By Curt Collier
In 8th grade I got my first paid job working at a nursery in my hometown. On Saturdays I would ride my bike about four miles to a stately home surrounded by live oaks along the Medina River that doubled as a plant store. The elderly woman who ran it had once been a schoolteacher, and a stern one, I was told, but now the work was too much for her. Her son had been in some accident decades ago when he was in his late 20’s and was now completely bedridden in a coma. She moved him from some hospital into her home and spent the rest of her life by his side attending to him and waiting for some change.
To tell you the truth, I hated going inside her house, finding the whole scene to be so depressing, and was content to remain outside making decorative planters, dividing plants, mixing soils, and watering. Occasionally, however, she’d invite me in to assist her with something or another. There beside the entrance, in what had been the dining room, was her son reclining in a medical bed surrounded by the whirl of equipment that kept his body alive. There was nothing else in the room except for one wooden chair where she spent her day. The shades were drawn but a bright light shown down from above, lighting up a colorful wallpaper print that hinted to happier times. It was a sharp contrast to her son’s pale skin.
After getting new assignment, I quit
As her nursery business was barely viable in a town of 1,821 people, she often paid me to do other jobs for her. One day she drove me over to her husband’s old dentistry office and asked if I could clean up the debris. Dr. Herman had passed decades before, and the old office had fallen into a shambles after a tornado sent a tree through the roof. Rain and rot had taken its toll and debris and fallen rafters made entry into the dingy space even more difficult. Needless to say, a few days after getting this new assignment, I quit.
My father actually became angry with me for giving up, arguing that I promised her I would clean up the space, and he felt I should honor that promise no matter the difficulty. He made me ride my bike back to Mrs. Herman’s house to tell her I would no longer take the job. I dreaded the whole trip. She was there, as always, in a fancy white dress with well-coiffed hair and told me she was disappointed–in that schoolteacher voice–but understood. She then said her son would “miss my little visits.” I had never seen so much as a muscle spasm or an eye flicker and doubted her comment instantly, but it’s always kind of haunted me.
Overwhelmed, I broke into tears
I remember riding my bike back up the steep hill toward my home, angry at my father, ashamed at myself, with visions of Herman junior in his bed, which I can still see clearly in my mind to this day. Exhausted from the steep climb, dehydrated by the Texas sun, and emotionally overwhelmed, I pulled over near a thorny Mesquite tree and broke into tears. I let someone down. I disappointed my father. I missed building beautiful planters. I missed my sister. All of those were true at that moment.
I finally calmed myself down but lacked the energy for the remaining mile and a half and so I just kind of remained there, sitting on my bike and staring at the asphalt melting in the heat. A short time later the wind lifted and the sweet smell of Mesquite beans wafted my way. I looked toward the scraggly tree, and near its dry sandy base was a pair of Inca dove bathing in the dust, occasionally pausing to ensure I meant them no harm. Beyond the fence toward the north lay a field of seed maize that added to the fragrance of the air. Their colorful tops stood in contrast to a few thin clouds and blue sky. Life can be amazingly tragic while simultaneously being amazingly beautiful.
I’m not one to simply think about the rosy side of life. I’m well aware there are several more curveballs heading my way. So I pause and gaze around to catch my breath, and then a bit of color captures my attention or a melody arises somewhere inside me, and for that moment it’s all OK.
Summer comes toward us like a warm wave, lifting us back on our tiptoes and shaking us open. I know some memories come covered with falling snow, while other memories are tinted in orange and smell of cinnamon and fall, but it’s my summer memories I spend more time lingering over. These are mixed in with seeing people lying on medical beds hooked to ventilators and of loved ones looking at us and frowning. Keep them all, like postcards, in a box in your head. Linger over the ones that lift you back up on your bike, and despite the heat of the day, still peddling toward home and sweet iced tea. The other picture cards remain in that box too . . . but sometimes you just have to leave them for another day.
Curt Collier is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.