I never really got over my father’s murder. It happened when I was twelve years old, and all because he was trying to save some woman on the street he didn’t even know. He wasn’t a cop or a firefighter or anything like that. He hadn’t dedicated his life to saving others. No, he was just your regular average Joe. That was literally his name. Joe Rowe—radio talk show host. His show was called In the Know with Joe Rowe. Cheesy, but it worked for him. Everyone in town knew who he was. His show aired every weekday morning and afternoon. It played in people’s cars during their commutes, in the barbershop downtown, even in Mr. Milner’s hardware store over on Maple. My dad had a way of using the airwaves to spread his infectious, lively personality to the entire town.
That was over forty years ago. I don’t think the town ever recovered from his death. Or maybe it was just me who never recovered. Everything was suddenly grey. It was like a storm cloud rolled in and never left. Had it always rained so much here? I couldn’t recall.
There isn’t much I can remember about my dad to be honest. I remember he never got my ponytail right; it always sat a little to one side. I remember he had a favorite hunter green tie he wore at least twice a week. I remember helping him build his model cars in the garage. I remember just how big his smile could get. Everything else became a blur over the years, but I held onto those little things like they were my lifeline.
Everyone had always said nothing bad happens here, but they were wrong. The worst happened to me. My dad was killed by some drifter. My parents were getting out of a late-night show at the local playhouse when they heard a woman scream a block away. My dad rushed over to find the woman on her knees and a gun in the drifter’s hand. I don’t know what he was thinking or why he felt the need to play the hero. But that’s what they called him afterward—a hero. He saved the woman’s life that night. Still, the drifter got away while my dad bled out on the sidewalk.
No one’s ever told me life is fair. If they did, I would laugh in their face.
My mother passed about six years after my dad. I guess she couldn’t survive the heartbreak any longer. She left the house to me, and I’ve stayed there ever since. I never considered moving away, even though I probably should have. I think I was worried about losing what few memories I had of my father. His signature tie still hung in the closet. Unfinished model cars remained in the garage. My mom never got rid of those things, and I couldn’t bring myself to either. His memory haunted me, and still I never left.
I became the town’s recluse. I really only went out to do my shopping at the neighborhood market once a week and rarely for anything else. I even worked from home, hosting piano lessons for those willing to pay. It wasn’t much money, but it was enough to live off of considering I wasn’t a very materialistic person.
The ivory keys beneath my fingers became the only touch I craved. I began playing shortly after my dad died. My mom thought it would be cathartic. I suppose in a way it was. The music kept my soul alive when I didn’t have much fight left in me. A day never passed when I didn’t play. It was mostly Vivaldi but sometimes Chopin, Debussy, or Brahms. The rosewood baby grand was situated in the living room with a view through the window into the front garden. I didn’t tend it much; it was mostly weeds. Every couple of years I would get in the mood and buy a few plants, but they never lasted more than a couple weeks.
Everything around me dies. I am the sole survivor of the Rowe family curse if there ever was one.
I stared out at the garden, having another one of those urges to plant something as my student played “To a Wild Rose” beside me. I’m sure it was due to the fact the young boy had sketched a rather lifelike drawing of a rose at the bottom corner of his sheet music. He played the piece a bit too fast despite the metronome sitting next to the music rack. I hid a grimace as he stumbled clumsily over a few notes.
“It’s really coming along, Dylan,” I encouraged after he finished. Reaching over, I turned off the metronome and stood up from the bench.
The small boy gazed up at me with pride beaming from his bright, hazel eyes. His youth reminded me of my own I had lost a long time ago. The strawberry blonde hair on top of his head bounced as I walked him to the front door and turned the knob.
“I’ll see you next week. Just work on that tempo, alright?”
Dylan nodded, a wide grin stretched across his face as he skipped down the walkway toward the car parked in the driveway. His mother sat in the driver’s seat. I smiled and waved from the threshold. Once Dylan was in the car and they were pulling off, I returned inside and shut the door behind me. My face relaxed, the smile fading. Exercising those particular muscles took too much effort, so I never forced it longer than necessary.
Returning to the piano, I sat back on the bench. I stretched my fingers and began playing a piece from memory. The melancholic prelude by Chopin filled the living room as my fingers glided gracefully across the keys. My eyes closed, and my body moved with the mellifluous rhythm. Hans von Bülow once called the work “suffocation” which seems fitting. I can imagine Chopin feeling the same way while writing it as I felt while playing it—as though we were drowning in a sea of despair together.
The music crescendoed as I allowed it to reflect the sadness that still thrived deep to my core. Something had to, because, after so many years, there were no tears left for me to cry. The prelude ended with smorzando as it died away and the last note rang out.
The doorbell rang, and my eyelids flew open. I didn’t get up right away, instead pondering who it could be. I wasn’t expecting another student, and I never had any other visitors. The doorbell rang again, so I quickly removed myself from the bench and ambled to the door. Realization hit me as I opened it and was greeted by a bouquet of pale orange gladiolus. Today was the anniversary of my father’s death.
The bearer poked his head around the flowers. “Delivery for Lucy Rowe.”
He handed me the bouquet and then held out a clipboard. “Sign here please.”
After setting the flowers down on the console table, I scribbled my name on the slip of paper and then shut the door. As I carried the bouquet into the kitchen, I admired the crystal vase wrapped with a white lace ribbon. There was no note to inform who the flowers were from. There never was. However, I knew exactly who sent them. It was the same person who sent them on this day every year, without fail, since my father died. They were from the woman whose life he had saved. My mother always kept them, but after she passed away, I started throwing them out as soon as they arrived. After a while, I decided to hold onto them. For as long as they survived at least, which was never long.
The gladiolus were dead in less than three days. It was another three days before I finally got rid of the corpses. I kept the vase though. It also worked fine for silk flowers—the kind that couldn’t die.
Several weeks passed. I was sitting at the dining table reading the paper after pouring my morning cup of coffee from the French press. Steam billowed from the dark liquid inside the mug while its rich aroma wafted throughout the house. I never paid much attention to the obituaries. However, as I flipped by the section, a name captured my attention. Kathleen Virginia Walker—the woman whose life my father saved all those years ago. She was dead.
I wasn’t tempted to go to her funeral at first. I left the newspaper open on the table to Kathleen’s obituary, and throughout the day, the thoughts just sort of crept in. I changed my mind at least half a dozen times. I’m not sure what possessed me to even consider it. Her memorial service was the next day, so when my eyelids became heavy that night, I decided to sleep on it.
When my eyes fluttered open the next morning, they were greeted by the rays of the rising sun peeking in through the teal curtains. I laid there for a while, watching the dust particles dancing in the orange glow. For the first few moments upon waking, I forgot all about the decision I had to make. It wasn’t until I sat up in bed that it came back to me, like a heavy stone suddenly dropping into the pit of my heart. I didn’t want to go, but I felt an invisible force urging me. I got out of bed, made some coffee, and spent the morning at the piano. When noon came around, I decided to get ready.
I found a black dress in the back of my closet. I couldn’t remember the last time I had worn it. I couldn’t even remember when I bought it. Fortunately, the gown still fit. I left the house, backed the car out of the garage, and drove across town. It was the farthest I had traveled in quite some time; I couldn’t even remember how long it had been. The town had grown in the last thirty years, and I had barely noticed.
The sky was overcast with thick grey clouds, threatening to release a torrent of rain upon the entire town. The chapel was on the outskirts down a poorly paved road with no lines. Trees bordered either side, stretching above and creating a tunnel. I hadn’t been here since my mother’s funeral, yet I needed no directions.
The parking lot was packed. I sat quietly in the car for a few minutes, trying to find the courage to walk inside. I watched as another vehicle pulled up and a couple got out. Seeing my opportunity, I exited the car and shuffled in behind them.
Inside, the chapel was even more crowded, nearly to capacity. Every pew was practically full. Attendees ranged in age from young children to guests who were older than me. There was even a young woman with a baby in her arms who was sleeping peacefully with its head nestled on her shoulder. A slideshow played on a projector at the front of the room next to the open casket. Photographs scrolled by of Kathleen with her husband. They progressed in chronological order, eventually showing her children and then her grandchildren. A soft requiem filled the chapel, mixed with the sounds of quiet sniffles and gentle voices. Tears cascaded down rosy cheeks, gleaming beneath the dim, artificial lighting. Despite the pervading sadness, the ambience was remarkably serene.
Rooted to the spot in the back of the room while looking out over the congregation, I was floored. It was difficult for me to fathom one person having an impact on this many people.
I had been standing there for only a couple of minutes when I was blindsided by a woman who approached me from my right. She smiled kindly at me, curiosity in her eyes. Her cheeks were stained with dry tears that left trails through her makeup. The wrinkles on her face showed her years as I judged there to be about forty of them. She had almost as many grey hairs as I did. However, there was something about her that made me believe aging had not been as wretched an affair for her as it had been for me.
“Thank you for coming.” Her tone was sincere as she studied me. “How did you know my mother?”
“I didn’t. Not personally.”
She raised her brows. “Oh? I’m sorry, who you are?”
“My name’s Lucy Rowe.”
Her eyes lit up with recognition, and her mouth fell open. “You’re Joe Rowe’s daughter.”
All I could do was nod my head as I felt a warmth creep up and my face flush.
The woman’s expression fell ever so slightly as her lips formed into more of a half-smile. She appeared to proceed with caution. “My name is Elizabeth Walker. Kathleen was my mother. I don’t know if you ever knew this, but when your dad saved her, she was pregnant. With me. He didn’t just save her life that night.”
“I didn’t know that,” I admitted, my voice so quiet it came out as almost a whisper.
Turning to scour the crowd, Elizabeth pointed to the young blonde woman holding the baby. “That’s my daughter and her son.”
The baby’s eyes flitted open briefly, allowing me to see the intensity of their emerald green. His skin was soft and new, his disposition surprisingly calm. He smiled listlessly in my direction before his eyes closed once again. My throat closed up as I was overwhelmed with emotion. At first, I couldn’t identify it. Then I realized it was guilt. I had wasted my life, but Kathleen hadn’t wasted hers. While I had consistently failed at tending a garden, Kathleen had planted seeds that grew roots and blossomed.
“I have younger brothers and sisters, and they have children too,” Elizabeth continued. “Your father didn’t just save my mother and me. He saved all of us. Without him, most of us wouldn’t be here.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“She had a good life.” Her smile turned sad, but it never disappeared. “You’re more than welcome to stay if you’d like.”
“I really should be going.” I had seen what I had come there to see. “I just came to pay my respects.”
“Thank you, Ms. Rowe.” She shook my hand with both of hers.
Before exiting the chapel, I took one last look over my shoulder at what had come of Kathleen Walker’s life. There were tears of sorrow. There were smiles of reminiscence. There was significance. Her life had meaning; my father’s had purpose. I left with a strange sense of peace I had never known. As I drove home through the torrential downpour, I understood something for the first time. My father really was a hero. And maybe it wasn’t too late to give my garden another chance.