Paul and Mary were one of those lucky couples who lived in the garden of a good marriage. They say you can never tell what goes on inside a relationship, but theirs had all the hallmarks of a strong one. Paul and Mary never argued, or hardly ever, and when they did, Paul gave in. Apologized too. Then he’d spend the afternoon in the garden, mowing or weeding or planting.
Inside the shadowy house all was nice and sweet, even after Paul got sick. Paul and Mary’s daughter, Eva, was one of my best friends growing up, and I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, sleeping over and hanging out in the kitchen.
Unlike me, Eva was college track, but we stayed friends in high school, mostly because I was a buffer between Eva and her older brother Bobby. Like me, Bobby wasn’t college material. Unlike me, he thought Paul favored Eva and took it out on Eva whenever he could get away with it. When I was around, Bobby wasn’t so mean to her.
Paul was diagnosed while Eva was away at college. Paul and Mary remembered me, were friendly whenever I checked them out at the supermarket. When Mary asked, I was happy to leave that job to become Paul’s caregiver. The pay was better too.
I helped Mary take care of Paul until the end, but she didn’t need much from me. She made sure to feed him, until he didn’t want to eat any more, change him, and turn him so he didn’t get bedsores. She kicked us all out of the room when the visiting nurses changed the dressings on his wounds, wounds that wouldn’t heal. She’d hold his hand and tell him to squeeze it. At the end, his grasp was so weak she’d tell him “Harder! Harder!” In the next room Bobby and I would laugh, but it was sad laughter.
She kept his spirits up too, talking about their life together. They’d brought in a hospital bed for Paul, and put it right there in the living room. Mary insisted that the bed face the room, not the picture window overlooking the garden. I knew that Paul would want to see the garden, and one day while Mary was out I got Bobby to help me turn the bed around. Mary didn’t say anything when she got back, just glared, and the next day the bed faced away from the window. “So the sun won’t get in his eyes,” Mary said.
“How does the garden look?” Paul asked every day.
“Not bad, for a garden in winter,” I’d say, to make him laugh. Or I’d respond, “Daffodils need dead-heading.” That just generated a sigh. He loved that garden.
I got him out into it once or twice, while he could still walk, and when he couldn’t I coaxed him into the wheelchair so I could bring him out. He’d turn his face to the sun, looking just like one of his flowers, so I knew it made him feel better. But when he fell out of the chair reaching for a dahlia Mary told me it was too cold for him to spend time outside. Someone sent him a truckload of potted chrysanthemums that fall, which we placed around the garden, and when he died that November that’s where Mary and the rest of them scattered his ashes.
Mary stayed on in the ramshackle house at the edge of our Midwestern town. The house was painted red, like a barn, and had once been in the country. Eva told me that when the family first moved there you’d drive past field after field on the way, and the farm across the road still had cows, and horses that the kids fed when they were little. Then one or two farmers sold their land to developers, and the houses came closer, and eventually the rest of the farmers sold too. All I passed on my drive to the house were raw subdivisions with spindly trees.
It was an unlikely place for people like Paul and Mary to live. I guess the rent was low. The house must have been some rich person’s idea of a house, because it was severely impractical. You had to stop as soon as you walked in, or you’d tumble down the six stairs to the living room. No coat closet, so everyone stuck their coats on the railing next to the stairs. The mezzanine held a table, big enough for the whole family, but it was piled high with mail and junk and no one ever ate there. The ceiling over both rooms must have been 20 feet high, with the wood arranged on the diagonal between the beams. It was beautiful, but not insulated, so the huge room was cold in the middle-of-the-country winters, and all that air just stood still in the hot summers. Another reason to eat in the kitchen, I guess.
The woods surrounding the house were second growth, and the trees were kind of thin. There was a lot of underbrush and you could never be sure of your footing. Sometimes what looked solid was just a packed clump of leaves that collapsed when a person stepped on them. The woods were full of redbuds and dogwoods, and with all those blooms spring was very pretty. Summers were different: the green overwhelmed you, humidity transformed into leaves.
Bobby was surprised the first time he saw me helping out with his dad. After that he’d bring a six or some weed on his visits, and when I’d settled Paul for the night and Mary went out to wherever she was going we’d sit on the porch and talk. I slept with Bobby once, right after Paul’s funeral, but I didn’t like the way I felt having crossed that line, and for a while I avoided the lot of them. So Bobby’s call a few years later, saying he needed help with Mary, came out of the blue.
Since Paul died it felt like the woods had crept closer to the house. The lawns were rocky, and briars and wild grasses grew in the flowerbeds. Trees blocked the sky, and occasionally a possum or fox wandered through the yard. The house seemed softer, somehow, as if it were melting into the forest.
The fence Paul had used to keep the woods back was gone and in any case Mary neglected the garden. She had never cared about it the way he did. Once I heard her say to him, “Why are you wasting time digging around in the dirt? All the flowers die anyway.” Paul just smiled and shook his head and kept on turning over the soil.
The owners never came by, which was just as well, because they didn’t see the way plants had started to grow out of the roof, or the car Bobby had up on blocks in the yard. He’d driven it across what looked like a wasteland between the driveway and the house. Of course, that was after Paul died. He would have told us it was part of the garden. We didn’t figure that out until spring, when the daffodils came up.
Paul told me once he’d compared Mary to a mature garden. He meant it as a compliment, I guess, but then a few minutes later he said that she didn’t speak to him for a week.
In her terms, that was being mildly mad. When she was really angry, she could give you the silent treatment for days. Weeks, even. One night when Paul was still alive she came home and smelled the weed we’d incautiously smoked inside – it was a rainy night. Bobby said it was only him, so she didn’t fire me but she also wouldn’t talk to me for a long time. She couldn’t prove it, but she knew. That was Mary.
You might think that someone with the simple, peaceable name of Mary would like things calm, but Mary thrived on chaos. Events swirled around her, like the time a fuse blew out just as she turned on the electric stove, back before Paul got sick. He tried to make a joke out of it, about her cooking, but she was having none of that. The kids kept coming up with ways to solve the problem, but she batted every solution away after resetting the fuses didn’t work. Their ideas got more and more complex, and the discussion continued until nearly midnight. Like always, nothing got resolved. The next day, while she was out, Paul got out his screwdriver and fixed the problem.
Mary turned venomous once her mind started to go. Before Mary and Paul, the only really old person I knew was my grandma, whose mind had returned to her girlhood, sweet and happy and lost, by the time I was old enough to talk with her. My grandma would listen to music, waving her hand to the beat, and hand us $10 bills every time we visited. Not Mary. She stayed stuck in what my caregiver support circle called the Red Zone. Green was what we aimed for, but Mary didn’t spend much time in Green.
Generally, I liked my hours with Mary, especially if I could get her into Green, but even the Yellow Zone, where I could distract her, was okay. She’d talk about her kids and her grandkids, something she’d seen on TV or read. She liked to read, books made the time pass, even though she couldn’t remember them. Eva was a reading teacher, and she told me that her mom could still decode, even though her comprehension was non-existent. We’d go for a walk, up and down the long driveway to the mailbox. Usually whatever delusion Mary was talking about had some basis in fact – the sound of the ocean was from the trip she once took to the beach. If she was worried about not hearing from her long-dead parents you could remind her she’d spoken with them Sunday, as she had every week when they were alive. When she was in a Red Zone mood I couldn’t get her to step foot outside, which was too bad, because the walks helped her sleep.
I kept Mary away from the piles of stones in what used to be the garden, because that’s where copperheads like to nest. I never saw any snakes, even though they’re native to that part of the country. I only saw small mammals – chipmunks, mostly, and squirrels. And birds, lots of them, the common ones, cardinals and robins, blue jays and chickadees. We could hear woodpeckers, and Mary used to nail suet up to one of the trees, but that mostly attracted squirrels. Mary said the dogs kept everything else away.
One day she started talking about reincarnation. That was interesting, because most people in our town went to one of the big evangelical churches whose parking lots took up almost as much space as the farms they’d replaced, and I figured Mary did too. We were taught you have one life, and afterwards you’re either admitted to the kingdom of heaven or consigned to hell. I had my doubts, given how complicated life can be, but never considered any other options until I heard Mary that day. Mary talked about reincarnation as if she actually believed in it.
The things she said about other lives were pretty interesting, and then she started talking about strikes. There had been a big strike once at the factory in town, and I thought that might be what Mary had in mind, even though it was a long time ago, because I remembered my mama telling me once that Mary’s father had been a union leader. I tried bowling, then baseball. That might have been it—when I said, “Three strikes and you’re out, right?” she nodded, but kept muttering. Mary scared me a little.
Like I said, usually I could guess what was behind whatever it was she was talking about, but not that day. We were into Red even before I gave Mary her lunch.
A couple of weeks later I took Mary outside and she decided to putter around in the garden. She pulled up a weed here and there, and then picked some flowers, clutching stems and grass into a straggly bunch. She reached into some tall grass, and when she drew her hand back, she had something besides the dandelion she’d been trying to uproot. She had two small puncture wounds. They stung a little, and later that afternoon, when we were in the hospital after Mary’s arm had swollen, Eva asked what tool Paul had left to rust in the weeds.
Mary looked at her and said, “I always knew he was a snake.”