I think Helen is dead. I’m not entirely sure, but I have this feeling. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen her. I worry I should check in over there. I don’t know why I cared so much about that funny little woman. It’s not like we talked all that often.
Ever since the cancer, her husband, Marty, has been totally off his rocker. Now he’s acting even weirder. He walks the neighborhood constantly, shuffling down the street in the morning and not returning until the late afternoon.
I crumple the letter and toss it on the kitchen table. Writing letters like this was stupid, unless of course I could send a letter to the afterlife, but then that would be stupid, too, because Mom would know that Helen was dead. They’d be there together. Except Helen would never be friends with my mother. Actually, I don’t think Helen would be friends with anyone; she was barely friends with me.
From where I sit near the kitchen window, I can see up the short hill and across the street into Helen’s yard.
Marty’s old beater truck is still parked parallel to the house on the far right side of the lawn. He always parks it there even though he has a perfectly good driveway just a few feet over. Every once in a while my husband, Tom, jokes that Marty parks in the lawn to make himself feel like a rebel, and to make up for the fact that he’s short.
I don’t think his height has anything to do with it, but Tom thinks it makes perfect sense.
“It’s a short man thing. You wouldn’t understand,” he says.
Even during the chemo and radiation, the plants hanging from Helen’s porch were thriving. In just the last several days, though, I’ve noticed that they’re going downhill. Leaves from the fuchsia have browned, and all of the previously bright pink flowers are paling in color and drooping down the sides of their planters. The sad, flaccid petals of the verbena flop over the sides of the pots like they’re mourning, but maybe I’m reading too much into it.
I stand at my kitchen window as I watch the limp stems hanging off the plants sway lazily in the late afternoon breeze. Helen would never have let those plants droop. She must have been reminding Marty to care for the plants, even when she was sick. He’s forgotten by now.
My interactions with Helen were mostly limited to nods of hello, slight waves, or quick smiles of acknowledgment. She walked a lot too, past my house, down to the store, the post office, and up through the neighborhoods. I assumed they were leisurely walks, but with her back hunched and her head down she always gave the impression of being in a hurry. My son, Benji, always seeking to be the center of attention, would greet Helen loudly when she passed. Normally, she would wave and go on without stopping, but once—a little over a year ago—she stepped into the yard and we chatted.
“Hey, Helen,” Benji had yelled. “Want to see my turtle farm? There’s lots a turtles!”
Maybe it was the sight of a four-year-old boy standing in a kiddie pool, waving two turtles in the air, that gave her pause, or she could have really wanted to stop and talk; I don’t know. But Helen sat down in the lawn chair next to me and asked Benji questions about his “farm” for nearly ten minutes. It was then that she told me about the cancer.
“Stage four metastasized breast cancer,” she said. “They’re saying that means—”
“I know,” I said. “My mother—” I stopped.
Helen looked down at her sandals. “Yes. I start radiation tomorrow.”
Then Benji lifted his right arm as high as he could and opened his hand. The small turtle tumbled from his grasp and splashed hard into the water. Helen and I peered forward from our lawn chairs and watched the water ripple, then still. The turtle floated to the top of the pool.
I gasped and pulled Benji from the pool, trying to keep my attention on Helen.
“I suppose that’s not a good sign, is it?” Helen asked, but as she spoke the lines around her blue-grey eyes crinkled.
“Well, only if God is an unruly little boy,” I said. “We’ll be thinking of you and Marty, though. Please let me know if there’s anything we can do.”
Helen nodded and patted my hand, then pointed to the pool. “Good luck with that.”
I pick up the crumpled note to my mother and unfold it. I used to write letters to her all the time when Benji was a baby.
Dear Mom, I think Benji is colicky. It’s either that or he really hates me.
Dear Mom, Benji smiled for real this time. It wasn’t gas. I wish you could see it.
Dear Mom, How did you do this alone? If it weren’t for Tom I would lose my mind.
Maybe I did lose my mind, though. Most of the time I sent those letters. I’d walk down to the post office with Benji in a stroller and talk to him all the way there about how we were going to mail a letter to Grandma. When he was old enough I’d let him drop the letter in the slot. I never put a return address on them. I don’t know what happens to letters like that—when the sender is unknown and the recipient deceased. I had always hoped that some other old lady had moved into my mother’s house—an old lady who needed a grandbaby and updates about teething or gas. It was better to think that than to believe my letters were thrown out or recycled along with the letters to Santa.
Whenever Benji and I peered into the silver mail slot to watch the letter slip through to meet the other packages and bills waiting in the basket below, I prayed that this time, somehow, we’d get an answer. We stopped those leisurely trips once Benji started walking, and then running, and then would no longer sit in a stroller—and I stopped writing.
With a deep breath, I re-crumple the letter, toss it in the trashcan, and head out to the garage. Benji will be home from his playdate soon, but I still have a few minutes. Helen’s plants aren’t totally dead yet. With some trimming, water, and a few scoops of compost I could perk them up again.
I slip my pruning shears into my back pocket, and then grab my trowel, a bucket, and my watering can. My garage may be a disaster zone, but my gardening tools are always readily available. I step out into the backyard to the compost bin and scoop a couple of trowels full into the bucket.
I walk the few feet to the top of the street to Helen’s house. Crossing the lawn, I climb the three steps to the porch. I should just let Marty know what I’m doing, maybe check in with him real quick. I knock, then call Marty’s name when he doesn’t answer.
I’ve set down my supplies, so I use both hands to shield my eyes as I peer through the window. The house is untidy, as I’d expected, and dim. I can only see through the front hall and into the living room. The TV isn’t on. I knock once more just to be sure.
“Marty? It’s Jan. Are you here?” I peer again.
I take a plant down and sit on the front porch with it. Carefully, I begin pruning back the wilted pink flowers and crispy leaves. This particular plant may need to be trimmed down to nearly nothing before it comes back. I lift the rootless weeds out from around the stems, and add them to the little pile of discarded plant cuttings next to me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a red minivan pull up in front of my house. I look up in time to see Benji leap out and toss his backpack on our front lawn.
“Hey, Benj.” I stand and wave.
Benji turns around in a circle before he notices me. “Hey—whatcha doin’ up there?”
“Just fixing some plants. I’ll be down in a minute.”
“I’m coming!” He waves goodbye to his ride and runs up the hill towards me. “I’m gonna help,” he pants.
He rests his hands on his knees and slouches in front of me, catching his breath. “What’s my job?”
“Your job is to take little handfuls of that compost and squish it around in these plants. Make sure not to uproot anything.”
Benji grins and plunges all ten fingers into the bucket of compost.
“Is Helen going to come out and help?” he asks, his hands still plying the plant food.
I bite my lip and set my shears down on my leg. In the back of my mind I knew he would ask that. I knew that I would have to come clean with him.
Benji pulls out one hand and watches a worm crawl between his fingers. He smiles.
“Helen’s not going to help, honey,” I begin.
“She’s not?” he asks and shoves his hands back into the bucket.
It occurs to me that maybe I shouldn’t sit on our dead neighbor’s porch and introduce my young son to new and depressing concepts. Until this point, death was so abstract for him. Of course, my mother was dead, but he’d never met her or needed to grieve her loss. Maybe I could be spared an awkward scenario. I can only imagine how horrible I would feel if Marty returned from his walk only to hear me telling my child all about his dead wife.
“No…do you have any questions?” I ask anyway.
“No,” Benji shrugs. “Actually—”
I take a quick breath.
“I can smoosh the dirt like this, right? I’m not hurting the plant.”
I nod and stifle a laugh. Maybe Benji’s non-response is a sign that I should let this moment be what it is and allow my son the privilege of helping something grow. Then later tonight I can tell him about Helen, and what it means to love someone who is no longer with us. I can tell him about how I went into labor three days after my mother passed away, and how feeding him was my only motivation for getting out of bed. I knew I was keeping him alive, but he still doesn’t know how he kept me alive.
“I think Helen will be happy that we helped her plants,” he says.
“And Marty will probably be happy, too,” I say.
I stand and help Benji hang the freshly trimmed fuchsia.