The Last Tree

              “Tessa, the guy who’s power washing right now also paints!” As Ward looked at his wife of thirty-three years she observed the satisfaction in his crinkling eyes. A man had come to their door while she’d been at work and offered to power wash their stained and mildewed Florida driveway. It was a good price, too, only seventy bucks.  She knew that door to door solicitor with his zooming water was saving Ward the task of finding someone reliable to do it for them. It was hard for him to talk on the phone so it was a win-win for both men.

              “Ask him if he wants to paint that section of the eaves.  Maybe he’ll do it while he’s here.”

              “Good idea.  I will,” he responded.

              Tessa observed Ward limp toward the door from the laundry room to the garage. Before she’d had a chance to make herself an after-work cup of coffee Ward returned. “He said he’d do it right now for another fifteen dollars!” She saw how pleased he looked to take one more thing off his to-do list.

              “Great,” she said with enthusiasm. “Do you have the paint ready, honey? I’ll get the paintbrush.”  She followed Ward out to the garage. He approached the extension ladder on their garage wall, but he was walking too fast. Anxiety and her protective instincts arose in Tessa simultaneously as she observed her husband’s too quick shuffle and the too-high ladder.  She also saw the ladder on top of the pressure washer guy’s truck. “Ward, can’t he use his own ladder?”

              Her cautionary question was too late.  Ward had already reached high up the wall and grabbed the aluminum ladder that was stored horizontally near the ceiling.  With his arms fully extended Ward grabbed the ladder above him and turned slightly. She watched the slow-motion disaster unfold. Ward struggled for balance, teetered and then went down in a twisting free-fall, crashing into the shelf along the wall. The ladder crashed on top of him as he yelled out. It was obvious that he’d slammed his back and arms but not his head—no blood.

              “Ward, why didn’t you ask for help?” she yelled as she ran to lift the ladder and help him up. He seemed unharmed but a quick assessment showed a rising bruise in his right arm and another on his back.

              “That didn’t go so well. “ He was laughing, something he always did when he was embarrassed. The power washing guy seeing the laughter, continued with his misty spray.

              “I was right here.  I could’ve helped you.” Her voice rose in frustration and anger. Then she popped. “You are a sick man, Ward!” When will you realize that you can’t do things like this anymore? You have to stop doing this!” Tears nipped at her eyes as her voice became thick. “You’re not well enough anymore. Get it?”

              “I’m sorry, Tessa.  I’m an idiot as usual. I just forget about my Parkinson’s.”

              Assured that he was able to walk and could attend to the painter Tessa turned on her heels and walked into the house. She went directly to the master bathroom where she crouched down on the bath rug in an upright fetal position and began to cry. It felt good and terrible to sob loudly and she allowed her body to rock with each wave of sniffling breath. Intuitively she knew that the strength of her weeping pointed to more than her frustration with her husband’s denial.  She let loose with loud sobs. Every time I think I’m coping so well, along comes something to remind me how much I’ve bottled up within me again. Despair swept through her. It overwhelmed her with its hardiness. Sorrow pounded her down till her forehead touched the rug.

              Earlier that week, Tessa had watched the movers pick up their young adult daughter’s things—all of her things, even her childhood Legos and Beanie Babies—to move them to her new home out west, two thousand miles away. The only things left for Ward and Tessa were her baby book, some photographs and a stuffed Elmo who peeked out of a basket in Tessa’s study—and the memories.  Tessa’s throat had unexpectedly caught as the pod holding those belongings moved down the street on a flatbed truck. She and Ward had been looking forward to a truly empty nest, not the former so-called empty nest. That one had no bird residing with them but had most of the bird’s possessions in their garage. They had finished the final chapter of hands-on parenting. That book, now closed, was impossible to be re-read. Had they done a good job by her? She had not expected the deep sadness.

              Two only children had reared their only child.  It had been a high-intensity household with all those perfectionists. Ward’s parents were dead leaving no extended family other than a distant cousin. Tessa’s parents, too, were gone now for seven years, taken from her too early within months of each other by cancer.  Her aunt and uncle lived up north but she seldom saw or spoke to them.

              At work, she had risen the corporate ladder to upper management, willing to accept the increasing isolation that accompanied each promotion. Advancement is a good thing, right? How different it had been to be the boss over her friends. Soon enough those friendships had tapered to acquaintanceships. Who wants the boos to know intimate stuff, after all? Whatever social life she and Ward had had revolved around her work—he hadn’t worked for six years due to his illness—and those engagements had recently become solos appearances since Ward tired of people not being able to understand him when he talked and of just being around people at all. She had become the only real person in his life, a burden often not lightened by the easy laughter between them and the comfort of their shared years that she so appreciated.

              “Tessa!”  Ward knocked on the bathroom door. “Tessa, don’t cry, sweetheart. Please stop.”  She did not respond and let the catharsis of the crying jag continue. She was loud and didn’t care. The last tree standing in the forest has a reason to wail, after all. I’m all alone. I’m all alone. I’m all alone. That chant had been an undercurrent in her for far too long.

              The door opened.   “Tessa, don’t cry.  Please don’t cry.  I’m sorry I was such a jerk.  I’m sorry I upset you so much. I’m okay. Get up, sweetheart.” She felt his hands grasp her near the waist as he coaxed her to her feet. She leaned her head on his shoulder aware of the atrophy in his muscles. As she continued to cry he soothed her.  “I love you, Tessa. I ’m sorry. I’m sorry. Thanks for putting up with me.”

              For today, that would have to do. Tomorrow she determined to contact that Caregiver Support Group his neurologist had suggested. That thought gave her hope.


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