The sun rose behind the brittled, bent body of an elderly man and the squat, square body of a boy, making the two figures black silhouettes against the massive maple tree.
The old man’s brown, knobbily knuckled hand wrapped around the boy’s tiny tender fingers. His other grasped a ceramic mug. The black coffee rippled with the shift of his weight. The steam clouded his gold-stemmed spectacles with every lift to sip before the chilled air would transform them back to their original state of transparency. The boy, his grandson, was young. If you had asked him, he would have shown you his thumb folded onto his palm; his hand outstretched proudly before him and his four fingers up and straight.
The boy sloshed and splashed his red rain boots as they clomped down the steep dirt driveway to retrieve the morning newspaper. They walked by the pond, pointing to the ducks, and stood before the maple tree. “Why is this tree orange and red and yellow?” The boy asked. “Because the leaves are dying.” His grandfather said. “The leaves that were once green have grown old and changed color. And soon, when these leaves are done changing, they will fly from the tree’s branches and land on the grass and pile up onto the roots. Then the wind will come along and blow them away to swim in the pond, run along the road and to disperse and dance throughout the farm.” When his grandfather finished his explanation, the boy looked from the tree to the old man and said, “You are like the tree.”
His grandfather smiled at the boy’s accurate observation. The old man’s hair had gone white, as the green leaves had turned orange. His hair had fallen out, as the leaves had fallen off, and his strands gathered at the shower drain beside his strong, skeletal feet, just as the maple leaves had piled atop the tree’s raised curled roots. “Yes, I am.” The old man said. “And one day, this tree will die. And one day, I will die. And one day, many many many years from now, you will die.” The boy thought he understood and nodded his head.
The boy lived with his mother, father and two big brothers in the busy city, but the boy was happiest here on his grandfather’s farm in the clean, quiet country. During their weeklong visits, the boy’s grandfather would wake him early to walk down the driveway, around the pond and by the maple. The boy was the only person, since the man’s wife died two years before, who eagerly wanted to join him during these early morning walks.
One afternoon, two years later, the boy felt suddenly faint on the playground at school and vomited red under the yellow turny slide. His teacher ran to the school office and phoned for an ambulance. “The boy’s eyes are nearly closed,” she said before hanging up.
At the big busy hospital in the city, the doctor on duty scrunched his face and ordered the nurse for more tests, while the boy’s parents, dressed in business suits, stood by, theirs hearts racing one another.
The next morning, the doctor arrived to tell the boy and his family that the boy was sick. “Very sick.” The doctor said. “We need to transfer him to a specialized hospital across town.”
Later that day, from a white waiting room, the boy’s grandfather was called and given the news. The phone shook when he told his daughter that everything would be fine. That “the boy is so full of life. He will certainly get through this.” He returned the phone to its receiver and left to sit under the maple tree until the sun fell down. The next morning, he drove to the big city, his truck putting and crackling all the way.
Tied to the back beige bar of his hospital bed, Get Well balloons floated above and behind the boy’s pillowed propped head. The old man held the boy in a soft grip before turning to busy his wet eyes by searching for an appropriate place to plop the teddy bear he had purchased in the gift shop moments ago while he was waiting for his nerves to adjust.
Treatment began and the boy lived a nauseous existence, vomiting into plastic buckets, weeping when he saw nurses with needles and losing his dark brown locks. The boy asked his grandfather if his hair falling out meant he would die soon. “No.” The old man said. “You are different. You are young and strong.” And the boy’s mother shaved his remaining hair.
For the next several months, the old man drove to and from his green, country farm to the dirty city, carrying a deck of playing cards and plastic-wrapped comic books to read to the boy while his parents went to work and his brothers back to school. Yet after a year in the hospital, the boy could no longer take the treatment. “We could give it another try,” the boy’s doctor said with
sympathy, “but I don’t think it’s wise.” No one wanted to give up, but more than that, no one wanted to see the boy’s poor body pinched, poked or prodded with thick metal needles any more. “I want to go to the farm.” The boy said at that moment, having overheard and understood everything. “I want to see the ducks and the maple tree.”
The next day, the boy, his brothers, mother and father did just as their boy asked. They packed five full, heavily hopeful bags and drove to the clean county. And every morning, before the sun showed them another day’s beginning, the old man drove the boy down the steep dirt driveway, to the pond’s edge and to their maple tree.
After ten days, the boy, now seven-years old, said, “I want to walk today.” The old man agreed and in the dark, the two aching bodies slowly walked their ways to the maple’s side. When they finally reached the great tree of undeniable strength and constancy, the boy laid down between two risen roots and looked up. The old man bent beside the boy, his joints cracking as they folded to sit beside him. It was early in the season of changing leaves, but just then a wind gusted through the tree’s top and several soft, floppy green leaves tore away from their branches and floated, like rocking chairs, down onto the boy’s diseased body, down onto the old man’s wearily wrinkled face. The boy’s grandfather reached over and grasped his grandson’s hand, and as the orange sun rose above the hills, the child and the man closed their eyes and waited for their bones to float and fly away.