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The Long Highway Home

By Elizabeth Musser

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The Long Highway Home

Chapter 1

Atlanta, Georgia, October 2005


I rapped twice on the door of the seventh-floor apartment in the posh retirement home on Peachtree Street. “Peggy? You in there?”

I unlocked the door and found her, as I knew I would, sitting on her balcony looking out at the hubbub below. At ninety-two, Peggy Milner rarely strayed outside in the late afternoon. She reserved her errands for the morning, before her body pitched its daily fit, as she put it.

I knelt down by her wheelchair, and she slowly maneuvered it so that she was facing me. Her thin wrinkled face was surrounded by abundant white hair, cut in a bob. Her green eyes, still bright in spite of cataracts, met mine. “So?”

“The doctor says I have a year to live. And that’s optimistic.”

Her eyes misted. “I’m so sorry to hear it, Bobbie,” she said, reaching out a feeble hand to stroke my face. “I wish it could be me.”

I knew she meant it. Peggy had been ready to go meet Jesus for years. “Well, I’m thankful you’re still here for me. What would I have become without you, Peggy?”

“You and the Lord would have done just fine, no need of me. What did the doctor say about treatment?”

“A pill for two months. After that, aggressive chemo, if the cancer hasn’t spread.”

“Then you know what you need to do. As I’ve been saying for nearly twelve years, Bobbie, go back.”

Tears sprang to my eyes. “But I’m afraid. What if I can’t make it right? What if I fail again?”

She sat back in her chair and said, almost sharply, “Dear child, what have you to lose now? Go back.”

“Tracie wants to go with me.”

A smile spread across Peggy’s face, lifting the sagging skin. “So you have made plans.”

“I didn’t say yes yet.”

“Say yes, Bobbie. Close the wound. Let it heal. Go back.”

Still on my knees, I laid my head in Peggy’s lap, let her hands rest softly on my back, heard her voice, the sound of age, the sound of wisdom, whisper a prayer for me. “Dear Jesus, take Bobbie back, so she can forgive herself. So she can remember what she knows. You make all things new.”

Timisoara, Romania, a few weeks later

Slowly, deliberately I walked into Timisoara’s Victory Square where back in December, 1989 thousands of protestors fighting to bring down Communism had stood with their candles lit. Where I had stood on that fateful night. I placed my cane carefully between the cobbled stones. I couldn’t afford to stumble or fall. There was the statue of Romulus and Remus surrounded by students and businessmen, the fountain spraying water, a multitude of pigeons waiting their turns to splash beneath it. The gardens were planted with bright purple petunias, and roses were everywhere. Timisoara was called the city of roses. I’d forgotten.

With Tracie at my side, I hobbled along, trying to make the limp less visible, determined to blend into the scenery, heading purposefully in the direction of the Orthodox church at the end of the square. The wonder on my niece’s face reminded me of the way I’d felt all those years ago, discovering a whole new world.

“Oh, this is beautiful!” She drew out the syllables as we stepped into the cathedral. She’d said the same thing at every single church we’d visited.

We watched as a line of several elderly Romanian women approached a painting of the Virgin and Child that stood on an easel in the center of the church. One by one the women moved forward, bowed, and kissed the icon.

“How weird,” Tracie whispered. “They actually kiss the painting. That’s not very hygienic.”

I shrugged and gave her a wink.

“And why aren’t there any pews in this church?”

“It’s Orthodox,” I whispered. “Everyone stands.”

I actually wished a bench would magically appear before me. Pain throbbed in my left leg, and I leaned heavily on the cane.

“Aunt Bobbie, are you okay?” Tracie took my arm. “You’re trembling!”

“No worries, dear. Just a little tired.”

“Look, over there. Against the wall.”

She took my arm and I didn’t protest, just planted the cane in front of me and walked slowly toward a mahogany bench where two older women were seated. I settled beside them, and a wave of anger surged within me, taking me by surprise.

I’m thirty-nine, Lord. Isn’t that a little young to die? I mean, don’t get me wrong. I look forward to spending eternity with You, but there are so many other things I wanted to do here first . . .


I watched Aunt Bobbie sitting beside two elderly women on a well-worn bench inside the Metropolitan Orthodox Church. The older women, with sagging, wrinkled skin, talked animatedly to each other while Bobbie leaned back, head against the wall, eyes closed, her right hand clutching a cane. Something was definitely wrong with this picture.

Bobbie was the young, cool aunt all my friends admired as we were growing up, and practically a second mother to me. She loved history, loved travel, loved to be spontaneous, loved people. And she was dying. When my mom called to tell me of Bobbie’s diagnosis, I dropped my cell phone on the floor in disbelief. And the next week I called Bobbie to say it was time for that month-long trip to Europe we’d always talked about.

My aunt had lived in Europe for ten years as a young woman. She had a mysterious career there, and I’m sure I hadn’t heard the half of it—she actually smuggled Bibles into Communist countries in the 1980s, and worked at an orphanage for deaf children in Romania. But then my father dropped dead of a heart attack at forty-two, leaving Mom to care for six children. Bobbie got the word and hopped the next plane to Atlanta, where she swooped into our lives in her flowing bright orange pantsuit, the “eternal rescuer.” That’s what Mom called her. To me, and to my five younger brothers, she was an exotic creature, all fun and adventure and generosity, taking our minds off the fact that our father had just died and placing them on the gifts she had brought to us from Europe. I’ll never forget the look in Mom’s eyes—extreme gratitude in the midst of her grief. There was nothing subtle about Aunt Bobbie, and yet she had an almost imperceptible quality of grace about her, something strong and yet comforting and cozy, something that made me want to be with her and hope and pray it would rub off on me. She never made me feel that whatever drama was going on in my life at the moment was ridiculous or unimportant.

Bobbie knew how to rough it. Once in a village in Bulgaria, when her contact didn’t show up, she dug a hole in the ground to keep the wind from slicing through her and slept outside in the freezing cold. She said it was “an awesome experience.” But another time, while I was in high school, a girlfriend invited her to take a cruise on the Mediterranean, and they stayed in the best suite on the ship. She loved that too.

“You just have to appreciate whatever comes,” she used to say to us kids. “Each day is a twenty-four-hour adventure.”

So Mom and I had decided that Bobbie needed a quaint luxury hotel in Venice, and she agreed—on the condition that she could plan our next stop, in Timisoara. The place we were staying here was definitely not luxurious. In fact, Bobbie called it a “Communist hotel.”
“You know, it’s all dark, heavy wood, oppressive, unimaginative.”

I watched her remove her slip-on Keds—always before she’d worn high-heeled boots or sandals—pull herself into the low and sagging double bed we were sharing, set her cane down, and smile at me.

“Ah, that’s better.” She made light of her earlier moment of exhaustion at the church and said, “It’s completely to be expected as a side effect of the meds.”

It did not exactly placate my fears, but she dared me with those bright blue eyes to disagree. My throat constricted, and I blinked back tears. I hopped on the bed and flicked on the little side light.

“Do you ever think about what you used to do? All those years living in Vienna and smuggling Bibles? Do you miss it?”

Bobbie loved to tell me stories of that life, but when I’d asked her this question in the past, she’d always said something like, “How could I miss that life when I have you and your brothers to fill my days and nights?”

But now she stared at me, and somehow her eyes dimmed. “I think of it every single day of my life.” She quickly reached for my hand and squeezed it. “That doesn’t mean I haven’t been happy. Aching for one thing and enjoying something else aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“I suppose you’re right.” I made a face and focused my attention on a piece of peeling beige paint on the wall in front of me. I knew what she was referring to. My aunt was infamous for making a point from something in her life so that I could apply it to mine. “Yes, I’m loving every minute of this trip. But it still hurts so bad that Neil broke up with me. I don’t know if there will ever be a single hour in any day when I don’t think about him.”

She sighed. “Love is painful sometimes, isn’t it?”

“It sucks.” Then, glancing at her, I dared to ask another question that I’d asked her loads of times before, a question to which she usually gave a silly reply. “Come on, Aunt Bobbie. Tell me for real—did you ever want to be married?”

She smiled. “Well, of course I’ve thought about it—still do at times. You know, people do marry even after forty!” She laughed. “Thought about it, but then I inherited a family, a large family with a lot of kids, and I didn’t even have to bother with a husband.”

“But you would have preferred to stay in Austria, do your work there?”

She cocked her head, rested it against the red-cushioned headboard, and closed her eyes. “Tracie, life has seasons. I entered a season of nurturing your family. It wasn’t forced upon me. I chose it with gladness, and I have never regretted that choice. Another season might be coming now.”

Another season? That’s what she thought of dying? I didn’t want her to enter that season. Ever.

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