The daffodils slump, their orange centers bend away. She rights one, but it falls again as she lets it go. Then she leans down closer to the red tulips, taking in the deep burgundy stamen. She would need her glasses to see how velvety the stamen are, but she knows this already. The oak dropped late, leaving no time for clean-up before the snow came. Finches and robins call out steady songs as she pulls away from the plants’ bases the weeping brown leaves that stain her hands. Little rocks have jutted up through the soil everywhere, and the peat moss’s been washed away with gushes of rain. The rose bushes need to be trimmed back, but she won’t take up the pruners. She won’t pull a weed. She’ll let it all grow today.
Her son didn’t want to help clean up the garden. He wanted to go to his bedroom and wait for the call.
Her husband arrives home, carrying his lunch pail and sweatshirt. “Turned into a nice day, hotter than they said, huh?” he says, then taps her shoulder. She turns and smiles. Let him have this welcome home without getting into everything. He takes off his hat and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. “I’ll change and be right out.” She nods and pulls more leaves away. “You want me to cut that sod back?” he asks.
She looks at the other garden, how the grass and clover have grown into the mulch, well past the edging. “No. Not today.”
“You okay?” he says, lifting his chin, smiling. Same chin he’s passed down to their son. Their eyebrows don’t match, though, and she sees the deep furrow in between his from squinting all day, every day, as he works in the dirt.
“Yeah. I’m good,” she says turning back to the flowers.
He walks to the porch. She hears him kick off his boots, the dog’s nails clicking on the floor.
She’s forgotten to feed the dog. She’s been in the garden since they returned from the doctor’s office, where she hunkered down beside her son and held his sweaty hand while the tech drew his blood. She’d called as soon as she saw the tiny broken capillaries on the tops of her son’s feet.
He asked in the car on the way back home, “Do you think I have it, Mom?”
“Leukemia,” he said, holding up his phone, the screen blue with the bold writing of some medical site.
“No. I don’t.”
But now she sees tiny dots on the leaves of her azaleas. A fungal infection or something more? Lace bugs? She can’t bear to go to the shed and find the neem or jojoba oils, to figure this out right now. Still, she pulls her glasses from her pocket and inspects the dots. Those black fruiting bodies make her throat hurt.
“Are they tiny brownish-purple dots?” the nurse said just hours ago on the phone.
“Yes,” she said as she stared at her son’s feet, as he stood there texting his girlfriend.
“Petechiae. It’s probably nothing but bring him in,” the nurse said.
And then, in the pediatrician’s office, her son’s body was too long for the table. Sixteen and a half. Seventy-two and a half inches tall. The PA stared at those dots, too. Then she ordered bloodwork. STAT.
“We’ll call you soon with the results, okay?” she said, then patted his shoulder. “You can sit up, bud.”
Her husband comes around the side of the house with the shovel. He’s going to edge anyhow. He doesn’t know anything yet. When she hears that shovel knife down through the sod, she stops him.
He nods as she speaks. His face shows nothing, a blank garden. He blinks, finally. He sets the shovel down. Goes inside to their son.
She places the sod back where it had been cut from the earth, pounds it into the ground again with her fist.
Photo by David Olimpio
Beautiful and poignant story, Jolene. Love the juxtaposition of the unfettered garden and the family emergency and how well you convey emotion without melodrama. That last line is killer.
Thanks so much Jan.
Well done, Jolene. Enjoyed this story.
Thank you Robert.