Short Story: One to Go by Collin Leadbeater

One to Go
by Collin Leadbeater

It never hit me that my parents were capable of dying until the first time I saw them with Caroline. Well, not technically the first time. They came to the hospital the day she was born, but after twenty-three hours of labor, I felt like I had been in seven consecutive car wrecks. All I could remember from then was the pain. They only saw her for a minute or two before they were shooed away by a nurse since they had snuck in after visiting hours.

The real first time, in my mind, was when she’d been home for a week or so and Mom and Dad came to visit the house with her in it. Caroline was snoozing in the wind-up swing we parked her in for more of her first few months than I’d care to admit. I remember their wide eyes as they watched their only grandchild rock back and forth, unaware of the world around her. My parents had had six of their own but looked at her like she was the only baby that had ever existed. Dad kept his hands in his pockets while Mom had hers clutched to her breast as they hovered.

I wondered how long they could’ve stayed there – motionless, wordless, the only sound was the creaking of the joints on the swing that I of course took to mean was ready to fall apart at any moment, despite assurances from my husband, Jim. “Relax Mary, she’s fine,” he’d say a dozen times a day, each utterance more exasperated than the last. My parents’ ogling annoyed me after a few minutes and before I could finish granting permission Caroline’s head was nestled into Mom’s elbow. I was forgotten.

Everyone had moved up a level. I was almost thirty but only then was I finally an adult in my parents’ eyes. They had graduated to grandparents, and it was as I saw the wrinkles in their hands as they rubbed their fingers against Caroline’s and strained to lean their necks out to kiss her nose that I took notice of how old they were. My chest tightened as I contemplated an inevitable future without them.

In reality, they weren’t that old – neither of them sixty yet – but it was as if they had aged twenty years from when they had walked in the door. I thought of my grandparents, all of whom were long gone. My parents were at the front of the line – which had been the case before Caroline came along, but not something I had previously considered. They had been invincible all my life.

Until they weren’t.


I woke up from a heavy nap in the wood-paneled guest room at my father-in-law’s. The first thing I saw when I pried open my sleep-crusted eyes was a photo from Caroline’s first day of kindergarten in a silver frame. I picked it up off the nightstand and wiped away the film of dust on the glass. Her eyes were squeezed tight above a mile-wide smile that showed every one of her molars. I did the math in my head – almost twenty-five years ago. I had given it to my father-in-law that year for his birthday. Initially, I didn’t take Frank as a picture person, since there weren’t many of Jim or his sister around the house, but he adored it. Caroline’s goofy face made Frank laugh so hard that he developed a case of the hiccups. I gave him a picture of his grandkids every Christmas and birthday from then on.

I cried for the first time since we learned of Frank’s passing the week before. Then I had cried more for Jim’s sake. This time was for me. I took the picture out of the frame and slid it into my handbag that sat on the carpet beside the bed.

There was no one else in the house, my only company was the intermittent pinging of the baseboard heaters. Jim’s sister Diane had picked him up to meet with the funeral home director before the rest of the mourners arrived. I took the opportunity to take a weekday nap for the first time since I was pregnant.

I had never been alone in the house despite having visited countless times for nearly four decades. The first visit was on Thanksgiving after Jim and I had been together a few years, our first major holiday together. I had expected a small gathering, seeing as he had only the one sibling, but I entered to find enough cousins to fill an elementary classroom. I spent every Thanksgiving there since. It hit me as I put on my makeup at the vanity previously belonging to my late mother-in-law that once the weekend was over I might not ever return.

I finished putting on my lipstick and was rolling it back in the tube when Jim called to ask if I could pick up his uncle at his hotel. Apparently, Uncle Charlie had forgotten his dress shirt – forgetfulness a common trait of the lifetime bachelor – and needed a new one. Jim indicated there was a Wal-Mart near the funeral home, so we could stop on the way. It worked out because I needed to grab some deodorant, as I had left the all-natural stick I had switched to some time before at home. It was unintentional on my part, but my subconscious was doing me a favor. I could never tell if it worked, and since I’d be in public I wanted to get a stick of the stuff with all the toxins and chemicals I’d find out on my deathbed was the equivalent of smoking ten cigarettes with each swipe. But at least I won’t be remembered for smelling. I retrieved my purse and met Charlie at the Best Western fifteen minutes later.

“What do I need this shirt for?” Charlie said after he lumbered into the car.
“Frank’s wake is today, Charlie,” I said slowly. “You have to look nice.”
He wiped his nose with his jacket sleeve. He had a disposable mask looped around his ears and tucked under his chin. It was a staple of his since the pandemic, but in the handful of times I had seen him, it was never pulled up in proper position. He asked why he had to dress up a few more times as we drove and I reminded him again once, but after that, I just said it was because he had to. I know with dementia you’re supposed to affirm and operate in their world, but that can be a lot easier said at times.

We reached the men’s clothing section and Charlie became picky about the available selection. All the shirts had collars that needed to be buttoned and he hated shirts that had collars that needed to be buttoned. The man couldn’t remember that his brother had died but knew he didn’t like buttons on his collars. Luckily we found one without the unsightly knobs and I rang it up at the self-checkout and had Charlie change into it in the dressing room.

We could have walked to the funeral home, which was in view from the curb after we exited the automatic sliding doors. At first, it looked like it shared a parking lot with the supercenter, but in reality, it was divided by a grassy median that kept overflow shoppers from stealing spots meant for the bereaved. The wind had whipped up and it was too far for Charlie anyway, so I turned a three-minute walk into a seven-minute drive as I had to navigate the contours of the dutch-angled parking lot and wait behind a Buick that did not appear eager to make its indicated left turn into rush-hour traffic from the stop sign at the exit.

I parked behind the building and followed Charlie into the funeral home, waiting to take each step until he shuffled far enough forward to clear the way for my foot to land. A burly-chested man in a dark suit and red tie with a large knot opened the door from the inside. He looked like a former law enforcement and had a thin mustache that was hard to notice from a distance.

“Who are you here for?” he asked politely after he shut the door behind us.
“Frank Ryan,” I said.
He gestured to a pair of deep brown double doors to our left and returned to his post at the door. Across from that set was an identical pair for another service. A tall poster board with a floral border was on display beside them with a picture of an older woman with curly hair. Both sets of doors were closed. We moved into the lobby to avoid crowding the entrance. The room had a cozy feel – dark brown carpets, tan walls, and soft yellow lighting that reminded me how tired I was, despite my earlier nap. It was warm, but professional, like if you put a dentist’s office in a ski lodge.

There were a handful of people scattered along the edges of the room, although I didn’t recognize most of them and assumed they were there for the other service. I spotted a few cousins and dumped Charlie onto them for safekeeping and went through our set of doors to find my husband on the other side.

The display room had the same decor as the lobby. At the center were close to a dozen rows of empty brown chairs, with extras around the margin backed up against the walls. At the front and facing me were Jim and Diane. They were chatting with the director, who was as slight as the doorman was rotund. He had a faint voice, rounded glasses and a bowtie. A few feet away was a dark cherry wood box with the top half open to display my horizontal father-in-law.

Jim had half a foot on the little man and looked down at him as he nodded along to the information he received. I watched for a moment from the doorway. Not a hint of grief in Jim’s face – a far cry from when his mother died. Diane dabbed her eyes every few seconds and looked like she was ready to burst. I hoped Jim would notice and put an arm around her or something to comfort her, but he was listening too intently.

Jim stood tall with his left hand wrapped around his right wrist. His father’s watch peeked out under his sleeve. It was strange seeing it on him because my father-in-law never took it off – I had expected it to be in the casket with him – and Jim had never worn a watch in all the time I’ve known him. The only jewelry I’d ever seen on him was his wedding ring. I looked him up and down, the newly parentless grandfather a few years from retirement with salt-and-pepper hair that was getting saltier by the day. Just like Little Orphan Annie.

I went over to Diane and gave her a peck on the cheek and a squeeze. Jim kept his eyes on the director as I patted him on the small of his back to give some of the support I assumed he might need. I brushed behind him to go to Frank. Jim would tell me whatever I needed to know. My job was simple – stand and receive grievers. I stooped down on the kneeling bench in front of the casket to pay my respects. Frank had about six pounds of makeup on him, and while he looked nothing like how we would remember him, it was an adequate job. I pulled the photo of Caroline out of my bag and slid it into the breast pocket on Frank’s jacket. Fortunately, he was lying right to left so I didn’t have to reach. I touched my fingertips to his forearm and closed my eyes as a few more tears escaped.

I was interrupted by my phone buzzing in my pocket with a text from Caroline. My grandson Liam had thrown up in the car and they were going to be late. I tapped something sympathetic and threw in a few hearts for good measure. When I got back to my feet the director had finished his spiel and asked if we were ready. Jim looked at me, then Diane, and gave him the go-ahead. The man scurried away with a gait that reminded me of Velma from Scooby-Doo. He slid open the double doors to reveal the gathered masses on the other side. The volume went from zero to a hundred as the lobby conversations drifted inside. The well-wishers left their smiles at the door and flooded in to form a line to say farewell to Frank. I assumed my post was next to Jim.

Half an hour of shaking hands, kissing cheeks, and accepting condolences. I gave out more hugs than I had all year. I had made sure to wear comfortable shoes but after a while, I felt some pain in my arches. I peeked over at Jim from time to time to see if he’d break, but still nothing. I cried a few times when I saw how sad everyone was for him.

Jim’s cousin Marie straggled over with runny mascara and a wad of Kleenex in her fist. She had dropped a few moving through the line and her husband trailed behind her, picking up the discarded tissues after they fell to the carpet and stuffing them in his jacket. He had a bunch the size of a tennis ball in his pocket. Marie had lived with Jim’s family for a few months in high school when her parents were having trouble. When it was her turn in line she moaned something unintelligible and collapsed in Jim’s arms. The outside observer would have thought it was her father in the box.

My mother arrived just as the procession’s momentum began to stall. She wore a long dress that revealed only the tips of her shoes. I choked down my initial thought that the next time I would see her in this atmosphere would be at her own funeral, otherwise, I would’ve been useless the rest of the night.

Mom didn’t have very long of a wait to get to the casket and didn’t hold anyone up with her longer-than-usual prayer. She was the only person I knew who still went to church every Sunday, although at that point it was more out of habit than devotion. I split my concentration with the aunt I was talking with to keep an eye on Mom as she lifted herself up off her knees. She trembled a bit, but held her balance and got up without any help. She waddled over to Jim and got his attention from the whoever-twice-removed in front of him and gave him a hug before she came to me. I walked her over to a pair of empty seats at the end of the front row and sat next to her to give my feet a breather.

“Who’s going to come to my funeral?” she said, a wistful sentiment uttered matter-of-factly. “Everybody’s dying.”

“You have six kids and eleven grandkids,” I said. “That’s a good start.”

“You all have to come. I’m talking about people that aren’t obligated.”

I didn’t feel like continuing the thread so I left it there. She said the same thing every time someone died. Mom had long since embraced that her time was nearly up. Or at least she thought it was – she had been talking about her impending death for longer than I could recall at that point. She was at peace with it, despite being the healthiest eighty-four-year-old I knew. She had all her faculties and could keep a conversation better than some of the women in my book club.

But she’d also been a widow for more than two decades. A great-grandparent to a kid she sees three times a year. If her friends weren’t dead, they were in nursing homes. Her closest friend since grade school had recently been sent away to live in an old folks’ home on the West Coast to be near her children. She was the only person she knew who still had a house. She had her church group, but most of the time she was alone.

“Sharon doesn’t seem to be doing well,” Mom said after a moment, starting her family-gathering ritual of commenting upon everyone she had seen since she arrived.

“Tim told me they found out the cancer is back. This might be the last time she sees anyone.”

She gave a sympathetic groan and made the sign of the cross. We gossiped some more, but in the back of my mind, I remained bothered that she would bring up her own death there. I held my tongue though, because it never stopped her from doing so in the future. It’s an odd thing loving someone who is seemingly through with living. It upsets me to no end, even if I get it intellectually. Her daughter and granddaughter are both parents. The rest of her kids are spread across the country. We love her and we cherish her, but we don’t really need her. And although it feels cruel to think, it’s the truth.

I talk to her every day and try to get out to see her once a month, but she’s not the most important part of my life and hasn’t been for some time. Still, I worry about her death enough for both of us. Sometimes I wonder if I’m being selfish, as if by will I’m somehow forcing her to stay alive longer than she wants. But if the only thing she can provide me anymore is her existence, then I’ll take it.

I felt a breeze from the direction of the lobby and turned around to find Caroline in the entryway, a knit hat pulled over the blonde hair that went past her shoulders and was in desperate need of a comb. Talk about someone who needs me. Not a day goes by in which her name doesn’t pop up on my phone multiple times, with a picture of Liam in her arms along with it. He’s almost two but she still doesn’t believe she has a handle on what she’s doing. She wants to know what food Liam can have now, or if she should drop him to one nap a day. As if I’m an encyclopedia, despite not having a baby of my own for nearly thirty years.

Liam was cradled into his mother’s shoulder with rosy cheeks and giraffe pajamas. He still fit into her arms but looked like he wouldn’t much longer. Each time I see him I’m amazed at how much longer his legs have gotten. Seems like yesterday he was having trouble grasping the mechanics of crawling, but now he could sprint from room to room with abandon. I told my mother I’d be right back and scooted over to Caroline before anyone else could get to her.

“How’s he doing?” I asked as I gave Liam’s back a rub.

“He’s OK,” she huffed. “Just a little car sickness. Trevor’s at the hotel checking in and getting the travel crib set up. He’ll be here in a bit.”

I rotated my position so I could see Liam’s face. I gave him a kiss on the nose but he didn’t seem to register that I was in front of him, despite looking right at me.

“Does he need a diaper change?” I asked.


“I got it. Dad and Nana are up front.”

I put my hand on the strap of the diaper bag dangling from Caroline’s free arm before she could offer it. I threw it on my shoulder and peeled Liam off of her. He let out a whimper but settled down once he snuggled onto my clavicle. I brought him into the nearby family restroom and pulled down the wall-mounted plastic changing station that had the same koala bear logo on it as the ones I changed my own kids on at various department stores and shopping malls decades ago. He fussed when I put him down, but without anyone else in the room to rat me out I broke Caroline’s rule on screen time and pulled up a Sesame Street clip to placate him. He held the phone a few inches from his face as I swapped out his wet Pampers for a fresh pair. I didn’t want to leave Jim fending for himself much longer, but I stood a moment after I picked Liam up to get him calm again. I ran my finger against all five of his, a habit I developed because I love his pudgy little hands so much.

Once Liam was settled we headed back in. Caroline was in the seat I had left, next to my mother, as Jim stood in front of them. I could tell from Caroline’s body language that her mood had improved, likely thanks to a handful of minutes without parental duties. I went over to Jim and he gave Liam a kiss on the forehead. Jim saw how tired he was and didn’t offer to take him. My mother pushed Caroline a seat over so I could sit between them. Liam’s face was turned inside toward my neck, away from Mom, and she nipped at his back with her fingertips and whispered his name to get his attention. It annoyed me how long she kept trying after it was clear he wasn’t interested.

“Will you stop already?” I snipped as I fluttered my fingers to swat hers away. She took no offense.

It’s strange when you and your mother are simultaneously grandparents. When I had Caroline it felt like our relationship had undergone some sort of transformation. Like we had reached a new level of understanding between us. We weren’t equals, but we were closer to it. Now we’re just two old ladies, although one of us is fine not dying just yet.

Word got around that Liam had arrived and soon enough another line formed, this one less somber. We spoke with the same relatives who had previously made the rounds. Thankfully this time I had an excuse to stay seated. I imagine it must have been a nice relief for Jim to talk about the joys of grandfatherhood instead of the pains of being an orphan. Eventually, he was pulled away by a childhood neighbor. My son-in-law arrived not long after. Trevor bent down and I gave him half a hug with my free arm.

“Can you do me a favor?” I said to Trevor after he finished greeting my mother. “Can you go in my bag on the table and bring the bottle of water in it to Jim? He’s been on his feet all night.”

“Sure, no problem,” he said chipperly, although his eyes showed a man who hadn’t gotten a full eight hours of sleep in years.

Trevor set about the task at hand and handed the water to Jim, who took it without registering who had given it to him, as he was deep in conversation. A handful of Frank’s poker pals waited their turn off to the side. Men with thinning hair and windbreaker jackets purchased in the previous century who presumably spoke amongst themselves about potential replacements as respectfully as they could while their former regular was in a coffin behind them. Trevor hung around for a second but slunk away once it was clear he wasn’t going to be included in Jim’s discussion. He sat down next to Caroline as the parade of relatives continued.

I felt a wet sensation on my shoulder and found Liam sound asleep. A string of drool hung out of his mouth and pooled onto my blouse. I nudged Caroline with my elbow and nodded my head toward Liam.

“I think it’s time for bed,” she said.

She looked over at Trevor who took a second to notice that was his cue. He rose from his brief respite and I handed Liam over, trying my best not to jostle him awake. I gave Liam a kiss on the cheek and he wrinkled his nose but was still down for the count. I said goodbye to Trevor and they were gone.

“How are you getting home?” I said to Caroline after I sat back down. “I’ll call an Uber.”

“Are you sure? We can take you if you want.”

“No, it’s fine. The hotel isn’t far so it should be cheap.”

I didn’t put up a fight. Liam’s fatigue had seeped into me – as it always did when I held him – and Caroline’s hotel was in the opposite direction of our accommodations. I was relieved not to have added extra minutes to our trip back to Frank’s.

“Have you heard from Carter?” Caroline asked.

“He’s working late and won’t be here until tomorrow morning,” I said as I waved to an uncle who had been staring. “He’s meeting us at Grandpa’s.”

“Oh, bullshit.”  I snapped her a look and she gave a dubious face. “Surely it’s not because he’d rather spend a Friday night at the bars with his friends,” Caroline said.

I didn’t disagree but stayed quiet.

“What’s that about your brother?” my mother shouted from my other side.

“Nothing, Nana.”

My mother took advantage of having Caroline to herself and asked about Liam. I half-listened for a minute as they talked across me before I remembered my hands were no longer full. I stood up and both my knees cracked.

“Time to clock back in,” I said.

I made my way over to Jim and weaved myself into the conversation he was having with a few cousins and their spouses about home improvement disasters. I jumped in with the story of a contractor who had knocked down a wall of ours during a remodel before discovering it was load-bearing. Thankfully nothing collapsed. It got a hearty chuckle from the group, including Jim, whose eyes looked the same as any other Friday.

I looked again at the husk of my father-in-law and thought of Dad. He was the first of mine or Jim’s parents to pass. Caroline was in second grade and didn’t grasp what had happened. Carter was too young to remember him, a fact that bothers me deeply to this day. I still remember the smell of Dad’s cigars. At the end of each warm night, he’d sit out on the porch and savor one for as long as he could. His private oasis. He used to fry hamburgers in bacon grease for us every Saturday, the only meal he ever cooked. We knew his lifestyle would kill him, but we thought that was a lot farther down the road than it ended up being. I was at home with Carter when I got the call from my brother. Carter was taking a nap as I half-watched an episode of As The World Turns while folding laundry. Dad had a stroke and was gone. That was all there was. It was a nice feeling to exist at the same time as your kids and your parents. But once that’s over there’s a feeling of dread that stays with you as you wait for that next phone call to come.

After a while, the director popped into my view as he pulled closed the doors to the other wake that had since ended. He made a beeline for us with his brisk, short steps. He asked Jim if he wanted a private moment with his father before they shut things down to begin preparations for the next day’s service at the church. Jim looked at me then stuck out his lower lip and shook his head as if someone had asked him if he had a preference on where to grab lunch. The man gave a terse nod and closed the casket, the official end to the evening.

I retrieved our coats and my handbag and met Jim in the lobby. My mother stood next to Caroline, having agreed to give her a lift since the hotel was on her way. I hugged them both and said I’d see them tomorrow. A few stragglers had gathered outside in an attempt to restart conversations interrupted by the process of exiting, but it was too cold and we were talked out. We had to save our remaining anecdotes for the morning.

I dug the keys out of my bag as we walked and handed them to Jim. Before I got in the car I stopped to help Charlie climb into Diane’s oversized SUV parked next to us. We took the back way to Frank’s house to avoid the downtown traffic. We didn’t see a streetlight until we got to his neighborhood.

“I barely talked to your mother,” Jim said after an extended silence.

“She’s fine,” I said. “Worried that there won’t be anyone left for her at her funeral.” “Of course she is,” he said with a soft chuckle.

“One to go.”

We got back to the house and Jim showered as he always did before bed. I was already there when he climbed in. I was on the edge of sleep but the light nudge from Jim collapsing onto the mattress restarted my process. It didn’t take long to get it back on track but sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up again. I felt a slight shaking that was a smidge above perception. I propped myself up on my elbow and turned my head to look at Jim behind me. We were back-to-back and I could only see a little thanks to the moonlight glowing behind the curtain at the other end of the room. He was hunched and looked to be shivering. I heard a muffled sound then a sniffle. I rolled over and put my arm around him. He held my hand the rest of the night.

About the Author

Collin Leadbeater is a writer based in Upstate New York. He studied journalism at SUNY Oswego and has bylines in USA Today, the Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.), the Star-Gazette (Elmira, N.Y.), the Ithaca (N.Y). Journal and the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel.

2 thoughts on “Short Story: One to Go by Collin Leadbeater

  1. Wow! What a great story. You really made the characters come to life with the descriptive details. I love the subject matter you chose to tackle – such an important message!

  2. I love the way humor was delicately woven into a real-life event full of sorrow and loss. The author has a keen eye for detail when describing people, places and events. They are very realistic and relatable. : )

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