It shouldn’t be spring.
Our last picnic together shouldn’t happen on this perfect May evening, with the softness of new grass under our blanket, and fireflies blinking in the shadowed woods around the clearing. A picnic like this should happen in October, when the last dry leaves cling to spidery limbs, biting air hinting of hollow months to come. But I’ve waited as long as I could.
Your father and I used to come here on nights like this. If I tell the truth, you may have come into being in this very spot, back in the early days of a marriage that wrapped me in bliss under stars and a waxing moon. And when you, my perfect son, arrived on a sweltering July morning, we dreamed of time spent in this grassy oasis behind our house, where the forest gives way to the muddy river, and everything we hoped for could still come true.
We picnicked here, the three of us. He hung a tire swing for you, and your laughter as you swung out over the water made the trees happy.
Later, after the accident, he dug out a path and filled it with gravel so we could push your chair down here on fine days. No more laughter, of course. No more swinging on the tire that still lays there in a heap of rotting rope. No more smiles, or tears, or words, or, the doctors told us, thoughts of any kind in your damaged, perfect head.
I never blamed him for the accident. And I never blamed him for leaving us. How could he look at what you are, and still see what you were? We got by, you and me. For forty years, we’ve managed.
They were very kind at the nursing home. You’d be cared for just as if I were there, they said. Bathed and fed. And your room would have a window with a birdfeeder outside, so that if your neck happened to be turned that way, your eyes might take in a robin or a cardinal stealing seeds from a little cedar box. They pretended not to see how my hand shook as I signed the papers. Your room will be ready tomorrow.
My hair has grown back, though it barely covers my scalp with thin white wisps. It’s warm enough that I don’t need a hat, but I wear one anyway. It’s pink, like everything else I own now.
I tried, son. I tried.
They said it had a good chance to work. And through the long months of winter, when the church sent meal after meal, and generous people to care for both of us when the treatment laid me low, I hoped. The doctor called this morning. We should have had more time. But I learned years ago not to bother wishing for things that couldn’t be. So I wore the pink hat and smiled at the well-meaning folks at the home who promised you’d be fine no matter what happens to me.
You were extra heavy tonight, gravel crunching under the wide wheels of your chair. Or I was extra weak. I don’t mind the pain, but weak is something I never was.
Am I weak tonight, or strong? A lion, or a cowardly rabbit?
I could tell you didn’t like the taste of the pills in your chocolate milk. You drooled more than usual, but you swallowed it all down. Such a good boy.
The breeze has picked up during our little picnic. A bumblebee landed on the sandwich I made, and I let him walk all over the bread, tasting it. Wasn’t much chance of me eating it, anyway. A raccoon will enjoy it tonight, perhaps, or a possum, marching right up on this old blue blanket to feast on what I leave behind.
No words feel right, so I wait in the quiet for you to fall asleep. I scoot my folding chair right next to you, and take your hand in mine, singing our lullaby. Tree shadows inch across the blanket and tickle our feet, but the elm and the hawthorn have always loved you. They want to touch you one last time, and I cannot tell them no.
The nursing home people expect you tomorrow. But they won’t have the right lotion, the kind that takes away the dry flakes around your fingernails and smells like lavender. They won’t know the lullaby I sing you every night, or how you swallow better if I put the oatmeal in the left side of your mouth instead of the right side. All these years I’ve dressed you, and sweetened your breakfast with brown sugar, and wept until my cheeks ached for the man you could have been. I will not leave you with strangers, however kind they may be.
I know what they’ll call me tomorrow. The word they’ll whisper under sorrowful eyelashes. The unforgivable crime…but I do not need their forgiveness.
Only yours, and this I know I already have. So I hold your hand and feel your pulse slow in under my fingers.
You leave me on a breath of wind, and I indulge myself in a moment of grief. A melody from the hermit thrush floats over the blanket from somewhere in the dark, telling me the time has come.
This is the hardest part. No gravel leads to the river, but the ground is dry, and I manage like I always have. Your wheels sink into the mud, and I have to leave the chair there. You deserve better than to be dragged this last few steps, but it’s all I can manage, and you would laugh if you could see how graceless I am. Maybe now you can.
The sun is gone, and icy water rushes around my ankles. Just a few more steps.
I remember your smile as your father buckled you into your car seat the day our lives ended.
I remember his face when the doctors told us you would survive.
I remember their sad eyes, and the eternal list of things you would never do.
But nothing could take the sky from above us, the grass from beneath our feet, or the murmur of the river that cares nothing for doctors, or car seats, or mothers whose hearts ride in wheelchairs and swing on the old tire of memory.
You loved the picnic place. We all did, for a time.
Wind ruffles the old blue blanket as I splash out the last few steps. I wrap my arms around you in the frigid current, and we sink beneath the surface together.
Wendy Vogel is a veterinarian, cancer survivor, marathon runner and board game designer. Her debut psychological thriller Trouble the Water is coming in August 2022 from JournalStone Publishing. As D.W. Vogel, she is the author of the Horizon Alpha science fiction series from Future House Publishing. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and a houseful of special needs cats. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/drwendyv