My hand kept a firm grip on the knob, but dithered to open the door. Dread of who may be awaiting me on the other side held me at a standstill.
“Are you heading out?” Someone asked from behind.
My hand leapt off the knob. My feet simultaneously lifted some inches off the floor. I turned toward the voice, my palm pressing my heart back into place.
I smiled anxiously, then managed to get out “good morning!”
“I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to scare you!”
“It’s alright. It wasn’t you.”
“Well, sorry again. Have a good day.”
“Yeah. Thanks, you too.” I stepped aside to let my neighbor past, looking over his shoulder as he – with no extraordinary courage – opened the door and walked right through it. I followed. Each step until I cleared the front of the house was cautiously taken. Once past the disposal bin near the gate, I stirred my muscles into a brisk walk toward the park.
I stepped across the invisible threshold distinguishing the park grounds from it’s context. My hastened steps grew tempered; eager anticipation gave way to doubt. Each step until I crossed the next threshold – that which distinguishing the garden from the park enveloping it – was underscored by a ceaseless hum of ‘what if’s’. ‘What if he didn’t show up again?’ ‘What if I found another haunting letter seated on the bench awaiting me?’ ‘What if he never came again?’ ‘What if he was tired of listening to me talk about the same things without making any changes?’ ‘What if, what if, what if–”
“Mary!” He emerged like the sun, disrupting the gathering of my tempestuous thoughts.
“Gardner!” I ran to him, arms outstretched.
He embraced me for a moment, but I held on to him some seconds longer.
“You okay Kiddo?”
I opened up, releasing my arms to my sides while my heels sank down to touch the face of the ground. “Yeah. I thought you weren’t gonna show again. Made me kinda nervous. What happened last time?” We drifted toward the bench at the heart of the garden as we talked.
“I was out of town for a couple of days. I thought I mentioned it the last time I saw you.”
I paused a moment to go through my mental notes. “That’s right, you did!” We came to the bench. I sank gracelessly into. “Oh, God….I don’t know what’s going on with me lately. I’m forgetting things, I’m anxious…I wanna cry sometimes…”
“Did something happen at work?”
“Work is fine. I had my interview for the promotion.”
“How did it go?”
“It was great. They can’t say anything yet, but I’m pretty sure I got the position.”
“That’s great, congratulations!”
The internal pressure I had been experiencing but was unable to articulate, manifested outwardly on a sigh…or maybe it was a grunt…an otherworldly sound of distress I’d never produced before that moment. It was followed by tears of frustration.
“Oh Mary..” He covered me with an arm around the shoulders.
“I feel like my life is changing whether I want it to or not…my heart is being crushed in the process and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Something must have happened. What was it?”
I drew back from his embrace, turning to face him as I crossed my legs unto the bench in front of me. “I told you about spending Christmas with Friend’s family?”
“It was great, don’t get me wrong. I love Friend and her family has been so nice to me… but something felt missing the entire time and by the end of the weekend I just wanted to run out of there!”
He listened patiently. “Oh Yeah?”
“It’s like no matter how nice they were, and how much they tried to make me feel welcomed I didn’t feel like I really belonged there…and by the end of it, I just wanted to be alone….Am I even making sense? I mean, I should be grateful right? I have a fantastic job, I live in a great apartment, I have one awesome friend, my aunt and my cousins love me to death….why do I feel like I’m missing something?”
He looked back at me with patient attentiveness, as not to miss anything I might express. Meanwhile, I awaited a final diagnosis or perhaps a word of instruction that once executed would lead me out of the mental and emotional state I found myself in.
He spoke. “Did you ever reach back out to your mom?”
The question left his lips and immediately I repented of my desire for him to speak. “No.” My body slowly succumbed to a quiet prompt from my recoiling heart. I lowered my feet to the ground and turned away from his face to the open air in front of us.
His quietly attentive gaze remain upon me.
“Could you believe she actually came to my house?”
“When was this?”
“….When you weren’t here.”
The intent of the comment was partly petty, but he seemed to completely miss that. “Did you two talk?”
“What did we have to talk about?”
“She went on about trying to get in touch with me over Christmas….then she gave me this ridiculous letter. I mean who even writes letters anymore?!”
“Did you read it?”
“I didn’t have another choice! I mean the audacity of the woman, showing up after everything and demanding that I read some letter she wrote to me so she could feel better about the choices she made–”
“Did you feel better after you read it?”
I bolted from my seat, shouting without restraint into the open air. “No I did not! I felt like…like….Ahh!” Waxing frustration gave way to a scream through gritted teeth. “How dare she just leave then come back twenty years later like she has the right!”
“Mary, you told me your father was–”
“It doesn’t matter what he was! She could have taken me with her.” Tears were now rolling rabidly down my face.
He stood next to me and placed a hand on my back. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not. It’s not okay for someone else to get to mess with my life and make me feel this way. I don’t need this. I don’t need her. I don’t need anyone!”
He said nothing for a moment as he returned to his place on the bench. “Well that’s good news.”
I turned to him quickly; surmising that my words, rather than going over his head had unintentionally pricked his heart. “I didn’t mean you–”
“It’s alright Mary. I’m just an old man you talk to at the park. I never had any illusions that I played a significant role in your life.”
I quickly sat down beside him. “But you do play a significant role! I didn’t mean to say that about you–”
He took me by the shoulders. “Mary, it’s okay! I’m not leaving because of what you said. My daughter’s starting a new job and needs help with my grandchildren for a while.”
“Oh…Can’t she come here?”
He laughed. “That would be a very complicated move.”
My frustrated tears became preemptive tears of grief. “Would it be weird if I came with you?”
“Would you be running away?”
I said nothing.
“I think we both know that’s not who you are Kiddo.”
“I can reinvent myself, can’t I?”
He reached into his back pocket and produced a small laminated card. “I got you something.”
On the front of the card, a vibrant graphic depicting the four seasons, was overlaid with the words of a… poem? “Ecclesiastes 3…” I whispered beneath my breath, sounding the word out carefully. “What is it?”
“It’s a passage from the bible.”
“Oh…thanks.” I received it as an extension of him, rather than out of my perceived need.
“It’s a reminder that life is a series of changing seasons.” He extended an arm across my shoulders once again. “And even when those seasons bring changes that are painful–”
“Annoying, unwelcome, ridiculous–”
“Right….we embrace the changing seasons because we understand change is a necessary part of growing in life.”
“You really are my favorite fortune cookie. What am I gonna do while you’re away? Who’s gonna listen to me?”
“I think your mom may be ready to do that.”
“May I share something else with you Mary?”
“Okay, what is it?”
“There’s another verse in the bible–”
“Did you get a card for that one too?”
He waited patiently for me to unmask myself of the defensive sarcasm.
“It says that we need to be careful what we allow to nourish our hearts, because our hearts nourish our lives.”
“Does everyone sound like a fortune cookie at that church you go to?”
“Not everyone.” He smiled. “Is it possible the trouble you’re having with loneliness and anxiety have more to do with your heart than anything else? You can’t keep living out of a broken heart Mary. You deserve to be free.”
“Are you saying I’m not free?” The best that I could do at feigning fortitude was smirk. The walls within my chest had been challenged by the latter part of his statement; they began to tremble.
“Why did you tell your aunt it was okay to share your address with your mom?”
“….Why?” My reiteration of his question emerged as a feeble attempt to gain clarity beyond the clatter of the rocks of the bulwark bouncing violently on top of each other in my chest. “I said she could because …because…”
He waited patiently.
“…I felt bad for her. She kept asking my aunt and I didn’t wanna be rude.”
Anyone else might have accepted that response as final. He waited patiently.
“Don’t look at me like that.”
He averted his eyes from mine and glanced at his wrist. “I gotta go Kiddo.” He started to his feet.
I shot to my feet, glancing quickly at my wrist. “What?! But you just–” realizing that it was I who entered the garden secondly “–I just got here!”
“I’m sorry, I can’t stay longer today. I need to head back home to pack.”
“Pack? When are you moving?!”
“In two days.”
My eyes flew open wider. “What the f–” Somehow I caught myself mid-speech. “Why did you wait at the last second to tell me?!”
I interjected as unbridled desperation erupted within me. All the while the shaking of the wall persisted. “I’m sorry, I’ll tell the truth!” I reached for him, clutching his forearms. “I gave her my address because I can’t get past this f–” I drew in a quick breath. It didn’t accomplish the end of calming me. “–this….wall! The feeling that I’m not really wanted and I don’t belong anywhere! I thought that If I could tell her that….that…” I succumbed to another torrent of tears.
He held me for a long while as I sobbed. He said nothing. When I was finally able to take in that calming breath I had been groping for, we parted. With a hand on each of my shoulders, he looked intently into my eyes. “I’m proud of you. Everything will be okay.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know you.”