Sugar Poppy Requiem

I’ve wanted to drive here for a while now. It’s been easy to delay my plans since you aren’t here. But today I made the four hour drive to your home–the house you no longer live in because you are bound to a nursing home bedroom. I am here, in your house. But you aren’t here, and you never will be again.

You like the nursing home, I think, because you are comfortable there. Or maybe I need to believe you like it there as a means of processing we’ve exhausted our options—you and I. When the nursing home advocate came to your house to consult with you and Mom about moving in, you thanked me for having your back. You don’t remember this, but I do. You don’t know you’re stuck in your rented room now, but I do.

They call it sundowner’s, dementia, but I’m still not convinced it isn’t a constant low lying infection no one is monitoring or testing for. I’ve asked the care team about it, but they dismiss it, dismiss me, the way I see them dismiss you now. You know I don’t like confrontation, and you aren’t in pain, so I have to be okay with this. With knowing this decline, this onset, might be a symptom of something no one is looking for. But I’m not your doctor or your child, and I don’t get to call the shots. So we call it dementia.

It’s quiet here in your house, and in ways I don’t recognize. The sounds are different when no one is here. I’ve never been alone in your house, because you are what it made it yours, and that is why I wanted to be here at all. I know the precise thrums of the wind chimes outside the guest bedroom window, but today, I am in your room. The distance, the length of the house, makes them chime differently in my ears. The ice maker churns. It sounds exhausted.

I lie on your bed, the mattress still indented with the shape of you. I imagine you coming in the room to kiss me and wake me from my rest, call me Sleeping Beauty like I used to do to wake you. You loved that.

Across the room, the shape of Grandpa is there too, though the impression in his mattress seems to have lifted over time. I guess that’s what happens when you die. Earth and time slowly erase what you left behind. People give your things away.

There are so many things here. I get that from you: a love of collecting beautiful things, objects and possessions, things we can carry with us from place to place, objects that represent memories, places we’ve been, milestones we’ve seen. I want to keep all these possessions: the lobster trap coffee table from Boston, the Marshall Fields replica clock, your yellow purse from Hong Kong, the tea tins from London, and the dried flowers you carried back from Hawaii. I want to keep every piece of you. I want to keep the places you’ve been.

I get up from the bed and make a pot of coffee in your coffee maker. I sip it from one of your mugs while I write this. I like mine weak, with cream, but you like yours bitter and black, so that’s how I pour it—just the way you like.

Since the time I arrived, I began to take inventory of your things, your memories. I don’t know what I plan to do with the list when I write it all down, but I know I can’t take it all. I don’t have the space. I also know all of these things won’t find a home in our family. They’ll be given away. Your beautiful things, your objects, your possessions, will be given away. Though that seems a generous phrase when they’re more likely to be discarded. I won’t take anything today. It would be too much of a violation. You’re still on this Earth, albeit four hours away from the place you made home. You’re still breathing, still producing urine–data–a signal the doctors need to show you aren’t ready to walk out of this life.

I know it’s a lot to ask when you don’t always remember my name now, but do you remember when I held you the night I arrived home from Mexico? I had just landed, but the nurses and Mom told me to come right away, that this was the end. I asked for the room, and I held you. We laughed. They heard us in the hall. I told you that you were my favorite person, and I meant it. These are the things we never say out loud, but I did. I thought you were going to die in my arms. I heard the death rattle deep in your throat. I felt your body seizing in my gentle hold. But the body doesn’t seize when it’s failing. You just had low potassium, hadn’t had enough to eat. The next day, you felt good. You were ready for another adventure, so I told you about the time we went to Cuba, the place you had been dreaming of since you were a little girl. Your little room was a time travel portal, and I stepped into the ride with you.

I can’t stomach this coffee and it’s beginning to rain. I add cream and sweetener, take the mug back into your room, and sit at the foot of your bed. I look out the corner picture windows, and see why you loved it here. Your house is a little slice of lakefront heaven before you get there. A boat passes, perhaps returning home in the rain, and I watch its wake fade.

Your dresser is next to the bed. I look at the drawer pulls, and wonder what they will do with your underwear when you die. I want to be the one to clean out these drawers. I want to place your silk bras and delicates in the box that will be given away. I don’t want them thrown in plastic bags, balled up like old rags. Those intimate pieces of you, the most private parts, require a special kind of care. You kept the boxes with the lingerie Grandpa gave you, stacked them in the drawers, a sign of a life well lived and a love well loved. I want to be the one that tapes the lid shut on that kind of love.

On top of the dresser, I see a tube of lipstick and reach for it. It’s sugar poppy, your favorite color. It looks like an endless summer. I twist the tube, put it to my lips, and apply it expertly – not like the boy smearing it across my big lips for the first time. You taught me how to apply lipstick without a mirror, how to blot my lips so the color didn’t cake my teeth. You always helped me take the color off before I got caught with it on, our little secret. I was your favorite girl. You’re still mine. Do you remember when I told you?

I put the lipstick back, trade it for the matching nail polish. There, on the edge of your bed, I paint my nails. I dress up in your colors, just like I used to dress up in your clothes. I lie back down on the bed, resting in the shape of you while the color dries. There’s no danger in it anymore, me painted up like you. This is how I will carry you with me. This is how you will go every place I go. We will lie in fields of poppies together and summer will never end. I feel safe here, in your bed, in your colors. I know now that I was never safer than when I was with you.

I’m going to take them back with me, your colors. I’m going to paint you, the way you painted me. We’ll travel in your room. We’ll go places neither of us have ever been. I will give to you what you gave to me. I will make you feel safe when you don’t know who you are. And when you’re ready to go, ready to walk out of this world, I will be sure my favorite girl is ready for endless summer.

I am here, in your house, but you aren’t and you will never be again. The next time I’m here, I’ll be packing the items from your dresser drawers in boxes. I will tape the lid closed on a life well lived, a love well loved. I promise to seal them with a sugar poppy kiss. Our little secret.

RYAN WALKER is a queer writer from Dayton, Ohio. His nonfiction and poetry have been featured in Flights, Free Spirit’s 7 Deadly Sins, Wingless Dreamer’s Vanish in Poetry, Longridge Review, Red Noise Collective, and Meniscus. Ryan earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Kentucky University’s Bluegrass Writers Studio. Ryan can be found at @ryan.wrote.it on Instagram.