Nathan turns and sees me. He waves and smiles, as does my mother, then they go back to their talk. Meanwhile, my children notice the fox who has started racing around my feet again, and come over to investigate. As they draw near I kneel down and my furry companion flops down on his back and allows me to give him a belly scratch.
My son and daughter gasp in awe, and in that moment, I have become the coolest dad ever. Or so I believe until several smaller foxes, come out of hiding and begin to start yipping and getting rambunctious around me. I start to pet them as well, but there are simply too many. Inside my head I hear, 'Too much?' Glancing over at Nathan I gesture with my head towards my son and daughter.
He nods and soon the little kits are frolicking around my children, who proceed to pet them every so gently. I'd seen enough kids come into the surgery with bites and scratches from family pets or stray animals, so Cheryl and I made sure Joe and Darlene understand how to behave around animals, even friendly ones.
My little friend suddenly abandons me and heads over to where my mother is standing, and begins to demand attention from her. The smile on her face as she bends down to comply is priceless.
A voice from behind me asks gently, "She's doing well?"
"Very well," I reply without turning around. I don't want to take my eyes off my mother at that moment, for fear I might suddenly wake up and find that I'm still only sixteen and that she's still fighting a losing battle with cancer.
I had cut out of school early that day. The news that she wasn't responding to the treatments had been devastating. I couldn't eat, think or control my temper. At one point I came close to putting a freshman through a wooden door during second period. I can't even remember why I did it, I just know it happened. Three teachers had to pull me off the kid and had ordered me to go to the principal's office. Needless to say I didn't go. Instead I ran all the way here, to this very spot, and collapsed.
I cried, punched the ground, cursed life the works. It was so unfair. Why should my mother be given a death sentence. Where was the justice in that? Why weren't the doctors doing more for her? Why couldn't they save her?
Exhausted from my rage I fell asleep and woke to find night was already closing in. I remember seeing a full moon through the branches of a tree. It was so beautiful, for moment I forgot my pain and wished my mother was there to see it with me. She loved looking up at the night sky. Then I remembered she wouldn't be able to do that for much longer, and it all came flooding back.
That was when the fox showed up. Apparently, she had been watching me for some time and could sense my distress. She wanted to come closer, but was afraid. But then a mist slowly crept across the forest floor. It seemed to swirl and move towards us as if it had a mind all its own. The fox was alarmed at first but then after sniffing the air, she seemed calmer and more confident. That was when she came over and started to sniff and nuzzle my hands.
I was so amazed at this behavior, that I forgot that it was a wild animal and gently stroked her fur. She seemed to like it, and soon climbed into my lap. Tears filled my eyes again, partly from the gesture and partly from my pain.
At that moment I so wanted my mother to be there with me, healthy and whole, so she could enjoy this wondrous moment.
I must have spoken aloud because a voice came out of the mist which continued to hang around in the area. "The treatments aren't working, John?"
Startled I looked around but saw no one. Yet I knew I was not alone. "No, they aren't. I'm going to lose her and there's nothing I can do about it." I cried back. "Doctors and their medicine suck!"
"You know that's not true," the voice said softly. "They're trying everything they can to save her and you know it."
Sobbing I nodded, "Yes, I do know that. But it's not enough."
Then from out of the mist I saw a hand followed by a figure that seemed to slowly solidify in the mist. Soon the owner of the hand stepped out of the fog and I saw it was Nathan.
To say I was taken aback by his entrance would be an understatement. He was no stranger to me, I'd known him since I was little. My mother always introduced him as a friend of the family who was always welcome in our home. But something about him never seemed quite right to me. Oh he was friendly and always a lot of fun, but deep down I always knew there was more to him than met the eye. And here, in my darkest hour, I had found out I was right.
Oddly enough, the realization actually made me feel more at ease with him. Even as he sat down beside me, I wasn't the least bit afraid of him.
"You're not human," I blurted as he reached over and petted the fox who was still in my lap.
"Depends on your point of view," he replied calmly. "I was born human, but then life took an unexpected turn and I became something more."
For a while I didn't say anything. A faint hope had started to rise within me, but I was terrified of letting it get grow too much. But at that point there was no stopping it, and I asked, "Is there anything you can do for my mother? Can you keep her from dying?"
I remember he looked at me from the corner of his eyes for a moment, and then said, "Yes and no," he answered. "I can't stop her from dying because we all do that one day, but I can give her more time."
"How much more?" I asked carefully.
"Fifty-sixty years, possibly longer," he answered. Then he gave the fox a scritch behind the ear saying, "You're a good girl. I appreciate you keeping my young friend company."
Suddenly a thought occurred to me. "You made her come to me, didn't you? You're controlling her somehow."
Nathan frowned at that. "I do not control others," he corrected. "I create a bond by placing a little part of myself inside them. Once I'm there, I can make suggestions or help alleviate any fears or misgivings they have."
"Is that what you'd be doing with my mother?" I asked.
He thought about this for a moment and answered, "Yes and no. Yes, some of me would be going into her, but not like what I did with our friend here. My body produces a certain kind of cell that can be harvested and used to help fight things like cancer. But it takes me a long time to grow those cells in enough numbers to make a difference. Once they've been taken from me, I won't be able to help anyone else the same way for a few decades."
"Will it hurt?" I asked.
"Nah, she won't feel anything but better," he assured me.
"I meant you," I clarified and waited. He didn't answer right away, which told me everything I needed to know. "I thought so," I continued, "But you're willing to do it for her?"
"Because I've watched over her all her life, just as I did her mother and her mother's father," he replied. "They've all been family to me."
"But you're not related to us," I pointed out. "You told me so yourself a long time ago."
Here he smiled and said, "Family isn't always about blood. Sometimes families are formed in other ways. They're formed by people who become close by always being there for one another. By caring and loving. Weathering storms and making sure no one gets left behind."
"I think I understand," I told him and asked, "When will you get your cells 'harvested'?"
"Tonight," he answered. "A friend of mine is coming into town and we'll be taking care of things down in the cellar of The Crypt."
"I'd like to be there for you," I told him.
He smiled and took my hand, "I'd appreciate that..."
I opened my eyes and saw Nathan eyeing me curiously. "Are you okay?"
"Sorry, I wound up taking a trip down memory lane," I told him. Then I looked over to where Cheryl had been setting out the food. Everything was ready. My mom was already helping serve the food, and calling to my kids to come and get it.
They obeyed, but with great reluctance. The two of them had been having a lot of fun with the foxes, who were now hovering nearby, with high hopes for a handout or two.
"When did you 'influence' them?" I asked Nathan as we went over to join my family.
"I didn't," he replied. "They've just gotten used to me. I always come here when I visit, and I think some of them are descended from our friend back when you were in high school. She brought her kitts out to meet me. After that they always come out to greet me and did the same thing with their broods."
I laughed, "You have extended families all over the place, don't you?"
"And they come in all shapes and sizes," he smiled.
"Do they ALL know about you?"
"Most of them," he replied. "I usually hold off telling them until they hit a certain age."
"I think Joe and Darlene are old enough," I tell him.
Nathan looks up into the night sky for a moment and says, "After we eat. It looks like a good night to stretch my wings."
Out of the corner of my eye Cheryl gives me a wide-eyed look. 'Is he going to tell them?' she mouths at me.
She gives me a wide smile. I know she's remembering when Nathan shared his secret with her. He took her up with him. I can hardly wait to see what he does with my kids.