“Michael?” said the nurse, gently shaking his shoulder. “Michael?”
“Yes!” he said, waking with a start.
“Madeleine’s awake now and wants to talk to you. There’s not much time left…” said the nurse, her voice trailing off.
Groaning, he got up from the uncomfortable hospital cot, his body aching as though he had taken a fearsome beating. He ambled over to the chair at his wife’s bedside and took her hand in his.
“Hi Maddie,” he said, his voice thick with sleep.
Her rainy eyes lit up as they always did when she saw him. “Hi, Michael.”
“How are you feeling?” he asked weakly.
“Not so good… not so good,” she said hoarsely, each breath a labor. “I wanted to ask you… what is your… your favorite memory of us together? I have so many favorites… but there is one I love the most…”
“Tell me,” he said, as he brushed aside a strand of hair that had fallen across her gaunt face.
“Do you remember… the dandelion field? Where you took me for a picnic… you took me there… not long after we married?”
“Sure,” he said as the memory gushed through him almost making him dizzy.
“It was such a beautiful day… the sun all over that sea of yellow… a few wisps of cloud… a gentle, warm breeze in the air… you could hear the river… you spilled wine on your shirt after a butterfly startled you… you startle so easily, Michael… so many butterflies… and you made love to me… I thought my head would explode… I was so happy… do you remember what you did after?”
“Yes,” he said, his eyes watering up.
“You… you picked a dandelion with a full seed head… you lay back down beside me and… and blew the seed pods out into the breeze… do you remember what you said?”
“You said: ‘Maddie, those are all our dreams out there… floating through the air… you and me… we just have to chase them… plant them… make them grow… you and me… the M & Ms’… that’s the best memory of them all… we caught a lot of those dreams… didn’t we, Michael? Made them grow…”
“We did. We did,” he said, as the pain of losing her sliced through him like a jagged knife. “Maddie, you’re the best damn photographer this country has seen in a generation.”
“I love you for saying so,” she said, beginning to laugh but coughing violently instead. “A couple of pictures in a couple of newspapers… Michael… do me a favor?”
“Reach into the side pocket… of my bag over there.”
He crossed the room, reached into the bag and pulled out a roll of film. “What’s this?” he asked, puzzled. Madeleine had switched over to digital photography almost as soon as it had come out.
“Please come back and hold my hand again.”
“Okay,” he said, sitting down next to her. “What are these pictures of? Must have been a long time ago.”
“First, I want you to pull the film out of the roll… I wanted to do it myself… but I got too weak… you know?”
“Please don’t tell me you’re asking me to ruin some of your work?”
“I promise it’s not my work. I’ll explain after you do it.”
“Okay,” he said hesitantly, pulling the film from the roll and letting it drop in a coil beside her pillow. “There.”
“Thank you,” she said, her face softening in relief as she tried to grasp at the film.
“Maddie, what is this?”
“They’re pictures of you… I took them about 25 years ago… I guess… I had started walking home from the office from the other side of town… I saw you in the window of a bar… with a pretty girl”, she said, as the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand on end and he tightened his grip on her hand. “Such a pretty… pretty girl… dressed all in black… she had her arms around you… and… and… you were kissing her… I’m sorry I was so bad… I took pictures of you from across the street… it was raining… cold… when you left the bar… I followed you down the street… taking pictures… the two of you arm-in-arm… the last picture is of you going into her place… I’m sorry…”
“Oh, my God,” he gasped. “Maddie, please, I-”
“Michael, it’s okay… really… we met when we were 15 years old… married too young at 21… I was the only girl you had ever been with… I knew how much the girls liked you…”
“It… It only ever happened once, Maddie!” he said, his mind bending with distress. “I swear!”
“I know… I know… women know these things… and… I forgave you even at the time… I understood… I don’t know why I kept the film… never developed it… never destroyed it… you have released me from it… finally.”
“Michael… I’m fading… we have been together for 35 years… you are the kindest, best partner I could ever have hoped for… you always supported me… always understood me… always chased down those dreams with me… always loved me… except for one night… one night out of 35 years… I’m sorry I wasn’t able to give you a child… I know you wanted one… we tried… we tried and tried… and it was just… my body couldn’t… and now it can’t even go on living for you… I’m so sorry…”
“You’re only 50 years old, Michael… you’re still young and have a new life in front of you… you… you should remarry…”
“I only want you, Maddie,” he croaked, as he rested his head on her fleshless shoulder.
“Just promise me you’ll be happy… please promise me that… please…”
“I promise,” he lied, as the pillow got wetter with tears and Madeleine stopped breathing with a peaceful smile on her face.
1 week later
He stood in the middle of the dandelion field, vivid Van Gogh yellow, with the urn under his arm. Sighing deeply, he scattered the ashes over the picnic site from all those years ago. Dropping the urn through trembling hands, he noticed a dandelion with a full seed head. Plucking it, he put it to his lips and watched in silent yearning as the seed pods danced through the gentle summer breeze and flitting butterfly wings.