The impact a person has on your life isn’t really felt until they are gone. Some people simply leave of their own accord, some are by your own choice and some are taken by death. The hardest of those losses is a tossup between death and those that walk away; the heart hurts but it hurts in different ways.
While the person that made the choice to leave still lingers in the world; there is hope until the day that you know that hope isn’t what you need. Hope doesn’t keep you warm at night nor does it hold you when the world it too big, too loud and too ugly. Hope doesn’t reassure you that everything will be okay with a hearty meal and good night’s sleep; hope doesn’t allow the heart to heal.
Death, while permanent at least gives you some sense of closure. While it is sad, it’s dark and painful; the memories that you carry are there to sustain you. The moral, values and legacy of the dearly departed are what gets you through. You make a conscious choice to painfully mourn the rest of your days or carry on and allow the legacy to live through you.
Tony knew the pain of being left behind by death, the choice and by making the choice. He felt the anger, the betrayal and frustration; he knew the hurt. For months after Ziva left, Tony was angry and hurt. He went through all the emotions of mourning the loss of someone that wasn’t dead physically but emotionally they were a corpse.
He had loved and lost and loved again. There was pain and frustration and the bad memories were now settling in to show him that what he thought was a thing of beauty had slowly drained him of everything that he believed in. That longing had made the man that wanted to be the best agent, the best friend, the best surrogate son a disappointment in his own eyes. In the eyes of those that he let down; that suffered the effects of the love and the loss; he was someone that had become unreachable.
It took a very wise man to point out the faults in the love that Tony felt for Ziva. A wise man to open his eyes to those around him and how much he was allowing to pass him by because he refused to let go. It was a very wise man that reminded him of those things that he held close to heart many years ago; those things that were still there but slipping away because of choices made by the blind eye of ill-fated love.
That wise man died and left behind a world of pain; broken hearts and so many tears that Tony felt as if he were drowning. Pain radiated from his heart to his stomach and back; it rebounded and returned just like a boomerang. In private he mourned hard, in public he was stoic and supportive. He needed to be there for Gibbs as he mourned the loss of his father.
That was almost a year ago and though the pain has faded, the memories never will. Ten days before Jackson’s birthday the reminder on Tony’s phone sounded alerting him to the event. His heart skipped a beat as he allowed the fresh pain of loss to settle over him. For ten days, he was the person that Jack had reminded him of. He was the strong, surrogate son that looked after Gibbs from afar.
For ten days, he made sure the older man had at least one meal a day that didn’t consist of just coffee. For ten days he would drive past the house hoping to just once not find the basement light on at 3 am.
For ten days, he cleaned up bottles of Jack Daniels, guided a very drunk and disoriented Gibbs to the sofa and tucked him in. For ten days, he made sure there was food in the cabinets, leftovers in the fridge and an open invitation for company anytime the older man needed it. For ten days, he was the dutiful son.
Tonight as Tony drove by, the basement light was off and Gibbs sat on the porch with a gift in his hand and his overnight bag at his feet. Pulling into the driveway, Tony approached with great care and caution; he was a bit unnerved by the scene before him.
“You’re late,” Gibbs whispered softly. “You’re usually here before now.”
“I didn’t think you remembered,” Tony said with great sadness as he sat on the porch swing with his friend. “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for you,” Gibbs shrugged as he looked down at the box in his hand. “It’s his birthday today.”
“I know,” Tony’s eyes filled with tears; his heart aching to have Jack back even if it was just to give him a proper good-bye.
“You didn’t get to say good-bye.” Gibbs eyes filled with tears as he looked at his surrogate son; his friend. “I should have let you say good-bye.”
“It’s okay,” Tony’s watery smile proved that it was anything but.
“Your go bag in the car?” Gibbs questioned.
“Yes,” Tony nodded. “It always is packed and ready; you know that.”
“Then let’s go,” standing Gibbs started towards the car pausing only long enough to allow Tony to catch up.
“Where are we going?” Tony’s confusion brought a sad smile to Gibbs’ face.
“To say good-bye.” Gibbs sighed deeply as he put his bag in the trunk and climbed in the passenger side. He wasn’t sure what made him feed the great need to return to Stillwater with Tony but the need was there and it wasn’t something he could push away.
The drive was almost silent; Tony’s mind thinking of all the phone calls, visits and video chats he had with Jackson over the years. He smiled as he thought about the first time he Skyped the with the elder Gibbs.
“The first time I had a video chat with your dad,” Tony snickered. “He had the computer on waiting for me to log in; he was running around in his underwear trying to catch the neighbor’s cat that had decided she wanted to visit. When he realized that I was there, he told me that I should have knocked.”
Laughing, Gibbs looked out the window smiling at the image of his father chasing Mrs. Whiteman’s prized Persian, Houdini. “You know the last time he came to visit me; he said to me ‘Son, what on earth ever possessed you to start building boats in your basement and how in the world do you get them out?”
“Did you tell him?” Tony snickered.
“I showed him,” Gibbs laughed. “The look on his face.”
“Did you eat when you got home?” Tony’s concern grew when he stopped at a traffic light and turned to really look at his friend. The older man was pale and a bit shaky and he shivered slightly in the coolness of the night.
“Wasn’t hungry,” Gibbs answered softly.
“Why don’t we get something to eat and some sleep?” Tony pulled his car into a bed and breakfast before Gibbs could answer. Making his way inside, Tony talked quietly with the owner as she got him registered.
“I’ll bring you something to eat,” Jeanne smiled. “I only have a room with a king size bed and a private bath left.”
“We’ll take it,” Tony handed over his credit card. “I want to keep an eye on him anyway; something feels off.”
“Do you want a doctor?” Jeanne turned so she could watch Gibbs for a moment as he wandered around the outdoors looking up at the stars. “He looks exhausted.”
“We’ll take the room and the food; I’ll let you know on the doctor. I think a good meal and some sleep will fix him up a bit.” Tony smiled.
Jeanne handed over the key to the room smiling when Tony gave her a look. “We don’t have fancy card keys here, I am afraid.”
“This is perfect,” Tony winked as he took the key and fetched his boss. A good meal, a hot shower and some gentle clucking and TLC from Jeanne had Gibbs looking a bit better by the time Tony suggested they get some sleep.
Hospitality and compassion seemed to go along way bringing Tony’s mind back to the logistics of his relationship with Ziva; what it was lacking. After almost two years of searching for answers, the truth was staring him in the face by way of compassion from a stranger.
“Boys,” Jeanne handed them a brown paper bag for the road. “Go do your business and then come back here for another night. You both need some TLC and sleep. Jack wouldn’t want you doing this to yourselves; he would be touched but hopping mad.”
“You knew Jackson?” Tony was astonished. “How did you know that we were heading there?”
“I knew Jackson, loved the man dearly. He would come down twice a year for some R&R and my homemade jam. I would recognize Leroy Jethro Gibbs anywhere; I certainly have heard my fair share of stories and seen a lot of pictures especially in the last six years of his life. He was mighty proud of his boy.”
“Thank you,” Tony nodded as he tipped Jeanne. “We’ll be back later.”
The ride to Stillwater was silent; Gibbs lost in the words of a stranger. Simple words with a grand gesture; he never felt more love in his life time than he did at that moment. Standing at the grave of his father with Tony by his side, the two men placed gifts upon the headstone both wiping a stray tear.
“Good-bye, Jack.” Tony smiled brightly. “Thank you for the sweater.”
“Good-bye, dad.” Gibbs paused to draw a deep breath. “I was proud of you too.”
“Ready?” Tony questioned quietly after several minutes of silence.
“Thank you, Tony.” Gibbs squeezed his younger friend’s shoulder. “You buried your pain to be there for me. That would have made dad proud; it made me proud.”
“Let’s just say that your dad helped me get my head out of my ass,” Tony smiled. “More than once.”
“Glad he did,” Gibbs paused to salute his father’s grave. “Semper fi.”
“Semper fi,” Tony smiled in a soft echo as he heart settled on the knowledge that true love comes from faithfulness, faith in the love that is there and the belief that through that love anything is possible. As they walked towards the car, Tony remembered the words of the wisest man he ever knew. “True love allows you to authenticate yourself; it doesn’t ask you to change your morals and values to conform.. it conforms to your morals and values.”
For ten days Tony honored the man that he regarded as a personal friend; for ten days he took care of what Jackson held precious. For ten minutes, he reflected on the life and the words of the man and was changed forever.