Maybe it was the eggnog. Perhaps it was a mind made hazy by an early winter cold and cough syrup. Might have been falling asleep in front of a ballgame and those incessant Christmas commercials pitting one modern day Scrooge or another against the kinder of heart.
All Hooter knew for sure, as he nursed a cup of coffee, which was stout enough to sprout chest hair, is that he'd never in his life had a dream like the one he'd just escaped. Unlike those he was lucky to remember beyond a dip in the shower, this one clung to his bones like it had been a memory forever.
First, he'd seen himself just a year ago, huddled up in front of the radio, cursing his decision for buying that last load of calves at prices so high as to seem obscene, thought that's what it took to get them bought. All this as a somber broadcaster announced the first case of BSE discovered in the U.S.
That quick, Hooter had floated over similar situations in the past. His heart sank again as he looked at the check he'd received for selling his calves in the middle of the dairy herd buyout 20 years ago.
Next he was feeling the relief of hearing old man Belcher tell him he could work off the losses incurred on the first calves Hooter had ever bought as a kid, calves traded just after the price freeze of '73. As if he was actually standing in front of him again these many years hence, Hooter listened as Belcher told him it was a tough lesson to learn, but a valuable one to learn at such a young age. Hooter nodded his head knowingly, but he had no idea what the lesson was exactly that he was supposed to have learned. All these years later, he still didn't know. Hooter supposed it had to do with learning and accepting the fact that hard work doesn't always win.
As Hooter scraped another cup of coffee from the pot, he remembered it was at that point in the dream that he felt like his life depended on him waking up, knowing that it did, yet there was no way he could wedge up an eyelid, much less his waking brain. As it turned out, he was glad that he couldn't wake up, though it still bothered him.
It seemed as if he'd passed through a curtain and found himself standing on a high mountaintop looking down at a lush green meadow he could never remember seeing, though it seemed familiar. Instead of fields, though, he was not at all surprised to see the valley covered with large pools of varying shapes, interconnected by a river. Rather than water, the pools and river were filled with happiness, reflections of special memories that he knew he could dive in and out of as he chose.
Hooter dove into the closest one and there were all of the horses, dogs and people he'd had to say goodbye to before he was ready. Each one looked at him with affection, but they didn't race to see him as he wanted to race to see them. It was as if they'd just seen him a moment ago.
Next, Hooter dipped his toes in a pool that was nothing but Christmas memories. There was uncle Willy, dressed up like Santa Claus, fleeing Cousin Charlie's new dog, Tuffy, with all of the speed his short legs and padded belly would allow. Every stride, Tuffy was nipping at his heels until finally taking a mighty hold on Santa's fanny. The fierce little Rat Terrier was still firmly attached when Uncle Willy tried to scale the yard fence, which promptly broke under his weight. The whole family was there, too weak with laughter to help.
Over there was great Aunt Lucy, the family matriarch that everyone looked up to. Even though she was tough, fiery and more independent that a raccoon with a stash of corn, Aunt Lucy was what Hooter always figured God had in mind when he made angels.
The scene that played out before Hooter was one of Lucy's last Christmases. She was more than legally blind by then, but still insisted on living by herself. She'd even make her way out to the car shed from time to time and fire up her old Galaxy. She never got any further than putting a new dent or scratch in the paint by backing into one side of the shed or the other, but the effort seemed to please her. When Hooter's Aunt Pinky expressed concern to her brothers that one day Lucy might get lucky and shoot the gap, Hooter's dad simply flattened all four tires so she could still give it a shot.
This particular day, a few moons before Christmas, a teenaged Hooter had gone over to help Aunt Lucy get her taffy pulled. She'd told Hooter to hold on while she lit the fireplace, then promptly set her Christmas tree ablaze instead. By the time Hooter had snuffed the flames he and Aunt Lucy had lost their eyebrows and most of the packages beneath the tree.
“Dear me, guess I should have opened up the flu,” she'd said to Hooter with a trademark wink, then busted out laughing.
In this same pool Hooter was surprised to see himself just last year hanging upside down from Aunt Pinky's house, literally and figuratively tangled up in her annual Christmas light fiasco.
When Hooter had finally decided to float back up to the mountaintop, he noticed for the first time that the river connecting the pools was running fast with a flood of other forgotten memories: high school rodeo dances, a trip to national FFA convention, first kisses, times with his friends, all rushing by in an instant.
Then, unbidden, Hooter was floating back above the mountain itself. He didn't want to go, but somehow realized there just wasn't enough room for him here other than to visit.
Hooter drained his coffee cup and chiseled out another; he needed it for this next part.
After leaving the pools, Hooter suddenly felt himself falling and falling, out of control it seemed, until he gently touched down on the brushy hillside of a pasture that he recognized as his own. It and the cattle here looked just as they had when he left them only hours before. But, as Hooter looked up the side of the hill he saw doors scattered here and there, all different sizes and colors, but each standing upright as if nailed to the ether. Hooter knew he had to open each door to get to the top of the hill, and somehow knew that was his mission. He had no idea what he'd find, yet he suspected he knew.
Behind the first door he saw friends from near and far, as if he was peeking through a window and seeing what they were doing right now. Some were finishing up chores. Some were running errands or taking trips. Others were gathered around the supper table with family or propped back in a recliner buried in a newspaper.
Behind the next door, Hooter saw an endless line of all of the projects he knew he had to get to or complete but hadn't yet; some of them had been started years before. He closed that door in a hurry.
Opening a door nearby, Hooter saw all of the things he'd always had a hankering to do, but had never tried for one reason or another; everything from visiting the Cowboy Hall of Fame, to building something out of wood that would be as beautiful as it was functional, to going to college. He stared through that door for a long time, then slowly closed it with a pang of regret.
Reaching the next to last door on the hill, Hooter peeked inside to find Claire baking Christmas cookies and little Bugsy gabbing, quizzing and nibbling on candy sprinkles. This too, was like looking in on them at this very moment. Hooter smiled and his heart grew to bursting with the love he felt for them.
Finally, Hooter reached the very last door, the one furthest up the hill. When Hooter opened it, he was filled with awe. It was lush country like he'd never seen, all bathed in golden light, a rainbow in the distance and flocks of pure white doves coasting and diving happily together. There on a hillside was an empty and weathered cross.
Hooter just stared and stared drinking it all in. Slowly, he began to realize there was something else here, too. Hanging up in the sky was a giant hourglass and a smaller one beside it. There was less sand in the small glass and it was running fast; lots more left in the larger glass, running slower than the other one. It dawned on Hooter that he'd seen those same hourglasses behind all of the other doors but hadn't realized it before.
At that point, Hooter felt like running as he never had before in his life. He had to get to the top of the hill and see the other side, just had to. He got to the top, but when he peeked over there was nothing: no black, no white, no gray, just nothingness. As such Hooter felt neither excitement nor dread at seeing something that wasn't there.
Then Hooter woke up. When he did, he was panting and sweating in exhaustion as if he had in fact just run for his life. Hooter guessed that he'd been sitting here, drinking coffee, trying to make sense of it for at least a couple of hours. Finally he felt like he understood enough to get down on his knees.
Hooter clenched his hands tight and prayed: “Dear Heavenly Father, I've got no idea how much time you've given me to be on this earth, or even why exactly. Only you know, and you knew it long before I ever hit the ground. Forgive me when I dwell in the past or squander precious moments in a future that doesn't exist. Thank you for your Love, Lord, for the gift of your Son. Thank you for this Present. Help me to live it well, wisely and always. Amen.”