This story is by Crystal Adams and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Today was the day. He thought he’d feel nervous or excited. There was no apprehension nor was he scared like he imagined many were when their time came. Instead, he felt calm. He looked out his bedroom window. Hard rain the night before had left the air crisp and smelling of earth. He wasn’t a superstitious man but he considered the blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds a good omen. Farmers, like him, knew that mother nature could be fickle and rarely trusted, but it appeared she knew exactly what the day needed. Of all the times he pictured today, nothing could have prepared him for the need and the want he felt at this very moment. He smiled to himself. Today was the first day of forever.
He fell in love the first time he saw her. Her hair, red like the sun, captured him. Her heart embraced him. He had spoken to her but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember what he said, probably something foolish. She laughed and the sound rippled along his skin and settled somewhere deep inside him. That’s what she’d done, settled in, made herself at home; made him whole.
Sixty-three years he’d woken up next to her but for the last three days he saw her only in his dreams. He had expected his heart to break. That’s what they said would happen, didn’t they? But there was no shaking of the earth behind his ribs or shuddering of the air around him. No, his heart hadn’t broken, it just simply didn’t know how to beat without her by his side.
He always thought he would be the first to leave this world. The idea he might be left alone had never even crossed his mind. The house was quiet without her whistling while she made breakfast, without her singing while she folded the laundry, without her contagious laugh; the same laugh that moved something inside him also settled in the darkest corners of this house and filled it with joy. The shadows and emptiness left behind in her absence crept over him, hollowed him out and coated him with sadness.
He looked out the window at the tree he had planted with his own hands. When had fall taken its hold? It happened so gradually one didn’t realize summer was over until it was too late. He watched a single yellow leaf flutter precariously on the edge of a branch, knowing its fate, but hanging on for one more moment. Was that him? Thin and frail clinging to a life that had passed by him so quickly. The grief he’d felt over the past three days had taken his strength and whittled it down to a deep longing that ached with every breath. With each beat of his heart he felt himself growing weaker.
He’d been handsome once. Dark hair, and a body that had once been described as tanned and muscular. But the years had taken their toll, left him with loose skin and gray hair. His eyesight started to fade years ago. He accepted it with frustration. The day he came home wearing his first pair of glasses she smiled and kissed him with a sweetness that made his heart melt. Would he look like this, an old man with sagging skin and failing eyesight when he saw her again? Or would the years of hard work fall away, leaving the energetic young man he’d once been? He knew it wouldn’t matter, not to her, but he secretly wished for at least 30 years to melt away.
They honeymooned in Florida among white beaches and palm trees. He built them a house but it was she who added the love and joy and turned it into a home. They turned the soil, planted the seeds and as their love bloomed so did their farm. They worked side by side through sun, rain, and snow. And somewhere over the years, as gradual as the changing season, their hearts merged as one.
He wasn’t alone. The day they brought their firstborn into the world he had watched with frightened awe. Nothing could have prepared him for that instant bond between parent and child. Family always came first. She raised their three children with unending love and morals. And he witnessed the same miracle when his own children brought home their children. Six grandchildren in total they had been blessed with. All of them held a special place in his heart. He never imagined a single person could hold that much love, but he’d done it.
A gust of wind grazed the branches of the tree. Several leaves broke free and drifted to the ground, but the single leaf held on. The array of colors: yellow, green, and orange danced in unfocused light.
Fall had always been her favorite season. The changing colors of the leaves and the coolness after the heat of summer. She loved to sit on the back porch on the swing he built for her and watch the sunset. Even on days when he was busy with harvest she would insist he sit with her at the end of the day. He always did. He never missed a chance to sit quietly with the love of his life and he always felt better for it.
She always seemed to know what was best for him. Like the rare days when he would wake up sick and she would send him back to bed to rest. He would argue and mumble and drink the horrible concoction she pushed on him, her mother’s recipe, that tasted like battery acid and smelled equally bad. But he could admit it worked. By the next morning he would feel fit as a fiddle.
He looked around his small room as if he was seeing it for the first time, and not the last time. They had made a world of memories inside these four walls. Sixty-three years of joy, pain, and love. Everywhere he looked he could see her. The light-coloured walls were bare except for a single picture of them on their wedding day. The colorful candles that sat on top of the simple dresser and scented the air when she lit them in the evening. Her pink robe faded to nearly white, that she had worn every morning since the day he gave it to her eight Christmases before, hung over the back of an armchair in the corner. The armchair itself was the only thing in the entire house that made him cringe; various colors of velvet patchwork had been haphazardly sewn into its back and seat. Over the years she had added more patches while he secretly hoped she would throw it out. How many books had she read while she sat in that chair? If he had the strength now he would sit in it just to feel closer to her.
He counted his blessings every day. He knew what luck was. He might push it now and again but he wasn’t greedy. He worked hard and loved easily. She made it easy. They had their rough patches and conquered them all with love. They danced in the kitchen, cuddled on the sofa in the living room, made wishes on stars in the backyard. They fought in the bedroom, apologized in the driveway, and cried in each others arms.
Where he was strong, she was soft. Where he was stubborn, she was patient. Where he was serious, she smiled easily. Even now he could hear her laugh as it drifted on the breeze through the open window. He shivered, not from the cool touch on his skin, but rather the anticipation. The leaf felt it too, as it vibrated with excitement for the next phase of its life.
He wondered how she would look when he saw her. Would she wear white like he envisioned in his dreams? Would her hair be red like the sun, as it had been the first time they met, or would it be the glorious white it had turned, as if the sun itself had faded it? Would she smell like the jasmine that still lingered on the pillow beside him?
He had no regrets. No unfinished business. He wasn’t sure anyone could ever be ready for this moment but he felt ready. Yes, today was the day. He welcomed it with open arms and a full heart. He watched as the leaf released its grasp on the tree and floated with grace to the ground. With a flutter, his eyes drifted closed. His heart stilled in his chest. His breath released on a quiet sigh. He felt her soft hand in his, as his body slid into peaceful rest and she led him into forever.