Push me all day, everyday.
|The Tire Swing|
Joe Hardin rushed through the kitchen heading for the back door. Rebecca, his seven-year-old, chose that moment to ambush his leg, and clutch it tightly with her little arms. Joe continued to walk unhampered, his long-legged stride carrying him halfway through the room as Rebecca balanced herself on his old brown boots, hitching a free ride.
“I wonder where Reba is?" he asked looking around. "She usually says goodbye to me before I go to work.”
Rebecca giggled. “I’m right here, silly!”
“Oh, there you are," he said teasingly as he put his hands on his hips, bent over, and looked down at her. “Gee, you’re so small, I didn’t even see you."
She giggled again.
"Come on, now, let go. You know I gotta get to work,” he pleaded, yet still smiling because he knew this was one of her favorite games. Then he gently lifted her pint-size chin in his big hand and said, “Reba, honey, I gotta go. You're gonna make me late.”
“I don’t care,” she blurted out, tightening her grip on his leg. “I don’t want you to go today. I want you to stay home." She was as stubborn as her mother. "Stay home, Daddy, please stay home.”
“You know I can’t, but I promise I’ll be back in just a little while.”
Rebecca buried her face into his pant leg and smelled the ground-in oil and grease. “Grownups always say that,” she said, pouting. “And then they’re gone for a long, long time...just like Mommy.”
“She said she was gonna come home from the hospital real soon, but she never did, did she?”
“We’ve talked about this before, Becca. Mommy’s with Jesus now.”
“But she promised she’d come back! She promised!”
Joe tried to choke back his grief, but he simply had no control of his emotions anymore. He let the tears run. "Look, baby, Mommy promised before she left that she would always watch after us, no matter what. And I believe that’s exactly what she’s doing.” He stooped down to get level with her eyes. “She's still with us, darlin'.” He gently patted her chest with his hand. “Here...inside your heart. And she’ll stay there as long as we remember her. Understand?”
Rebecca looked down, her lower lip quivering. “Uh-huh. I’m sorry Daddy, I didn’t mean to make you cry. I miss her too.”
“I know, pumpkin. Now, listen. I gotta go fix that flat tire on my trailer, and then I’ll come straight home.” Again he said it. “I promise.”
“You don’t have to go out of town today?”
“No, baby, I won’t have a load going out ‘til Monday, that's why I’ve gotta get that tire fixed this weekend. I'll be over at Uncle George's garage. Okay?” He pried her loose from his leg with his weathered hands, then scooped her up into his arms. “So, guess what?"
"So, we’re gonna have the rest of the day to play together. You think you can put up with your ol’ man for that long?”
“Uh-huh! All day... every day. Will you push me on the tire swing too?”
“What? Again?" he laughed. "That’s all you ever want to do." He kissed her forehead. "All right, hotshot, you got it. The tire swing...all day...everyday."
She cupped his stubbled cheeks in her small hands and saw the shadows he carried in his face; his eyes looked dulled by fatigue and long hours on the road. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you bigger.”
“I love you biggerest!” She smiled and squished his cheeks in her hands giving him a funny smooched-up kind of face. “There! Now, you look better.” She giggled uncontrollably and then rearranged his face again.
“Gee, thanks,” he mumbled through a twisted mouth. "Is there something wrong with the face I already have?" He gave her a bear hug until she screamed for mercy, then set her down.
“Ya got your cell phone?” she asked, suddenly becoming very mature and serious.
“Oh, yeah, I almost forgot.”
Joe grabbed his cell phone off the kitchen table and slipped it into his shirt pocket. “Thanks, Squirt, but now I really gotta go. Jump into bed with your grandma and cuddle up. I’ll see you both at lunchtime.”
“But Grandma snores.”
“Well, just pinch her nose shut, that’ll stop her.”
Rebecca giggled, “Okie-doke. But if she gets mad I’m gonna tell her you said it.”
“You do that and I bet she’ll laugh. I used to squeeze her nose all the time.”
“Oh, what about lunch? What do you want, Daddy?”
“How ‘bout one of your special peanut butter and banana sandwiches?”
“Sure! I can do that. But don’t be late, or I’ll start calling ya. Remember, I got your number, mister.” She wagged her finger at him, reminiscent of her mother, then giggled again.
Joe kissed the top of her head and gently slapped her butt. Then she was off, running down the hallway with every intention of pinching her grandmother’s nose.
He yelled after her, “Yeah, and I got yours too, munchkin. I’ll see ya later.”
She turned and waved. “Bye, Daddy. I love you.” Then, with a mischievous gleam in her eye, she ran into the bedroom.
Joe chuckled to himself, knowing that his mom was about to get a rude awakening. As he reached for the doorknob, he noticed that his hand was trembling, and he held it out in front of him trying to will it to stop, but it wouldn’t. A tight pain gripped his chest and he felt dizzy and light-headed.
Massaging his left arm, he tried to rub away the tingling sensation. Then the pain suddenly disappeared as quickly as it had come. Thinking nothing of it, he hurried out the door. With his long gait, he quickly cleared the porch. The tire swing hung from the big old maple tree in the middle of the yard, and as Joe walked by he affectionately gave it a push.
Mary had helped him hang the swing the day she told him she was pregnant. Joe had used one of his old truck tires and hooked it to the biggest branch of the tree with a thick rope. He remembered how they had hoped that any child of theirs would simply love a tire swing just as they did when they were kids.
Although the swing was intended for Rebecca, he and Mary spent many warm summer evenings playing on it. It became a favorite place for them to gather and have their long talks--talks about the future, their goals, and their dreams.
Joe remembered how she never wanted to stop swinging. She would giggle like a schoolgirl, begging Joe to keep pushing her over and over again--higher and higher.
But it did stop. It stopped forever, and Mary never had a chance to push her daughter in that swing.
He thoughtfully pondered the swing as it spun in its slow arc. Joe imagined the days of his life passing with each swing of the tire. Vivid memories--memories that made him wish for other times: times when things were normal and Mary was here; happier times that came and went all too soon for him and his wife. For an instant, Joe pictured Mary inside the tire swing, and the sound of her laughter drifting across the front yard.
A tightening in his chest brought him painfully out of his reflection. His left arm tingled again, so he pumped it several times, trying to shake out the kinks as he continued walking toward the garage.
Mary’s illness had been totally unexpected. And her death had come all too quickly. Just one month after being diagnosed with leukemia, she was gone.
“You can’t just close your eyes to this, Joe,” she had said. “This isn’t gonna go away. And you’ve got a daughter to raise.”
“How much longer do we have?” he asked wearily.
“Doc says we’ve still got some time--God knows how long.”
It’s different to have a loved one just suddenly die, as compared to watching them slowly slip away. But Mary had the heart of a lion, and even though she was in excruciating pain, she always had a smile for him whenever he entered the hospital room.
She died graciously, with Joe standing at her bedside and holding her hand.
Rebecca was only three then, and Joe had no choice but to ask his mother to move in with them to help take care of her while he was traveling. He still thanked God that she was there and had agreed to help.
“Don’t you give it another thought, Joe Hardin? I’ll pack and be there in the morning.”
“Thanks, Mom. God bless you.”
“This is what God intended for me to do, Joe. I can feel it.”
Things had been tight for a while, especially with Joe driving a truck from one end of the country to the other just to make ends meet. But after he bought his own rig, the money started pouring in. Now he had more work than he could handle, and it felt like he was always on the road. His family suffered because of it.
Joe stared up at the sky. The early morning air smelled fresh and clean as the clouds broke just at the horizon and the sun shot through with heavenly beams of light. It looked like it was going to be a wondrous day. Joe thought about relaxing at home with Rebecca and maybe taking a long-deserved nap.
As he climbed into the cab of his ‘92 Peterbilt, he could smell the familiar aroma of diesel fuel and leather. He plopped himself into the driver’s seat that, over the years, had become perfectly conformed to his body after the many miles of use. Looking out over the extended baby blue hood, he quickly cranked up the 425 Cat engine. With a shake and rumble, a large, black cloud of diesel exhaust blew out the chromed pipes that extended above the cab, and the motor shook to life. Instinctively, he threw it into the first of fifteen gears and eased down the long driveway. He stared at the house as he passed by. The tire swing spun slowly on its stretched rope as if waving goodbye.
Just a couple of miles from Joe’s place stood O’Neil’s Garage, an aluminum shed that stretched out as long as a football field.
George was Mary’s older brother, and had been a trucker once himself; he knew how things were for most long-haulers which made him sympathetic to their needs. George was considered to be the best damn truck mechanic in the whole state. He specialized in caterpillar engines and anything to do with eighteen-wheelers, and he taught Joe everything he knew. Joe considered him one of his best friends.
He pulled into O’Neil's just as George was coming out of the front office with the biggest cup of coffee Joe had ever seen. “Morning, George,” he hollered through the open window. “That much coffee’s gonna kill ya, man.”
“Hey, Joe, how the hell ya been?"
“You know how it is, Georgie, I’ve been working my butt off."
"And how’s that niece of mine doing?”
"Rebecca’s doing just fine. She sends her love.”
“Why don’t you two come by my place tomorrow? We’ll have a little barbecue and empty a few beers.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see if the princess can pull herself away from the TV long enough to do some visiting. Say, can you loan me the use of your jack for a couple of hours? I’d like to finish fixin’ that trailer of mine. I left it parked out back last night when I came in. It's got a flat on one of the inside tires.”
“Sure, Joe, no problem. Just make sure you put everything back where you found it.”
“You got it, boss. Thanks.”
As he pulled around back, he saw a couple of the mechanics working and gave them a wave.
“Hey, Joe!” yelled Homer Tharp over the noise of Joe’s truck. “How goes it?”
Joe and Homer had played football together in high school. He remembered Homer had always been sweet on Mary, and how the two had nearly come to fisticuffs over her once at a school dance. But in the end, Mary chose him to spend her life with and Homer had remained a good friend to both of them throughout the years.
“Homer!” Joe yelled, shutting down his engine and climbing down from his cab. “You ol’ son-of-a-gun. How ya been?
“Good and gooder, Joe. How you getting along? I haven’t seen ya since the funeral.”
“Good as can be expected, I guess, Homer, considering.”
“And that beautiful daughter of yours, Rebecca?”
“She’s good, Homer, real good. Reba takes good care of me. She acts like a mother hen. Hey, is there a jack I can use to change a tire?”
Homer looked up and down the garage. “All the good ones are being used right now. but there’s that old one in the corner over there. It tends to slip under too much weight though, so be careful.”
“10-4 that, good buddy. Thanks a lot.”
Joe pushed the jack out to his trailer and set it up. He pumped the handle up and down until he heard the trailer creak and groan as the right-front duals slowly lifted up off the ground. Joe wasted no time in busting the lug nuts loose with a compressor gun. He hurried to get done before lunchtime.
The tire wobbled when the last nut came loose, but it was too heavy for Joe to lift, so he pulled on it, rocking the whole trailer back and forth a little until the tire fell free of the hub. But the flat was behind it--the tire on the inside. It was hard work for one guy to get it off with a broken jack, but after a while, Joe finally had both tires lying in front of him.
From the back of his cab, he unchained the spare tire he had bought and rolled it off the truck. It bounced when it hit the ground and veered off from its intended path. For some reason, it reminded Joe of the tire swing--and Mary. He stood there, lost in thought, watching the tire as it rolled across the ground. It collided solidly with the jack handle.
The big trailer shook and slowly started to come down. Joe quickly jumped down from the truck and ran toward the jack, thinking he could get it back up before it fully descended. He pumped the handle for all he was worth.
Then the jack collapsed and fell on its side. The trailer lunged forward catching Joe on his right hip. He heard the sickening sound of breaking bones as it knocked him over and continued its forward motion, mowing him down and pinning him to the ground with the large trailer hitch squarely in the middle of his back. He lay crushed beneath the heavy steel, his right leg twisted beneath his body in an unnatural way.
Joe felt very little pain, but couldn't breathe. Spots flashed before his eyes. It felt like an elephant stood on his back and refused to move. As he gasped for air like a fish out of water, a shooting pain flashed up his left arm and his chest began to constrict.
Joe knew immediately what it was; he was having a heart attack.
Overwhelmed by the painful sensation of being broken in half, he called out to God for help.
The pain subsided but didn't stop.
Suddenly, everything became very bright: the sky, the trees, even the ground. He no longer felt pinned under the trailer, and decided to sit up and look around.
Mary was there.
She stood beside him--shining--her long brown hair blowing about as if she were in a gentle breeze. She was as beautiful as Joe’s most treasured memory, and she stood there smiling at him. The longing Joe felt for her was more than he could take, and he began to cry. Mary took his hand in hers and immediately all the things that needed saying were said.
Joe still tried to speak, but his voice only rattled in his throat. Looking down, he saw himself smashed under the corner of the trailer. How odd, he thought. He felt a growing sadness for himself but did not want to return to the pain that awaited him there. Gazing back at Mary, he watched as she began to pull away--caught in the breeze that had earlier caressed her, but now carried her further from him. He wanted to go with her, but a silly ringing sound kept stealing his concentration and forced him to look back at his body.
He kept thinking, "What’s that sound?" and became more and more angry at the distraction. He wanted to go with Mary, but the noise persisted in drawing him back.
His breath came in short rapid gasps, and then he was the guy pinned under the trailer again. Endless waves of pain pounded at his consciousness. The ringing came again, so close to him that it felt as if it was coming out of his chest.
Joe’s mind cleared and he immediately took in his situation. He lay upon his right arm and was smashed against the spare tire which lay beside him. The tire had saved his life because it held the brunt of the trailer’s weight.
More ringing came out of his chest.
What is that annoying sound? It sounds like a phone, he thought, my cell phone! My cell phone is ringing!
Joe could feel it now. His phone was in his shirt pocket where he had put it on the way out of the house that morning. But he couldn’t reach it, the upper half of his body was squashed into the ground.
"Someone’s calling. Help is just inches away."
His left arm had tried to help break his fall and was stretched out in front of him. If he could just use it to get to his phone.
He slowly pulled it back toward his chest, but his body was firmly pressed against the ground, and he couldn’t get his hand under it.
The phone kept ringing.
Fighting to stay conscious, Joe tried to lift his upper body. The pain was so intense, that he thought he would vomit. His fingers slid under his chest toward his shirt pocket. Desperately he tried to grasp it. The phone was slick with no edges to latch on to, but his index finger was able to just barely flick it out.
It fell to the ground, but the pain became so severe that Joe had to lower the upper half of his torso into the dirt again to rest.
The phone kept ringing, and with every ounce of his strength, Joe lifted his chest once more and grabbed the cell phone from beneath him. He felt as if he had achieved a monumental task as he lay there gasping for air. He held the cell phone firmly in his left hand and tried to open it.
The ringing stopped.
At that moment, Joe thought his life was over. He struggled to get the phone open, finally flicking the front cover up with his thumb. His vision blurred. All he could do was smash down on the keypad hoping to hit the right button.
In desperation, he tried to yell for help, but he couldn’t get enough air in his lungs to shout. His labored breathing began to wear him down, and he dropped his face back into the dirt, totally drained and exhausted.
The phone rang again.
Joe’s eyes popped open. He felt a glint of hope, as he fumbled to press the talk button and finally heard the familiar beep. With great effort, he brought the phone next to his head, the crook of his arm sliding dry dirt toward his
He pressed the phone to his ear and made a mumbling sound, trying to speak, but it was no more than a groan for help. And then an angel spoke to him, and Joe realized his life was not yet over.
“Hello? Daddy? Daddy is that you? Hello? Daddy, where are you? Your lunch is ready.”
It was Rebecca.
He grunted again, trying to talk--trying to will his body to sound out the words that could save his life.
“Daddy? Daddy, are you there?”
He could hear her becoming frightened. God have mercy, this was his baby. He had to talk to her; he had to let her know what had happened.
The thought ran through his mind that this might be the last time he would ever get to speak to her. And that thought filled him with a new energy and will to live. He took a deep breath, and in an agonizing voice, said, “Becca, hurry. Call 9-1-1.”
“Daddy! Daddy, what’s wrong? Are you all right? I can barely hear you.”
“I’m at O’Neil’s. Hurt bad. Call 9-1-1 . . .”
“Daddy, what is it? Did you say you were hurt?” She was becoming frantic and started to cry. “Daddy? Daddy!”
“Reba, please. Dial 9-1-1. O’Neils . . . .”
“Oh, Daddy! Daddy!”
“Get Grandma. Hurry.” That was all he was able to say before he blacked out.
“Don’t worry, Daddy. I know what to do. I’m gonna call 9-1-1. I’m calling the police, Daddy. Just hang on! Daddy? Daddy!”
Then the phone went dead.
The next thing Joe remembered hearing was the wailing of a siren as an ambulance and fire truck came bursting onto the O’Neil property. George O’Neil came running out of the office just as the paramedic climbed out of the ambulance.
“What the hell’s going on?”
"We got an emergency call from a little girl named Rebecca. She says her dad is here and is in some kind of trouble.”
“Rebecca . . .? Oh, my God! Joe! He’s in the back of the garage. Come on!”
Homer was crawling out from under a truck, “Hey, what’s going on, George?”
“Have you seen Joe?”
“Not in over an hour. He was changing a tire in the back.”
The men hurried to the rear of the garage. George saw him first and turned as white as a sheet. “Oh, Jesus, Joe. Get another jack! Hurry!” he yelled.
The paramedics rushed to Joe’s side. “We gotta get this trailer off of him. Now!”
The men didn’t wait for a jack. They put their backs and shoulders into the corner of the trailer and tried to physically lift it.
“Everybody, on three!” shouted George. “Ready! 1-2-3!” The sounds of men grunting and groaning were heard, but the trailer wouldn’t budge.
Homer came at a run, dragging a hydraulic jack behind him. “Get out of the way! Everybody!” The way was cleared and he shoved the jack under the front axle of the trailer and pumped the handle for all he was worth.
In all the commotion, Joe opened his eyes and looked around. In a foggy haze, he could just make out the outline of people moving in and out of his line of sight. There was shouting, and then he felt hands grabbing him from under the armpits and dragging him forward. He let out a big sigh as he was able, for the first time in over an hour, to take a deep breath. But with the ease of breathing, also came a tremendous wave of pain, and Joe passed out again.
“Jesus, George, look at ‘im.” Homer cried. “There’s no way he could survive that.”
“No! You’re wrong. Look, they're working on him. By God, he must still be alive. Now, everybody, get back! Give them some room. You men, there, get out of the way! Let these fellas do their job.” George stood close by trying to pick up on what the paramedics were saying.
“I think his back’s broken, his right leg, and his hip is crushed. We’ll have to put him in splints before we can move him.”
The other paramedic forced open Joe’s eye and shined a small flashlight into it. “We’ve got to hurry. It looks like he’s had a heart attack.”
After twenty minutes of painful jostling, Joe was loaded into the ambulance. He wavered in and out of consciousness as the paramedics rushed to save his life. Each time he surfaced into painful reality, he called out for Mary.
Then the ambulance left with lights flashing and sirens wailing.
Later, Rebecca burst through the door and ran straight to her father. “Daddy! Daddy!” she yelled, as she rushed to the side of the hospital bed and smashed her face into his chest. Mrs. Hardin followed close behind, her face wrought with worry. She forced a smile toward her son, but it was obvious by her eyes that she had been recently crying.
“Hi, baby. How are you?” Joe asked, gently stroking Rebecca's hair. He gave a wink to his mom to let her know he was all right.
“Oh, Daddy, I was so scared. You’re gonna be okay, aren’t you? The lady said you were gonna be all right.”
“Yeah, honey. I’m gonna be just fine.” He addressed his mother. “I broke a few bones in my back, my hip--my leg. I won’t be doing much walking for a while. But the doctors say that with a bit of bed rest and some special exercises, I’ll be as good as new in no time.”
“Do you have to stay here?” Rebecca asked. “I can’t take care of you if you’re gonna be stuck here in this hospital. I hate hospitals.”
“I’m afraid so, Reba. At least until the doctors say I can go home. It shouldn’t be too long though. I’ll be fine, really.” He knew what she was thinking and tried to change the subject. “You’re not giving your grandmother a hard time, are ya?”
“She’s been a perfect angel, Joe,” his mother said, choking back tears of relief. “She has her mother’s courage and your stubbornness.”
“I called you on the phone, Daddy, just like the lady told me to.”
Mrs. Hardin looked at Joe and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, Joe. She’s been talking all day about this lady that came to the house and told her to call you.”
“Uh-huh. She was swinging on the tire swing.”
“The tire swing?”
“Uh-huh, I was making your lunch, and I heard her singing. And then I looked out the window and there she was--swinging back and forth.”
“You talked to her?”
“Yeah. I went out to see who it was. And when she saw me she giggled and asked me to give her a push. So I did. And then she talked to me.”
“What did she say?” Joe felt the hair standing up on the back of his neck.
“She said you were in trouble and that I needed to call you right away.”
“What else did she say?”
“Oh, I don’t know, stuff about not seeing me for a long time, and how beautiful I was, and how much I’ve grown.”
“Did you know her? Did she tell you her name?”
“It felt like I had known her forever. But she never told me her name. She had the most beautiful smile, Daddy--like an angel. I just wanted to hug her and never let go. But she wouldn’t let me. She said I had to hurry and call you on the phone. She said it was very important and that you needed me.”
“Mary . . . ?”
“So I ran inside and called you. Then I dialed 9-1-1, just like you said, Daddy. And I told the nice man you were hurt at O’Neils.”
“You saved my life, pumpkin. You and that spare tire I was lying next to. So then what happened? What else did the lady say? Did she come inside?”
“No. When I remembered about her, I ran back outside to see if she was still there--but she wasn’t. She was gone.”
“Was it your mother, Rebecca? Was it Mommy?”
Mrs. Hardin had heard enough. “Joe, please. Don’t go putting ideas in her head. Things are bad enough as they are.”
“I know, Mom. But I saw Mary too. She was there with me, just when I needed her most. And she was as beautiful as ever. I’ll never forget it.”
Mrs. Hardin glanced at Rebecca, then tried to change the subject. “The doctor said you had a stroke, Joe.”
“Yeah, I guess I did. I can’t seem to do anything with my left arm. It just hangs there like it’s dead or something.”
“Well, the doctor says it’s a miracle you’re still alive.”
“Yeah. There was a moment there when I almost gave up. And then Mary came, and everything was all right.”
“Daddy, how did that lady know you were in trouble?”
Joe sighed heavily. He held Rebecca close to him with his one good arm. “Remember I told you that Mommy promised to look after us, even from heaven?”
“Well, I think she was doing just that. While I was laying there under that trailer, she came to help me.”
“I believe it too, Daddy. I know it was Mommy on the swing. She was the lady I saw. She came to help me too.”
“Yeah, 'cause I was mad at her for leaving us. But not anymore.”
“What duya mean, honey?”
“Cause she’s never left. Just like you said. She’s always been right here with us.” She patted Joe’s chest. “In our hearts, like you said. She’s here right now.”
Even as Rebecca said it, Joe could smell Mary’s perfume.
“Uh-huh. There.” She pointed to the other side of the bed. “See her, Daddy? She’s smiling. She’s so happy. She wants you to know it’s gonna be all right. Everything is gonna be all right.”
Joe’s mom gasped. She was staring at the wall next to Joe’s bed. “My God, Joe, I see her!”
A surprising chill ran through Joe’s body. But there was a warmth in his chest that felt like his heart would burst. As he turned his head, he saw a wavering glow that at first looked like a reflection of light coming in from the window, but upon closer examination, he could just make out Mary’s smiling face caught in the center of its gentle radiance. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
Rebecca giggled, sounding exactly like her mother. “She wants you to make sure you push me in the tire swing when we get back home, Daddy. All day. Everyday.”
As he watched, the light slowly diminished as if a cloud had passed in front of the sun, and then Mary was gone. “Okay, baby. All day. Everyday.”