The plane banked, and Jennifer Holloway looked out the window at fluffy white clouds. They looked solid enough to sit on. If only she was somewhere sitting on a cloud, anywhere, but on a plane flying home. A plane carrying her husband home to his family in a casket.
She blinked her eyes but refrained from rubbing them yet again. So tired. She’d cried until there were no tears left. Now she felt numb.
She’d been told she should sleep on the plane. How could she? Over and over, she saw Jeff’s laughing face as he climbed aboard the small Cessna.
Jennifer had driven out to the airfield with him, a heaviness deep in the pit of her stomach.
“Jeff, are you sure? Why don’t you make two trips? That looks like a very heavy load.”
He laughed and gave her that lopsided grin. “No worries, Jen. I’ll be back in no time. Give me a kiss.”
She kissed him, but the frown never left her face. “Call me on the radio as soon as you arrive.”
One last wave, and he stepped through the doorway of the plane. “I’ll be there before you know it.”
But he never called. Instead, she waited for hours and finally got on the radio and called the mountain village where Jeff had been headed. The missionary there said Jeff’s plane never arrived.
That’s when the official call had come. The Honduran government notified her that Jeff’s plane had disappeared from the radar somewhere in the mountains. A rescue had been mounted, but it was thought the plane had crashed. There was no answer on the radio.
They finally found the plane. They found Jeff and his co-pilot. They had died in the crash. The mishap had been put down to high winds in the pass. All the supplies were scattered across the top of a mountain. The trip was a total loss. Like her efforts with Jeff to set up a church in a rural area of Honduras.
Jennifer was flying home. Beaten and alone.
Something as normal as wind had changed her life forever.
The flight attendants hovered, offering drinks and food. Jennifer shook her head. She hated the look of remorse in their eyes. The pity. Because she had given her life to serve in a foreign country and come home a widow. A twenty-six-year-old widow.
She closed her eyes. She wasn’t being fair. She knew it. Of course, they felt sorry for her, were trying to make the flight easier. But nothing could make this flight any better. She would arrive in Boston. Alone.
She would have to face Jeff’s mother, a woman who had already lost her husband. Explain. Make excuses. A flood of recriminations crept into her mind. She should have stopped him. She should have gone with him.
At least then she would haven’t been left behind to deal with the guilt.
The flight attendant urged passengers to put on their seat belts. The pilot was about to land.
Jennifer stepped into the airport waiting room. Had anyone from her family arrived yet? That would take the edge off. They wouldn’t let Jeff’s lawyer and best friend, Gavin Lane, bully her.
Her eyes sought for a friendly face, but the only one she found was painfully remote. Gavin caught her glance, and they stared at one another. What had she expected? Certainly not apathy.
Gavin walked forward and held out his hand. He was taller than Jeff. She’d forgotten.
“Jennifer? Do you remember? I’m Gavin Lane. How was your flight?”
So they were going to pretend that nothing had happened. Well, she wasn’t.
“Terrible. How is Jeff’s mother?” His father had died years ago.
“She’s coping. She sends her regrets.” His voice and look were impersonal, aloof. “There were things at the funeral home that she had to attend. She was very sorry to miss your flight. Do you have luggage?”
“Yes, one case.”
She was carrying an overnight bag. He reached for it.
“May I take that for you?”
She handed it over. It was easier than arguing.
“This way. We’ll get your suitcase.” He put his hand under her elbow and led her to an escalator.
Jeff had never done that. He would have put his arm around her. Jennifer squeezed her eyes shut for an instant. She would not let this man see her cry in an airport.
“Has anyone from my family arrived yet?”
“I’m sorry, no. They called to say they would be in this afternoon. I offered to let them stay at the house, but they insisted on staying at a hotel. We’d like you to stay with us, of course.”
Jennifer didn’t say anything. He was planning her life already. Jeff had always said he was that way. “Us?”
“I’m staying with Mrs. Holloway. Someone had to.”
Accusation. It was still in his voice.
They reached the luggage chute, and Jennifer watched for her case. When it came down, she pointed. “It’s that blue one.”
Gavin stepped forward and yanked it off the conveyor, and they left.
When they stepped out of the building, it was cold. Jennifer had forgotten to bring a coat. She shivered.
Gavin stopped abruptly. She stared up at him. He shrugged off his coat and wrapped it around her. “We wouldn’t want you to get sick.”
“But you need-”
“Nonsense. I’ll be fine in my suit. We’re almost to the car.”
They’d been driving for almost ten minutes before he spoke again. “I’ll drop you at the house then pick up Mrs. Holloway at the funeral home. Is there anything you need before I leave you?”
Jennifer straightened in the seat. It was impossible for her to achieve a common height with him, but she was determined to give him a show of strength.
“Take me to the funeral home.” She opened her purse and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here’s a list of things I need. Everything else I want is in my overnight bag. You can leave it at the funeral home.”
He frowned. He probably scared clients with that look…or opposing attorneys. “I don’t think that’s what Mrs. Holloway wants you to do.”
“Mr. Lane, I’m sure Jeff’s mother wants me to be as comfortable as possible. I appreciate that. But there are arrangements of my own that I will attend to today. Things I want for…Jeff. Can you take me to the funeral home, now?”
“Certainly. Call me Gavin, please.” He paused. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Jennifer looked out the window. “Just find the things on that list, please. You’re the only one that would know what to do. I don’t want Jeff’s mom to…to have to do it.” She looked at him again. “It’s important to me.”
He pulled into the driveway of the funeral home. “Look, about what happened…”
She studied his face. It had softened somewhat, but he still remained unapproachable. It was a shame. Jeff had loved him.
“It’s not important, Mr. Lane. Jeff certainly didn’t hold it against you. He understood how you felt. So do I. And it definitely isn’t important anymore. Thank you for the ride.”
She reached for the door handle then felt his hand on her shoulder.
“Jennifer, if you truly have forgiven me, why can’t you call me Gavin?”
She turned around and tried to smile at him, but her lips started to quiver. Before she could cry, she nodded. “Of course.”
She rushed inside the building and went straight to the ladies’ room. It wouldn’t do to walk in on Jeff’s mother, blubbering.
She stood before the mirror and looked wildly around her. What was she looking for? Her overnight bag. She’d left it in the car in her rush to leave Gavin.
Jennifer closed her eyes and collapsed against the wall. When would this day be over?
When she heard a knock at the door, she dashed to the side of the sink. “Just a minute.” She yanked at a tissue and dabbed her eyes as she opened the door.
It was Gavin. He looked hesitant, unsure. That wasn’t possible. He was never unsure. “Jennifer, you forgot this.” He held out her bag.
She only managed to look at his face for a second. If she looked at him any longer, she would dissolve. She kept her eyes pinned on the grey tie knotted around his neck and held out her hand.
“Thank you. I’m sorry to have troubled you.” She started to close the door, but his hand reached out and barred the way.
“Wait.” He pulled the case from her hand. “Are you alright?”
That did it. She couldn’t take any more. His coldness, his aloofness, had been easier to bear than his concern. She shrank back against the wall and closed her eyes, but she couldn’t stop the tears. They were flowing freely again.
“Jennifer, come here.” He reached inside the door and pulled her into his arms.
It was the first time someone had held her. She had comforted everyone at the mission. She had been the strong tower, but now he was offering her a shoulder. She collapsed against his chest. She felt the strength of the arms that held her and hid her face. His heart beat loudly against her cheek. A warm hand cupped the back of her head.
“It’s all right. I’m going to take care of you, Jen.”
Jen. That’s what Jeff had called her, no one but Jeff. She raised her head to look up at him. She didn’t understand the look on his face. Before she could protest that he was trying to run her life again, she heard someone call her.
Jennifer pulled away from Gavin, and he slowly dropped his arms.
The older woman gathered Jennifer into an embrace. “Oh, Jennifer, can’t you call me Mom?”
“Mom, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
They wept against each other, unmindful of passersby. If you couldn’t weep in a funeral home, where could you?
Mrs. Holloway rubbed Jennifer’s back. “Dear girl. I’m sorry, too. Let’s go sit down together.”
They straightened, and Mrs. Holloway glanced around. “Gavin, get her case.”
He finally spoke. “I think Jennifer was in need of…of washing her face.”
Mrs. Holloway held Jennifer back and looked at her face. “You look beautiful, but you might want to freshen up a bit. You go ahead. Gavin will bring you to me when you’re finished.” She gave Gavin an imperious look, and he nodded before picking up Jennifer’s case and handing it to her.
She took it without looking at him. After the door shut, she stared into the mirror. Her green eyes were unusually red and puffy. She looked pale, and her blonde hair hung limply against her cheeks.
There was no point in putting on any make-up. She hadn’t worn any since the crash. It would look much worse to have mascara dripping down her face, so she hadn’t bothered. She washed her face and patted it dry then she stepped into the hallway.
Gavin was waiting for her, but she couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes. She didn’t want any more compassion right now, and she didn’t want to think about what he’d said. I’ll take care of you. Everything could be hashed out later. After she had her family to support her…to protect her.
They found Mrs. Holloway in a small reception room. She waited to speak until Jennifer sat beside her.
“Gavin says there are some things you’d like for the service. He’s going to take me home now, and I’m going to leave you in the capable hands of the funeral director.” She patted Jennifer’s hand. “We’ll have a nice talk tonight. Gavin will come back to get you.”
“That’s not necessary. I don’t want to be a bother. I’ll take a taxi.”
Mrs. Holloway frowned. “Certainly not.”
“It’s no bother,” Gavin said. “I’ll come back for you. Perhaps I can find the items you wanted and bring them to you.”
“Thank you.” One more time they’d not allowed her to think for herself. But if he could bring Jeff’s things…
A tall, thin, balding man came into the room. “You sent for me, Mrs. Holloway.”
Jeff’s mother and his wife looked up together. His mother answered. “Mr. Munroe, this is Jeff’s wife. She’d like to speak with you about some arrangements.”
Mrs. Holloway stood, and Gavin touched Jennifer on the arm. “Take your time. I’ll be back as soon as I find what you asked for.”
Jennifer found Mr. Munroe to be a considerate man. He knew exactly what Jennifer wanted and agreed to have the room set up per her directions. He also had the capability of arranging the powerpoint presentation she wanted shown before the service.
“That sounds fine, Mr. Munroe. As soon as I have a chance to get the pictures in order, I’ll bring them to you. Are you sure you can have it ready in time?”
“We do this all the time. It’s no problem at all.”
Jennifer went into the room where the service would be held. Already, flowers arrangements lined the wall. She read some of the cards. They were from Jeff’s relatives, his friends, her family, the mission organization, and even some names she didn’t know.
She sat on the front pew and bowed her head. Oh Lord. You’ve been my strength, my shield. Help me through this. Show me the way. I know there’s something You want to show me in all this, but I can’t see anything but my pain. I love you. Help Jeff’s mother. Help us all.
“Jennifer?” Her head rose, and she looked around. It was Gavin. “I brought Jeff’s things. Would you like me to help you?”
“If you’re sure you don’t mind.”
“Why would I mind?”
She didn’t answer but started taking things out of the bag and putting them on the shelves. She put out Jeff’s baby picture, his school and sports pictures, high school graduation, college pictures, their wedding picture, and several photos of Jeff with his parents.
Gavin seemed to sense her need to work in silence. He unwrapped pictures and set them out for her to put on the shelf. When the last one was put in place, Jennifer sat on the floor. She looked at the cabinets where they’d set out the silent memories of Jeff. Several trophies sparkled in the light.
Was this all Jeff had to show for his life?
No. He’d saved countless lives for the Lord…here in the States and in Honduras. He loved God, and he was persuasive. People listened.
That’s what she intended to tell the congregation at the funeral service. She would tell them about how Jeff had loved his Lord, how he had loved the people to whom he ministered.
Lord, why is Jeff gone? Why am I going through this?
Because I knew that you were worthy of the challenge. I knew that you would finish the race.
A single tear dropped down her cheek. She wiped it away. She didn’t want to draw Gavin’s attention again.
She stood and smoothed her hands over her skirt. “I’m ready.” She looked at her watch. “What time did you say my family would arrive?”
“I’ll get them in an hour. Jennifer, I really need to speak with you before…”
She looked at him strangely. “Before what? Before the funeral, before I leave Boston, before I see Jeff’s Mom, what?”
“Can we sit for a minute?” Somber brown eyes searched hers.
“I don’t…can’t it wait? I don’t want to think about business yet.”
She perched on the edge of a chair. “What is it?”
“Jeff wrote me several letters.”
“I’m glad. I told you he wasn’t upset with you.”
“Yes, I know. You see, he asked me to take care of you if anything ever…”
Jennifer did not want to hear this. She would not allow Gavin to take over her life the way he had tried to control Jeff’s. And she couldn’t believe that was what Jeff had wanted for her. How could he?
“No. I appreciate the offer, but I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. If I wanted help, I have more than enough people in my own family. I don’t need you.”
“Thanks.” He said dryly.
Jennifer sighed. How could he possibly be offended? He didn’t even like her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I realize you’re part of Jeff’s family, but you and I are not close. My parents, my brothers…they’ll all want to take care of me, too. I can take care of myself. After the funeral, I’m going back to Honduras.”
“And nothing I say will change your mind? Not even the fact that this is what Jeff wanted?”
Jennifer took a deep breath. “Gavin, I’m not living for Jeff, for you, or even for me. I’m living the life God asked me to live. Right now, I have to go back…to finish out our term. After that, we’ll talk. But, I will not be dictated to. I will not live in Boston unless that’s where I choose to live.” She looked him straight in the eyes. “As far as I’m concerned, you are free to live your own life.”
Jennifer got up and left the room. Gavin’s eyes trailed after her. If only he could feel free without her. He sighed and followed her out of the room. They had a struggle ahead. Jennifer was not going to like the terms of Jeff’s will.
Jennifer refused Gavin’s offer to drive her to the airport to pick up her family. She didn’t want to be stuck in a car alone with him again. She knew the way, so she took Mrs. Holloway’s large SUV.
Her parents, her brother Jack, and his wife, Lauren, their baby, Christina, and Ren, the new wife of her brother Chris came off the plane together. Jennifer was so glad to see them all she started to cry.
They crowded around her, but Jennifer asked for the baby. “I haven’t seen her yet. Did she cry on the plane?”
Lauren shook her head. “Not really. She fussed a little, but mostly she slept.”
Jennifer held the baby to her chest as tears ran down her cheeks. She and Jeff would never have a baby. She kissed the baby on the forehead and handed her back to Lauren.
“This way to luggage.”
Lauren’s father, Vince Wheeler, kept his arm around her waist. “You don’t look so good, kiddo. Why did you come out alone to meet the plane?”
“You know how Gavin Lane feels about me. I’ve already spent enough time in his unbearable presence.”
Her father gave her squeeze. “I know how you feel about him. I thought he and Jeff had worked things out. Shouldn’t you give him the benefit of the doubt? He’s probably hurting, honey. You’re all he’s got left of Jeff.”
“Dad, please. Not now.”
“All right. I’m sorry, sweetie.”
Her father drove the family back to Mrs. Holloway’s house. They wanted to pay their respects. During the drive, they were full of questions about the funeral.
“I went to the funeral home and spoke with the director. He’s going to make a slide presentation of Jeff’s pictures, and I’m going to sing for the funeral service.”
Her mother leaned toward the front seat. “You’re going to sing, honey? Did you bring your guitar?”
“Yes. I know it will be hard, but I’m going to try.”
When they got to the house, Mrs. Holloway urged everyone to eat. Gavin introduced himself then hung around the fringes of Lauren’s large family.
Jennifer tried to make herself useful, but her mother urged her to sit down.
“We can handle this, Jennifer. The church has sent enough to feed an army. Go sit.”
She wasn’t hungry, so she drifted into the living room and sat on the back of the couch. She didn’t even turn the lights on. She didn’t need them. It was quiet. She was safe. Her family was here. They would take care of everything, including Gavin Lane.
“Jennifer?” Him again. Couldn’t he leave her alone for a second? He flicked on a lamp. “I thought I saw you come in here. You were right, that’s a large family, you’ve got.”
“That’s not everyone. My brother, Adam, his wife, and kids couldn’t make it. Well, they could have, but I told them not to come. My brother, Chris, didn’t come, but his wife is here.”
“Ren, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, very good. I’m surprised you can remember their names.”
Why was he making small talk when she just wanted to be left alone? She thought about what her father had said. Was Gavin hurting, too? She must try to be nice.
He came and stood beside her and put a hand on her back. “Jennifer, you haven’t eaten all day. Won’t you try?”
“I didn’t see you eating either.”
“I’ll get us both a plate if you’ll come back to the kitchen.”
She wanted to say no, but this man had been important to Jeff. “If that’s what you want.”
“It is.” He pulled her to her feet.
Jennifer stood near the bar while Gavin made her a plate. Everyone else had gone into the dining room. She could hear their muted voices and laughter.
“What do you want to drink?” Gavin asked. “There’s just about everything.”
“No caffeine. I have enough trouble sleeping.”
He turned sharply to look at her. “You’re having trouble?”
Why had she said that? She couldn’t give him any ammunition.
He set the plate down. “You really don’t want me to care about you, do you?”
“I think you made your feelings clear years ago. And now you think you can run my life. I have no reason to trust you.”
“Jeff trusted me enough to ask me to take care of you. I’m not the same person I was when you married him. Let’s start over, get to know each other. I’m willing to try. I want to try.”
“Because of Jeff, you will be an acquaintance in my life, but I have no need of new friends, trusted or otherwise. I’m willing to live at peace with you, if you stay out of my way.”
Gavin winced at the vehemence in her voice. She hadn’t meant to sound so brutal.
“Fair enough. We have to spend some time together, so let’s make it as amiable as we can. Jennifer, I’m not going to tell you what to do. After the funeral, I’ll read the will…you tell me what you want. I’ll take care of it for you.” He held out his hand. “Truce?”
She put her hand in his. It was swallowed up. He better not do that with her life.
The swinging door opened from the dining room. It was Ren.
“Jennifer, your mother wanted to know if you were eating.”
Gavin smiled at Ren. He had even, white teeth.
“Thank you, Ren, I was just getting her something. We’ll be right there.”
Ren looked at Jennifer, waiting for confirmation. Everyone in her family knew how she felt about Gavin. Not one of them was going to let him steamroll her.
Jennifer smiled at Ren. “Please tell her I’m coming.”
The door shut, and she pulled her hand out of Gavin’s. “Thank you, Gavin.” She tried to smile at him but it came off a little cock-eyed. “By the way, I’m preparing some pictures that the funeral director will turn into a slide show. May I use some pictures of you and Jeff?”
“Use whatever you want. If there’s anything I can do to help…”
She drew away from him. “Thank you. I’ll let you know.”
Jennifer made it through the next morning in a fog. She met with the funeral director one last time, sat through the casket viewing, lunch, the final viewing, and finally, the funeral started.
Gavin stuck by her side. She started out ignoring him, but his undeniable strength was a boon by the end of the day. She and Mrs. Holloway leaned heavily on him. Jennifer didn’t know where his inexhaustible strength came from, but he offered it for the taking, and she took it.
The family filed into the church and lined up the front pews. Gavin sat on the end. Jeff’s mother sat beside him, then Jennifer and the rest of her family.
The slide show of Jeff’s life was successful. People laughed and cried as they watched the different scenes from his life, the places he’d gone, the people he’d known.
When the pastor got up to speak, he expressed sentiments that were probably shared by many. “I knew Jeff lived larger than life, but I never realized he’d done so much. He was an humble man, sweet of spirit, and giving to all.”
When he finished his message, Gavin walked to the front to speak. Jennifer had a hard time not crying, Mrs. Holloway didn’t even try. She wept throughout the service.
Gavin’s great love for Jeff showed in everything he said. “Jeff was the best friend I ever had. He was my brother. He’s the man that led me to the Lord and the one that showed me how to love others more than you love yourself. I didn’t always understand that. Sometimes it made me angry that he sacrificed so much of himself, but he explained it to me. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.’
“Jeff did that every day. What was unique about Jeff is that he never saw it as laying down his life. He loved the life he led. He loved serving God. He loved the people he brought to the Lord, and he felt that nothing was too good for them. He gave his all. Not many people could say they’ve given God their all. I’m not sure I have, but I’m trying.
“I don’t know why Jeff is gone. I can’t see that God was finished with him. I know that Jeff accomplished things no one else does. But God knows why Jeff is in heaven, and I accept that. If Jeff were here, he would ask you what you’ve accepted. Do you know the God he served and loved? Do you have the assurance in your heart that Jesus is your Savior? Do you live your life with no regrets?”
Jennifer was extraordinarily touched by what Gavin said. He really had made up with Jeff.
When he left the podium, she walked to the stage and picked up her guitar. “From Psalm 30, ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be thou my helper. Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee forever.'”
Jennifer began to sing. She closed her eyes and ignored the people around her and told the Lord what was in her heart.
“When you called Father, I went. When you promised to be my shield, I believed. Why then am I alone when your word says you won’t forsake me?
“When you asked me to run the race, I ran. When you asked me to believe, I had faith.
“Why then has death swallowed up my hope?
“Yet the love you gave has been my greatest joy. And You never promised that I wouldn’t feel pain.
“If my faith was real then I have to know you’re here. I know the truth will carry me to places beyond the future I dreamed.
“Who am I that I would question the great I Am? My deliverer from pain, my Savior from the grave.
“I know you will lift me beyond what I see. Use my life for your glory. I give you glory, I call you faithful.
Jennifer went back to her seat. Tears burned at the back of her eyes. The congregation cried all around her. As a tear cascaded down her face, Gavin leaned over and handed her a handkerchief. Then he put his arm around Jeff’s mom and patted Jennifer on the shoulder.
When Mrs. Holloway took Jennifer’s hand in her lap, Gavin covered both their hands with his own. And even though Jennifer had her family with her, she was grateful for his presence.
The pastor led an altar call. Jennifer cried and cried as many people made their way to the front. It was a crowning glory on Jeff’s life, that his death had shown others the way to the Father.
As they made their way to the cemetery, very little was said. Jennifer rode with Gavin and Mrs. Holloway. They sat beside the grave for a final prayer and then filed past the casket to throw down a rose.
Jennifer didn’t want to see the casket lowered. She didn’t want to think this was the last time Jeff’s body would be near her.
Father, remind me again why I’m supposed to rejoice. I can’t hear you right now. I need you.
The familiar words echoed in her mind, ‘For we sorrow not as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them that sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.’
Yes, Lord. We sorrow not, because we have hope. Thank you, Lord.