This story is by Sandy Richards and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Wake up, baby boy,” she whispers as her index finger traces my stubbled jawline. Three gentle taps on my sleep swollen lips are her cue for a good morning kiss. Twenty-eight days older, she jumps at the chance to remind me that she robbed the cradle. I want to stay in this warm, peaceful place forever; but the day’s work is calling.
I observe my wife Nora as she tends to the first of her three treasured gardens. Like clockwork, she retreats to her garden on September 21st, the day before the Fall Equinox, to ready her small plot of land for the arrival of autumn. Sneaking a glance through the kitchen curtains, I watch as her graceful hands, tug at the weeds and dying summer flowers.
Sitting Indian style, she plucks the tangled begonias, snapdragons, and impatiens from the cool soil with an odd sense of kindness and empathy. Nora treats each flower as her personal favorite. In their place, she plants the rust hued mums that are rivaled only by the auburn sheen of her hair. Her hair. I adore the smell of her freshly washed curls that offer my senses the subtle intensity of lilac and mint from her homemade shampoo.
The swaying tendrils of the willow tree towering over her garden, remind me of our wedding day. The immense tree occupying the backyard of her grandparent’s home was exploding with leaves of blazing reds and golds which served as the backdrop for the greatest day of my life. Waiting patiently in the approaching dusk under the magnificent tree, I rocked back and forth; my gaze centered down the aisle searching for my bride. As three tuxedoed musicians began playing the first notes of Unchained Melody, the tree became awash with sparkling lights. I marveled at the beautiful woman who floated toward me in a cloud of ivory tulle and pearls. We exchanged our vows and Nora said, “I love you baby boy, forever…and a day.” Tears of love flowed down our faces as we kissed, sensuously and connected.
Focusing on my woman, I watch as Nora picks up her tools and moves to her second garden. Crouching low, she sweeps the crunchy, dried leaves toward her waiting compost bag. The stony landscape is overflowing with rocks the size of a hen’s egg to that of a small cantaloupe. Some of the rocks are as smooth as a china plate while others are rugged as corduroy or seemingly chipped and scarred by a coal miner’s pick.
She moves around the rock garden with the precision of a ballerina. I hold my breath as the breeze caresses her blouse, outlining a figure most women would die for. Rays of sunshine bathe her in an ethereal light compelling me to blink and rub my eyes. Moving to the screen door to get a better look, the vision of her reminds me that this woman is my best friend, my wife, my soulmate.
Amid the rock garden, lies a small pond stocked with plump, lively koi. The fish are drawn to her, like every living being that crosses her path. The koi break the stillness of the pond surface. Their mouths open and close as a baby bird waiting for a morsel from its mother. Nora reaches into the pocket of her apron and pulls out a baggie of dried silkworms. Shaking the bag like a maraca, she smiles as the koi bump, splash and push their vacuum-like mouths toward her outstretched hand. I can hear her throaty giggle as the fish jockey for position to receive their special treat.
Her giggle brings back fond memories of our first date. By my account, it was love at first sight. Clumsy and awkward, I stumbled over my feet and words; struck dumb for what seemed like an eternity. I became lost in her luminous green eyes. She’d giggle, I’d blush. She’d toss her hair, and I’d stutter something inane like, “This is so much fun.” I was mortified by my choice of words, but she giggled. Over coffee, I settled down as the wavering steam from the oversized cup and her soothing voice lulled me into her world. With each dinner date, movie and eventual kiss, I learned that her giggle came when she was happiest.
Nestling into my rocking chair on our back porch, I watch as Nora gathers her gear and strides to her third garden. A weathered trellis is heavy with honeysuckle and surrounded by hostas whose leaves are curling and brown. Through the floral archway, I see our son’s overturned tricycle leaning against his rusty swing set. I can almost hear Nora’s giggle when she’d push Ryan on the swings. He’d beg her to push him higher pleading, “More mama, more!” His giggle…a child’s version of hers.
Positioned in front of the trellis is a large, lopsided triangular headstone. The face of the rock, smooth as glass, has rough-hewn sides the width of a lumberjack’s hand. Nora rinses the monument with water as the afternoon sun peeks through the honeysuckle vines. Winking flashes of sunlight fall on the surface of the wet marble.
Kneeling in the grass, Nora takes a chamois from her gardening pouch. She cleans away bird droppings and crispy remnants of insects and dried honeysuckle blossoms from the face and sides of the stone. Using a small sable brush, she clears away the remnants of dirt washed by a summer rain into the white etched letters of our son’s name: Ryan James Thornton – June 4, 1997 to September 21, 2003. Her movements keep time with the crick-creak song of my rocker on the old plank porch. Her hands, velvety smooth, are full of strength yet softened with grace. Those hands should be wiping a runny nose or turning the pages of a bedtime storybook. Those hands are tender and loving. Those hands…they take me to places of undeniable heights.
My mind reaches back to the occasions after dinner when Nora would come behind me and massage my tense neck and shoulders. She tried her best to rub out the steel cords and knots in my upper body; leftovers from a hard day at work. Cat-like, she would slip around to face me and straddle my lap; hypnotizing me with her gaze. In one synchronized move, my t-shirt would be over my head and flung to the floor. She’d tease me with kisses then wriggle off my lap. Moving behind me, Nora would return to work on the tense muscles of my back. Pushing my shoulders forward, Nora would cross my arms and place them onto the kitchen table, making a perfect place to rest my head. I’d doze as she massaged my back with a riotous combination of peppermint and lemongrass oils; a delirious aroma akin to an explosion of Merry Christmas and a warm summer day.
I see the tears streaming down Nora’s face and I instinctively know that she is recalling when six-year-old Ryan went missing. That’s when I splintered and dissolved myself in bourbon. Nora carried the weight and was our strength, my rock. Days later, finding Ryan’s tiny body by the creek curled like a napping kitten, only served to push me further into oblivion. Nora found courage while I floundered. We began that fall season under the shroud of a new normal life; belonging to a club that no one chooses to join. We learned that in death as in life, everyone makes choices. You can choose to languish in despair and make friends with your grief. Or, you can choose to hope, smile, and remember what is truly important: the lives of those we love, and to honor them in our living.
Nora and I have weathered many autumns, trudged over rocky ground, and felt the sun on our upturned faces. Losing Ryan tested our bond, but love prevailed. I look forward to the day I regain my footing to walk through the gardens with my love. Nora places a kiss on the lips of the face etched in stone and whispers, “Good night, my little baby boy. Mama will love you…forever, and a day.”