Heath Barkley was not a perfect man. He had his faults like any man including a level of Barkley stubbornness which could outstrip that of his brother Nick; his stubbornness perhaps more effective because it had been fashioned from his life experiences rather than the privilege into which Nick had been born. Allowances were made in the hope that some of the stubbornness would subside from Heath's shoulders as he adapted to his new family life.
Their hopes came true.
Situations in which Heath would set himself apart emotionally from the family, perhaps because he felt the outsider, or did not know how to interact, became less frequent. His independence, too, lessened, to the extent that one day he quietly informed his family he would like to drop using the name Thomson and accept the name of Barkley which had been offered to him.
The family celebrated with a celebratory meal at which each member insisted on formally welcoming him into the family by giving a speech; love and acceptance the common theme. Less than a year ago Heath travelled life's journey alone and it wasn't until he had found his father's family that he realised how truly lonely the journey had been since his mother's death.
Speeches ended, Audra bent low to give him a kiss on the cheek, whispering something private into his ear which had them both giggling and nodding their blond heads co-conspiratorially. Nick was next, towering above the still sitting Heath. The younger man stood to accept the elder brother's firm shake of the hand and fell easily into the bear hug and lifting off his feet that followed. Heath was more than capable of standing on his own feet but it felt good to have an older brother like Nick in his life and he would draw strength, companionship and a good deal of fun from their relationship.
Jarrod was next, his words more restrained and sober, "I'm proud to be your brother," he said, his face taking on a Pappy-like seriousness. "My door is always open to you, whether you just want to talk or you need some advice." His face then broke out into a huge smile and he pulled his brother to him. In years to come their relationship would gain a more equal footing with Jarrod realising that Heath too was a good man to go to for advice.
From Mrs. Barkley - Mother as he now called her - Heath received a mother's kiss and a tender caress of his cheek, gestures no son could do without, no matter how old he got. He thought of his own mother who had passed away earlier in the year. He missed her sorely, so much so that he would sometimes cry in the privacy of his own room from the hurt. Recently, he had received an unexpected gift. Mrs Barkley had not only selflessly put aside her own hurt to accept him into her family so he could begin to get to know his brothers and sister, but she had also given him parity in her heart. He made a silent vow to himself that he would never do anything to make her regret her decision.
Now as Christmas Day approached and the skies threatened snow, Heath Barkley hurried the errands he needed to complete in town so that he could visit the church across the street and offer his own respects to the infant child Jesus. Entering the church he took off his hat, made the sign of the cross, and quickly located the nativity where for a moment he stood with the same level of awe he had experienced as a seven-year old.
The years in between seem to float away. He was a small boy again rendered speechless by the simple but majestic scene before him. His mother was once again keeling by his side and holding on to his waist as he stood on tiptoes to see the figures of the Holy Family. Quietly she was repeating the story of Christmas into his ear, leaving pauses for the small boy to fill in so that he could participate in the story as well. Then together they lit a candle for the baby Jesus, their gift to him when they had none other to give.
To the adult Heath the memory was very special and he felt himself reaching out his hand to once more hold his mother's hand. Feeling a small hand slip into his, he turned to find Victoria Barkley had slipped her hand into his. Her eyes twinkled from the reflection of the nearby candles and her love for him. He squeezed her hand in his large one and gave her an affectionate wink. Not letting go he took off the glove from his left hand with the help of his teeth and reached into his pocket to put some money in the collection box. Then picking out four candles he lit them one by one with a taper.
"One for the baby Jesus, one for my Mama, one for you, Mother, and one for my brothers and sister," he explained in his low drawl.
Victoria dropped some money in the collection box herself and added her own candle, "And one for my son, Heath."
Smiling, he bent low to kiss her on the cheek and they waited a few moments to watch the newly lit candles, the light emanating from each of them growing stronger with each second. In time Heath wrapped his muffler around his neck and put his left glove back on. Then taking his mother's arm he escorted her to the wagon loaded with supplies making sure to hide the special gift he had bought for her. Christmas was going to be good this year. No longer would he spend it alone. And with the comfort of that thought and the years ahead of him with his family Heath Barkley drove the wagon home looking forward to giving out his gifts the next day.