The icy wind blew the dead, orange leaves around their feet. They stood quietly, with the shovels in their hands. A single oak tree stuck out of a burlap ball between them.
“It’s too cold for this,” Aimee mumbled.
Caleb chose not to respond to her. He looked down at the ground and rolled his eyes. He didn’t want her to know that she was annoying him. Today was supposed to be a healing day.
“You can wait in the car where it’s warm,” he sighed. “I can dig the hole.”
Aimee watched her brother as he put his foot on the head of the shovel and stomped down with every ounce of force he had. He wouldn’t even look at her and that bothered her. They were best friends as kids, but after she decided to leave things were never the same.
With each stomp on the shovel, the dirt and rocks crunched louder. The mound of overturned earth grew and grew. Aimee stood silently, unmoving, as her brother dug the hole where they would bury what was left of their father. With one final grunt, Caleb scooped the last bit of red clay and sediment out of the hole.
For the first time since they arrived, they looked at each other. Caleb bit the inside of his cheek and cleared his throat. He knew if he tried to speak he would cry. He didn’t want to cry. He needed to be the strong one. Aimee took a deep breath and clenched her jaw. A single tear slid down her left cheek. They had prepared for this day for months, but somehow she still wasn’t ready.
“Should we say something?” Aimee finally asked, trying to break the tension. “Ya know. Before we dump it in?”
“Dump it in?” snapped Caleb. “Are you freaking kidding me, Aimee?”
“Mr. W would have said that was unkind.”
Caleb and Aimee both flinched. They had not noticed the nine-year-old boy walk up. Caleb sighed as he rubbed his hands over his face.
“Caleb,” whispered Aimee.
The breeze rustled the leaves again as Caleb turned to follow Aimee’s stare. He wanted to know what had made her eyes go wide.
At least one hundred people were walking across the field. Children as young as nine years old carried shovels while there were thirty or so adults pushing wheelbarrows with trees and flowering shrubs.
“Mr. W told us that this field needed some plants,”
A teenager walked up behind the little boy and rested her right hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her and smiled. She took a shallow breath as she smiled back.
“A few of us went back to check on him a couple weeks ago. We promised to fill the whole field with flowers.” Her voice cracked. “He would’ve loved to look out his window and see them.”
Aimee lost all control. She began sobbing. For the first time since their father died, Caleb cried. All of these people were here to do the same thing they were. A woman about the same age as Caleb and Aimee walked up to them and put her arms around her children.
“We’re all here for your dad, Caleb,” said Brittany as she squeezed her kids. “Cause he was always there for all of us. When the kids asked if we could do this I couldn’t say no.”
The little boy bent down and untied the burlap around the roots of the oak tree. As he pulled on the string the burlap slid to the ground. He took the string in one hand and pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket with the other.
“Should we put all of the notes in the same hole?” his voice cracked as he asked his mother.
“Actually, nugget, I think we should put one with each plant so that they all have a piece of Mr. Willman.” She spoke to her child but she was looking at Caleb. “Why don’t you and your sister read your notes first so we can plant the first tree?”
“Okay,” nodded the little boy. He unfolded his note. “Dear Mr. W. Cancer sucks and I’m really sad you got it. Your crazy socks were my favorite. I’m gonna miss you a lot. Love, Nick.”
Aimee snorted as she began laughing. Caleb and Brittany looked at her with a mix of concern and outrage as she continued to cackle. She bent over gasping for air as she lifted up her pant leg. She was wearing neon rainbow socks.
“His crazy socks were always my favorite, too” she whispered to Nick.
Caleb and Brittany both lifted their pant legs for Nick to see their crazy socks. Caleb had chosen mismatched Christmas-themed socks to say goodbye to his father. Brittany was wearing purple knee socks with gold stars.
Brittany smiled. “He always said not to take life too seriously because you never make it out alive.”
“Actually,” Caleb sighed. “He always wanted to wear crazy shirts or ties, but they kept dress-coding him. The crazy socks were his way of rebelling.”
The crowd had circled around them with their shovels and plants. Some of them noticed Caleb and Aimee’s crazy socks and lifted their pant legs to show off their own pair. Every single person remembered the crazy socks and had chosen a special pair of their own to pay tribute to the man that they loved.
Brittany’s daughter pulled her note out of her pocket. “Dear Mr. Willman. When I think of my time in elementary school you are the thing I remember most. Fourth grade was my favorite and it was all because of you. I will always remember the presidents thanks to the silly song you made up for us. The world won’t be the same without you. Enjoy the library in Heaven.” She wiped a tear away as she dropped her note in the hole in the ground.
Nick dropped his note in the hole as Aimee picked up the urn. She held it gently, her hands shaking. This was it. As soon as she opened the urn her father would be gone. Caleb saw the thoughts all over her face.
“He won’t be gone, Aimee,” Caleb said softly. “Look around. This is where he is.” Caleb waived his arm outward.
Aimee looked around at all of the people who had come out to plant something for her father. All of these people were here because of one man, one teacher. They were all here because he had inspired them. Aimee jumped when Nick reached out and grabbed her hand.
“I never got to learn the presidents song,” he mumbled. “Will you guys teach me?”
Caleb stiffened. “I’ll teach you. It’s sorta my job as the fourth-grade teacher.”
Brittany and Aimee locked eyes and smiled. They found immense comfort in knowing the next generation would also be shaped by a Mr. Willman.
“When do you start?” Brittany mouthed the question so that only Caleb saw.
He mouthed back, “January.”
Caleb glanced out the window as his students sang the presidents song. He always looked out the window as they sang. The field was barren and brown as the last of the snow melted away. What started as a passing glance nearly brought tears to his eyes as he saw the tiniest flash of yellow.
The first daffodil waved at him from across the street.
He couldn’t help but think that, as always, his father was right. That field really did just need some bright, colorful plants to really come alive.
“How’d we do Mr. W?”
As he looked from his father’s daffodil to what were now his students, he couldn’t help but smile. “You nailed it, Josh. Let’s do it one more time as loud as we can that way everyone can hear us.”
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
As a fellow teacher, I found this a moving testament to the power of a good teacher. At my school, students write a letter in middle school to a favourite teacher and give it to them; it makes for a bery rewarding read what some of them write. My favourite bit? The crazy socks. I really got a taste for Mr. W's all-welcome-at- the -party personality. Welcome to Reedsy. I'll hope to read more!
Thank you!! The cover of my substitute binder says "Welcome to the party!" I'm so glad that bit of his personality came through.