A touch, a gentle blow of the wind, and then a release of the flower. Donna stood back, admiring her white roses. And those lilies across her pristine lawn. She loved it all. Her backyard, her sanctuary. When the sun still hung over the mountains in the valley and splashed everything with light, with energy, it looked quite magnificent, quite comforting. Sometimes when she watered the lawn, she held the hose at an angle so a rainbow appeared. Other times she would sit on her bench with just a cigarette and her thoughts. And oh, those thoughts! There were too many in her head, but in her garden, that was something no one had to know.
My roses, she thought. She had some more red ones in a dirt area across the lawn, next to a bank covered in ivy. In time these roses will die; these petals will fall, but they will return. She also had her blooming Indian Hawthorns on the bank as well as her fruit trees, although that did remind her now that spring was here, the fruit trees would need fertilizer. George usually bought the fertilizer, but Donna would not tell him to pick some up next time. This was her garden, after all. No, she would buy the fertilizer herself.
She glanced at her watch. It was getting to be that time. She turned away and headed inside. She must set the table and take out the meatloaf from the oven. Inside, George was on the couch watching the news, flipping through the TV Guide. She shook her head; of course he was. With the meatloaf out and the table almost set (George would finish that, as it wouldn’t kill him to do so) Donna went out the front and walked down the driveway to call for Sue and Mark to come home.
Her feet reached the edge of the driveway and she heard the sound of laughter and bicycles going over curbs. It was time to unleash her unmistakable voice, one of such life, of such power, but one that was also polarizing. It could shake the foundation of her home, or it could make her the life of the party during a night out. But what a voice indeed, especially since it came in such a small package (at least in height; she was getting thicker at the waist every year). A breeze tried to make waves through her increasingly graying hair, but her perm was defiant. So this was Donna.
“Susan! Mark! Dinner! Let’s Go!”
She stood there for a minute, waiting for her kids to say goodnight to the Larson boys at the end of the street. There is nothing like having children to test your patience, even if it is only for a minute, she thought. But I have dinner ready to go, and things need to be done. I have company coming over tomorrow, and I haven’t started vacuuming yet. I was so lazy today. But her garden; one could get wrapped up in what it had to offer: peace, tranquility, escape. Sue and Mark rode up to the driveway.
“I’m starving,” Mark said.
“That’s good,” Donna answered. “Wash up.”
“Can we play a little longer?” Sue asked.
“No, I said wash up.”
Mark looked at Sue with wide eyes and a hurried gesture. “It’s cornbread night. Come on.”
“But the sun is still out. Look.”
Donna grew stern. “Not for long. Now I said wash up. You have homework to finish anyway. Let’s go.”
Sue looked behind her.
“But the sun –
Sue begrudgingly slid off of her seat and walked her bike up the driveway with her brother, her body slumped as she didn’t bother to pick up her feet. Donna had noticed, and was going to reach for Sue if she uttered another word, which she didn’t.
“Finish it, Sue.”
“I forgot the rest.”
Donna pointed to the correct keys on the Wurlitzer piano. The curtains were open this Saturday afternoon, and sun shone through the living room.
“Is it B?” asked Sue, putting her pinky on the key.
“No, the next note.”
A small smile crept upon Donna’s face. “There is no such thing.”
Sue pursed her lips. “So, C then.”
All of Sue’s fingers had finally landed on the right notes of the chord, although she didn’t appear to be having any fun. When Donna had moved to correct Sue’s finger placement, Sue pulled away.
“I want to play ‘Layla.’”
“I don’t know that one,” Donna said.
“It’s a newer one. It’s really good.” Sue was excited, and Donna asked if it was a Beatles song. Sue said she didn’t know.
“Well, I can’t help you there. I can show you some arpeggios.”
Sue made a face. “Ar-what-os?”
“Arpeggios. We’ll outline the chord. Here, let me show you.”
“Ugh.” Sue had grown restless. “Show me that sad song again. Clara-something.”
“Clair de Lune. But you’ll never know how to properly play if you just memorize that one. Now come on.”
“I don’t really want to learn.”
“But you said –” Donna started, the annoyance in her voice creeping.
“Why aren’t you hard on Mark like you are on me?”
“Mark plays guitar. I don’t know guitar,” Donna said. “And I am not hard on you!”
“Okay, sorry.” There were a few seconds of silence before Sue asked if she could go. Donna sighed and rolled her eyes.
“I’m not holding you prisoner. You can do whatever you want.” Her daughter left, and Donna firmly closed the piano.
Sue pounded harder with every step, down the hallway to the guestroom, which of course was once her room. I hate her, I hate her, the footsteps seem to say. She slammed the door. But Donna would not be upstaged; not in her house. She came a minute later and furiously opened the door.
“You will not behave like this!” she bellowed.
“I’m an adult! You can’t tell me not to marry him!”
Donna knew she was right. Sue lived with Brad now. She was nineteen. But support? Was Sue really looking for support from her parents? Donna remembered when Sue told her and George about the engagement. “You can’t fight these things,” Sue had said. “When we met it was … you don’t understand.”
“But we do understand,” her father said. Those were the only words Donna would let George have in the argument, for she was too upset to let anyone take over, even if George was right. They had met when Donna was herself nineteen, George in his early-twenties. When Mark and Sue were younger and the family watched Bob Newhart or played Aggravation, George and Donna would tell stories of when they were first in love.
“When your father came up the driveway every day after work I would get butterflies in my stomach,” Donna would say, and George would nod and smile. He did as well.
Now, in Sue’s old room, Donna felt nothing but embarrassment. Sue sat on the bed, her head down and messy brown hair covering her face.
“You just … don’t know,” Donna said. These feelings for this young man, this … Brad, they will wilt and fall away, like my roses. At least, Donna hoped they would. Maybe it isn’t one’s decisions or feelings that bloom and then fall away; it is the person, the decision-maker, and if so, what job had Donna done in raising this person, her daughter? Mark did not turn out this way.
But how to deal with this? Donna’s mother had died young, therefore unable to help Donna navigate adulthood. This was new ground for everyone involved. She stood before Sue for a little while, in front of the door frame. The silence reminded her of mornings at the breakfast table, when the two sat across from each other. Sometimes Donna would sob and ask why Sue wouldn’t talk to her. Sue kept her head down and ate. Donna’s mind snapped back to the guest room.
“Why can’t you ever just talk to me?” she demaded.
“Because you never learned how to talk to me.”
It was a cold blow. Donna stepped back behind the frame, grabbed the knob, and slammed the door shut.
“She couldn’t even touch me,” Sue said one night. She was out back smoking with Mark. “She just said whatever you need to get through the divorce, I will give you. It’s all about money with her. Always has been.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“How, Mark. How is that not true?”
Mark could not come up with an answer. Neither could Donna. She was eavesdropping in the kitchen by an open window. The light was off but Donna was there. It had been several years since Sue’s wedding to Brad. It ended amid lies and infidelity, like so many young relationships do. Donna had decided to keep her mouth shut about that, but it pained her that Sue was right about not touching her. She had cried at the breakfast table when she told her parents. George and Donna were glad it was over, even if this was the price their daughter had to pay. Donna sat there puffing on a cigarette. There wasn’t any need to shower I-told-you-so’s from her throne (though she certainly felt that way), but again, Sue was right. Donna could not do something as simple as squeeze her shoulder, and she had not thought anything of it, until that moment on a chilly fall night listening to her kids talk outside.
Donna turned to go to bed. She went down the hall and looked inside the guestroom, which had become Sue’s again since the divorce. It was in that room when Sue first moved out where Donna had found papers left behind. They were poems, so many of them; some long, some short, some innocently beautiful and some embarrassingly adolescent. Some were about Mark (My Brother the Saint) and others about George and the passing of his mother (I’m sorry she’s not here with you/But I am dad/Will I do?). Donna had her favorite picked out:
To touch the sun/ Would be so fun/Touch the rays that make me smile/And make things grow/ I’d hug the sun and rock it to and ’fro/Never letting it go.
Those were the days before Sue was anything. Donna loved to read, and often thought of certain passages that fit the mood of her day. What was that line in Mrs. Dalloway? Something about a whip. When the whip of the world had not yet descended. Was that it? We should all be so thankful to enjoy a childhood of happy thoughts, of happy times, to not let anything disrupt our contentment, Donna thought. We should all hope that whip will stay away forever. Of course, it doesn’t, and yet, at least there were times for Sue when her perspective was so limited; she had only wanted to touch the sun. That’s childhood for you, Donna thought. Until the world opens up, and well, the whip … it descends on us all in time. Donna had decided to keep the poems in a manila folder in one of her bedroom drawers. She made her way to bed and turned off the light. And they say I have no sentimentality, she thought.
Donna woke up on a bleary February morning, and after a few minutes of assessing her situation, she grabbed her cellphone.
“I don’t feel well,” she told Sue. ‘I just don’t understand.
“Do you want me to come and maybe go to the hospital with you?”
Donna paused. She didn’t ever want to be a burden. She would often preface a request with, “I hate to be a pain in the ass, but …” She thought of the week before, when her left side went temporarily numb. This was not sitting well with her.
“Yes. Yes, I think you should come.”
“Okay mom, I’m on my way.”
Donna sat up with her legs over the side of the bed. Her thin, white hair was matted in the back to her skull. Her cheeks were a dark shade of red. She looked old. That’s how she felt and that’s what Sue had said to her last week when she was bed-ridden. What a hellish week. Was it the flu? She had never felt like this before, where she couldn’t muster enough strength to shower. Her legs were so weak her walker allowed her to make it to the bathroom several feet away, and that was it. No journeys to the kitchen; Sue had to come and bring her soup and crackers in bed. Mark called in once or twice, but he was living now out of the city. Sue was closer, Mark told his mother, she can handle you. And now Sue was on her way, and if Donna was honest with herself, she was afraid; she was actually afraid. The tingling sensation had started again this morning. In her hands first, then her toes.
Sue came and helped Donna dress, and together they managed to get out the back door and down the steps to the garage. They would take Donna’s car.
“If George were still here, he’d have a fit taking care of me,” Donna said, forcing a laugh.
As Sue pulled out of the garage, Donna looked out the window to her garden. Spring was a month away. She must write down fertilizer on her list.
On the way to the hospital, they talked. Gone were the days of silence. Time has a way of smoothing over rough spots, and they were both thankful for that. So this is what had blossomed. Still, waves of fear were building inside Donna, and she had to keep those at bay. She was strong, and if her heart beat faster on this car ride than most any other she could remember, then so be it, but damned if Sue was going to know, so they continued their conversation. Donna said her hardwood floors needed a good sanding. Sue asked if she needed anymore help around the house.
“My maid does enough,” she said, “and I can still get by.”
Sue smirked. “Yeah, looks like it.”
They sat in the waiting room, Donna with her purse in her lap. Sue was to the right, flipping through a magazine with one eye on the pages, the other on her mother.
“These places take too long,” Sue said.
“Oh I know it,” Donna replied. “But they’ll call us eventually.”
She took a deep breath. She was old, yes, but she was not ready for this. She was not ready for Sue to discover the poems she had kept, for her to smile and think when she wrote some of those lines how silly they were, but how wonderful it was they never went away. And she was not ready for Sue to come upon a hardcover book titled “A Mother’s Journal,” to openly weep in the night with a single light on next to her mother’s dresser when she read Donna’s words:
You are an absolute joy to be around. I much prefer your company to those of adults. I think we can have a lot of fun traveling when you get older, and I love to watch you grow and change. I wish you all the good things in life.
Then the blood clot that had been building inside of Donna burst, and the levees broke and the waves of fear rushed out. Oxygen was being blocked; paralysis was taking over. The left side of her face drooped and she could not speak. Sue did not yet see all of this because she was now watching the TV on the wall. Donna had done all she could. She had provided a home for Sue. She had paid for her braces and her first car, and she had kept her poems. As she slumped down in her seat in the waiting room, there was just one last thing to do; Donna reached out to touch her daughter.