Raking leaves should have been my son’s job, just as it was mine as a kid. However, my son is gone and has been for twenty-three years. He had been ten years old, a boy full of life which had been cut short.
I pause in my raking, leaning on the smooth wooden pole as I get my breath back. Looking up at the left front window of my house, I see my wife standing there. She is stroking her short white hair, her mouth moving as she speaks but her eyes are not watching me, they are staring into the distance.
The dementia has her mind in a tight grip of late and some days she doesn’t know who she is. In my heart I know she doesn’t have much longer to live but I can’t let her go. I wave at her and get no response back. She carries on playing with her hair and speaking either to herself or to someone she thinks is there but has long since passed away.
Getting back to work, I pull the dry leaves together into a pile, freeing the grass from the quilt blanket the leaves create. I wouldn’t burn them but put them on the composed heap to be used in planting my show flowers in the spring. Garden is the only thing I have left to enjoy now.
The front door opens and I hear my wife shouting. Her words are garble and it’s hard to pick out what she’s trying to say. She pulls at her hair and dress as she comes down the path.
‘What is it, Olive?’ I call.
She ignores me, trapped in a world of her own.
I go over and leaving the rake against the side of the house. She’s clearly in distress but there is no way she can tell me what’s wrong. It could be she believes she is in a different time and some moment there has triggered the upset.
I talk to her softly, calming her though she seems unaware of me, ‘it’s fine, whatever it is. I can help. You are okay. I’m here.’
I reach for her but she waves my hands away and carries on shouting out what seems to be just random words, ‘not here! Gone! Come back! Where is he? Don’t know what to do! Alex! Alex! Frog in the hallway. Frog, frog, frog! Gone! Gone!’
It’s hard when she gets like this. I want to get her back inside and sat down but she would fight me all the way and last time she pushed me down and I almost broke my arm. I know I’m too old to deal with her now and leaving her care to a specialist would be best. I can’t though. I can’t let her go….
I pick up a stray leaf and press it into her hands.
‘Look Olive, isn’t it pretty? Listen to the sound it makes,’ I say.
She crunches the leaf, tears it up and lets the bits fall from her hand. She stares in fascination.
I give her another and another. She crunches them in her fist and tosses the leaf pieces to the wind. They blow around in the breeze and she watches them go.
I take her hand and led her to the pile of raked up leaves.
‘Where is Alex?’ she asks.
‘At school, my love,’ I reply.
I can’t explain that he’s been dead for years because she won’t understand and though it hurts, it’s easier to lie.
‘School?’ she repeats as she picks up leaves and plays with them, ‘he never comes home. Never. I miss him….When will he come? When, when?’ she cries with desperation.
‘Soon, dear, soon,’ I reply gently, ‘come back inside now. It’s cold out here and you are not wearing a coat.’
I take her arm and guide her away. She starts muttering to herself again, words I can’t catch or understand.
Once inside, I get her in front of the TV, feet up and wrapped in a blanket. Her eyes are distant. She isn’t here, she’s off in the past, some place I might not remember or don’t want to recall.
I stay with her until she is settled enough to be left again. The news is on the TV but she’s not watching it but the sounds of the voices help her to feel not alone.
‘I’m going out again but I’ll be there if you need me. It’s getting dark and I want to finish,’ I say.
She says something which is lost on me.
I get up, go to the front door and on the mat is a crumbled brown leaf. I pick it up and take it outside, feeling a pain my heart that never goes.