It was better before.
I’m not as regular as the sunrise, but I visit and on good days, I take you for a walk. Walks aren’t what they used to be. Wheels are involved. Walks were better before.
I lift you from the hospital bed where you’re spending your last days on this planet, we dance into the chair on wheels. I use the toddler tricks you taught me to slip your lime green jacket through your arms, raise up, and whoosh, over your head. Hat on your head, blanket on your lap, we roll.
First stop, the greenhouse.
The greenhouse was better before.
Tidier, more alive with seedlings or 20-foot tomato vines.
You point and reach towards the dusty ruins as I water the single tray of flower seedlings I’m struggling to keep alive.
I was better at this before, but this is the best I can do for now.
The garden was better before.
Watch your toes as I turn you out of the greenhouse, back through the sad sad garden of weeds. Every enemy weed thrives now on garden rows that were once neatly lined in newspaper, giddy with vegetables on vines and in bushes, too many!, you shared more than you used. I don’t look at the rows of enemy soldiers as we roll along the bumps and clumps of clover towards the gate.
Then, down the driveway. If I let go, your chair might take you all the way to highway 60.
Where would you go if you could?
But I hold on, like I used to when we walked last year, to guide you along the way, first by the daffodils, almost spent now, but my! weren’t they wonderful this year?
The flower beds were better before.
So far the daffodils have survived the neglect that comes with your disease, but troops of guerilla weeds tunnel and cluster around their bulbs. We’ll need to intervene soon. I hope we can make it better before it’s too late.
I hear you sigh happy when you spy the azaleas. This is their week! Bright reminders dancing on the tips of the branches. Spring. Insouciant as the armies of weeds assail.
Your touch lives on in these beds, despite the territorial wars, despite your recent setbacks.
Words were better before.
We wheel down the driveway, passing the pasture and pond on the right, Zeke’s on the left, and you jabber on cue. Every time. “… work… and they… it was… work…” and other syllables related to the remodel of this old house, the last remodel you helped with, the first remodel where we knew the decline was too severe to cut you loose with a brush and a bucket of paint. But you helped. And the house is so much better than before.
I remind you, “You helped with that house!”
“Not just me!” you respond, but not every time because your words don’t always come.
You miss those days, don’t you? Back when you were better. Back when we counted on you to pitch in, show up, do all the things, better than we could, better than hired help. Me too. You pitched in to paint, wire, hang, and gofer-this-gofer-that all while you tidied the garden rows, canned the vegetables, tended the home fires, and fought off the legions of weeds everywhere. We didn’t even know they were legions until you dropped your swords.
Can we get back to better like before?
I won’t be honest with you just now because I don’t want you to worry the way I worry, but if I were honest, I’d tell you that I don’t know how we can get back to better like before without you.
I wish I could put on all your hats and make things better now, like before. I’d like to prove to you that I’ll do it, I’ll till and plant the garden and say, “Look, mom! Look what I did!” But, good grief!, this is a slow-burn grief. Now’s not the right time. Even though I’d love to parade you through a well-kept bed of flowers, it’s more than I can manage just now. Even mowing the yards with the thought of you on my shoulder nearly breaks me.
But I promise I will. I will close my eyes to remember the things, figure out the things, channel your energies and skills, and pick up the tools to make things better like before. Because I miss the way it was before. I miss you, all the you I saw and knew but also that invisible you that did all the things we didn’t notice until now.
I won’t say these things to you now, because you deserve to rest. Truly, you do. You deserve the satisfaction of knowing your daffodils burst into sunshine every late winter, your azaleas explode insane neon, your gladiolas, loyal soldiers, stand at attention come spring.
You become quiet as we return up the driveway. I show you the flowers I planted on your entrance. I wheel you close enough to reach the lower pots, and you yank at the dead foliage. You reach for weeds along the driveway.
Smaller than before
Back in the house, I wheel you towards your hospital bed. Your world has become smaller but still, you say, “No wait!” You want to touch it again.
Sometimes I wheel you through the rooms to see this is the Spanish room, and over here, push the door open, this is Papa’s room, cross the hall again, and the waterbed room that no longer has a waterbed. You miss your house, sitting in one room most of the day, so I take you to the rooms.
Our walks were better before.
I have to get back to work. I leave you in your bed and take the walk back to my house, the walk we took together until this January, past the beds where the platoons of weeds have set up camp, along the fence row invaded by unwelcome volunteers, and down to my house along the path you used to mow. Our walks together were better before, even when I had to hold your arm to guide you through the field, even though the weeds were already crowding the beautiful things.
We need the bright joy of the daffodils and azaleas just now, but maybe we need the weeds too, reminders that you were —still are!— a warrior, that year after year, you defeated them, one woman against all the brigades, against every platoon and battalion of weeds. Weeds remind me that you are no longer with us, not in the same way. We’re invaded by thousands, millions maybe, of reminders that march through our hearts as we ride out the last of this journey with you.
I’ll still take the walks with you, even though they were better before, because every once in a second, I get a glimpse of the invisible warrior that I miss and love. And they say a walk is good for the soul.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2022