Your mom’s garden is incredible, old buddy. It’s really thriving this year. The corn is taller than her–although that’s not saying much. She and your pops clipped the hedges around the perimeter of the yard, and you can see out into the valley. Fall is coming. I woke up this morning and the ground was crispy with a thin sheen of white. Sounds are louder on a morning like that. Time sharpens too, I guess; as we notice the passing from one season to another, the perpetual death of everything becomes obvious. Oranges and yellows and reds paint the jagged horizon for a moment before meandering to earth, forming a patchwork quilt of decay. Fall reminds me of you. Everything reminds me of you. The strange combination of freshly chopped grass and winter’s warning, accented by a pastel sunset. My breath catches in my chest as I notice the starkness of yesterday summer/today…something else. We harvested everything today Riley. Just me and your mom digging in the dirt. We talked some–mostly about you. I expect you heard. And I expect you heard us cry, too.
I don’t know how she does it, but her peppers are fucking amazing. I’ve never seen jalapeños in Montana except at your house. As we talked and dripped and sighed and gurgled and hugged, we alternated nibbles of peppers and carrots and onions–the onions offering a scape goat for the rivers escaping my eyes.
Because I’m a “man”, because it’s been “a while,” I need those excuses to shed my saltwater. But your mom doesn’t, Riley, because she’s strong. Stronger than me. She dares to feel you while knowing that she will never again hug you or look into your shining green eyes or have to hide her weed or sit on the porch and watch you bounce on the trampoline. She needs no explanations. And she can’t have any. She won’t hide from the truth. She can’t run away, like I can.
Of all the produce in your backyard, the raspberries are the best. Each bush a thriving organism, framed by green mesh to keep the birds out. Your mom and I unpeel it slowly, carefully. The raspberries are sacred. She hands me a bucket and we disappear into the thicket. Every pluck a memory; each bursting bite–a laugh, the occasional thorn–an argument. Red juice coats my fingers, reminding me of the blood I would shed to have you back. Sometime, when you’re not busy, can you whisper to me what it’s like where you are? I’d really like to hear about it.
“He’s here all the time, Kris.” Your mom says. “Have you seen him?”
I stop to consider. I think I have. I want to be so sure, like her. She talks to you everyday, you know. Of course you know.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ve seen him.” I say. It’s a half truth. Once, sitting on Kayla’s roof, watching the sunset, we saw a cloud that looked like Luka, and we took it as a symbol of you. But I think Luka counts. Wouldn’t you say? He was with you all the way. And he’s still around Riley. He’s a good dog. Your dad walks him everyday. Or Luka walks your dad, pulling him along the trails of our lives, of your neighborhood, of the early mornings and late nights and first inhales and last exhales and fungus that coats the forest floor.
“Yeah, I have seen him some. But I can feel him, if I really try.”
“Do you try everyday?”
I want to say yes, Riley. I want to tell her that my heart is as heavy as hers, that we talk everyday. But we don’t. And it is, but it’s not. I can’t go there everyday. Or I don’t think I can, at least. I’m sorry. Amidst the calls of “move on, move on, move on,” You get lost. Like we’ve been lost so many times before, in the woods, high on the mountains, traversing some avalanche path that we shouldn’t consider skiing.
My bucket is full now, overflowing with red furry fruit. I feel–I feel! I feel more than I deserve. This is truth, this is a heart wide open, and I have you to to thank. Can you teach me how to keep it this way Riley? Can you infuse each raspberry pancake with the permanence that evaded you and which flees from my attempts to prop open the gaping vortex in my chest? I’d settle for a simple hello.
We walk back to the house, your mom and I, and we don’t say much. The sun has set now, day-to-night. Your dad made cookies and they are fresh and soft and chocolaty, waiting just inside the sliding glass door.
“Riley always made them better.” He says.
“I remember.” I say. “But that might be because we were always so high.”
The joke works and we laugh, remembering your love for the greenest things. And then we settle into eating. I look around the living room as the fire pops in the corner and the TV plays reruns of football games. Your face is everywhere–that stoic smile which fooled some but not me. I know how much glee you held behind the bashful exterior and soft voice. The walls hold the evidence of your epochs and bare the weight of your absence and me and your dad and your mom sit within them, tracing the maze through our crumpled hearts.
How many times did we say goodbye? How much longer will I try and fail to take that excruciating step forward, the one that can never be reversed, that takes everything we ever shared and obliterates it? A better question: Will I live long enough to see the first time machine? If I could rewind to that day, that hour, those crucial minutes, would I stop you? I trust your decision my friend. I learned so much from you in life, and exponentially more in death.
But the learning, Riley, must be transmuted. Action has to replace philosophy. And regret. What is closed will open and my scabby, sunbaked skin will shed to reveal the truth passed from you to me. Outside your windows, from the crackling silence of your cozy living room, a gentle snow begins. It’s early–September–but not unexpected. The trees outside shrink and wither, receding from summer obligations in preparation for the long, dark rest. Life is already hiding, sliding inward, recapitulating from the strain of growth. The snow will come like an anesthetic blanket, covering and numbing. But also cleansing. Washing. Purifying.
Spring is inevitable. But only with a full surrender into winter. The Earth doesn’t stop it’s orbit to consider the merits of a bygone golf-season. The march continues. I swallow the the last bits of cookie and rise from the couch. Your parents get up and we hug. In the morning, I embark. This is goodbye. I promise to keep in touch–email, Skype, all that stuff–but I know, somewhere, it won’t be the same. I must press on, I must learn to laugh again, and I don’t know if they ever will. The wind is whipping now, flurries and swirls cascading on the other side of that thin glass membrane. I take one more look around. Your senior picture (haha the collared shirt you never, ever wore again), the self portrait made of clay, the meticulous lines of your Curious George painting, the solid oak urn sitting in the center of a shelf. I put on my jacket–your old jacket–and zip it up. One last hug. I open the door and feel the arctic sting against my face. No matter. I take a step, and then another, shuffling through the thin layer of white hiding the pavement. I stop. I turn around and face the frenzied howl. Goodbye, pal. Goodbye.