I crossed the room to say my goodbyes. The eulogies had been poignant and funny. The burial site, under a moss-covered live oak, was beautiful. The visit with the family was warm and uplifting. It was time for me to leave them in a tight knot of each other.
“Don’t get up,” I offered, as I reached down to take his hand.
“No, no,” he said, releasing me from a grip still strong. With one hand on the edge of the table and the other on the back of his chair, he began pushing himself up. “I want to tell you a story.”
I had just been looking at a photo on the mantel, a black-and-white wedding portrait of him and his bride, handsome boy and beautiful girl. They were together for 63 years. Five children and 14 grandchildren crowded the photo albums. There were lots of stories, but he wanted to tell me only one.
He turned from the table, curved his arm around my back and moved the two of us away from the voices that rose from the table, overlapped each other and drifted out the doors toward the ocean. Propping his elbows on a high counter, he leaned forward and I leaned in, not wanting to miss a single word.
“Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about a hummingbird,” he began. I nodded, more out of respect and encouragement than actual knowledge.
‘A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel;
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal;
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head,
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning’ s ride.’ ”
The words rolled out with the ease of the oft recited. I could imagine him standing in front of his classroom of undergraduates, Philistines all, incapable of grasping the power in the spare words. He took a shallow breath.
“I put a hummingbird feeder outside Mary’s window, and one day while the young woman who came in to help us …”
He paused and raised his eyebrows questioningly. I nodded, this time with actual knowledge, to let him know I was aware of the role of the young woman.
“She was a life-saver. We couldn’t have done it without her,” he offered parenthetically, before continuing: “One day while she was there, I looked out the window and saw a hummingbird at the feeder. I watched it for a moment and then said, ‘The mail from Tunis, probably, an easy morning’s ride.’ ”
He was staring into the distance now. Watching his profile, I could see the tears begin to rise in his eyes, hovering just behind the lashes, not falling.
He turned then and looked at me straight on. Wherever he had been just a second before, he had returned to the present.
“The young woman, the one that helped us, she heard me and said, ‘What’d you say?’ ”
His cheeks rose up to meet his eyes and he chuckled.
I laughed. I could just see the quizzical look on the nurse’s aide’s face, the lack of comprehension, the wondering of what a hummingbird had to do with the mail. And I also could feel his sadness that, by then, the Mary who had understood his fondness for Emily Dickinson and who would have enjoyed the moment was lost, vanished somewhere inside the body that still required the care of this kind and tender woman.
I have seen love before. Never before have I seen it more quietly, yet eloquently, expressed.
The leaves are turning, and the days are getting shorter. It will be months before the hummingbirds return, but I am certain that the first one I see will be bringing the mail from Tunis, a love letter from Mary to Hollis, sealed with a kiss.