He could still remember the day clearly. He had toppled out of his tree, the one that stood in the park alongside the babbling brook. He had been perched in its branches, hoping for a cool breeze to break the wash of late summer heat. She called to him, startling him. He slipped out of the tree, landing with an ungraceful thump next to her. She looked at him from above, a dusting of summer’s light in her hair. She smiled, and a perfect, red-orange leaf from the still-green tree tumbled onto his nose.
Their love burned as bright as the fire that had draped itself across the October trees. They took long walks, savoring each other’s warmth, each other’s touch. Scratchy scarves, heavy down jackets, fuzzy mittens, red cheeks tingling with the memory of the other’s lips. They fought their way through a dark winter when the snow was as thick as their lies, the wind as fast as their conclusions, the tree’s branches as sharp as their words. And yet, they emerged in a land of green. A time of fertility and gentleness, their love grew like the buds on the branches of the plants outside and blossomed into something even more beautiful.
It was in a time full of life that they promised themselves to one another. She looked beautiful in a flowing white gown and he was dashing in a sharp black suit. They were wed under his tree in the park, now draped in white Spring flowers. He looked into her eyes at the altar, and swore to himself that he would never cease loving the woman in his arms.
And indeed it stayed that way for many years. They were happy together, the example of a perfect marriage. They were the other’s half, completing one another. Any argument was resolved, every conflict compromised. They seemed to have no flaws. She loved him and he loved her, and that was all that really mattered in his world. She was his world.
But age had changed her. Now she was different. More agitated, more paranoid around him. She watched him out of the corner of her eye when he ambled to the kitchen to grab the fork he had forgotten. She was always on her phone, texting an unknown stranger. He asked, but she never showed him. It was always a friend, her mother, her boss. Whoever it was, they made his wife’s face scrunch with concern, lining her face with worry. He left it be.
She looked into his eyes at night when they lay next to each other. In the night, before sleep pulled him beneath the covers, he saw the look in his wife’s eyes, something shining back at him. He would always wake to see her curled up to the edge of the bed. She would never sleep close to him anymore. He could never work up the courage to ask why. But he always noticed when she touched his chest gently as he balanced on the line between wake and sleep.
He saw it in the way she walked when they went to the park for their daily strolls. They used to walk for an hour so they could watch the sunset cast its light on the park every evening together. Now, they walked for half that, if any. She always made up an excuse: too tired, too hungry, too hot, too cold. Those things never stopped her when they were dating. He used to complain. Now, he silently agreed with her. The walks were tiring, but he would never admit it.
When he first saw the medicine bottles hidden in the back of the kitchen cabinets, he closed the door quickly, as if to shut out all memory of them. And indeed, it seemed as if he had, for he did not remember them again until he had come down during the night looking for her. She always brought up glasses of water for them before bed, but that night she gone downstairs and not reappeared. He saw her crushing the little pills, dumping them into one of the glasses. She turned at the sound of his voice, something flashing through her eyes at the moment she saw him. He was worried, but she quickly reassured him it was nothing, that she was just taking some painkillers for her back. After all, age was catching up to her. She finished with the pills, put the bottles carefully in the back of the cabinet, and carried the glasses upstairs.
It took him longer to go upstairs now. When he made it into the bedroom, she had already gotten into bed with her glass, sipping it. His glass sat on his bedside table. He picked it up and drank. She had finished her glass, but he still kept a close eye on her for the rest of the night.
He noticed she began forgetting things. When she didn’t tell him where she was, he became frantic, even when she had returned with a worried expression, claiming she had told him. He firmly believed she hadn’t. She would forget things they did, like brushing their teeth or showering, ordering him to do it when he thought he already had. She told him her name over and over, as if he was senile and would forget. Even when he actually needed the reminder.
Winter came early. Fall had rushed by, with Jack Frost stepping on its heels. The bite of frost hung heavy in the air, and the wind howled by, scraping its claws against any exposed skin. The two people walked together through the cold. They stopped at the babbling brook. The man looked up at his tree. It had shed its fall coat of colors and revealed bony branches reaching up towards the sky as if to run fingers through the clouds above. From far away the tree simply looked ready for winter. Up close, the tree was dying. The branches were brittle and weak, the bark dust under gentle fingers. The trunk was hollow, parasites eating it from the inside out.
Someone screamed, or perhaps it was his imagination. All became dark and blurry, each moment an hour, each heartbeat a tick of Time’s clock. One fell upon the snow, wheezing for breath, gasping for a precious lungful of crisp air. One reached for a phone, calling for help. His last clear image was the woman reaching out desperately.
When he opened his eyes again, he was underwater. Noises blurred together, volumes low. Distantly, he could hear a steady beeping. He could see shapes upon shapes of white, as if he had stepped into a snow-dusted land. Turning his head, his eyes focused on the familiar woman sitting next to him. He couldn’t remember who she was, where he was, who he was.
She blinked and smiled through the tears running down her face. She told him she was his wife. She stroked his head and held his hand. She told him that the medicines hadn’t been working and that the Alzheimer’s had gotten worse. She told him that their time was almost up. She told him that she loved him. Her voice shook. He closed his eyes, submitting to something heavier than sleep as her voice rang through the darkness.
“Meet me at the tree in the park. I’ll be waiting.”
And when he opened his eyes again, his wife was standing right in front of him. They were suddenly young again. Smiling, she embraced him. Together, they sat under their tree, now strong and healthy with flowers blooming, as the sunset’s last rays washed over them, plunging them into a beautiful night.