By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. In a warm, fresh breeze, the leaves waved at us in a fashion making the Queen proud, each with its unique color, from the brightest of yellows to the deepest of maroons, they tantalized our eyes. It was fall.
This tree had been here since I was a child. I remember it when my parents brought me here for the rare Friday evening hamburger, when my grandfather brought me here for my first pizza, and when I brought a pretty girl here on my first date.
“The Ozarks are pretty this time of year. Always have been.”
“Yes, they are,” she replied, squeezing my hand. “Always have been.” For forty-five years she had squeezed my hand like that.
It was hard to believe that this tree, now glittering in the morning sun shining from behind us, had glittered like this the evening after we married. Until today, I had not noticed that it had changed, but today I saw it. The dense collection of waving leaves reached to the sky, sheltered the street, and snuggled against the building. Its branches are tortuous, its bark is deeply creased, and its wounds, from ice storms and snows, are more prominently displayed. A respected elder for all my life, it had become my peer, as if we had returned from a train trip together.
“In many ways, this tree reflects us,” I said.
“How is that?”
“We are more deeply creased, our scars are more obvious, though less deeply felt, and our leaves are changing color.”
“I like the color your leaves have changed,” she said, shocking me with a metaphor, something she nearly never used. She tussled my hair. “Your hair is so silver, like your father’s when I met him.”
Truth can be construed as sandpaper or velvet. “Yes. I see him in the mirror every morning. I have become the disgusting old man my father was.” attempting, poorly, to cast a humorous light on the cold truth, which, as always in her case, fell on its face.
“I don’t remember him being disgusting. You are only disgusting some of the time.”
“Like right now?”
“At our age, who’s not disgusting? This is the fall. We deserve the fall, after our spring and summer.” She was referring to personal tribulations, which were, compared to other people around us, not particularly arduous. Like the tree.
“I don’t think many of us are disgusting. Unless you are you talking about me dropping everything on the floor? Unless you are you talking about me searching for the glasses on my face? Unless you are talking about dentures, or more specifically when my dentures are out? Or unless you are talking about me forgetting to take my medicine? Unless you are talking about not being able to drive a hundred miles without a bathroom? Unless you are talking about not remembering what you sent me to the grocery store for?”
“There is that. But I was also talking about how much we have changed in our perception of life. We have stopped talking about money, and are talking about the virtues of our grandsons. We have stopped talking about making financial or career plans, and started talking about what to do when I am rehabilitating from my knee replacement, what you are going to do when I can’t walk for a month. We are talking about how to navigate the basement steps. We are talking about prepaid funerals, shower handles, and Social Security.”
I fully got the concept. “Two decades ago, I thought of that as disgusting, and maybe that is what made me think of my father as disgusting. But now that it is upon us, it seems less repugnant, and more plain reality. I remember how your mother struggled with steps and how she hated the wheelchair and the shower stool. They are mechanically necessary hurdles which lie ahead. There is no deep, concealed meaning in them. We are living day to day, putting one foot in front of the other, and gathering the courage to carry groceries up the steps. I get up in the morning and realize that each day is a gift. I push past my arthritis and go for a bike ride or finish the laundry. You push past yours and go to the grocery store, or get material and interfacing for a quilt. When your brother and sister-in-law ask us to their house for dinner, we are concerned about what time we will get home and if that might be after sunset. It is a struggle not to forget your hair appointment or my doctor’s visit. Every morning at breakfast we discuss what day of the week it is. And I actually have to make a plan on how to get up off the floor after putting a puzzle together with a grandchild.”
We walked the rest of the block from the breakfast restaurant where we had eaten ‘Senior Two by Two’s,’ where we had eaten dinner the night of our first date, and where the stately oak, on both occasions, dropped acorns to decorate the lawn. The handicap ramp of the sidewalk contrasted new with the old shade of concrete.
An acorn popped on the street in front of us. We were looking to get in the car and head for church. “And see, I have to work hard to remember where I parked the car.”
“I also have to remember which car I brought. When you took mine to get the oil changed and I drove yours to the shoe store, I walked all over the parking lot before I realized I was looking for the wrong car. It was right in front of me.”
Further along the sidewalk, our car came into view. “Remember when we only had one car, and it was a ridiculous bright yellow Volkswagen beetle. It was so easy to find.”
“The fall of life is wonderful. The colors are wonderful. Grandchildren eating ice cream is wonderful. Our friends having anniversary celebrations is wonderful. Fixing up our neighbor’s front porch is wonderful ̶ ̶ so long as I don’t have to hurry.”
“Would you want to do it over?”
“Oh, no. With the wisdom I have now? Maybe. But no, been there, done that, had a good time, got the t-shirt.”
“You are being ridiculous. Now that,” she emphasized, “your father certainly was.”
The leaves of each tree along the street, as we walked hand-in-hand, continued precisely modeling the Queen’s handwave. “Interesting,” she said, “that the trees can pull this off, and they can do this every year for a century or two. The leaves will soon be gone, so they can grow fresh ones next spring.”
“I put my hand on top of my head. I hope this won’t be gone.”
She giggled. “You know, a dog’s life is estimated by multiplying its age by seven. I wonder what the multiplier is from us to oak trees.”
“Well,” I calculated, “maybe three.”
“Three. I am seventy, the tree is two hundred, I suppose. I think I look about like the tree. I am deeply creased, showing my scars proudly, and fully decked out with leaves.”
“So, then, a noisy thunderstorm might knock it down in fifty more years?”
“Or the trunk will be hollow, occupied only by bees or a squirrel’s savings account. Like some of us. We have hollow heads, occupied by bees.”
“You are being ridiculous again, like your dad.”
We found the car. I found my key. I could remember the way to church. She accepted help in sitting in the passenger seat. I waved back at the trees, attempting the Queen’s gesture. Hobbling toward the driver’s seat, I noticed the leaves were on fire.
I kissed her before starting the engine. Unlike years past, every time I kissed her, I knew it could be our last. I was thankful for each time I was blessed with one more kiss. I remember our first. And at that time, like the leaves today, I was on fire.