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Leavings of Joy and Sorrow
Marlo had closed the house and gone on a soul-cleansing trip after the funeral.
Her brother had protested—a little — but had eventually agreed that there was nothing inside that needed her immediate attention. The place had been cleaned before receiving after-service guests and again after everyone had left.
The day had been long and heart-wrenching. Cleaning up after the last guest had departed had taken most of the night, but Marlo was content to have something to do. It kept her from thinking too much about how much she had lost in such a short time.
There was so much food. Too much, truthfully. People fall back on their need to feed when they can’t think of the right words, Marlo believed. She spent a few hours in the dining room and kitchen, wrapping and labeling food items and putting them in the freezer for later consumption.
She washed numerous casserole dishes and put sticky notes on them with the names of the people she’d have to return them to. She silently blessed those who had used disposable containers.
Marlo over-watered the many plants and flowers before leaving for a long weekend away. She practically flew out the door when the shuttle bus to the airport arrived.
She took an early morning flight to Las Vegas, where she indulged herself with show after show, buffet meals, and a few rounds with the one-armed bandits. She spoke only when she had to, looked no one in the eyes, and slept an extravagant number of hours.
She turned off her cell phone for the entire trip. She didn’t want to answer questions, make arrangements, learn of any problems or report to anyone about anything for the entire 60 hours of her mini vacation.
Monday at 8:32 p.m., her plane landed, and she reluctantly turned the phone on. The little device instantly began to chime and ding with notification tones for text and voice messages. Marlo sighed, wishing she had waited until she was back at the house. People on the plane were staring at her. Her seatmate quietly commented, “Busy lady!”
Marlo shoved the offending phone into her back pocket and stood to retrieve her carry-on bag. The shuttle service was waiting for her; she was getting good at prearranging things like that. Generally, she would have asked her brother for a ride or left her car in long-term parking, but she hadn’t wanted to drive, and she hadn’t wanted the burden of conversation with anyone who knew her personally.
Once she arrived at the house, she stood on the stoop for several minutes, her bag at her feet and the key in her hand. She took cleansing breaths and tried to calm herself.
This wasn’t her house, but it had been home for the past three years. She had moved one of her kids into her own place as caretaker while she took care of her aging parents.
For most of their time together, her parents had been in relatively good health, just no longer able to get about as well as they had. They were prone to more frequent falls, and the basement stairs had become a hazard to folks with 80-plus years under their belts.
Marlo regarded the wheelchair ramp, newly installed less than a month ago. They’d barely had occasion to use it; no one was getting out much these days. Her mother had been using a walker for quite some time, but her father’s declining strength had led to the decision to install the ramp. He was reluctant to use a cane and flatly refused to consider a walker for himself. Marlo and her brother negotiated a deal with him: a ramp from doorway to sidewalk and handrails from doorway all the way down the driveway to the mailbox. It was a rare day that he even went outdoors, but he agreed that handrails were a good, safe idea.
Marlo shrugged. They were a good, safe idea for her, too. Winters here were killer cold and icy, and there wasn’t a thing wrong with having something to hold onto on a trip to get the mail.
Not that she would still be here by winter.
She unlocked the door and went inside.
She had been gone fewer than three days, but the place felt strange to her now. Cooler. Emptier. There was a cloying odor of floral life in various stages of decay. There was also a lingering aroma from the many food items she had packed away before leaving Saturday morning.
She wandered through the house, depositing her carry-on and handbag on her bed. She considered looking for something to eat, then dismissed the idea. She’d had plenty to eat at the buffet before her flight; at this point, eating was just a way to put off doing anything else.
She studied the many floral arrangements scattered about in the living room and dining room, then went for a small garbage bucket. She plucked dead roses from their places of honor in bouquets of mixed flowers and threw them away. The carnations and chrysanthemums had fared better; she left them alone and added water to all the vases.
She watered all the live plants, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t drown any of them. Her mother was the one with the green thumb in the family. Marlo suspected that her own thumbs might be grey. Or black, more likely. She’d have to find homes for these lovely green things, or they would be doomed.
Finally, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and flopped down on the sofa. She couldn’t bring herself to sit in either of the chairs. The recliner was Dad’s, forever. The rocker was Mom’s, also forever.
She swiped the face of the phone and hit the speaker button so she wouldn’t have to hold the damn thing up to her face. “I’m back,” she announced, once her brother had answered. “How’s Gadget?”
“He’s upset and displaced,” Don replied. He sounded testy, but you never could tell with him. He didn’t have a phone-friendly voice. “Can I bring him home?”
“Sure,” Marlo replied. “I’m upset and displaced myself. Maybe we can cheer each other up.”
There was a pause, and then Marlo heard a loud *sniff* over the line. She blinked hard, determined not to cry again. “I’ll be there in a few,” Don said. “Do you need anything?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“Did you eat?”
“Too much,” Marlo chuckled. “Buffet was actually just the ticket this weekend.”
“You ate buffet? What a waste of money! You never get seconds.”
“Like I said, too much. I ate like food was going out of style. I don’t know why.”
“See you soon.”
Marlo willed herself off the sofa. Gadget would be home soon, and his bowls would have to be filled with fresh food and water.
Don arrived and released Gadget from his leash as soon as the door was closed. The little pug squealed when he saw Marlo and raced to her on stubby legs, then wiggled himself silly, whining and yipping. His bulgy eyes were full of tears when she managed to lift him up and cuddle him over her shoulder, and his tongue swept over her cheek repeatedly. “Yes, baby boy, I’m home, Mamma’s home. Don’t cry, sweetie.”
“I don’t think he stopped crying the whole time you were away,” Don scolded.
“I should have taken him with me.”
Don shook his head, contrite. “How would you hit the buffets and slots with a dog in tow?”
“I guess I should have stayed—”
“Stop. I was being selfish when I told you not to go. If anyone needed a little vacation, you did.”
Marlo didn’t argue with him. She’d been the primary caregiver for their parents for quite a long time; Don visited less than once a week, and sometimes went as long as two weeks before showing up. Marlo didn’t hold it against him. He had a traveling job, and he got there as often as he could. But she had needed a little time away after everything.
“You want a soda, Don? There’s about a million choices in the fridge.”
They walked together into the kitchen and selected soft drinks. “Glass of ice?” Marlo offered.
They sat at the table, sipping soda and sneaking peeks at each other. Gadget settled his head on Marlo’s shoulder and went to sleep. Little pug-snores soon ensued.
“Wow,” Don said, looking fondly at the roly-poly dog. “He’s asleep. Finally.”
“He wouldn’t sleep?” Marlo felt terrible. She should never have gone—poor little dog.
“Not much. He had bad dreams.” Don held up a hand, palm facing her. “Don’t ask. I know what I know.”
Marlo nodded. “I’m sorry about all this,” she said.
“What? Why?” Don frowned at her. “This is not your fault, Marlo.”
“I shouldn’t have let them go!” Marlo wailed.
“You couldn’t have stopped them.” Don frowned at her. “They wanted to go. It was their thing. You know that.”
“They couldn’t even dance anymore.”
“They were the best dancers on canes and walkers ever.” Don stood up. “Come on,” he said. “I have something to show you.”
He led the way to the study, and Marlo followed, reluctant but curious.
On the desk, Dad’s glasses, a magnifying glass, and a digital camera sat together in the center of his leather mouse pad.
“Where did the camera come from?” Marlo asked.
“The police returned it right after you left,” Don replied. “It was in a different bag and didn’t get sent to the…to the mortuary.”
Don picked it up and turned it on, then opened the files so the most recent photos could be seen on the viewing screen. “Just look, Marlo. I don’t know who took the pictures, but…well, you’ll see.”
Marlo sat at the desk and moved Gadget to her lap. He moaned in protest, then settled himself. She took the camera and held it close to her face.
“Use the magnifying glass,” Don advised.
As she flipped through the photographs, she saw her parents, with various others in their square-dancing group, dressed to the nines in their colorful costumes, dancing and laughing, twirling with their canes and walkers and obviously having a wonderful time.
“Oh, God!” Marlo sobbed. “Look at them! They had a ball, didn’t they?”
It was an annual festivity, one their parents hadn’t missed in decades. Marlo had discouraged them from this year’s trip, but they wouldn’t hear of skipping the fun. The group had taken a chartered bus and had spent two days in competition. Their last night away, the hotel had experienced a gas leak in one wing, and several people in their group had gone to sleep and never woke up.
Marlo kept looking at the photos. “Wow. Look at them go. Amazing!”
Don grinned. “I haven’t seen them looking that happy in a long time. Have you?”
“Not really,” Marlo admitted.
“They went to sleep tired and happy,” Don told her. He looked at her expectantly.
“It’s still not fair!” Marlo snapped.
“No, it’s not,” Don agreed. “But…”
“But what? It could have been worse? They didn’t suffer?”
Don sighed deeply. “Yeah. I’m sick of the platitudes, too. Even if it’s true.”
Marlo stared at a photo of her parents, nose to nose, and laughing as they both leaned on Mom’s walker. The joy on their faces, the love in their eyes as they stared at each other—it shouted out from the little camera, and Marlo couldn’t wait to have the shot enlarged.
“This should have been the main picture at the wake,” she said. Don looked and nodded. “I’ll get two copies.”
“No.” She frowned, thinking.
“I’ll get copies for the kids, too.” Her tone was decisive. “This is a joy that should be shared.” She shook her head. “Just look at them!”
“It’s not fair!” A flood of tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I know.” Don didn’t bother to brush away his own tears.
He pulled the extra chair around and sat beside her. While Gadget snored his pug-dog snores, they sat shoulder to shoulder and looked at the pictures of their dancing, laughing parents. They spoke no more for quite a while.
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