Three and a half hours of highway, stretches of road carved through red rock and miles of summer maples, their bright green and silver leaves like tiny hands beckoning me to travel farther north. Passing through the darkness of the Lehigh Tunnel, I welcome the blinding white of the sun on the other side.
I have made this trip many times before, but this will be the time I will need to remember. My uncle greets me in his driveway. His face looks older to me, yet he seems less reserved, as though the disease has both hardened and softened him at the same time.
Proudly, he leads me to the back of the house into the peaceful haven he has created there. I say hello to my aunt who is sipping a glass of iced tea in the garden. I lean down to kiss her cheek, smelling the mint leaves in her tea, feeling the warmth of the sun on her skin. She forces a tentative smile, swallows hard, and keeps her gaze fixed on me; in her eyes, I see that she is already trying to let him go.
The sweet smell of herbs and flowers infuses the still summer air. I notice a faint stirring of birds amidst the blue globe-shaped hydrangea. They hide in these nearby bushes and take turns darting out onto the wooden birdfeeder my uncle has built for them.
Walking together along the pebbled path, my uncle steps ahead of me to point out certain plants and shrubs he knows so much about. Foxglove quickly becomes my favorite flower and I learn that it is one of his as well. The individual flowers along the tall spiky stem are thimble-shaped and spotted inside. He informs me that these plants self-sow now, establishing themselves as perennials; this means they will return next year. I pause as he tells me this, staring at the delicate curve of each petal, the corners of my mouth twitching with uncertainty. I wonder what will happen to his gardens when winter arrives to erase the landscape he'll leave behind. I feel an urgency to know these flowers as he does, as more than just random shapes and colors. I want to know their names, what kind of care they need, when they bloom. My uncle squats down to push his fingers into the soil. It's dry, he tells me. We need rain.
He suggests we go inside so he can show me his woodshop in the basement of the house; this is where he spends his days when he feels well enough. I nod, following behind him, eager to discover anything he is willing to share about his life. With his frail body framed in the doorway of the woodshop, he leans toward me, lamenting his dreams of becoming a woodworker, designing his own furniture. This splinter of regret seems only to scratch the surface, and an awkward silence falls between us.
We avoid talking about the cancer, but I can see how the chemo is slowly destroying him. His charcoal hair has disappeared, only thin wisps of white returning. He wipes a folded handkerchief across his eyes to stop the constant tearing. His skin is ashen, slack against the angular bones of his face. I know his last scan only days before had shown more nodes, more tunneling of the cells, the cancer, as it eats its way through his lungs.
As we stand side by side in his woodshop, I admire the organization. Tools hang from pegboard walls opposite a row of power tools. I look around, trying to capture the room in my mind. My uncle turns and lowers a honey-colored wooden box into my hands. It is light, but it seems heavier, the weight of sadness pressing down against it. I run my fingers over the brass plate centered on the lid, tracing my initials engraved there, the three letters looping and curling together like a vine. My hands tremble.
The box, he says, is made from pieces of wormy chestnut, a wood destroyed in the blight. The deep holes in the wood, he tells me, were caused by the burrowing of a timber worm that ate its way through the interior of the chestnut tree's trunk and branches. I listen to the story of how he got the wood, how it was not easy to come by. Pieces of the story slip away from me even as he tells it; it seems the harder I try to hold onto each word the less I am able to remember. And I fear this will continue to happen, memories of him, one by one, will vanish in the shadow game that time will play with my mind.
There are so many things I want to say, brilliant words that will turn these moments into the kind of shiny, lasting memories I feel desperate now to make. I want to tell him that he has been like a father to me. I want him to know that I will not forget him. But I am too overwhelmed to speak. Instead, I stand in silence looking around the room as my uncle turns to walk away. I see his handkerchief folded into a square on his workbench. I pick it up and, as I'm about to call to him, I turn the fabric over in my hand and run my thumb along its threadbare edge. Lifting the lid of the box slightly, I slip the handkerchief inside.
I know my uncle would give me anything. But how strange would it be to ask for the handkerchief he'd used to wipe his eyes? Alone in his woodshop, I bend to pick up a splintered piece of wood on the floor. It is small enough to put inside the box. I sweep my hand across the sawdust-covered floor, picking up a bent nail and a scrap of paper with measurements he'd scribbled. I scan the room for other small objects that will fit into the box. I am aware of my desperation as I take these things, but I do not stop. I'm less interested at the moment in what it is I'm taking, and more in the regret I'll have if I leave these things behind. I swipe an allen wrench from his workbench and head upstairs to find him.
My aunt has prepared a late lunch. We sit down at the table together and eat pasta salad and rolls. We share a bottle of Coppola merlot. I notice that my aunt does not say anything to my uncle when he smears too much butter on his roll. This is what she would have done…before. My uncle raises his wine glass and says, “Here's to you for making the long drive to come and see me.”
I want to jump up and open the wooden box and tuck these words inside so I will not forget them. Instead, when we finish eating and have polished off the bottle of wine, I wrap my fingers around the cork and slide it into my pocket. I will add it to the box later, I tell myself.
When we say goodbye, we hug and act as though this is not the last time we will see each other. He promises that when I visit next he will give me several foxglove plants to add to my garden. I cannot tell him that I do not actually have a garden yet. Instead, I scan his face, trying to memorize the details of his features, trying to remember the sound of his voice, the way he says certain words.
Walking down the path toward my car, I reach down and grab a handful of dirt from the edge of the flower bed, dropping it into a crumpled bag on the backseat of my car. This will be the beginning of my garden, rich soil, abiding and tangible like the box and the things I've put inside it.
As I back out of the driveway and turn to wave, my foot jumps to the brake. I cannot recall the last word he said to me. Already, he is smaller in the distance and I am forgetting the color of his eyes and the shape of his chin. I wave one last time and tears stream down my cheeks. Before I take my foot off the brake, I run my fingers over the deep holes burrowed into the beautifully polished wooden box I've set beside me, grief swiftly beginning to carve its own dark tunnels into me.