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:: The Garden by Michelle Denney ::

"Where are we going?" Saul asked his son, "Are you taking me home?"
"No Dad, we're going somewhere else," Daniel answered.

Saul gazed out the car window at the familiar farmhouses passing by. The bright afternoon sun offered a sharp contrast to the deep Autumn colors of the surrounding trees. He gazed down at his hands and tried desperately to remember the name of the man sitting next to him. Saul knew that he should know, if only his mind would help him remember.

Your father has a condition similar to Alzheimer's that is due to the hardening of his arteries. He really shouldn't live alone any longer.

Daniel recalled the doctor’s matter-of-fact speech in the crisp white room of the hospital. The lab coat, the walls, the sheets, even the trash can were white, clean, sterile. Unfriendly. Just like the walls that would soon surround Saul at his new home, Barton W. Stone Nursing Home.

Daniel had tried to preserve normalcy for his father as long as possible, but it had become too difficult. He had hired a nurse to take care of Saul but he had struck her with a stick after becoming disoriented.

It was no longer practical for Saul to live at home and Daniel knew that the thirty miles that separated his house from his father's house made it even more difficult to take care of Saul. Daniel knew that putting Saul in the nursing home was the only option, but he still felt like the warden of the jail.

Barton W. Stone Nursing Home was the best Daniel could find in the area. It had excellent medical care and a friendly staff, but it still reminded Daniel of those uncomfortable class trips at Christmas-time when everyone piled on the bus with their art project tucked under arm to go to the nursing home and sing. Daniel couldn’t forget the stagnant smell of day-old skin that needed to be cleaned of the urine and medicine that seeped into the pores. Daniel felt like he was abandoning his father in the land of the living dead where a game of Bingo and a fresh change of clothes marked a good day. Some sort of strange preschool center where the teachers were younger than the adults and sometimes people didn’t wake up after nap time.

"Will you please take me home?" Saul asked again, "My family will be worried about me."

Daniel sighed deeply. It was becoming tiresome and sad to talk to his father. Saul seemed to drift in and out of understanding. He could carry on a conversation but was constantly repeating the same few sentences over and over until conversation seemed more like a well planned dialogue. Daniel could almost tell what the next drawn out sentence would be without even waiting for his father to clear his throat and begin.

Pulling into the parking lot, Daniel felt a sense of relief. "Let someone else answer his questions and take care of him for awhile." Daniel said to himself, feeling guilty as soon as the words crossed his mind. He parked near the main entrance and went around to help his father with the door. Saul’s weight pressed down Daniel’s arm as he tugged to pull his cane out of the seat. He slowly shifted his weight onto the stick he had personalized by carving several summers ago. It had a large Masonic emblem at the top that left an impression on Saul’s hand. Elegant swirls of tree branches, leaves and flowers cascaded down the sides and the names of his family were intertwined in the pattern. It represented memories Saul cherished. A giant wooden collage that had all the elements of his life and now supported him as he walked forward.

All of the arrangements had been made for an "easy transition into a new life" at the nursing home. It was suggested that Saul arrive during the afternoon activity. Today they were folding towels and sheets. Daniel helped Saul into a chair and then walked down the hall to the nurses station to check his father's personal items in.

He was taken to the room his father would share with another man. Depressing. This was the last place Saul would ever call home, Daniel thought clearing his throat to keep the tears from coming to his eyes. He placed the afghan that his mother had made so many years ago at the foot of his fathers bed.

Saul was seated at a table. Around the room were faces that should have been familiar to Saul. They had all lived within the same farming community but Saul’s eyes did not linger on the faces trying to decipher their connection to a memory. Some of the men were discussing the weather and its effects on the crops when Daniel quietly slipped out the door.

Over the next few months, Daniel made an effort to visit his father every day. Some days were better than others and sometimes Saul wouldn't even know Daniel’s name. Saul never forgot his son's face, but sometimes he just couldn't place it. No matter how well he was doing, Saul never forgot about going home.

"Are you here to take me home?"

"No Dad, not today,"

"I need to go home soon, I need to take care of my garden and get it ready for Spring."

Saul was famous in the old neighborhood for his garden. Every Sunday after church, Saul would change into his overalls and work in the garden. He grew flowers, carrots, strawberries, rhubarb, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and anything else he could get to grow in the rich Illinois soil. He had a small orchard of apples, peaches, pears, and plums. When all the plants were blooming it was almost overwhelming to the nose to set foot in that yard. It wasn’t a large yard so everything was crowded in pretty tightly, but Saul took pride in the order of the rows and the health of his plants. It was his own piece of heaven. He built a wooden swing that hung between the two pear trees and after a full day of weeding and tending, he would soak in the smells and the colors with his wife, Irma, or any number of his five children. Sometimes, a neighbor would come over to gossip or discuss the weather. It was a haven for Saul. A place to reflect on life and the tremendous bounty that he had reaped.

Even when his neighbors family moved away and Irma passed on, Saul continued to spend time in the garden. Daniel cringed when he pulled in the driveway to see Saul, barely able to walk without assistance, bending over to pull a big hunk of crab grass out of his ground. No weeds were going to take up residence in Saul’s yard.

As Spring approached, Saul's eagerness to return to his garden increased. He would wander about the halls of the home asking every few minutes when he was going home. The halls and rooms of the home with their stagnant whiteness did not offer the same sort of quiet reflection and beauty of his garden. He had lived his life outside and was not used to watching the Spring come through a window. The medicine smell of his room overpowered the fresh Spring air that crept into the nursing home whenever a visitor opened the door to the outside world.

Saul sat in his darkened room and stared at the walls. He felt lost and confused. The walls were covered with pictures of smiling faces that he supposed were his family, but he couldn't really tell who they were. Faces and names drifted through his mind without meeting. Locked in a room Saul didn’t have the key for.

As the weeks passed and the Spring was cast aside, Saul became more withdrawn. He seemed to know that Spring had passed him by and he felt the emptiness.

Autumn turned to winter and Saul became a wilted plant, in need of some sunlight. When Daniel came to visit, the only time he took his eyes off the starched walls was to ask to go home.

"Can you take me home, my garden needs me."

"I'm sorry Dad, not today."

Like a small child who couldn’t understand why he was being punished, Saul turned his head back to the wall and cried.

"Many people start to feel like this is there home," the nurse said, "We become family. But some people just never forget what they had before. Sometimes they come around, other times, they are never really happy here."

Daniel hated that he had to deny his father his freedom. He remembered those days when he had wanted to go fishing with the boys, but his father had kept him home to do chores. He hated his father for trapping him indoors away from the games and adventures of young boys. Now he was the jail keeper. Daniel hated himself for standing in the way of his fathers happiness.

By March, Saul had stopped speaking entirely. He lived in the world of his own jumbled memories. Muffled, confused and hidden thoughts took the place of rejected pleas to return home. His health began to fail. He refused to eat and so he was taken to the hospital and fed intravenously. Every day, Daniel sat at his fathers side and watched as the color left his cheeks.

Saul was lying on the bed with his hands folded on top of his sheets. Daniel glanced down at the sturdy hands that had carried him, punished him, and comforted him all his life. The hands had changed a lot over the years. A life of hard labor had taken its toll. The sun had leathered the skin, and hard work and arthritis had twisted the fingers, giving the hand a crooked claw look. Daniel moved his eyes towards the face of the man who had taught him so much. Saul’s eyes were focused on the crisp March sky. Brilliant. The clouds rolled perfectly. Saul could not look away. Daniel knelt at his father's side until Saul finally looked into his son's eyes.

"How's my garden?"

"It's good Dad. It misses you, but I've been taking care of it for you."

"Needs my touch," Saul murmured, "not used to stranger's hands, you know."

"Yes Dad, no one could ever do it justice." Daniel’s eyes became blurred thinking that the garden loved so much had been sold to another family. Three small children now tromped through Saul’s precious flower beds. What difference did it make now though, he thought Saul would never see the yard again, let him remember it as he would. His garden, untainted by a foreign hand.

"I'll be there soon, I'm going home."

"You know the doctor..."

"The doctor ain't got a damn thing to do with it. God knows my garden needs me and he's taking me to it."

"Yes Dad."

"I'm going home," Saul said sighing deeply as the corners of his lips turned up in a satisfied smile. It was the same look he had when he held his first grandchild in his arms, when he and Irma celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and when he overheard someone in town talking about the best vegetables in Green County that came out of that precious garden.

"I’m going home," Saul repeated, drifting off into a memory of ripe carrots and cascading roses where no crab grass could ever take root.

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