This one's a tear-jerker. Grab some tissues before reading any further!
“Take a walk with me.”
Every day for the past thirty-eight years, Malachi had said the same thing to her at this time of day. Right at sunset with dusk on the other side of the horizon waiting to greet them as they traveled down the old wooden pathway he’d laid in place when they’d built the place up into a special oasis in which to grow their love for each other and the kids they’d eventually had.
Now it was Michelle’s turn to ask him to take a walk with her. Only, she’d be pushing his wheelchair rather than holding his hand as they maneuvered their way through the woods to the vale at the end of the path. It was their special place, and she was attempting to see that even the paralyzing grip of his recent stroke wouldn’t take that away from them.
For all she knew, this might be the last time he’d see the place where they’d spent so much of their married life.
He hadn’t been able to say a single word since the stroke hit him a month ago. He struggled to move his left leg and arm, and that side of his face was frozen into a grimace. Yet, Michelle knew her Malachi’s mind was sharp as a tack, just as it always had been. Maybe, like her, he’d missed their conversations, the ones that grew deeper and more important the farther down the path they walked together.
Maybe that was why she now pushed him past the tree in which he’d carved their initials one afternoon a long time ago. He’d done it just to surprise her on their evening walk later that day. The way he’d explained it, this particular tree was the one exactly halfway between their house and the vale and the very same tree they’d leaned against when they’d taken a break that first time through the woods, before he’d set the planks in place to further establish their nightly routine of traipsin’, as he liked to call it.
“We’re on the downhill slope now, Mal.” Michelle shoved his wheelchair along at a leisurely pace. “Less than halfway to go.”
She wondered if he was remembering back to that day so long ago. “Remember how I was reluctant that first time after the boardwalk was finished?” The smile slipping onto her face was dampened by the knowledge of her husband’s current health condition and what it could mean for their future, yet she couldn’t stop the expression from finding its rightful place, because they’d shared lots of happy memories on this well-worn path. “Do you know why I hesitated that day? Why I wanted to stop and not continue, not see the vale that day?”
The silence stretched until the birds began serenading them as they settled in for the evening.
Michelle swallowed past the boulder-size lump in her throat and forced out the words she’d never before told him. “I was scared. What if it didn’t seem as special now or a year from now, ten years from now? What if, by coming here every day, we somehow tainted it, made it lose its specialness by any arguments we’d have out here, any harsh, cruel words we might say to each other? What if our humanness destroyed the very thing we so treasured?”
Even these many years later, she still recalled the bitter tang of fear on her tongue. Her heart pinched but for a much different reason than it had then. “I realize now that I hadn’t been able to see that my fear wasn’t so much about tainting the vale as it was about destroying us, you and me… what we were becoming together. I didn’t want a single harsh word to come between us ever, yet somehow I knew it was inevitable. I wanted to cherish every moment with you, but I knew we’d make each other angry or mad or disappointed…”
For a while, she walked and pushed the wheelchair in the quiet of the dying light. They reached the vale, which she’d weeded thoroughly in the last month—her own private therapy sessions to help herself deal with the health scare and insecurity it left in its wake. She wished she could see his expression, to see the spark come back to at least his good eye as he took in their magical space of green grass, carefully chosen flowers they’d planted together, and the bench he’d built for her way back when. Even if he couldn’t show his excitement and joy, she could feel it in her bones as clearly as if he’d shouted, “Whoopee!” from the boughs of the tallest tree along the path.
Her own inner joy was slashed with the reality of what this trip was: His final wish.
She parked him by the bench, set the brakes on both sides of his wheelchair, then sat on the bench beside him and held his right hand in her lap.
“None of the arguments we ever had did the damage I’d imagined that day. They had potential to, sure.” She smiled at him and thought he tried to back at her. “But you always made sure we settled things between us before bedtime.”
After looking at their surroundings and taking in the sounds of nature all around them that were as familiar to her as the man she so dearly loved, she took in a shuddering breath. “That’s what this place was to you. Wasn’t it? The place where we could solve our daily frustrations—with life, each other, over the kids… whatever was on our minds—this was our safe place to hash it all out, to come to terms with our differences and find our way back to familiar, common ground. That’s why you built the path and the bench and carved our initials in that silly ol’ tree… isn’t it?”
They sat quietly for what seemed like hours yet only minutes all at once. Eventually, she whispered, “Malachi, I love you too,” because she felt in her heart that he’d just breathed the words into her ear, though she knew that to be impossible.
For, shortly after she’d acknowledged his life’s work of making sure they each felt safe and loved and cherished in their lifetime together, his hand had gone limp in her own.
When her sons finally came to check on her, John took over pushing the wheelchair, and Matthew offered his arm as his father often had. Michelle gladly took it and was grateful she didn’t have to face this loss alone.
She’d remain in her home for however many years she had left, and the boys, both grown with families of their own, would visit often. The thing she most looked forward to in the years to come was sharing her husband’s and her special vale with the rest of her loved ones and continuing to foster a love of family and faith in the generations she could touch so that they could do the same with the ones she couldn’t. The Lord had granted her a good life filled with love and happiness even through the hard times she’d seen, and she prayed every evening in her vale for the same to be true for John, Matthew, and their children for decades and generations to come.
Father God, sometimes death steals over people so suddenly we can hardly wrap our minds around it, let alone understand why. I don’t know whether or not Luke Perry (and so many others who’ve died so suddenly) was a believer in Your Son, but I hope he was.
Mr. Perry's death from a couple of massive strokes earlier this year (2019) got me thinking again at how brief this life on earth is and how crucial our decision for eternity is. Eternity is a very long time, and I want as many people as possible to choose to spend it with You. May You shine Your light through my words and actions despite my humanness. May You save as many souls as are willing to greet You in the time we all have left.
This short story is a small part of my thank-You for the beautiful life and family You’ve so generously granted me. Even more especially, it’s in gratitude for saving my soul when I was seven and securing my place with You in eternity. I love You too, dear Father!
April's reading challenge features small shops.