(TW: Bereavement and grief)
With his face turned heavenwards and his right hand grasping a dried maple leaf, Andres struggled with his thoughts as he stood in their favorite park, under their favorite tree. How did it come to this?
Only three hours ago, he was strolling through the park, humming a tune to himself as he enjoyed the gentle warmth of the Sun. Suddenly, his azure eyes spotted something on the bench that was under the maple tree Iris loved so much. He moved towards the tree, his eyes fixed on the brown item. As he got to the bench, he realized it was a dried maple leaf that must have fallen from the tree. Andres picked it up, turned it over and his eyes became the size of dinner plates. Unbelievable! There, on the underside of the fallen leaf, was a bright, pink painting of a dog's paw.
Fourteen-year-old Andres ran as fast as his strapping pale legs could carry him. He couldn't believe fall was finally here! After giving his best friend, Iris, a piece of his mind for going to the park without him, he'd return to gather all the fallen maple leaves he could carry so she could preserve them and paint on them like she always did.
Andres arrived the front door of the Paiges' house out of breath and rang the doorbell. He could barely contain his excitement as he held on to the maple leaf he had found and waited for someone to answer the door.
“Good morning Mrs Paige. Where's Iris?”
A look of confusion was evident on Mrs Paige's face as she regarded the teenager asking after her daughter. Andres, oblivious to her confusion, continued babbling. “I can't believe you took her to the park without me. She's painting again. See? It's a miracle.”
Mrs Paige's eyes lit up in understanding for a millisecond before returning to their dull brown hue. She kept her gaze on the painted leaf Andres kept waving enthusiastically and the corners of her mouth twitched up in a humorless smile. She, then, stepped away from the doorway and asked the bumbling boy to come in.
After seeing him settled on a couch in her quaint living room and offering him a glass of water, Mrs Paige told Andres to give her some minutes before she excused herself. Andres sat impatiently for several minutes, wondering what was taking Iris' mother so long. Soon enough, the woman, with suspiciously reddened eyes, reentered the living room, a glass box held in her callused hands. She handed the box to Andres.
“What's this Mrs Paige? Where's Iris?,” he asked. She did not reply but just nodded at him, indicating he should open the box. He lifted the delicate lid, pulled out a picture and immediately smiled. It was a picture of himself and Iris during their first time in the park. His smile was missing a tooth and her beautiful brown skin was bathed in sunlight. They were just nine.
If tomorrow starts without me
And I'm not there to see
If the Sun should rise and find your eyes
All filled with tears for me...
Andres looked into the box again and pulled out a brown maple leaf. Painted underneath it in deep blue and block letters was the word ‘bestie’. This was the first leaf Iris ever painted. It was fall season and the leaves were all over the ground beneath the maple tree. She had been upset about all the dead leaves before she decided to ‘bring them back to life’ by painting words on them. Her brown eyes had stared into the twin oceans that were his and then, she decided to paint the word in the color of his eyes.
... And each time that you think of me
I know you'll miss me too...
Andres pulled out leaf after leaf and observed the paintings with a fond smile and the occasional giggle. An ice cream cone, a red rose, a spider. All, tiny drawings his friend made. The colorful words scrawled in cursive handwriting were his favorite. Canary, party, twelve, baby, Messi. Each one of these glycerin-preserved leaves brought back so many memories. When he pulled out the next leaf, Andres stilled as the memory attached to it, came to the forefront of his mind.
Iris had been ill again and she was in the hospital. As they waited for the results of her lab tests, she told him that doctors were amazing people but she could never be one. “I've seen enough needles and scrubs to last a lifetime,” she had complained. That day, she was told she had cancer. That day, she wrote ‘doctor’ on one of her preserved leaves.
... But as I turned to walk away
A tear fell from my eye
For all my life I'd always thought
I didn't want to die...
Andres struggled as the utter despair he had felt that day crashed into him like a truck out of control. His hand trembled as he reached for the next leaf. This one was red but the word on it was painted in black. Pain! He was not there when she wrote this word but he had seen it when he visited her. The hospital had practically become her home by then.
Next leaf, ‘bald’. The doctors said the chemotherapy was working but as Iris' curly black hair fell out, Andres only felt his best friend was slipping from his hands.
... It seemed almost impossible
That I was leaving you...
When Andres reached for the next leaf, it was more of an automatic action due to repetition, than a conscious effort. An object this time. He had made this one. It was not as good as Iris' but she had been too tired to do it herself. A football. He had promised her that as soon as she got out of the hospital, they'd go to a stadium and get her a jersey signed by her favorite player, Messi. The smile she had given him had been a sad one, like she knew something he didn't. It was a promise impossible to keep.
... But then I fully realized
That this could never be
For emptiness and memories
Would take the place of me...
There were more leaves but no more words. Each leaf was only impressed with a different color of her fingerprint, reminding him that his friend was still there. The final leaf had only a single word, block letters, white paint. He wrote this, that much he could tell. But he struggled to remember when and why. PEACE.
Mrs Paige calmly watched as Andres went down memory lane. With the tears that had welled up in her eyes finally falling to her cheeks, she watched an expression of overwhelming grief distort Andres' features as he finally allowed himself to remember. He remembered that his friend had made him paint the word, ‘peace’ on the leaf as she took her final breaths. He remembered that only a week ago, they had all been at the funeral of his friend, who grimly fought for life, but was taken away by death's icy hands. Distraught as she was, Mrs Paige had noticed Andres' unnerving quietness at the funeral and she knew then that the young boy had not yet accepted that his best friend was never coming back.
“I think it was a letter for you,” the woman, exhausted with grief, extended a white piece of paper to Andres. He looked at it and for the first time, felt the tears that had been cascading down his flushed cheeks.
“No, it's not,” he replied, shaking his head of dirty blonde hair. “It's a poem by someone called David Romano. She discovered it two months before...”
He pressed a clenched fist to his mouth, to keep in the treacherous sounds of melancholy rising at the back of his throat. As he read through the lines of the poem, he suddenly wanted to agree with Iris' mother that it was a letter for him.
...But when tomorrow starts without me
Please try to understand
That an angel came and called my name
And took me by the hand...
He didn't need to look at the paper to know the last stanza. His eyes had followed Iris' pale index finger, which she ran over the lines of her poem every other day. He had not allowed it to register in his stubborn mind that her eyes, which he always thought were like dark chocolate pools, were losing the light in them. He had denied the image his eyes sent to his brain of an emaciated, frail stranger, who looked like a dying version, an awfully inaccurate imitation of his best friend. The shrill screaming of the heart monitor, the defeated look on the doctors' faces, the strangled cry that escaped Mrs Paige's lips, they had all faded into the recesses of his mind and memory. They were disjointed pieces of a nightmare he was sure he woke up from; except there was no nightmare, and no waking up. The only thing he had to wake up from now, was the fantastic dream that Iris would spend fall season bringing the dead leaves back to life. With a shaky exhale, he closed his eyes as those final four lines, so permanent, so inevitable, fell from his lips in a whisper.
“... So when tomorrow starts without me
Don't think we're far apart
For every time you think of me
I'm right there in your heart.”
Andres lifted his teary eyes to Mrs Paige's and sniffed. “But what about the leaf with the dog paw, the one I found in the park?”
Mrs Paige wiped her tears with the back of her hand and smiled sadly. “I must have dropped it when I went to the park earlier. She made it to remind me of the puppy she wanted for her next birthday,” she explained.
With a hug, many tears, heartbreaking sobs and a profuse appreciation and apology, Andres left Mrs Paige, her words ringing in his ears. “I lost my husband first. And I know it's impossible to accept Andres but I need to say this for your sake, as well as mine. I've lost my baby girl too, Andres. We've lost her.”
Now, standing once again in the park, Andres let it all sink in. He looked towards the maple tree and realizes for the first time that the tree did not have the brilliant bursts of red, orange and yellow leaves characteristic of fall, but was thick with green summer leaves. Fall was still several weeks away and Iris would not be there.
Standing in the park where everything reminded him of Iris was too painful. With immeasurable grief in his heart and Mrs Paige's maple leaf in his hand, Andres began to head home. He would get that puppy for Mrs Paige so she wouldn't be so alone. He would live for Iris, and he would be okay. “Someday, one day, just not today”.