Connie and Billy
A Christmastime Story
~ Part Two ~
Eventually, their baby moment arrived … set it in motion by one of Billy’s classic announcements.
“Let’s get busy with this family stuff.”
And they did.
In a blink, they were crowded with a princess and a pair of squires. Connie and Billy raised ’em right and then let ’em fly because, they agreed, those were Nature’s instructions.
They believed that kidhood should be an indulgent buffet of adventures … great and small … side-dished with lessons, trips, and sports of all sorts. Jammed with arts of all kinds … especially theatre. Lots of theatre.
The children rode horses, paddled canoes, took up archery, shot pool, and became very fine chess players. They had dogs, hamsters, and even ant farms. And their kids knew how to draw out morning worms with some mysterious mustard concoction that was supposedly a Merlin recipe.
They were down-to-earth kids who could cook and sew and iron … and they did their own wash the moment they could reach the dials. And that was cause for cake … and clapping. And funny speeches.
But the Moon parents treated each child as a special sort. As a “oner.”
In private moments, Connie would squat way, way down … look ‘em straight in the eye … and tell each of them emphatically … “I love you the best!”. And they all knew their dad said the exact same thing to the others, but it didn’t matter because … for that skinny moment … those words made them special enough. And that was the point.
Billy called each of them “a special order” … and that amused them … prompting them to giggle … and to ask if they had model numbers. And they’d rattle off goofy serial numbers that made everyone roar.
The Moons scattered their house with curiosities picked up during their travel escapades. Carpets and books and vases. Knick-knacks, showpieces, and whatnots. Figurines, boxes, pottery, and a few weird souvenirs no one could explain. Each a story-trigger … a recollection.
The creaky Victorian house belonged to everyone … so everyone chipped in with the chores … big or small. And age made no difference.
They swept and vacuumed and mopped … even if they made a breath-taking mess. They helped bag leaves, shovel snow, and turned over garden beds as soon as they could stand. Everyone was comfortable with screw drivers and hammers and drills and clippers … and spatulas, mixers, and cast iron pans.
Every Moon child knew how to make brownies. It was every child’s first lesson in survival. And everyone had their own bedroom … their own first kingdom … and first responsibility.
And there was one very important feature of the Moon children.
Differences were expected … and respected.
They didn’t do cookie-cutter kids. They grew ‘em one at a time. Every child had their own space … but not their own rules. “We’re all in this together, remember?” was the never-written commandment. But that philosophy didn’t box the kids in. Not at all.
There were no allowances because … as Billy would say with an almost straight-face … “I’m sorry … we don’t believe in child labor.”
Instead … every reasonable suggestion got genuine consideration. Billy and Connie would take up a request overnight … and render a morning verdict. The kids learned to be careful and sensible. And that was the point.
The were taught to stick up for what’s right … and to look out for those who needed lookin’ out for. They learned to give of their time and their money … as meager as it might be. How much wasn’t the issue … the giving was the issue.
Mother and father Moon made few accommodations because they were small people. They thought of kids as well-equipped Lilliputians … so they went where Billy and Connie went … restaurants, church, even adult events. They were included in concerts … milled around museums … and traveled with them, too. And they tagged along for every play.
Billy insisted that theatre-going was the antidote to witless television. So the Moonbeams … as Connie sometimes called them … became fans of “Bill” … William Shakespeare. Billy Bard.
They knew dozens of plays inside-out … and each had their favorite … and their favorite characters, too. And they could quote Shakespeare as smoothly as the neighborhood kids quoted Darth Vader.
They were unusually cool Moonbeams.
Veronica, always called Ronny, became the village’s go-to lawyer of conscience … doing pro bono work for the town’s hard-luckers … especially women left in the lurch by disappearing or abusive men. She was named for Shakespeare’s most favorite city … Verona.
In a moment of early teenage angst, she remarked how thankful she was not to be named after the city of Pisa.
“I could be a ‘Pisa work’, you know?”
And Connie could not resist …
“Or a ‘Pisa ass’!”
And that got a long, eye-rolling “Daaaaaaaaaad” moan.
She was a captivating blend of Billy’s determination and her father’s unconditional empathy for the most vulnerable. Even as a child she wanted to be everyone’s champion. The protector. The guardian. She took her position as big sister very seriously.
But her veneer was not as tough as many thought. In private, she was a squish.
Ronny was a gorgeous hybrid … fortuned with Connie’s colored hair and Billy’s perfect profile. It was an impossible chore for the lady to look unbeautiful.
And she was smart, smart, smart. A quick, penetrating questioner … but with a soft style that put everyone at immediate ease. People would dump their hearts out on her desk … and Ronny had to learn to manage her emotions because … because her own heart was too fat.
The Veronica was followed by two gentlemen.
Lawrence was the unusual. The splendidly different. Few were surprised when he buried himself in religious studies as a college student. He’d been tilting in that direction since he was a boy.
Always good for unusual questions … and the more unusual follow-ups … he was seldom satisfied with any answer … and so … that was his quest. His chase. That elusive stuff called truth.
Other than that spiritual heaviness, Lawrence was a boy’s boy. The tallest of them all … with a gigantic wing-span. He was a gifted athlete who was never full of himself. And while others noticed him, he noticed others. Especially ones who were overlooked.
Once, as a ten year old, he petitioned his Little League coach … smack in the middle innings of the championship game! … that Owen Cord deserved an at-bat … even though he was the most dreadful swinger in the league.
For two innings, he followed the coach around the dugout … making his case for the kid with the .000 batting average.
“Owen’s never missed a practice … or a game. He puts the bases away without asking … and he brings everyone gum. Coach, he hasn’t gotten enough chances. Let him be the hero today, okay?”
As if it was a certainty that Owen Cord … who had never stood on first base in his life … would deliver a championship hit.
And he did. With one swing. And Lawrence patted the coach … and told him what a genius he was.
Owen Cord became Lawrence Moon’s best friend forever … even named his own son “Lawrence”. How’s that for a story?
That was Lawrence Moon … always directing the sunlight on others. Pointing to the shiny side of every coin. Giving everyone a special chance to do something special … and to become someone special.
Creating a moment that would influence a lifetime.
After an unusually short grooming period, Lawrence became an unusually young pastor of a very unusual, medieval-style church in the next county.
And guess what?
A very successful Owen Cord joined his flock and became his most generous benefactor … funding all kinds of good-will projects. Proving what goes around, comes around.
Pastor Lawrence inherited Connie’s concern for the “all alones” … and the nervous-anxious. Mother Billy called him her templar-son. She’d hug him so her ear was pressed against his chest … so she could listen to his heart. Then she’d look up at his handsome face … pat his heart and say …
“It’s nice ‘n big. Just the way I like it!”
And they would both lock eyes … and smile. And Billy would wrap her arms around his big frame … and squeeze until she squeaked.
Then there was Romeo the impulsive. An almost instant legend as a high school English and theatre teacher. His combustible personality made him a very popular pied piper.
He was the genetic winner of Connie’s nuclear smile … and his parents wanderlust. Everyone joked that his bags were always packed … that he was always ready to hit the road. Ronny called his dressers a waste of wood because he lived out of duffle-bags and pillowcases. Lawrence thought he might be on the the lam from the law.
Romeo Moon had lots and lots of hair. And lots of passion, too. Particularly for Bill. The Bard.
He was glib-easy … just like his father. He could charm a rock. And typical to the tribe, he favored the lost souls in his school. Used his plays … mostly Shakespeare stuff, of course … to make stars of the most unlikely social waifs … the quiet … the not-so-beautifuls … the invisibles.
He had special voodoo that made believers out of everyone he touched. Parents thought he was a god because he’d see such special stuff in their children when others did not. And then he’d mine that special stuff so sweetly.
All he’d tell the stunned parents, “I just looked under the hood …” His way of saying that their talent was there all along … and he wasn’t surprised at all … and they shouldn’t be either. Kids just blossomed around him.
But there was more.
Romeo Moon not only made kids believe in themselves … he taught them to believe in each other. He’d say time and again, “Your shoulders aren’t there to dangle arms, folks. You have shoulders for others to lean on … so put ‘em to work.” And those kids did just that. Year after year after year. Play after play.
There was still a lot of boy in him. He was an affectionate sort who’d sneak up from behind and give bear-hugs … and then ask if he could get an autograph.
And he had more lady friends than shoes.
When pressed about settling down, he’d put his hands up like stop signs and quote a Shakespeare … “All’s well that ends well” … and smile big. With lots of mischief. And others would laugh and say things like “When pigs fly” and “When the moon turns to cheese”. And he’d grin … and do the Groucho eyes.
He also had a habit of vanishing. Disappearing. Dropping out for days at a time … and then relaxing everyone with a casual call from some curious place that had caught his fancy.
He’d always manage to ring up when the family was together … and the call always began with a familiar question … “Guess where I am?”. Everyone would roll their eyes and scream out the most ridiculous destinations. Then he’d sneak in the back door … or pop out of the garage … in some cheapo t-shirt that was a bad clue about his recent escapade. And it would all get very funny, very quickly.
Connie and Billy Moon made great babies … who grew into great kids … and then splendid adults. A handsome-beautiful trio. Singularly special … but remarkably similar.
So the years rolled by. The children married … and had children of their own.
Then Father Time started leaving memos for Connie and Billy Moon.
Hair turned gray. Shoulders sloped. Steps got shorter. Fewer adventures. Ordinary to-do’s became chores. There were glasses and practical shoes. And body creaks.
And then some scarier messages that time is full of mischief. Sometimes serious mischief.
Billy’s health fell into a slow decline. At first, the children noticed it more than Connie because their visits were intermittent … so they measured their mother differently.
First, the heart medications … then some minor procedures … followed by not-so-minor procedures. And then harder medications that Connie loathed, but had to love because … because they kept Billy right where he wanted her.
But he knew what each new prescription meant. He knew the message that wasn’t printed on those prescription bottles. He knew the story they were writing.
Billy and Connie Moon switched gears easily. They did the grandparent thing with ease because … well … parenting is like riding a bike … you just don’t ever forget. You might peddle a bit slower, but there aren’t many new tricks.
Their house was the family hub. Holidays were organized chaos because, well, kids hatch chaos.
And there were spur-of-the-moment happening of all sorts. Fire-pit story nights … and fireplace fables. Impromptu barbecues, lawn olympics, and goofy competitions … with even goofier awards.
Grandkids would ring up and arrange their own sleep-overs … without even asking their parents. And nothing smiled Billy and Connie more than to hear their little feet track across the upstairs hallway as they claimed their parents’ old beds … and then insist they be read the very same go-to-sleep tales.
Saying good-night to the little vagrants became a sweet re-run for Billy and Connie … and they’d giggle themselves to sleep, too … just like the little punks down the hall.
Of course, the Christmas season held special memories for them both.
The mere mention of Christmas Eve caused an eye-lock … as they’d silently remember their penguin-walk years and years before … in the over-decorated church … at midnight Mass when they’d met … and got engaged.
As thirteen year olds.
The holiday finale was an elaborate evening for the small-fries … replete with tricky gifts and serious presents … and a family feast with a spotlight moment for every child … no matter how old.
Everyone had to speak … tell a tale or make a special wish or whisper a truth. They could sing … recite a poem … or supply everyone with a great reveal.
It was serious stuff. Very sincere until it was too cute or too funny. A tribal tradition that everyone looked forward to.
Billy saw to the smallest holiday details while Connie accepted his usual role as the Christmas gopher … the resident butler to the house-queen.
Their roomy place was done up in mistletoes, strands of garland, and twinkly-blinkly lights. Countless candy dishes … softly ridiculed as “cavity cups” … made fun of the usual sweet restrictions. And the Moon grandparents never … not ever! … ran out of chocolates and peppermint treats. Or brownies. And that made them heroes.
The fresh-cut Scotch pine freshened the whole house for weeks … and each decoration had its own tale … its own embellished fable that seemed to grow more fantastical every year.
Clan myths were spiced with fun exaggerations, but made real enough by real story-tellers and lots of very wide eyes. The newest generation ate it all up … as if it was heavy-duty history that somehow failed to make their history books.
But one Christmas Eve day supplied an anxious alarm about Billy’s situation … and the fun stuff got pushed aside.
It took her ’til almost mid-afternoon just to shower … and while the sound of running water relieved Connie in a big way, he knew something was more than a little wrong.
An hour later, Billy appeared … perfectly put together, but holding her small over-night valise.
Connie knew. He just knew.
“I’d better spend a little time at Good Samaritan,” was all she said. And Connie sat her down in the study … and raced upstairs to gather up what he needed for an unusual Christmas Eve.
Good Samaritan was a six-bed village clinic stocked with endangered nurse-nuns. A lay-over there held just two possibilities: head home in a day or two … or off to the real-deal medical center where the heavy issues were addressed by big-deal doctors who did big-deal tests … sometimes followed by big-deal bad news.
Usually, Billy was back home in a day or so. But that didn’t keep Connie from sleeping at the clinic on some cushy chair that was pushed around by the more youthful nuns.
Everyone came to expect him to roam the halls until late into the night … until Billy was sound asleep. Then he’d get comfy in the chair and serenade everyone with a snore.
In all their years together, they’d never spent a night apart.
And it wasn’t gonna happen now.
The long hallway was lit like a runway … the floor lights crawling up to the ceiling like soft ivy … highlighting papier-mâché angels which seemed to flutter on the walls.
Old Sister Mary Catherine whispered that she was wheeling Billy to the honeymoon suite … and giggled at her own racy joke.
“It’s the only Christmas gift I look forward to,” smiled Billy … causing poor Mary Catherine to almost choke on her chuckle.
Her husband crossed his eyes … and Billy winked.
Connie tended to the front desk necessities … and mentioned his arriving children. He asked that all three head to Billy’s room together. Less taxing on Billy, he reasoned. A group visit … then Billy could rest until the doctor stopped by in the morning.
Connie sank into the over-stuffed chair and waited. There was quite a bit of foot traffic down by Billy’s room. In a short while, a nurse tapped his shoulder … and joked that his manhood moment had arrived. He fetched his overnight bag … and headed down the hall.
Two terribly young nurses stood like motionless sentinels at the door … and another stood in the corner like a statue … casting a floating shadow that looked just like the Blessed Mother.
Connie was unprepared for the scene.
Billy looked stunning-beautiful in the creamy light of the room. He grinned big when he noticed a second bed pushed up against Billy’s. The nurse smiled sweetly and whispered, “Merry Christmas.”
And they all vanished.
Billy patted his bed … and in no time he was right there … right next to her … with his arm draped across her middle. His face inches from hers.
And the staring started all over again …
just as it had decades before … in that crowded church.
And … as if on cue … a soft instrumental version of “Little Drummer Boy” romanced them … echoing off the hallway walls. It was impossible for them not to grin.
“Remember?” she whispered.
“Of course,” he smiled.
“So, you’ll fall in love with me all over again?” asked Billy.
“Every year. It’s a wonderful habit.”
And she smiled … and her cheekbones popped … and her eyes got damp … and she nestled her head in the pillow.
And Connie kissed her forehead … then her cheeks … and lips.
“You’re a bad boy.”
And then they talked with their eyes.
“This is better than church,” … smiled Billy.
“Way better …”
They smiled each other for long moments … and Connie would gently gather her a bit closer … and inch toward her … and Billy would kiss his head … and watch that slow smile run across his mouth. It was a sure-fire reaction … one that she depended on.
But her breathing was not so easy. The breaths got deeper … and her eyes flickered. And he knew. He just knew.
Connie fought back with calm … careful to lay his head just beyond her shoulder … so they could lock eyes … so she could fight her fright. So he could capture her mind … and ease her off.
And very quickly, her eyes were still. Frozen in a forever gaze.
The sons and daughter were unprepared for this Christmas Eve moment. Dressed in nearly identical, ankle-length overcoats, they headed down the shadowy hallway like a trio of heavies in a Hitchcock scene.
The soft sobs caught them off guard. The nurses at the door had wet eyes.
They filed into the room … and the air rushed out of them. They stood frozen. Shoulder-to-shoulder. At the foot of the beds. Staring.
They were overcome by a paralyzing numbness. And it took long, long seconds for it all to settle in. To be unraveled. Understood.
And as their eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, they found themselves in a surreal dimension. An otherworldly hallucination.
Never did death look so serene. So utterly content.
Connie and Billy were coiled in a gentle embrace. His head lay under Billy’s chin … and her left hand palmed his cheek. She seemed to be looking down at him … crying. Her tear-tracks glistened in the milky light … and Connie’s night-shirt was spotted with her tear-drops.
“Silent Night” wafted down the hallway … adding a holy soundtrack as they studied the scene before them.
And in their shock was a peculiar joy … and a startling tranquility. They smiled weakly at each other … because the scene was so … so surreal and so sublime. So tragically beautiful.
And for a very long moment, they huddled up … and hung their arms around each other’s neck. They bowed their heads … and tears leaked out.
Ronny smoothed out the bed linens … and tidied the pillows. She pulled up the bedspread and gently tucked them in. Then she turned toward her brothers.
After a long stare … she opened her fist … and there it was … rocking back and forth in her palm … the Verona Vial. From the apothecary case.
They were roped together in a disbelieving moment. But then … then they managed nodding smiles. Because they knew. They absolutely knew.
And as it all became clear, they let go with composure-grabbing exhales.
Each took their turn stroking the faces of their mother and father … leaning in to say their farewells … with unhurried kisses and private whispers.
Minutes later, they stood together again … more at ease with the moment … filing away the details they’d need for a lifetime of remembering.
Then Romeo Moon spoke a soft, theatrical prayer … an off-the-cuff Shakespearean benediction.
“Oh, my love!
You have not been conquered.
There is still red in your lips … and in your cheeks.
I’ll stay with you … rest here forever.”
And he lost his composure to tears. But he blinked through the blessing …
“Eyes, look out for the last time!
Arms, make your last embrace!
And lips, seal the deal.
Come bitter poison … here’s to my love!”
Romeo couldn’t turn off the tears … because his heart had collapsed in his chest. And because the next line was the good-bye line. The story’s end.
He gulped as much courage as he could … opened his eyes extra-wide … and finished his perfect prayer.
“So … I die with a kiss.”
Then he buried his face in Ronny’s hair … and they were both wrapped in the reassuring arms of Lawrence.
And at that exact moment, Connie Moon and Billy Dumas bumped shoulders …
and headed to Forever.