A Second Chance -- Chapter 67


A Second Chance

By Dawn Natelle

Many tears were shed in writing this chapter. Tissue alert. Two boxes may be needed: Dawn

Rachael was sitting in the stands at the arena, watching Bobby play goal at the hockey school when she got a text from Mikki. ‘Can you talk?’ Rachael texted back ‘Yes’ and a second later the phone rang.

“What’s up, girlfriend?” Rachael asked.

It was clear that Mikki was super excited, and it took her a few seconds to calm down enough to talk. “We are going to Cannes,” she finally said. “The Legion entered our movie into the Cannes documentary festival. Not the real Cannes … that was in May, but a special festival for beginner’s documentaries only. And they want to send the four of us to France for a week. With Larissa to guide us, we will get to see France like a native. We might even be able to stay longer than a week, if we spend it with Larissa’s uncle, then go to the festival later. It runs the middle of August.”

After that, Mikki had to stop to take a breath. “That sounds awesome, Mikki,” Rachael said. “Have you spoken to the other girls?”

“Larissa, cause she is from there,” Mikki said. “I called you next. Now I need to call Carly.”

“I’m with Bobby at the hockey camp right now,” Rachael said. “When it is over Marc’s mom is driving us home. We’ll go to your place then, about 4:15. See if the other girls can meet then and we can make plans.”

There was not much planning done before Rachael had to head home to make dinner. Mostly it was four excited girls jumping around, as Larissa told them about all the cool places they had to see, and things they could do. The Eiffel Tower, the Left Bank of Paris, the Louvre, Versailles, the Juno Beach Memorial for D-Day.

That night Geoff and Maria agreed that Rachael could go, and Geoff suggested that she get $1000 in spending money. Rachael had been hoping for $200. With the airfare and one week of hotel paid by the Legion, and the other week spent with Larissa’s family, there didn’t need to be much money spent. But Geoff insisted that she needed that much, which was still less than $100 a day if they stayed two weeks. He noted that most of the places the girls had talked about had admission fees, plus meals, souvenirs and gifts. Rachael was glad she had a Dad now, and ran over to wrap her arms around him to thank him.

That night Rachael dreamed vividly of Paris. The four girls were on the top of the Eiffel Tower when her cell phone rang. Rachael answered, listened, and then hung up. The excitement on her face a minute ago had disappeared. Mikki noticed and asked what was wrong.

“It is Grandpa,” Rachael said, trying hard not to cry. “They took him to the hospital. It doesn’t look well.”

The joy fled from the faces of the other girls as well. They had grown to love Grandpa as well. “I have to go home,” Rachael said.

“We all should,” Mikki said.

“No. The Legion spent a pile of money to bring us over here. I will go home. You guys stay and do the festival. It is probably a false alarm.”

The dream moved to another scene. Geoff and Maria were at the airport. Maria was dressed in black, and Geoff wore a suit. As Rachael finally got through customs and ran up to them, their faces showed grief.

“I’m so sorry honey,” Maria said as the sobbing girl flung herself into her arms. “He didn’t make it. He passed last evening. He asked for you several times. Bobby and we were there at the end. Bobby is with Marc tonight. I’m so sorry you couldn’t get here in time.”

Her own sobs jerked Rachael awake. She threw on a robe, and rushed down to her grandfather’s room. Opening the door as quietly as she could, she looked in. For a moment she worried that he was too still lying there. But then she saw a slight movement. He was breathing. That wasn’t enough to prevent another huge sob.

“Is that my princess?” Grandpa said softly as the sobs awakened him. “What is the problem, sweetheart? You are crying.”

Rachael sat on the edge of his bed, and explained the dream she had.

“I think that is one of your special dreams,” Grandpa said. “When I have one and see Marie in heaven, she is quite excited that my time to join her is getting close.”

“Oh no,” Rachael sobbed again. “You can’t leave us. We need you. Bobby needs you. We want you.”

“I know it is hard to let go, honey,” he said. “But Marie has been waiting for such a long time. And you really don’t need me. Bobby has a dad now, and between Geoff’s teaching and the memories of his time with me, I’m sure he will grow into a fine young man. And you, my princess, will definitely grow up into a fine young woman. There is nothing more that I wish than to see you get married one day, but that could be as much as 15 years from now, and I don’t want to be here this long. But when you do marry, you can be sure that Marie and I will be there, watching our little girl in pride.”

Rachael just sobbed again, as Grandpa continued. “If you want I will try to get them to delay things for a few weeks, so you can go to Paris with the girls. Marie won’t be happy, but she has waited for me for so many years, I think she will wait two more weeks.”

“No Grandpa,” the girl said. “And it is so like you to say that. But you are right. It is your time. It is Marie’s turn to have you with her again. I won’t ask you to take that away from her. But I will not take the trip. I want to be here with you as much as possible … until the end. I guess we shouldn’t say anything to Bobby … he would want to drop his hockey camp to spend more time with you. We will only tell him near the end.” She leaned down and hugged her Grandpa as he lay in the bed, and the sobs came back with a vengeance. She finally got up, and knowing she wouldn’t be able to sleep again, started baking biscuits. Before they were in the oven Grandpa also got up, and sat on the hard kitchen chair rather than his recliner as she made him coffee, and later served him hot biscuits.

That day at school, before classes, Rachael gave the bad news to the girls. “But it was only a dream, right,” Mikki protested. “It may not come true. You have to come with us. Or none of us should go.”

Rachael saw the alarm in Larissa’s eyes at the possibility of her getting a free trip to her former home vanishing. Carla also looked upset at the idea.

“Don’t be silly,” Rachael said. “You three must go. The provincial Legion has bought the tickets already. Have Mr. Churchill join you. He did so much for the film as well. And he can act as a bit of a chaperone.”

“Well, Mom and Dad were not too happy at the idea of four 13-year-old girls visiting Paris on their own, even though some of the time we would be with Larissa’s family,” Mikki said, and Carla nodded. She had heard the same complaints.

“You guys go. Take lots of pictures,” as if Mikki could stop herself from that. “It will be almost like I am there when you send them to me.”

The girls flew out several weeks later, and Rachael, true to her word, had spent a lot of time with Grandpa. Midway through the first week in Paris Mikki got a text from Rachael. “Grandpa in hospital. Not looking good. Will text if anything happens, have fun.”

Bobby was now done hockey school, and was devastated when he saw his hero lying on a hospital bed with tubes and wires running in and out of him. Rachael softly explained that the man may not ever return to the house, and the little boy wailed in grief for a few moments, and then stopped when he saw that he was upsetting Grandpa. So instead Bobby took a chair next to the old man, and sat and read to him, while Rachael sat on the other side holding his frail hand.

The kids spent the entire visiting hours with Grandpa, with Geoff and Maria taking turns driving them in and picking them up, and visiting as well.

It was Friday evening, while Maria was in to pick up the kids at the end of visiting hours that alarms started going off. Rachael looked down, and saw that Grandpa was no longer breathing. She pressed the call button, although it wasn’t necessary. Several nurses rushed into the room, with one ushering the family out. Before she left, Rachael turned over a card on the old man’s wrist that said “DNR”. When the nurses saw that, they stopped abruptly. The abbreviation meant: Do Not Resuscitate.

In the hallway one of the nurses led them to the chapel. Bobby had started wailing once he realized what had happened, and clung to his mother, sobbing. In the chapel all three kneeled at a prayer bench, and looked up at an interdenominational painting of Christ and prayed, with Bobby between Rachael and his mother.

The prayer was long, and satisfying. All three got a feeling from above that they knew was Grandpa, and he was happy and young, with his arm over Marie’s shoulder. Rachael jolted when she felt another hand fit into hers on the side away from Bobby. She opened her eyes and saw Pastor Helen sitting next to her.

“Our painting told me to come,” she said softly.

“We should go to it,” Rachael decided. Her mother and Bobby, who now was only sobbing gently, also got up. They found Geoff at the counter, doing paperwork, and after giving him a hug, left him for the church. Rachael rode with Helen, and the others went with Maria.

At the church it was now past midnight, so there were spots available for them to kneel. Once they had kneeled, Rachael almost immediately found herself transported to outside the familiar gates. Looking around she saw that Helen, Maria and Bobby were with her.

“Grandpa?” Bobby said as he looked at the man who was now only 25 or so on the other side of the gates.

“Yes son,” the man said, and Bobby recognized the voice and started to run to the gate. Something made him stop a few feet short. “No hugs today, Bobby. But you might feel hugs from up here from time to time.”

“When Rachael and I read each night, can you be there?” the boy said. “So I can be reading to you?”

“I will make a point of it,” he said.

“And I have been there for the past few months,” the young woman said. “Looking in on the two young children who were making my man so happy. We will always be there looking out for you.” She turned to Maria. “And I finally get to meet my adopted daughter and near-namesake. You are a wonderful woman for looking after those children, and my Pierre, so well.”

“Thank you,” Maria said. “And I want you to know that you two will always be in our prayers and our hearts.”

They chatted for about 15 minutes, and as they talked all of the visitors began to feel peace. Grandpa was gone, but they could still meet him here through the painting when they needed to. Eventually they felt themselves being pulled back to the church, and when they got there they saw Geoff had just arrived. He had tears in his eyes, and was surprised to find his family smiling.

“We met with him,” Rachael said. “He is happy. And young again. He must have been in constant pain in that old body. I’m glad we could let him go. He wanted to stay, so I could go to Paris. But Marie had waited so long, and she knew when his time was. To have been forced to delay for even two weeks would have really hurt her.”

Geoff drove back to the bakery, and Maria took the kids home, lying down next to Bobby until he fell asleep. It was nearly two a.m. Rachael went into her own room and then texted Mikki. The girls would soon be getting up, and today was the day of the festival. She thought about not telling them until after, but realized how upset that would have made her. “Grandpa passed peacefully at a few minutes past 11 (our time) Friday. Mom, I and Bobby were all there with him. He is in a better place, and is so happy there. Do not cry for him.”

In Paris less than an hour later Mikki opened her phone and found the normal dozen or so text messages. With the time difference, texts were a big part of keeping in contact. When she got to Rachael’s, she let out a small cry, and then started to sob.

Larissa and Carly immediately woke up, and she merely passed the phone to Carla, who also sobbed and then handed it to Larissa, who was even more affected than the others. To her Grandpa was the man who liberated her country, and drove the Nazis out. She knew others had helped, but he was one of the last to survive, and the fact she had gotten to know him so well in the filming, and the many other times when she had chatted with the old man in French made her feel that he was a relative: her own Grandpa.

“Should we go on with the competition?” Mikki asked.

“We must,” Larissa said forcefully. “The film is about him. It is a tribute to him. We will do it to honor him.”

“Someone should tell the audience that he has passed,” Mikki said. “At the end?”

“Definitely at the end,” Larissa said. “I will tell the audience in French, and then one of you can do it in English.”

“Not me,” Carly said. “I would start to bawl in front of all those people.”

“I guess I will have to,” Mikki said. Then she had an idea. “Or Mr. Churchill could. He could do a better job than me.”

The three girls all wore black to the festival, where their film was one of three finalists. Mikki was hoping for second place. One film had been good, but no better than theirs. The chance of first place was out of the question. She had seen a film called “L’Automne” in the preliminaries, and it was magnificent. She had learned five or six techniques that were beyond her in watching it.

In the evening their film was the third to be shown. First was the one Mikki thought would win, and she hoped that the viewing order would not be duplicated by the awards. She also noticed a couple more techniques as it was shown and mentally catalogued them. The second film ran next, and Mikki was not sure that they had a chance for second. Finally their film ran.

At the end, Larissa and Mr. Churchill took the stage, as arranged earlier with the organizers. The panel needed time to collate their scores anyway, so there was no delay.

Larissa spoke first, in French: “Mesdames and Messieurs, it is with tremendous sadness that I must relate that Monsieur Pierre Verdun, star of our film, passed away in Canada this morning at the age of 97. He was one of the men who saved France, one of the last, and I will miss him tremendously.” With that she broke down in tears, and put her head into Mr. Churchill’s shoulder as she sobbed. He took the microphone from her and ended her speech with a simple “Merci,” and then repeated the message in English.

The two headed back to their seats, with the auditorium in an uproar. To learn that the man they had just watched for the past hour had passed on affected the largely French crowd. Like Larissa, they considered him a hero of their nation.

The emcee came out several minutes later to announce the winners, and the audience finally settled down. The film Mikki thought they could beat was announced as third place and she smiled. Then the announcer said that second place would go to “L’Automne.” Mikki was stunned for a second, and was charging past the irate looking crew of that film while “For Valour” was announced as the winner.

The emcee handed her the mic, thinking she wanted to thank the panel for choosing her film. Instead she said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please excuse me for speaking in English. I feel a great injustice has been done as a result of the news of M. Verdun’s passing. I don’t think a sympathy vote should decide the competition. I know L’Automne was a far better film than ours. I insist that the judges recast their ballots based on the quality of the film, not sympathy. If this is not done, then I will insist that For Valour be withdrawn from the competition.” She then switched to French. “For Valour Non, L’Automne Qui.”

She then left the stage, seeing that now the crew from L’Automne were happier. Her speech was translated to the judges, and several minutes later a slip of paper was handed to the emcee. “The judges have accepted Miss Stoner’s request, and ask if she will accept a joint first place for L’Automne and For Valor.”

Mikki looked at the other crew, and they smiled and nodded. Mikki stood and said from the floor. “I agree, so long as the two films are always listed in that manner, with L’Automne first.”

The emcee agreed, then repeated the sequence in French. The applause was thunderous. Many in the audience were film experts, and knew that L’Automne was by far the best film. A tie, with L’Automne getting first mention, placated them.

There was a banquet after the awards, and after a few moments, the adjoining table for the crews of L’Automne and For Valour were pushed together and the two crews started chatting with each other. L’Automne was also a school production, although at a college level, and their teacher and Mr. Churchill were soon discussing education. Larissa was translating for Mikki, who was picking the brain of the director of L’Automne on the various techniques she had noticed. And Carly was not left out. A tall and very handsome French boy from the film crew started flirting with her, and in broken English and broken French they were soon conversing happily.

When the banquet ended, the emcee came to the table and announced that there were press waiting in the hall, and the teams should join him there. Apparently the presentations were filmed each year, and this year the cameraman had immediately posted to YouTube a video of Mr. Churchill and Larissa’s speeches, the initial announcement, Mikki’s threat, and the final announcement. Apparently the video went viral in France during the banquet and newspapers that never covered the film festival with more than a paragraph, if that, were clamoring to get a story. The girls talked for nearly an hour. Larissa did most of the talking, since her French was immaculate. She broke down several times talking about Grandpa, and there is nothing a telecast crew likes more than a crying woman, especially one as beautiful as Larissa.

Mikki had to break away to get some screen captures of Grandpa from the film at the request of the media. She got five or six shots, and posted them to Instagram, giving the address to the news people.

The girls didn’t get home until midnight, when they thought to text Rachael, posting the link to the video. They knew Rachael’s French was good enough to translate the French bits.

The next morning the girls woke up to Mr. Churchill knocking at the door. When they were decent, he came in and dropped a dozen French Sunday newspapers on a bed. Every one had a picture of M. Verdun on the cover, often filling the page. Larissa translated the headlines, which were generally on the theme: “Hero passes as documentary is presented”. She read a few of the stories aloud, and realized that Mikki was a bit of a hero in the country for refusing to take first place over a better film. It was often touted as “the Canadian Way” or “With Canadian humility.”

The girls were warned to dress nicely since there were more media in the lobby, and it took another half hour for them to get out onto the street, where they were now recognized by passers by, who congratulated them, as well as offering condolences.

While the girls slept Rachael had accompanied her parents to the funeral home. She had thought to call the head of the Legion, who joined the Barrons.

The woman told the funeral director that every member of the Legion would be at the funeral, as well as everyone involved in the film, and many of the hundreds who had viewed it. In short, the funeral home would not have enough space for the funeral. She offered the Legion hall, which still would be too small, but at least was twice the size of the largest room in the funeral home.

Four visitation periods over two days were set up in the largest room at the funeral home. During these visitations the four Barrons stood and greeted those who came to pass by the closed casket, with the Victoria Cross sitting atop it. Grandpa had donated the medal, along with his uniform to the Legion several weeks prior, and a display was being developed for the town museum, but it was recovered for the funeral.

The visitations were scheduled for 90 minutes each, but there was a line of people out the door for the entire time. In fact, the afternoon sessions lasted almost until the evening ones were to start, and at one point in the first evening the lineup ran all around the block as almost everyone in Ingersoll seemed to want to pay their respects. The mayor was there on the first night. It seemed that the funeral director knew his business, because the mayor said that the arena would be available for the funeral, with seats on plywood covering the ice surface.

Pastor Helen stood with the family through the entire visitation periods. She and Pastor McNaughton were going to adjudicate together at the service on Wednesday.

The service in the arena went beautifully. The hobo army provided usher services, and the girls from the house sang beautiful hymns. Rachael spoke for the family, explaining how they had met Grandpa, and then Bobby had come up to the casket and placed an apple on top, then fled back to his mother in the front row, tears streaming down his face. Marc stood up and gave thanks from the people of France, even though the French ambassador had driven down from Ottawa to attend. He came forward to present a medal, that was draped around the apple. The mayor spoke for a short time, giving the condolences from the town. The premier of the province of Ontario was next, and finally, to Rachael’s surprise, the Prime Minister of Canada spoke.

Apparently when news hit Canada that France was agog over the story on Sunday, it became big news here as well. Clips from the news conferences in Cannes were carried here, since much of what was said was in English. Rachael had spoken to the media several times in the day between the visitations while media swarmed around the small town. She spoke only on the grounds that the family would not be bothered at the funeral.

After all the speechifying was over, the pallbearers: six of the newest members of the Legion, all actors from the film, loaded the casket into the hearse, while the Barrons went into the limo. At the cemetery, a private service was held, although apparently some of the dignitaries thought that they were family, and came. The Premier learned that there would be no cameras at the cemetery, and decided not to come, but the mayor and Prime Minister both attended.

At the interment Bobby was called to toss in the first handful of soil onto the casket, again running back to his mother in tears. Rachael was next, and then came back to take the crying boy so her parents could toss in their handfuls. The mayor and the Prime Minister followed. Pastor Helen gave a lovely reading that the graveside, and noted that she personally knew that Grandpa was in a better place, and happy there in the arms of his long deceased wife.

Rachael was amazed that the Prime Minister spent nearly a half hour with them at the cemetery, getting Bobby to stop crying with an invitation to visit him in Ottawa and to see the big war memorial there. Rachael noted that there was A Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower of the Parliament Buildings, and said she would like to see that too.

After the funeral, it was nearly five when the family approached the house. A strange car was in the lane, and Geoff pulled his new SUV in behind it. Maria called Steve, knowing that sometimes burglars would break into a house when they knew people were at a funeral. The front door of the house appeared to have been forced, so the family sat in the vehicle until Steve and another constable pulled their cruiser up in front of the house.

The police entered first through the broken door, guns drawn. The constable came out a few minutes later, and waved for the family to come in. Constable Steve was kneeling, holding down an irate man in handcuffs who was screaming that he owned the house and had every right to be there. When he saw the family come in, staring wide-eyed at their ransacked home, he changed his focus. “Where is it? It is mine? Where is that medal?”

Rachael caught on first. “You mean the Victoria Cross? It is not here. Grandpa gave it to the Legion three weeks ago.”

“He gave it away?” the man slumped. “It is worth over a million dollars. It should be mine. Why are you calling him Grandpa? He had no children. I am his grand-nephew. I am his heir.”

“Well, he adopted me several months ago,” Maria said. “And that makes my kids his grandchildren. And this home was sold to me last month, so you have no right to break in. The reading of the will is happening Monday at 4 p.m. You are welcome to attend.”

“That is if he is out of jail by then,” Steve said. “He is headed for Woodstock Jail. It is too late for him to see a judge today, so he will probably spend the night there.”

The nephew did get out in time for the hearing, and was dismayed to learn that the entire estate, nearly $100,000, was left to the Barrons. Half was for a trust to go to Bobby and Rachael’s education. The other half went to Maria and Geoff, including wiping out the loan grandpa had made the bakery.

Grandpa named twelve other descendants, including the nephew, who said that most of the others were already dead. Each got $100, barely enough to pay for the man’s gas from Toronto, let alone the hefty fines he later got for breaking into the house and damaging so much. But their inclusion in the will meant they could not contest it on the grounds that ‘he forgot them.’ The nephew’s trial on the break and enter charges was two months later. After his trial he went to the museum, and found that the Victoria Cross exhibit was up. He went back to his car, got a tire iron, and brought it back in to smash the display case and snatch the medal.

The noise meant a museum curator rushed in to see him leaving, and got a license plate number and description of the car. It was phoned to the police, and a cruiser was waiting for him as he was about to enter the freeway to Toronto. A 10-minute chase ensued, with the cruiser eventually forcing him off the road. He was arrested, still clutching the medal, and taken back to Woodstock Jail. When his second trial came up, several months later, he received a jail term of seven months.

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The girls in Cannes tried valiantly to get back before Thursday for the funeral. It was not to be. The French government had a series of honors it wanted to present to Grandpa posthumous, and wanted the girls there during the next week. In that time they attended several banquets. Several French television stations acquired rights to air the documentary from the Legion in Toronto, and two of them asked for the girls to be present to give commentary during those days.

As a result, the girls flew back on Friday. The following Wednesday, they attended another banquet, this one at the French embassy in Ottawa where pretty much the same awards that were given in Paris were given again for a Canadian audience. Rachael was there as well this time, and got to introduce the girls to Canada’s handsome young Prime Minister. Bobby had spent the afternoon with him at the War Memorial, since his press staff thought video of the great man showing history to a young boy would catch the eye of the media. It did, and Bobby was on more stations that day than the girls at the banquet were.

Earlier that day Bobby had a greater honor. Rachael and he were in the Peace Tower just before 11 a.m. and admired the great book, which then was showing names of men who had died early in 1941. The Prime Minister had arranged that Bobby would be the person to change the page at 11 a.m. A parliamentary constable, who normally would turn the page, put a white glove on the boy’s hand, and then held him up so he could carefully turn the page. Maria and Mikki were there too, to ensure that photos were taken.

With the banquet over, they spent the night in a hotel, courtesy of the French embassy. That gave the girls a chance to see Ottawa. Mikki had been before, and Ron had been there, but Rachael had to make it seem this was her first time in the nation’s capital. Larissa even got an hour in Hull, the city on the Quebec side of the river, where everything was in French. (Although Ottawa is a largely bilingual city.)

They arrived back in Ingersoll late, and Geoff took the girls home while Maria, Rachael and Bobby went back into their restored house. A The Hobo Army patrol had watched the house with its broken front door over the first night, while the Barron’s spent the night at Bill Strong’s motel. Another large contingent had shown up early the next day.

An insurance adjustor arrived early, and agreed that their policy would cover all the repairs and replacement of the many damaged items. The nephew has even sliced pillows open looking for the medal, and had thrown drawers to the floor, breaking many of them.

The Hobo Army had the house livable by the end of the day, although most of the furniture was missing pieces. Sunday and Monday were Geoff and Maria’s days off, and since hockey camp was finished, the entire family went shopping in Ingersoll, and then London, to order furniture. Much of it arrived on Tuesday, when Rachael stayed home to get everything moved in, with the help of two Hobo Army men to assemble it. Things that could not be brought in that day were scheduled for Friday, when Rachael would be back from Ottawa to look after things again.

In a few days, the family was back to a normal routine, although the house seemed sad without Grandpa in it.

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