It was a cool fall evening, the sky gray and the air still. I tied the goldenrod with a blue ribbon and held it in my hand as I walked, wrapped in a coat and scarf and just beginning to see my breath in the air. She lived six blocks away and I knew she was sleeping, but I wouldn’t wait until morning. She needed something bright when she awoke.
It was dark when I arrived and so was her house. I went to her window but her curtains were drawn, so I laid the bright bundle on the windowsill where it would catch the early light of dawn. These defiant yellow flowers, growing in the wild and cold, seemed to speak good things about a year when everything else was failing.
I wanted to tap on the cool glass because I knew she was there, eyes closed and breathing, and I wanted to see her. Instead, I just pressed my palm against the pane, thinking maybe I could feel the warmth of her heart as she dreamed.
Then I left.
I walked slowly in the middle of the street, trying not to think about the pain and fatigue she had been feeling, or the worries about what it might mean.
I followed the reflectors and stared up at a sky framed by branches, thinking that despite its vastness there was a sort of intimacy to space and the heavens. A feeling of God’s gaze upon us, watching over us, giving us comfort and dissolving our fears. Perhaps it is this feeling that causes things to grow upwards.
As I neared home, I picked my own yellow flowers to place on my sill, hoping there was something symbolic in the same light warming two different windows. I, too, wished to awaken to something bright and cheerful.
When her father called, it was the first time I had spoken to him on the phone, and despite our distance and differences, there was a fellowship of shared grief. He spoke to me of her doctor’s visit. She had insisted on going alone. The news was bad and now she was home sleeping.
Can I see her? I asked. He said that tomorrow would be better and then his voice cracked and I was silent.
Are you all right? I asked, and he said that he was going to take a drive to collect his thoughts. So I hung up and sat next to my window. It was late but I couldn’t sleep, so I thought about the wedding she and I had recently attended. How nice she had looked. How soft the skin of her bare arms felt around my neck as we danced and watched the bride and groom. I thought of marriage, love, happiness—all those things you hear about in songs and see on screens.
There is value in fiction. If an artist can look at life and write or paint about the good that should have been, perhaps our realities will look more like our hopeful dreams.
I went to her home the next morning. She answered the door in her nightdress. Her hair was straight as if she hadn’t moved once during her sleep. There was nothing in her expression to hint that deep in her bones, something was spreading that even her smiles couldn’t stop.
We need to find my dad, she said, so I followed her to her truck and sat behind the wheel. She sat next to me, still and quiet. The morning was gray, and as we drove through the woods and over the bridge, we witnessed the world awakening—short flights of birds between tree branches, shivering bushes along the road.
We drove through town and the industrial plants, until we came to the shipyard where her father worked and found his car, parked at the end of the road, overlooking the water.
We stopped and got out. I stood by the truck and watched her walk slowly across the street, wondering what she was thinking. She tapped on the glass and I saw her dad sit up in the back seat. He was wearing his army jacket. Even from a distance, I could see the campaign ribbons and medals, the ranks of his past life. Underneath it was a white tank top and his thick black hair was dirty and disheveled.
She stepped back as he opened the door and I heard her ask what he was doing. Why he was out there. He said he had slept there, that he didn’t know what else to do. She hugged him and as he wrapped his thick arms around her he said, I don’t know what to do. I’m just so, so sorry.
That evening we sat with coffee in her kitchen, cold hands wrapped around our mugs. Her father was asleep upstairs. She was tired but couldn’t sleep, as if she wanted to grab as many waking hours as possible. So we sat and spoke of the past and our hopes for the future.
She recalled the time when I wondered what she would look like as she got older. She figured she would have her mother’s face. Her mother who, had she lived, would have been a woman of grace. One who grew old but still seemed young.
These were her father’s opinions as well. He spoke of his wife often in the hope that his daughter would grow up with the feeling of her presence.
I wanted to change the subject, so she began to share her thoughts about God and eternity. How she was beginning to believe that everyone would reach heaven whether or not they desired to please God during this life. She thought that ultimate truth was just too far-removed from human understanding for God to hold human beings accountable for their ignorance.
There is no justice in any kind of eternal judgment, she said.
I hope you are right, I said.
I’ll find out soon enough, she said, half smiling.
We all will, I replied, and she smiled again.
After that we were quiet because deeper subjects were a reminder of the short time remaining, but anything ordinary seemed shallow. I was sad and I picked up a pomegranate from the bowl at the edge of the table. I opened it, glad for the distraction, hoping that my sorrow wouldn’t show. She reached for one of the halves and we sat for a while, silently picking out the red jeweled seeds, sucking their sweetness, then spitting them into a saucer
There was something comforting about the shared repetition. I watched her pick a clump out of the shell, separating each seed before putting it in her mouth. I thought that she, too, had jewels inside her waiting to be pried out. I wanted so much to taste each one of them.
I pushed my portion aside and watched her until she stopped. She reached for a napkin, rubbed her stained fingers, then took my hand in hers from across the table. She told me that things would be alright and for me not to dwell on it.
I lied, telling her I wouldn’t, and that she should get some more sleep.
She walked me to the door and onto the porch, where we stood in the dark for a while. We had no defense against what was happening. I wanted to say or do something, but I could only think of gestures and words I had seen in movies, so I chose to be silent.
Before I left, I kissed her on the mouth, even though I knew the complications it might bring.
Later, on a misty Tuesday night, we drove to Bible study at our friend Michael’s house. She sat beside me in the passenger seat, her feet up on the dash, toes pressed to the glass. She was writing in a book as she slouched in the seat. She would smile occasionally and I would glance at her from the corner of my eye or watch her ghostly reflection in the windshield.
We stopped at the house and walked through the front door, where she was greeted by smiling yet sad faces and led to the living room. I felt her awkwardness, knowing she didn’t like being the center of attention. We sat beside each other, me in my best shirt, and she gave me the lightest touch on my knee.
The room was dim and filled with more people than usual. We were all there to pray for her, hoping that if we raised our voices in unison, God might hear our cries more clearly. As if God had the weak hearing of that old man we all pictured in our youth.
There was a reading from Psalm 139, Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
We sang a song of petition, then led her to a chair at the center of the room, gathering around her. Our pastor washed her feet as she hid her face, so shy and serene. Then we laid our hands on her and lifted our supplications—some aloud, most of us silently. I whispered my petition as I stared at her feet all washed and pale, hiding the decay beneath, and I thought that when Christ called the Pharisees white-washed tombs, he could have been describing all of us. That we all decay from the inside, and sometimes the loveliest of us do so at a swifter pace.
Afterwards, I took her home to her father. She slept beside me as I drove and blinked until the road blurred before me. The weeks ahead would show to me, more clearly than ever, that God is indeed hard of hearing.
The next night, we sat again at Michael’s house for prayer and she whispered to me that she felt different somehow. That maybe something had indeed changed.
I hoped to God that this was so, that maybe the Fire of the Lord was something more than a symbol. That it was hot and holy and had burned through her chest and her blood and her bones and that what it left behind was healed and pure.
But even then I wasn’t sure, so I put my arm around her and drew her close to me on the couch. She put her head on my shoulder and we sat there feeling the swelling of each other’s breath.
I closed my eyes as her lips brushed against the skin of my neck. A tentative exploration. I wanted so badly to touch her that my fingers ached, imagining the feel of her blouse, its buttons. A hunger to inhale her exhales, to drink deeply of her passion, of her very thoughts. I wanted to draw every line and curve of her body, marking the tumors black and then setting them on fire to watch them burn, holding the ashes until all of her had seeped into my pores.
We heard our friends laughing in the other room while they played cards and told stories. Without a word we left and I drove her back to my house, rather than hers, hoping my parents were already asleep.
It was early morning as I awoke to the sound of turning pages. The window shades were open and a hand’s width of light was shining into the room. I lay twisted in blankets and pillows, still sleepy, but she was awake and reading in a chair by the window.
Her long brown hair was pulled back and tied with a band, draping down over one shoulder. She wore sweatpants and a loose sweater, unzipped towards the neck and her feet were bare despite the cold.
I turned and watched her but she didn’t look up, holding her book in the path of light from the window. It fell over the smooth bare skin of her shoulder where the sweater draped low and askew.
She was reading a book by Thomas Merton from my shelf, and I smiled as she frowned slightly, her brows knitted. I watched her ponder Merton’s descriptions of glory and love and the mysteries of contemplation; all things that now seemed fruitless to me in the face of life’s final answer.
Suddenly, the phone rang downstairs and we looked at each other, knowing that our time was over.
My mother’s footsteps tapped softly on the stairs until there was a knock on the door. She opened it and took the phone from my mother with a red face, muttering thank you as my mother retreated. Then she went into the hall with the book in one hand, the phone in the other, and I heard her whispering to her father.
I wanted her to say no, I’m staying!
I dressed. When she came back her head was down and her eyes were wet with tears. There was a strange look on her face, something like shame. She said she was scared and I offered to drive her home but she refused. I insisted again, but she was already dressing, slipping her shoes on and turning to leave.
She ran outside and I followed. I wanted to plead with her as she ran across the yard with her shirt-tail flapping and her shoes untied.
What could I have said to make her stay? Why was I feeling that I had wronged her or wronged God by what we had done?
I saw her father’s car drive up the street. He slowed and pulled to the curb. I stepped towards it, thinking that if I could explain to him how much I loved her he would understand and tell both of us that it was alright.
She turned and waved me off, shaking her head, and the earth shifted beneath my feet. Her father reached over to open her door and she climbed in, looking back at me with cool eyes as I watched them drive away.
Some Sunday much later after church, I was cleaning our quiet house. My father sat reading in the living room as my mother came in from the garden with a bundle in her arms and set it on the table. She told me it had been placed on the porch.
I looked at it and recognized my Merton book with a card stuck in the pages. Perhaps my mother saw something in me to pity, because she crossed the room and took me in her arms. I let her, but I didn’t cry, just breathed in the scent of wet loam and roses that lingered upon her, listening to her whispered words of comfort, her feeble efforts to lift the weight.
The card was full of apology. She asked me not to hate her or her father. That it wasn’t him that had kept us apart. She just didn’t want me to see her the way she had become.
There were photos in the envelope. I took them out and flipped through them, touched that she would pass on such personal mementos. The pictures showed her at her baptism, then as a girl on Halloween, then the two of us together at summer camp. There were also pictures of her mother holding her as a baby. Her mother’s hair hung in braids and I thought that though she was so beautiful, what she had brought into the world was more beautiful still.
These are for you also, she wrote. I want you to know what I would have looked like. I always thought my mom was so pretty and I always wished I could remember her. Please remember me that way. Remember us both.
We went to the shore one afternoon, my father, mother, brother and me. We sat on the pier and ate hot dogs and drank soda. They kept talking to me and telling jokes and telling me how beautiful the day was—so warm for late winter, the sun so bright.
My brother went to the railing with my mother. My father sat beside me and watched the water. I could tell he wanted to say something, but didn’t know how, or maybe he just knew that nothing would be adequate.
I was glad he was quiet. I didn’t want to hear that I was young, that these things happen, that the Lord has a purpose and does all things for our good. Or, that the Lord is mysterious, and that she was going to be with Him, spared of all the troubles in this life while the rest of us waited down here, shuddering and shivering in the cold.
My father looked at me and he put his hand on my back. I looked in his eyes and saw that he was sorry but wasn’t going to tell me any of those things. I saw in his eyes that he didn’t believe them. I wondered when that had happened, and how none of us had noticed.
I stood and walked into the snack shop on the pier, continuing into the bathroom where I splashed water on my face. It didn’t help, so I just sat on the cold tile floor and cried until my father found me. He helped me up and wrapped his arm around my shoulders as we walked back to the car.
I can’t be here, I said to myself. I have to go to her.
I wandered through the halls until I found her room. The nurse told me I couldn’t go in, but I saw her father through the window, his head in his hands. I saw her as well.
She was pale and small, featureless in repose, like some half-finished effigy.
I closed my eyes and was led by the nurse into a white room with vinyl chairs that smelled of stale bodies and stale coffee. I sat and waited as the sun came up behind the window.
Sometime later, the nurse returned with her eyes downcast. As she explained to me what happened, there was a flash of color outside the window. A cardinal thumped against the glass. I looked out and saw the little bird lying still on the silver frosted lawn. So frail and beautiful, its red wings bright in the sunlight. So brief a life to meet such an end.
And not one of them falls to the ground apart from our Father’s will.
On the first of March, I sat in a coffee shop watching a light snowfall through the window. It was early and the world had begun to awaken. Cars passed and people walked or jogged with great steaming breaths. I was wearing the cap she had knit, but my hands were cold as I wrote in a little journal, trying to record the past months. I wanted to sort things out, but I also wanted to remember.
Already I could feel her slipping away. I marveled at how quick it had all happened. If not for the pictures, would I even remember her face? The shape, yes, but the details? The mark under her nose. The scar on her chin or the little hairs on her temple that never quite tucked into her pony tails.
What about her skin? The freckles on her back.
Are we meant to forget these things? To cast them at the foot of God so that God can carry them away from us?
Will this hard lump of grief in my gut ever fade? Will God take that from me, because I don’t want to give it up.
That weight is her, and I gladly bear its burden.
The thought that my memory of her might fade was a terrible thing to consider. I wanted to find a quiet room surrounded by an open field and spend my days in contemplation like Merton had. I would contemplate this grief and this love. I would contemplate the life she could have lived if God had deigned to allow it.
I would give her a story. One that is long and full of fruitfulness. She would grow to look like her mother, and her own daughters would marvel at her beauty. Maybe they would look like me as well, or maybe not, but she deserved a life.
I left the coffee shop, and on the sidewalk I saw my reflection in a window. I stared at it until I no longer recognized the boy who looked back at me.
In that moment, I felt the weight of God’s gaze upon me.
I wanted to look away, but I thought, where can I turn that You will not see me? Where can I hide? Perhaps Merton simply wanted to be alone, but in his solitude he still found You there. Watching and waiting. And I just don’t understand. You don’t listen. We prayed for her, all of us, just as she prayed for her mother, and her father prayed for her mother, but You don’t listen.
You just take, and take, and take.
The scripture says you took our place, but what was the purpose, if not to spare us from this?
Pieter Van Tatenhove lives in Northern California with his wife and daughters. His passion is speculative fiction but he has written across many genres. When he isn't writing you can find him playing banjo, printmaking, or cooking.
Photo credit: Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney AI