be happy because that’s what she always was. Happy.”

The barbecue man finally brings a few more to-go boxes. Heavy boxes containing brisket, pork, and all the sauce a guy could hope for.

The man says, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone ask for that much sauce before.”
“It’s for my son,” she reminds him.

The man grins. “He must like barbecue sauce.”

“He’s a Dipper, he dips everything.”

We bid her goodbye. She happily trots through the parking lot and piles into her car. She’s going home to take care of her family and love on her grandkids. The way all good grandmothers do.

I watch her drive away. The man behind the counter watches her, too. And so of course does Hailey.

Happy Valentine’s Day to anyone who has a beating heart. And also to those who don’t anymore.