Stooping down, he studied his gnarled hand as it reached out to pluck a bloom. The once strong hand, now knotted and discolored with age, wrapped around the slender green stem of the bleeding heart. He brought it toward his face, considering it’s unwavering beauty. Year after year, the bleeding hearts never changed, faded during the winter months only to rise again with the spring’s warmth. Why couldn’t all life lived be that way, he thought.
He tucked it among the others he held and struggled to straighten his aged back. Rubbing his free hand along his spine, he trudged up the garden path, stopping when he reached the stone bench they had placed there many years before.
He dropped to the seat with a sigh, a smile engulfing his wrinkled face. He remembered that day so well. The fall of the sun upon her black hair, her face lit with the joy of her beautiful garden. His mind drifted further, to their wedding day. The moment he saw her start down the church aisle on her daddy’s arm, her white gown floating around her like the fluff on the head of a dandelion, the twinkle in her dark brown eyes from tears of joy when he raised her frothy veil. His tongue slipped out to dampen his lips as he felt that first kiss as man and wife once more. His chest had swelled with emotion he couldn’t quite explain: love, joy, fear and pride mingled there. He remembered the hopes he’d had for them then. He only prayed he had lived up to hers during their time together.
Leaving his seat in the sunny garden, he continued his trek toward the home they had shared for the last fifty-seven years. His hand clutching the bouquet he’d picked for his love, he plodded past the tire swing in the old oak tree. A smile played upon his lips, just as their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren had played upon the swing. He imagined he could still hear their laughter as they tried to get that old Goodyear to touch the sky. Her laughter echoed with theirs, mixing and mingling to taunt. Those days were gone, the rope frayed with age and abandon.
He scuffled on to the patio, past the grill, the cover cracked and peeling with neglect. She had cooked many a meal out here on hot summer evenings as fireflies had flickered about in the yard. On through the sliding glass door, streaked with fingerprints — she had always kept it so clean he couldn’t tell if it was open or closed. His feet shuffled over the ceramic tiles she had convinced him to get for their kitchen. His footsteps echoed on the hardwood of the hallway as he continued his journey. He peered into the darkened living room, parlor as she’d like to call it. Dust coated surfaces and the odor of disuse set his nose quivering. Fighting back a sneeze, he imagined he could still smell the lemon polish she used on the furniture, see the flowers she would place throughout the room for color. No color remained save the scattering of throw pillows she’d collected through the years. Tears pricked his eyes as he grasped the stair railing.
His gait faltered, slowing measurably with each inch toward his destination. The blooms in his grip bounced their heads with each tread of his feet. But despite their beauty and cheer, no joy could penetrate the darkness descending upon him as he climbed toward her. His love for her still burned deep inside, could not, would not waver on these final days but the agony of loss was already upon him. Suffocating him with it’s black ugliness. Fighting to keep his breathing even, his tears from falling onto his creased cheeks, he reached the door to their room. What had once been their sanctuary, their haven, had now become her crypt. No, not yet, he thought, but soon. He could hear the breath rattling through her lungs before he could see her laying in their king-sized bed. The oxygen mask covering her precious face did little to ease the strain of her breathing. His gaze misted as he saw the strands of white hair strewn across the pillow, the ravages of disease had thinned her once crowning glory. Those dear eyes he so loved were closed, the thin lids almost transparent. He cleared his throat as much to wake her as to clear the clutch of threatening tears. His heart ached at the sight of her, wasting away in the bed where they had held and loved each other all these years. But he could not let them move her to the hospital, not after the promise she’d wrung from him. If I am to die, I want it to be in my own bed. In our bed in our home. She’d said as she held his tear-streaked face between her then strong hands. He never realized just how hard it would be to keep a promise. Her head turned slightly, whether in sleep or wakefulness, he could not tell. Moving closer to the bed, he held out the drooping flowers he’d crushed on his journey.
“Maude, I’ve brought you some flowers,” he whispered.
Her brown eyes, spotted now with cataracts and glazed with pain opened to him. He could still see the love gathered in the depths of them as she struggled to raise her arm to accept his gift. He gently wrapped his hands around hers. Staring at their entwined fingers, he remembered.