A Time To Every Purpose

The minister adjusted his black stole and turned to face the congregation that packed the church.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here, not only to mourn the passing of our brother in Christ, Ben Cartwright, but to celebrate his life and to give thanks to God, the Father Almighty, for his time on this earth."

Sitting alone in the first pew, Joe nodded in satisfaction and let the service wash over him. His eyes never left the coffin, made from Ponderosa pine, that dominated the chancel. He had been determined that the service should reflect his father's spirit and personality and commemorate his life. So many people only gazed at him with watery eyes and pursed lips, shaking their heads sadly and that annoyed him. His father deserved more than that. Joe stood up and walked to the lectern and began to read the first lesson in a voice that brought powerful emotion and new understanding to the familiar words.

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die….A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance…"

His face was pale above the crisp whiteness of his shirt, but his jaw was thrust forward uncompromisingly and his shoulders were square and true under the fine black broadcloth of his suit. Joe Cartwright stood tall and straight as he paid his final tribute to his father with immense dignity and love. It was time to say goodbye. There would be a time for private grief later.

Somehow, Joe endured the rest of the service and then the mourners travelled out to the lake where Ben was finally laid to rest beside his beloved Marie, buried on the land he loved with his heart and soul. The minister's voice ran out clearly against the distance crash of the waves and the soft rustling of the pines.

"I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live."

Back at the Ponderosa, while Theresa and Candy hurried around with plates of sandwiches and pots of coffee, Joe shook an endless series of hands, thanked the mourners for coming and accepted their condolences. So many people had stories to tell, wanting to share small tales of how Ben had helped them, how he had made a very real difference in their lives. Throughout the long afternoon Joe heard just how far his father's influence had spread and saw just how many lives had been enriched by his presence. No expensive monument could be more fitting than that.

Clem was one of the last guests to leave the ranch. "He was a good man," he said, taking Joe's hand in both of his own. "Ben Cartwright was one of the finest men I've ever met and I'll miss him."

For the first time since Ben had died, Joe suddenly felt unable to cope as Clem's simple, heartfelt statement seared straight to his soul. It reminded Joe of the sort of thing Hoss would have said, and he missed his brother more than ever.

"Thanks," he mumbled, suddenly close to tears.

Clem pulled Joe close, reaching around his shoulders with one arm. "I'll always remember Ben and what he did around here. He'll live on in many hearts. You must be very proud."

"Yes, I am," Joe answered. Clem nodded, patted Joe's back awkwardly and then strode away, leaving Joe alone, except for his grief. For the first time since Ben died, Joe bowed his head and started to weep, finally allowing all his raw emotions to surface. Candy stood awkwardly by the staircase, not sure what to do, until he suddenly remembered Theresa's words and knew it was time to offer what comfort he could.

Joe was suddenly consumed with the brute realisation that Ben was actually gone, that he would never see his father again and his body shook with the force of his grief. Candy had no difficulty in leading Joe towards the sofa and, as the fire cast long shadows around a room that had known so much joy and so much pain, Joe wept in his friend's arms. Theresa left the room quietly, not wanting to strip either man of his dignity, but she saw the tears standing forth in Candy's blue eyes as he tried to succour his friend and subdue his own sorrow.

Everything had changed. Now the house was empty, now all the noise and hub-bub had vanished and the emptiness and sense of loss was overwhelming. It seemed to rise up, encompassing both men, broken only by the harsh sound of Joe's cries, coming from deep within his chest, searing their way through every inch of his body. He felt totally alone and bereft, out of touch with his past, for there was no-one left to share his most cherished memories with. The blow seemed to ripple though his consciousness as he finally comprehended the depths of his loss. Ben was dead - and he had taken a part of Joe's life with him, one that could never be recaptured.

Perhaps, if things had been different…perhaps if Adam had been there, the brothers might have given each other mutual comfort and solace. But it was so many long years since Adam had left the Ponderosa, sweeping the sandy dust of Nevada from his feet in an effort to find his own destiny. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he had faded from his public consciousness and few people at the funeral had noticed that the eldest of Ben's sons was not there to pay his final respects. Yet now, for the first time in years, Joe felt himself craving his brother's presence. Not because Adam would be able to comfort him: physical contact was something the eldest of Ben Cartwright's three boys shied away from…but just because Adam was his last link with the past. Joe thought of the letters and telegrams he had sent, trying desperately to contact his brother, but all of which had remained unanswered.

At the end, Ben Cartwright had outlived one son, and had died while his youngest boy helped to ease his passage into the next world. His eldest son had tried to forge a new life for himself, far away from a log-built house on the shores of Lake Tahoe, where the waves pounded in a rhythm older than time itself. Adam had gone out alone into a much wider world, forging new ground, just as Hoss and Ben had gone before them all, forging a path and lighting a beacon that would eventually beckon the rest of the family home to the next world.

Now Joe was the only Cartwright left on the Ponderosa, left all alone, in a house which had once rung with laughter, but which now only held empty memories that he could not share with anyone. Only someone who was there can truly appreciate the small tales from long-ago, the precious memories that keep the past and present united and let those who are no longer on earth live again in our hearts. It tore at his heart to think the memories would die too.

Gradually, as the fervour of his grief started to subside, Joe became aware of several things: the faint whisper of the wind, as it blew around the house, the soft ticking of the clock that had punctuated all his memories from infancy onward, the hard, unyielding surface of the sofa, the sweet smoke from the fire…and the fact that he was weeping in Candy's arms.

"I'm sorry," he said, wiping his eyes and trying to pull away.

"No need," Candy said, his voice hoarse with emotion. "All sorts of people paid tribute to your Pa today, but this is most honest thing anyone could do or say. You loved your Pa — and you miss him. There's nothing to be ashamed of…heck, it's even got me crying!" Self-consciously, he dashed away the tears from his own eyes. His own father had been so very different from the concerned, involved and loving parent that Ben Cartwright had personified. To Candy's mind, there was no finer example to follow.

"Ben knew you loved him. And he knew you would be alright — I think that gave him the strength to die. He knew he'd fathered one of the finest men in this country. Don't you let him down now, Joe – you go on and make Ben proud. And let yourself cry for him…hey! I'm crying now, and that ain't something you see everyday!"

"Right at the end, just before he died – he was the old Pa, Candy," Joe confided "He was just like he used to be. For a brief moment, he was my Pa again, instead of an old, frail man. That's the memory I'll keep of him."

Joe tried to smile, to be positive and to go forward, but it was too soon. He could not shake Ben's fear of death out of his mind, the thought haunted him. Until that moment, Joe had never thought of his father being fallible. Somehow he had found the courage to urge Ben to stop fighting, to surrender with honour. He knew it was the right decision, but it was a victory that brought no joy, only sadness.

And Joe wept in his friend's arms. At some point, they would be able to share their memories of Ben, to rejoice in the legacy he had left behind him and to celebrate his life and work. But that would come later. For the moment, the two men gave whatever comfort they could to one another and tried to find the strength to go, just as Ben Cartwright would have done. It was the least that they could do, in remembrance of him.

It was some days before Joe could face the final chore left to him. With a sigh, he sat down at Ben's desk…no, that wasn't right – it was his desk now. Yet another change. One more in a long line of adjustments Joe found himself making every day

Before him two tall piles of letters were neatly stacked on the leather writing surface, many of them with thick, black borders. Automatically, Joe picked up the letter opener, slit the top of the first envelope and started to read.

Words poured out at him, tributes written in so many different hands and with varying degrees of sophistication, each letter telling of its writer's deep affection for Ben Cartwright. Some of the correspondents related amusing anecdotes, other told of countless small acts of generosity, but each reflected a little part of Ben. As he read, Joe began to truly appreciate the fine man Ben Cartwright was and realised that these letters ensured his father would never really be gone.

A faint scent of lavender floated up from the next letter he picked up, and the familiar, elegant Italian handwriting awoke a store of memories. Settling back in the chair, Joe began to read. One paragraph chimed in resonance.

"Birth and death are intertwined, Joe. They are both journeys we must make on our own. Ben was lucky that you gave him the courage to take his last few steps. It was your love that travelled with him. I am sure Ben knew you were with him to the very end, waiting to make sure he completed his journey safely. You were always there for your father and you gave him so much joy and so much love.

I have so many memories of the times we spent together. Above all, whenever I think of the Ponderosa, I remember your laughter and it rings in my heart. Strive to be happy, my dearest Joe. I could not bear to think that I would never hear you laugh again."

There was more, but Joe could not read any further. His mind ran back over the years, to a night when the stars shot cold fire across a dark sky; when life had stretched forth in front of him, full of infinite promise; when he had danced with carefree abandon in the arms of the woman he loved. It had been a long and perfect evening. So much had happened since then, but there was still so much more that lay ahead. He had made a promise to his father and he intended to keep it.

Joe strode to the door and flung it open, walked out into the yard and drank in all the beauty that surrounded him, immutable and wonderful. There was a whole world just waiting for him. Who could tell what would happen next? He breathed in the fresh, pure air and stood quite still, letting the scene sooth his turmoil.

After a few moments, Joe went back inside, pulled out a fresh sheet of writing paper and selected a new nib for his pen.

"Dearest Allie…"

As the words flowed onto the paper, Joe began to realise that life might still hold some joys, that there was still a world of possibilities just waiting to be discovered and that perhaps happiness was nearer than he thought. Winding up his mother's musical box, he listened to the familiar tune and, for the first time in months, Joe felt his soul soar free.

In the evening, as Joe sat sipping a glass of brandy, he remembered all the good times and the past and the present started to weave back together into a seamless whole. The pattern of his life had changed, but Joe knew that everything would be alright.

Leaning back into the soft red leather chair, Joe put his feet on the table and then gave a guilty start. Old habits died hard, it seemed! There were so many small, almost inconsequential reminders of his father all around him, and they were a comfort. They reminded Joe that Ben would never really be gone, not as long as he could remember the man who had given him so very much, not least the courage to go with life and to hope that the future would be golden once again, as golden and as precious as the memories Joe held within him.

"Here's to you Pa!" Joe whispered, and raised his glass high. The time for mourning was still fresh, but now Joe could see that there would also be a time for laughter once again on the Ponderosa, a time to build new memories, perhaps even a time to dance in a moonlit meadow once again. He was certain of that. After all, there was a time to every purpose under the heaven.