By Wayne Faust
And I said, let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day.
— Patrick Kavanagh, from On Raglan Road
It was November and I was at my favorite spot in the whole world, on a dirt path alongside a cobblestone street. The path was once a sidewalk, now fallen into disrepair. But the cobblestone remained, along with a crumbling brick wall to the right of the path, about knee high. Dead leaves swirled around my feet. I climbed up on the wall and gazed down into a deep valley, no longer the emerald green of summer, but in autumn shades of olive and gray. In the far distance, a cluster of oaks and elms thrust their black branches into the air like hitchhikers against the wind.
I took a deep, cleansing breath. This was the best time of year, a time to break out warm sweaters, to feel my blood race against the coming of winter . . .
I spun around. I thought I had been alone, but a woman stood just below me, looking up with clear blue eyes that were exactly the way I remembered them. My feet froze in place and I couldn’t speak. Finally, one word whispered out between my lips.
She nodded. A gust of wind tousled her brown hair. Tears leaked from her eyes. “Happy birthday, honey.”
Gingerly, I stepped down from the wall and stared at her. She was nearly as tall as me, though she looked a little older than I remembered. But she still stood proud and straight, the way she used to before cancer shriveled her down to a wisp.
I reached out a fingertip and touched her cheek. I expected it to be insubstantial like mist, for clearly she was a mirage, a ghost. Instead, I felt warm skin, and soft moisture from her tears.
“I don’t understand,” I said, my voice breaking. “How can you be here?”
She blinked away more tears. “I wished and prayed for so long. And now, here you are.”
She held out her arms and we embraced. I could feel her tremble as she rested her head on my shoulder. Or maybe it was me who trembled. We stayed that way for a long time. Finally, we pulled away from each other.
“How did you get here?” I asked, my eyes searching hers. “Where did you come from?”
Her face twisted in confusion. She pointed behind her. At the spot where the winding path turned left to head down to town, a patch of thick fog obscured the view, even though it wasn’t a foggy day.
“I come up here every year,” she said. “On your birthday, when the house gets especially lonely.”
“What house?” I asked.
“What house? My house. The house you grew up in.”
I shook my head in frustration. “Somebody else lives there now. Ever since you . . . ”
Her face darkened. “Ever since I what?”
“Ever since you . . . died.”
The word slapped her in the face. “I didn’t die,” she sputtered.
“Yes you did. Ten years ago. I was at the bedside holding your hand, though I never knew if you sensed me there or not. You were in a coma for that whole last week.”
The memory still pierced my heart. I was forced to watch her shrivel away to nothing. Just before she slipped into a coma, the last thing she said to me was, “Don’t let go of my hand. It’s dark in here.”
She searched my eyes and pressed her lips into a thin line. Finally, she spoke, her voice nearly a whisper. “How could you say I died? What do you think I died of?”
“Colon cancer. You had a routine test years before, but they lost the results or something. So when they found the cancer, it was way too far along.”
She shook her head. “No, that’s not right. I did have a test and they did lose the results. But don’t you remember? A couple months later a PA fresh out of med school discovered the mistake and they called me in for another test. You took me to the doctor that day. They found cancer but it was still very small. They took me to surgery a week later and got it all.”
My heart skipped a beat. What was this, some kind of wish fulfillment dream? After she died, I did some research and found that they had lost the damn test. I could have sued but what was the point? She was dead. I always wished that one little thing could have been different. But that was just pissing in the wind.
“That isn’t what happened,” I said firmly. “No one ever called you in for another test. I watched you take your last breath. You must be some kind of hallucination. I’ve been missing you a lot lately, so maybe my brain conjured you up. ”
Her face flushed. “It wasn’t me who died. It was you. Right after you took me home from the doctor, you got into a terrible car crash. They said you were killed instantly. The funeral was two days before my surgery. I’ve always wished that I had someone else take me to the doctor that day, because then you’d still be alive.”
It felt like someone had just stabbed me in the chest. “But I am still alive,” I sputtered. “I have a life, a good one. A year after you died I got married. We have three kids. Your grandchildren. The hardest thing for me has been knowing you never got to see them.”
Now it was her who looked like she’d just been stabbed. “Grandchildren?”
“Yes. And they’re beautiful.”
I saw a desperate longing in her eyes. It was like nothing I had ever seen there before, not even after my dad died. She reached out and touched my arm. “What’s going on here?”
I looked past her shoulder to the fog bank across the path behind her. Then I looked behind me. The path was clear enough to see the steeple of the church at the end of my block, way down below.
“What do you see behind me?” I asked.
She glanced over my shoulder. “Lots of fog, blocking my way.”
“And behind you?”
“It’s crystal clear.”
That’s when a most unlikely thought came to me. With a sigh, I sat on the edge of the wall and patted the brick. She sat down next to me.
“Look,” I said, “this is probably going to sound like something I’d write in one of my crazy stories. But some people believe that events aren’t fixed, especially really important ones. Things can head off in whole different directions.” I pointed down into the valley. “It’s kinda like the branches of those trees down there. They all come from the main trunk, but each of them go their own way. There can be lots and lots of branches, all heading away from the same timeline. Do you follow me?”
She shook her head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I chuckled. She was the same mom I remembered all right. She’d never understood any of my stories and probably wouldn’t get this either.
I decided to try again.
“Okay, look at it this way. What if, and this is a really big if, what if on the day they called you in for that test, our lives branched off the main trunk and split? On one branch, you didn’t get that test and the cancer eventually killed you. On the other branch, you got the test and I died after dropping you off at home. And now, after ten years, the branches somehow found a way to intersect, so we could each get a little glimpse of our different lives since that day.”
Her eyes went glassy as she struggled to digest all of this. Finally, she asked, “But why would that happen? And how?”
I wrung my hands. “I have no idea. Maybe the emotions between us were so strong that we made it happen.”
She paused for a long moment, her eyes never leaving mine. Then, with a sense of urgency, she spoke. “Okay, I don’t get it. But you’re obviously here, clear as day. So do one thing for me. Please.”
“Tell me about my grandchildren.”
My heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t been expecting this, but what father doesn’t want to brag about his kids?
In loving detail, I proceeded to tell her all about my life for the past ten years, my marriage, my job, my kids. I told her about their schools, their little league games, their bouts with chickenpox, and all of our Christmases. My mom hung onto every single word as the day grew long, her face a mixture of delight, longing, and grief over what she had missed.
I finally ran out of words.
“Thank you, thank you,” she said, gently pulling my head to her shoulder. I’ve always wondered what might have happened if you hadn’t died. This is better than I could have dreamed.”
I nodded, feeling proud and sad at the same time. “And what about you? Tell me what you’ve been doing since . . . you know.”
She sighed. “Not much to tell. With you and your father both gone, I’ve mostly been lonely. Achingly lonely. I’ve got friends, but when you lose your husband and your only child at a young age, there’s not a lot to look forward to. I’ve hung in there though.”
“Of course you have,” I said, patting her knee.
“So what now?” she asked.
That was the million dollar question. Behind us in the valley, the light grew dim. The clouds parted, revealing the orange ball of the setting sun. It looked like one of the crayon drawings hanging on my refrigerator at home.
Suddenly my mom gripped my arm. “Take me with you,” she urged.
“I want to see my grandchildren.”
I whistled through my teeth. “This is all new to me. I have no idea if we can do that.”
“There’s only one way to find out.” She stood up and held out her hand. “The sun’s going down. I’m guessing that our time is almost up.”
I stood and looked towards the fog bank on her side of the path. It looked like a solid, impassable wall. Would it be the same for her on my side?
“Okay,” I muttered. “No time like the present.” It was only later that I realized the irony of that.
I took my mother’s hand and we started down the path towards my house. The cobblestone to my left looked quaint and lovely. Even more lovely was the thought that my long-lost mom was here with me in this place.
Suddenly, she stopped and squeezed my hand. Her eyes went wide and darted back and forth. “Don’t let go,” she said. “It’s dark in here.”
It was the last thing I heard her say. Again.
Then she was gone, just as night fell and a cold wind whistled up from the valley.
Since then, I’ve questioned whether it really happened. But I choose to believe. Somewhere on a distant timeline, a different branch, my mom’s life continues. If it does, she’ll find a way back, like she did once before. In the meantime, I’ll tell my children as much as I can about their grandmother.
Next year in November, I’ll spend the whole day on the dirt path next to the brick wall and the cobblestone road. This time I won’t be alone, for I’ll have my wife and my children with me.
And if the branches once again intersect, we’ll all be together at last, even if just for a day.
Wayne Faust has been a full-time music and comedy performer for over 40 years, playing in 41 U.S. states and overseas in England, Scotland, and Holland. While on the road with his show, he writes fiction, and has had over 50 stories published in various places around the world. His piece in this issue is one of his personal favorites, and he is very happy that it found a home with the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. His website is waynefaust.com.