Saturday morning started out sweet. I decided I’d invite Tia Berry and minha mãe over for brunch. They hadn’t been to the island for a while. I lingered over my early breakfast, planning the menu, and imagining the jokes that Mãe and Tia Berry would tell. I tried to think up a few funny stories I could share with them.
Mãe must have run up from the dock. She came in first, all out of breath, and wrapped me in a big hug.
“Are you all right?” I asked her. She looked a little tired, and her face seemed worn with worry.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Charlie,” she said. “We’ve got news to share, but it can wait. Let’s eat first, and we’ll talk after.”
Tia Berry, too, looked a little tense and worried.
“Everything ok, minha tia?”
“Life sucks, Chazzie,” she said. “I bet you never expected me to say that, but it’s true. It just took me a lifetime to realize it.”
I thought she was joking, doing her best imitation of a crotchety old woman, and I was still chuckling when I sat down with them at the kitchen table.
“Charlie,” began Mãe, “You’ve made a lot of friends in your life, haven’t you?”
“That’s no way to start,” grumbled Tia Berry.
“All right, Berry,” said minha mãe. “Do you want to tell him?”
“Tell me what?” I asked. “Look, whatever you need to tell me, just tell me. Then, we’ll deal with whatever comes up and talk it out, ok? Like we always do.”
Tia Berry began softly.
“We’ve never had to tell you anything like this, Charlie. This is kinda sudden. And it hits close to home. I’m pretty broken up. Mae is, too. That’s why I’m acting weird. I just don’t want to face it.”
“So, it’s your friend Jake, the gardener,” Mãe said. “He collapsed. He was at the garden at the park. And he just… he didn’t get up. They said it was a stroke.”
I didn’t know what to say. This wasn’t something we could just talk out.
“How come he didn’t come to the clinic?” I asked, after we sat in silence for a few moments. “I mean before, for a check-up. We’ve got treatments–preventive stuff. We could’ve done something.”
“He didn’t know,” Tia Berry said. “He felt great, and then, bang. Just like that.”
“He should’ve come,” I said. “We would’ve done something.”
“He was always good about going to the doctor,” Mãe said. “In fact, he always got after me and Berry to be sure we got annual exams.”
“I can’t believe it. We would have done something. We could’ve stopped it.”
“Sometimes, things like that just happen,” Mãe said. “People die, Charlie. Friends. Family. You can’t save the world.”
“But I should be able to save friends and family” I said. I knew I was being unreasonable. I was just looking for something to argue with.
“Does it help, being mad?” I asked Tia Berry.
“I’m not mad,” she said. “I’m in denial. You ever heard of it? Big river in Egypt. I’m gonna keep on being in denial until I don’t feel anything anymore. You should try it.”
“She hasn’t been herself,” Mãe said. “She told me on the ferry over that being angry beats being sad. You don’t really believe that, do you, Berry? She doesn’t believe it. How are you, Charlie? Are you ok?”
How was I?
I wasn’t ready for that question. One of my oldest friends succumbed to a stroke. True, he was old, but he wasn’t that much older than Tia Berry. I kept thinking about the last time I’d seen him, which had been at the Bluffs, when he’d told me he was proud of me.
“I hadn’t seen him for a while,” I said, at last. “Not since that night on the Bluffs. You remember that night, Mãe?”
“That was a beautiful night,” she said. “You know what Jake said to me that night, as we were riding the ferry back? He said that he got a lot out of his career as a gardener–and he’d always thought that when he looked back, he’d feel most proud of his award-winning dahlias or his landscaping plans, or something like that. But you know what he said was his best memory of his career? The people he met. He said, if he hadn’t have been a gardener, he never would have met you. And then, he never would have met me or Beryl. Man. I’m always going to remember what his voice sounded like when he said that. It was so warm.”
Tia Berry scowled at me.
“You aren’t crying, are you, Chazzie?” she said. “Don’t start, for once you do, I will, and then I’ll never stop.”