Departure

At the farthest end of the parking median, cold rain gently drives High Plains flower seeds into welcoming soil.

Neighborhood beaks make serious dips into the feeders, pecks at the suet, and territorial chirps from dripping branches. The predicted low will flirt with freezing, and as a precaution, both shed and livingroom are stuffed with annuals, most of which arrived Friday on a semi from Denver.

Delivery day was nothing short of manic. While sun spangled this flat corner lot, a collective of gardeners thrilled at the beauty of vibrant plants and blossoms, freshly liberated from growing houses. We counted flats, shuffled them into a mosaic of who ordered what, toted them off to further destinations, and chatted over chilling coffee on the front porch.

Between arrivals and departures, I got laundry out on the lines, ran the mower, sorted my own stash, and tackled some serious tidying out in the utility area behind the cedar fence. It seemed like I was totally engaged. In all honesty, I was barely there and had to remember to breathe.

The chain link gate between car port and back yard stood horribly open, accommodating garden cart traffic, yes, and signifying a keen absence. No Willie to watch for escape.

Two weeks ago, May Day, and while the neighbors gathered friends to dance ribbons around a tall pole, snow fell. The temperature followed. A low of 25 Fahrenheit, with crab apples, cherries, and plums in full bloom. Fragrant spires of lilacs towered along the alley. Thinking a hard freeze might take them, I took the kitchen shears and cut a bouquet. It perfumed the livingroom where I shut all the window shades and let the thermostat kick on the furnace.

I told myself I’m more prepared for this in the fall. Waning daylight and cooling air ready my expectations. I take in the geraniums, say goodbye to the tomatoes. A rightful sense of melancholy adds a note of poignance to my thoughts, appropriate, in season. A spring freeze, by contrast, is counterintuitive, contraindicated, and surfeits doom.

I did my best to shut out that blasted night.

Then, standing still, deciding whether to go outside or look for a bed to nap on, Willie’s legs slipped out from under him. He was an old dog. Systems fail. He’d been slowly, increasingly wobbly. These things happen, only, damn, not in Spring. Spring is for friskiness. We let go of pounds, inhibitions, useless clothing, not old friends.

I shivered through the next day, even though we stayed home from the Monday garden and kept quiet together in the office. We visited the vet and came home with pain medication and hope. After 48 hours, there was only further decline. Two more office visits and two more medications and still worse.

Each stage of departure became the new norm. I adjusted. I knew. I accepted. I resisted. I consulted. I waited. I witnessed. I hesitated. I wanted. I decided.

Very late, at the tipping point of Mother’s Day, asleep in my arms, his heart stopped.

My body remembered how to wail, a deep and awful surprise.

Mother’s Day, what could I do? The brave old soul was gone. My companion’s deep brown eyes, nowhere to be seen, nowhere seeing me. I gardened. I dragged hoses, ran the mower over cowlicks of grasses, planted penstemons in the rock garden, apologized to weeds before blading them out of the earth. And, as I plodded in and out of the back yard, I always shut the gate.

Willie never cared for the days I darted all over the place, front to back, side to side, going nowhere interesting while giving the appearance that I was about to depart. When I settled back inside, he’d step on the nearest bed and pin me with a look, “Alright, will you stay put?”

But none of us do, nor can we, stay put.

There’s a mammoth river in the center of this continent. I grew up 85 miles from it’s dark water. As children, we tried to hold our breath over the bridge to the old home grounds where kin abided. We held our breath so that our souls might not fall in among the catfish and fertile silt. Every creek and river whose name I knew ended there, no matter where it began, or how it sang, or whose forest or field it slid inexorably through.

Today, an unholiday Sunday, that river is swollen almost beyond memory. And though I walk and breathe, converse and garden, even laugh a thousand miles away, it’s that river I feel.

Thank goodness it will crest and recede.

Thanks to every friend who understands when I carry the little ash-filled box from room to room.

And thank you, Willie.