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The Elder: Prologue & Chapter One

"How does it feel to be coming back to Holly Berry Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, sweetie?"

Barney looked at me and chuckled. "It feels great to be able to walk into this building knowing I don't need crutches or a physical therapist's help."

I smiled. My husband's recovery from a broken leg had been a long time coming and I couldn't blame him for feeling cheerful. "So you're ready to meet your waiting audience?"

He nodded enthusiastically. "As ready as I was for my coffee house audiences sixty years ago."

I hooked my arm in his. "I'm proud of you, Barney Meisner. You've done quite a one-eighty in the last few months, haven't you?"

"That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't started following the Lord's leading to become a servant-and not just a helper." His tone had a wonderfully positive ring. "Being a helper was awfully important at the time, though."

He paused unexpectedly. "Anna, I admit I'm a bit apprehensive about today, though." I narrowed my eyes in confusion. "You're ready and enthusiastic but also apprehensive? Isn't that a bit of an oxymoron?"

"I'm just trying to be cute, sweetie."

He sighed. "You remember what Walt said his favorite song was?"

"Yes, of course. And I remember your response. What will you do if-?"

"-if he asks me to sing it? I…I'm not sure I should turn him down in front of the other residents. But how can I can yes?"

He looked from me to the ceiling. "Lord, You're in charge. May Your servant do whatever you want him to do, no matter how he feels about it…"


Chapter 1

Three months earlier

As soon as I saw my poor old husband's face, I knew what was wrong. I had been expecting it. He hadn't.

Barney didn't have any idea that his employer, Joel Richardson, had called me several weeks earlier. He only did it because his father would've done it if he had still been alive and in control of the company.

He wanted to advise me that his all-time best employee's work had deteriorated so drastically over the past several months that he thought I needed to know. As if I had the ability to correct Barney's problems or restore his lost efficiency.

I think he just wanted me to be better prepared to console Barney if worse came to worst.

If? No. When.

Mr. Richardson didn't come right out and caution me that Barney's employment was in danger. But neither did he leave any room for doubt.

The facts were undeniable. Barney was eighty. In spite of his stubborn determination to continue working, his age was showing in a variety of undesirable ways. Even I had noticed.

For the last ten years I had been trying to convince him to retire. But he thrived on helping people. To do that, he had to keep working.

Helping people. That's where he got the nickname Barney. From the biblical apostle Barnabas, which means Helper. No one ever addressed or referred to my husband as Paul. Not even me. Most people didn't know that Barney wasn't his real name.

As a successful wealth management planner and adviser, he had refused to accept the possibility that he would someday lose the ability to do his job well. Or even adequately.

He was so obsessed with helping others that he wasn't always available to help me, Anna, his wife of fifty-three years. Or even just to keep me company. Our inability to have children must have been a God-thing. What kind of father would he have been when his mind and spirit were often elsewhere, even when his body was close by?

Although he might have sounded like less than an ideal husband, I loved him dearly and knew he loved me that much, too. I had learned to understand and accept his need to be helpful, and I respected him all the more for having the desire to put that virtue into practice.

Even if, in my opinion, he overdid it at times.

No wonder I occasionally caught myself sighing about the Mediterranean cruise we had occasionally talked about years earlier. Since we rarely-never!-took lengthy vacations, a cruise would have been a once-in-a-lifetime event. He had not only never made time to go, he had probably long since forgotten about our dream cruise.

So we weren't likely to take the final trip of our earthly lives on a cruise ship. Our glorious trip to Heaven would almost certainly happen first.

Mr. Richardson's concern about Barney had sounded genuine. Genuine and personal. Even so, it was also a legitimate business concern. Unless a miracle resulted in immediate improvement, Barney's mistakes would continue to adversely affect the clients he was so committed to helping.

His boss had cleaned up a number of Barney's slips, but he couldn't keep doing it. He shouldn't have had to.

If Barney hadn't been the company's star employee for most of the last fifty-one years (he joined the agency when the elder Mr. Richardson was still owner and manager), he would have "let Barney go" before now. (Was that euphemism supposed to make me feel better than saying "fire him"?) Although he had given my husband several warnings, the necessary improvements hadn't been forthcoming.

Barney was simply too old to be doing that kind of work. No matter how alert he was regarding most other things, his best in financial counseling existed only in the past tense. It was no longer good enough.

After talking with Mr. Richardson, I tried even harder to convince Barney to retire and spend the rest of his days enjoying quality time with me. I couldn't say-I dared not say-"and to avoid having to be 'let go.'" As dedicated to the job as he was, I was afraid losing it unexpectedly might kill him outright. Or, at the very least, throw him into the ravenous maws of despair.

"Retire?" he had said each time I suggested it. He chuckled heartily. "Maybe next year."

"That's what you said this time last year," I told him. Why can't you avoid forcing Mr. Richardson to fire you…


Those were just a few of the thoughts that circled my mind as I shuffled towards Barney, ready to greet him as I always did-with a loving hug and kiss. But, after seeing his defeated expression, I knew I needed to do more.

He didn't have to tell me he needed extra affection that day. So I kissed him more tenderly than usual, embraced him tighter, and held him longer.

"What's wrong, love?" I hoped he could read the concern I was trying to express. "You just left for work an hour ago. Why are you home so early? You're not coming down with something, are you?"

Having to pretend I didn't already know the reason for his despondence was breaking my heart.

He pulled away from me and plopped down in his side of the loveseat. I settled into mine and held my hand out. We had intentionally purchased a dual reclining loveseat so we could reach out over the center console and hold hands.

When he didn't take my hand, I reached over and took his. He didn't resist. He still hadn't spoken.

"Love, what's wrong? I can't help you unless you tell me. I love you. You know that. I just want to help."

I looked into his face. The glistening of unshed tears almost made me start bawling. He looked away for a moment.

Then he reached inside his suit coat pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Although it contained printing, I couldn't read it across the console.

After handing it to me, he sighed. "He…Joel didn't have the courage to tell me in person. He didn't even hand it to me himself. He left it on my desk."

I unfolded the paper and began reading. I read as slowly and carefully as if I wasn't already certain that Mr. Richardson was firing Barney in a very cowardly way.

Not that I could totally blame him. He knew that firing Barney would be like shooting Bambi's mother. If the man had any decency in him, he probably spent a number of hours wording that termination notice in the most positive and least offensive and damaging way.

That's what I thought at first. What I hoped.

He began by thanking Barney for his long years of service and then praised him for the hundreds of clients he had served so selflessly. He included snippets of praise from several of his grateful clients. And he tactfully refrained from mentioning their recent complaints.

Neither did he say anything about Barney's mistakes or the requests some of his clients were making to have their accounts transferred to a younger, more alert member of the firm.

No, so far the termination letter didn't appear to say anything bad at all. But then I reached the part about Barney's employment being terminated effective immediately.

    "Something has been brought to our attention."

That sounded suspicious. What? You didn't even have the courage to say 'my attention'…or who had 'brought' it?

   "Company policy requires employees to retire by age seventy-five. Through no fault of yours, we failed to enforce that rule five years ago."

Huh? I know all of your rules and regulations by heart. When did you come up with that one, Joel Richardson? Why didn't you say anything about it when we talked? Did you really expect either of us to believe you had overlooked such an important and relevant regulation until today?

   "We must regretfully enforce that policy now and free you from your employment here. Let us know if you need help packing your belongings and carrying them out to the car. Any of our younger counselors will be happy to assist you."

So you want to "free" Barney, do you? Why aren't you man enough just to say, "You're fired" and get it over with?

And, yes! I'll bet any of those "younger counselors" would be thrilled to help Barney. As soon as the door closed behind him, they undoubtedly began haggling over who would get his prime clients.

I gritted my teeth and forced myself to keep reading.

   "You'll be able to spend more time with Anna and do some of those things you've always wanted to do. To help with that, a thousand dollar bonus has been direct deposited into your bank account."

I grimaced. Why couldn't the man have said something friendlier? More personal. Something like, "It won't be the same here without you" or "We're really going to miss you." The elder Mr. Richardson, who had retired eighteen years ago, would have done that.

Of course he wouldn't have made up some silly rule to justify firing Barney. If he had needed to terminate Barney's employment, he would have done it in person and made sure his aged employee understood the real reason-the legitimate reason-for his termination. Like father, like son? Uh-uh. No way.

I recognized the signature. It was one he had stored in Word to paste into any document requiring a signature. Humph! He didn't even have the gumption to sign the termination document himself!

He must not have even proofread it. He would have noticed the places where the printer smudged the paper.

I glanced up at the ceiling. Lord? I knew this day was coming soon, but why did Richardson choose to do it like this?

Barney shook his head. "A thousand dollars, sweetie?" His laugh was bitter. "Why not 'thirty pieces of silver'?" He shook his head again. "He thought he could pay me enough to make me feel good about being fired."

I squeezed his hand. "I am so sorry, love. You weren't expecting that, were you? Being let go, I mean." I didn't wait for a response. "No, of course you weren't. I can't tell you how sorry I am. And the bonus…? Is that all he thought you were worth?"

I did my best imitation of a wild animal growling, but my best was so feeble he couldn't keep from laughing at me.

I decided to change the subject while he still had the trace of a smile on his face. "I guess it's time to sign up for Social Security, huh? But will the loss of income be a problem for us?"

He smirked. "I handled our finances just as efficiently and effectively as I did those of my clients. We're not wildly wealthy by any means, but we can afford to buy almost anything that appeals to us and to do almost anything we want to do."

Then he chuckled. "That so-called retirement bonus merely adds a few more drops to a nearly bottomless bucket." His snort startled me. "'Nearly bottomless' as long as the two of us don't live more than twenty or twenty-five additional years."

That news didn't surprise me. Because I had asked him to handle the family finances when we first married-I knew he would've insisted on doing that if I hadn't-I had assumed that money was not now and was not apt to become an issue in the latter December season of our lives. Even so, he had always seemed more interested in helping his clients grow their wealth than in making us particularly prosperous.

He wasn't shy about expressing his disillusionment at being "set free" and the way his boss-his former boss-had done it. I felt relieved that he was willing to share his disgust with me; rarely had he been so open in talking about his feelings.

Was he a typical man that way? Maybe. But he was so much more than typical in other ways.

"I had intended to work there until I died…or until my health made it necessary to quit. Joel's dad understood that, and I thought Joel did, too."

Despite the warnings Barney had received about his declining work quality, he didn't appear to have the least understanding of the real reason for his termination.

Lord, should I tell him?

The answer was quick and clear.

"No, Anna. He'll resent you for being complicit in his termination, even though you had nothing to do with it. Better for him to go on believing that Joel Richardson was unfair, unfeeling, and unreasonable. You just keep being the kind, sympathetic wife you've always been. The kind your husband needs now more than ever."

We talked about Joel's cowardly termination letter a while longer, but then Barney caught me completely off-guard. "Anna, no matter how bad this seems, perhaps it's actually for the best. I've been struggling to keep up with my work, and I'm not sure I've been giving my clients my best."

I didn't have to pretend to be surprised at hearing him say that. Maybe God had been in charge of that whole issue-except for the termination letter, that is.

"For years I've been urging you to retire. You've always said, 'Next year.' Maybe Mr. Richardson decided he should retire you since you weren't doing it yourself."

He wrinkled his brow for a moment. Then he shrugged. "Who knows?"

I smiled. Cautiously. "You've spent your entire adult life helping other people. I can't keep from thinking that's how God has kept you alive and happy as you've grown older."

He smiled. "The Lord gave me the sense of purpose I needed to keep me going. Along with an unbelievable sense of satisfaction. I believed-I still believe-I've done what He equipped and wanted me to do.

"You probably don't realize this-I don't suppose I've ever told you-but I didn't just talk with my clients about money. I couldn't tell you how many Bibles and copies of the Roman Road I've given to people at my desk. The More than a Carpenter book, too."

I gasped quietly and then squeezed his hand. "No, I didn't know..."

He shook his head. "It didn't seem like something I thought you would interest you."

I bit my tongue to keep from sounding too critical. "You don't know me very well, sweetie. I would have been very interested in knowing that." I leaned over and kissed his cheek. "I can't tell you how proud you've made me."

"I would like to believe God is proud of me, too." But then he sighed. "Or that He has been until today, anyhow."

Change the subject, Anna.

"I think it's wonderful that we can spend all of our time together now. And get to really know one another all over again." Without the distraction of clients needing your time and attention. "Maybe we can even have a second honeymoon and go on that Mediterranean cruise we used to talk about."

He thought for a moment. "We talked about something like that? I'm afraid I had forgotten."

Or do you even remember the cruise idea at all?

"I haven't forgotten." Oh, my. I hope I didn't sound critical. I can't blame Barney for forgetting. "Uh, I mean I'm still interested. We can talk about it more some other time. Okay?"

He nodded without responding at first. "We'll be together all the time, you said?"

I laughed. "If you can stand being around me that much." After not being with me enough to have ever tired of my company.

When I saw his defeated expression, a pang of regret shot through me. "I love you, sweetie."

"I love you, too."

Why do you sound so hesitant?

"I'm sorry, Anna. I really do love you. It's just that something is really bugging me." He looked into my eyes. "Not you. What can I do now to have the same sense of satisfaction I had at work?"

I glanced at the ceiling. "You believe in Romans 8:28, don't you?" I kept going before he could respond. "I know you do. God will work this out to provide a replacement for what you've lost. He still wants you to be useful…and to have a sense of purpose. I'm confident of that."

He twisted his mouth. "I sure hope so. Otherwise He might as well write my obituary. And I won't count on hearing a 'Well done, good and faithful servant' when I meet Him face to face."