I am out back raking leaves. Bagging them in the paper sacks we get at the hardware store. Much like the store where I worked in summers during college, selling tenpenny nails and ball-peen hammers.
I’m raking leaves with Ezra. My son. He’s home from school in DC for the winter break. Till he meets up with his girlfriend and they drive back down to school again. Together. I like her. I’m glad for him. He’s pretty crazy about her.
The Goodenoughs across the street have six kids. All moved away by now. They pronounce their name “Good-now’ and it’s just the two of them and the one cat they adopted from the shelter. They keep up with their house. The yard. Flowers that match the season.
It’s been wet for the last few weeks and the leaves are matted dark and pressed flat against the ground and when we rake them up the grass underneath is soft and tender green. Not dried up and thin like the faded color of rye bread on the other more exposed parts of the lawn.
“Why do you think that is?” he says.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s warmer under the leaves and dark and the grass grows and greens up a little like they do when they first sprout from the seeds underground,” I say.
“So why do we rake them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why don’t we just leave them covered up like that all winter? Like if we weren’t around?”
I like the way he thinks. I like the things his mind turns to.
I don’t know what to tell him.
He is looking down at the grass by his feet. “So why do you do it? What’s it good for?”
“You mean is it good for the grass?”
“Yes,” he says. “Or is it aesthetics?” His voice has deepened over the year since he’s been away. His cadence has slowed.
I look around. The Goodenoughs had their lawn raked and blown clean before the first snow. Before they brought the softening, carved, pumpkins to the transfer station.
“Aesthetics, I guess.”
We hear a car and both look to follow its sound.
When his mother pulls up to the curb his eyes widen and a small curve comes to the corners of his mouth. His cheeks round. He is a beautiful boy.
He loves his mother. He loves her in a way that I cannot, nor can I know. I loved her first. But that has nothing to do with love.
He loved her the moment he took his first breath. As he was settled against her tired chest, feeling the rise and fall of her breathing. The first touch of her skin. Its redolence will be with him until his last day. A guide. A touchstone to his life.
Between them is a calibration that occurred in that instant. A setting or resetting of their biological reference points. The first shared recognition of an unshakable, wordless, similitude.
I love her too. Perhaps in many of the same ways he does. And then in different ways. Ways he will too, but with someone else. Maybe someone who smiles like she does. Perhaps not. But there will be something.
For me though it was a slower walk to love her. Slow but constant. Gravitational, almost.
A willing recalibration for each of us: of reliable habits, of a sense of self, a plumbing of personal depths.
We measured and adjusted our side-by-sidedness. Narrowing of the distance. Until being next to her was my only true place. Sharing a border, like two states, for which the only thing that separates them is an invisible understanding that they are separate but inseparable.
There was a brief introduction, ours. Confirming the names we had been told by others. A beginning. A lingua franca of friendship emerging at the copy machine. A need to see one another up close. A slow and hesitant certainty growing. A quickening when either entered the room. A pleasing recognition when you notice a strand of her hair on your shoulder.
Not enough is said about how two people come to love one another. To care for the other more than for oneself. To come to reach out for one another in the dark. To watch them as they grow and change. To ache when they ache.
Do we need to know the biochemistry of love? What good would that do? I don’t want to know. The neural pathways in the cingulate gyrus, or oxytocin receptors, or dopamine titers in synaptic junctions tell us nothing we don’t already know or need to know.
We, the three of us, walk together into the house. My fingers are numbed from the cold and wet. Ezra walks a bit ahead with his mother. I bring the rakes up to the back door. I think I will let the leaves stay where they have fallen until they are dried up and dispersed by the warming breezes we get here in April.
There is a picture of her I keep on my desk. In this one my head is down. I am wearing my black suit and she is in her white dress. My hair is not yet gray and hers is light and a few strands of it have blown across her forehead. Her cheek. She’s walking beside me. Looking at me, and her eyes are as bright and as clear as the July-blue sky behind her.