By Elizabeth Kleinfeld
My mother staggered across the lawn in short shorts and a halter top, barefoot, with a mason jar full of gin in her hand, to harvest the strawberries for my father’s favorite dessert. That night, she would slice the berries directly into our bowls at the table, her turquoise mood ring catching the light. Even dulled by gin, my mother sparkled. We sprinkled heaping spoonfuls of sugar over the berries before passing around a carton of heavy cream. “This is how you eat strawberries,” my father said with authority while my sister and I rolled our eyes at each other from across the table. He always thought he was right.
My husband preferred strawberries pulled from the plant and devoured on the spot with no adornments, warm from the sun, their green leafy tops tossed into the soil to fertilize the next crop. After his stroke, he carefully maneuvered his bright yellow motorized wheelchair around the retaining wall, easing up to the plants. With just one functioning hand, he had to work hard to pull a single berry from its stem without crushing it. He never stopped loving the feel of dirt in his hand. We learned to measure victory in berries harvested, hurts forgiven, and pain that made sleep difficult but not impossible.
Later, victory was a gentle death. After taking my husband off life support, I wandered through the house made unfamiliar by his absence. On the kitchen counter, I found a white ramekin filled with a handful of strawberries he had harvested two days before. I imagined him picking the berries, resisting the urge to eat them, bringing them into the house on his lap and leaving them on the counter for me to find. I held the ramekin, feeling the ribs of the pottery under my fingers. Just a few hours earlier I had held my husband while he drew in his last breath and let it out just like any other, only there was no next breath. I leaned my nose in, inhaling the luscious scent of the bright red berries.
I put the ramekin in the fridge, and every time I opened it for the next month, I thought, “Tom’s last strawberries.” One morning, I stood in the kitchen, his plaid flannel shirt shrouding me, wedding band still on my hand, opened the fridge, and carefully took the ramekin off its shelf, the berries resting inside now shrunken and dark. Their tiny seeds popped against the shriveled flesh. I ate them quickly, afraid I would lose my nerve. Even a month old, even shriveled, they were sweet and lush, the little seeds bursting in my mouth like bubbles in the sun.
The next spring, a cousin will remind me to begin watering the garden. I will hire a friend to weed and maintain the beds. Strawberries will appear again, as if Tom were still alive, tending to them. They will not know he is gone. They will not care. They will glow like jewels against the mulch and drop me to my knees in the dirt. Even in my mouth, even as they are being thrashed apart, the berries will seem joyful and exuberant.
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Elizabeth Kleinfeld is a writer and professor living in Denver, Colorado. She blogs about grief, disability, and Buddhism at https://elizabethkleinfeld.com/revisionspiral-3-0/. Her superpowers are killing plants, embracing paradox, and Swedish death cleaning.