He wasn’t sure when he fell in love with gardening. Maybe it was the long days of caring for his babies while his wife worked, and how he fell in love with the peace of the land, and how the shadows hung in the late evening and fell across the rose garden. It wasn’t a garden he would have planted, but it was here when they moved and it would have been a shame to let the roses die.
So when the babies had been fed and bathed and the day was closing down, and when the mountains began to stain purple, he went into his yard in the late-October eve and carefully pruned the roses. There were purple ones and magenta ones, white roses and yellow. All of them were his favorite. He’d water the roses with the garden hose and listen to how it filled and quenched the roots. Roses liked water, his daddy used to tell him. He turned the hose down a notch so the roots had time to drink a long, healthy dose. Seventeen rose bushes he counted, and all of them he loved. Under the yellow ones an old turtle lived, so he just let him be and was careful not to drown him out when he watered. A couple of toads buried down under the red roses, and seemed to welcome the water that covered their little, leathery-heads.
He’d sit on the porch and listen to the wind chimes, the chimes he bought when he was driving through northern California with his wife and daughter. They were wooden and hollow, and made a low, clunking sound that seemed to feed his soul. He’d listen to the chimes and pet his old dog, who by now had seen many rose gardens come and go, blossom and die away. Louis sat back in his porch chair, and took in the scent of the evening, wishing his wife would sit with him. But she was inside, doing something, and he knew it wouldn’t do any good to ask her to join him this evening. She was busy, too busy to sit out here and do nothing.
That’s how it was, month after month, even year after year. He wasn’t sure when his youngest child graduated from college or the oldest one got married. Everything just kind of morphed into each other, and often his mind got mixed up and he wasn’t sure what day it was, sometimes. So he’d come out to the garden and look at the roses, because by now he was very good at caring for them, and they made sense, these roses.
Louis didn’t like to think about certain things, but after awhile the thoughts would just come, and after so many years he let the thoughts flow, without fighting them. The truth was that he missed Janice very, very much. He remembered their early days, and how they’d walk along the river picking up rocks. Their first summer together they found a nice place along the river where wild roses grew. They were red, if he remembered correctly, and they grew in abundance and every year when they returned, it seemed there were more than the year before. Janice would put her head on Louis’s shoulder, and they’d watch the sun set. It was a mellow time, a time in Louis’s life when he wasn’t sure if he should join the Army or just stay here with Janice; it was a time when Louis felt he should fly away into new worlds, but the other part of him wanted to stay and be tangled with this lovely girl and stay with her forever. He just didn’t know what to do, and then the third year came around and as they sat there by the river in late summer, beneath the spray of wild roses, he told her he had to go. They cried together, and Louis swore he’d return to her. He took his pocket knife, and cut her a bouquet of wild roses, and when he handed them to her, careful to cut off all the thorns near the bottom so they wouldn’t hurt her delicate hands, her eyes filled with tears. She told him it was the sweetest gift that had ever been given to her, and the most romantic thing any man could do. He didn’t understand how it could be, but he just smiled and held this beautiful girl in his arms for as long as she let him.
She died a few months after Louis joined the Army. Killed. It was a terrible, horrible, ugly word.
Louis cried, telling God all the regrets he harbored in his heart. How he should have married her a year ago, and maybe went to college, instead of waiting for something else. If he had been with her, she wouldn’t have died. They would have had a baby by now…Louis buried his head in his hands when he found out, and then he ran as far and as fast as he could and he screamed a loud, guttural cry. He longed to have her, all of her, but she was gone and he would never be with her again.
He never got over her.
Not really. You can never get over something like that.
So then the roses, he finally realized, many years later, was a way he still could hang on to his beautiful Janice.
It was late October now, and the roses, Louis noticed, were in full bloom. Not all of them, but most of them.
A soft wind blew across his porch. He needed to go in soon. It was time for bed. Almost.
Suddenly, Louis heard something and there was his wife, standing by his chair. She never came outside, at least not this late in the evening.
She didn’t say anything, but sat beside him. He took her hand.
They just sat there.
Then Louis stood up and grabbed his pruning shears. The moon was full, and the entire back yard lit up. His heart started to pound, although he didn’t know why. He hadn’t done this for years, but he figured he’d give it a go.
With his shears, he took off a fluffy, white rose, then a yellow one, then a purple. A couple of the red ones were still buds, but they’d open in a day or two. When he was done he had a handful of roses, and he carefully trimmed the thorns back so they wouldn’t hurt his wife’s hands when he handed them to her.
Smiling, he took the roses and held them in front of his wife.
“For you, my darling,” he said, carefully choosing his words. “Because I love you.”
Louis thought he saw a tear in her eyes as she took the flowers.
“Thank you,” she said, taking in the rich scent. “They’re pretty.”
She turned and took the flowers into the house, leaving Louis alone on the porch, where the silvery moonlight faded down. Not even a hug, or a kiss. Just a nice thank-you.
The wind chimes picked up their tone a bit, and the wind turned colder. His dog crowded closer to his legs.
A lump formed in Louis’s throat, the kind you get when you want to cry, but you don’t. Or can’t.
And as he looked out at his garden of roses, he didn’t see the yellows or the lavenders, but an abundance of over-grown, wild river roses. He saw rocks and boulders and a sky full of stars. And he swore he heard the river like he heard it all those years ago, when he was young and his whole world was in front of him, and in his arms.
“Come on,” he called to his dog.
The two of them went into the house, and Louis closed the door.
And all the while the roses nodded their heads in the paling light, as if they understood.