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Falling Leaves

“I want this one for my obituary,” she turns a wallet-sized portrait toward you. You swallow splinters; don’t want to think about a world without her. Matriarch. Role model. Mother you never had. Propped on one elbow, sun through sheers halos her grey curls. She rakes stiff fingers through photographs scattered on the bed like leaves. “I look good,” she smiles, younger self pinched between swollen fingers. She looks lovely, pixie-cut blonde, hazel eyes, thin lips pushing pink cheeks high. Disease hadn’t mutated her gums with bulging blister-like masses yet.

“It’s a nice picture,” you smile too wide. It hurts.

Her focus returns to the pile, “I want you to do my memorial collage, Shirley. You’re so good with that sort of thing.” The hand-stitched quilt, wool pulled with agile fingers before Amyloidosis seized her hands, floats on your tears. When you don’t respond, she looks up, eyes soften, “We don’t have to do this right now.” You want to say, I’m sorry. Of course, I would be honoured to do this for you. But words stick in your throat like thick sap; you target a picture with ruffled flowery apron, wearer’s face flushed peering into a canner full of borscht. Marleen, in the eighties, the decade you married her son. “Come, I’ll make us tea.” She leans forward, pauses, lowers her eyes, “I never thanked you, Shirley, for protecting my granddaughters.” You didn’t expect this. Validation. Incidents you tried to discuss, averted with body shifts and silence you ascribed to an uncomfortable topic. Her acknowledgement now, jarring evidence of her prognosis.

She died on a Tuesday.

Betrayal and lies exhumed on a Saturday, on your sofa, by her husband of sixty years. His demeanor nonplussed by the gravity of anguish he unearthed: Marleen, her sister and daughters sat around kitchen table, judged and juried–for twenty-five years–the allegations you made against your abusers. Their unanimous verdict: not guilty. It didn’t happen.

Their “investigation” was flawed. They prohibited your eyewitness testimony.

Confessions of the dead drop like snapped limbs until bared tree wobbles. But, on the bed, Marleen said… she thanked me, for protecting her granddaughters. What was that? If she didn’t believe? Why thank me? How do you reconcile the loving relationship you believed you had, with these destabilizing declarations?

Your daughter’s September wedding. Five months before family photos are bereaved of one, you gather for a perfect, mantel-mount canvas shot. No evidence of the lies that eventually bury a family, only the gorgeous backdrop of gold-lit leaves readying themselves for their fall.

You lift an ashen skeleton of a maple leaf to the sky, ask for the impossible: put the leaves back in the tree.

Shirley Harshenin writes from her home in British Columbia, Canada. She believes in angels, caffeine and the human spirit’s extraordinary resilience.