Henry had wanted to go camping, but Gwen had been unusually reluctant, so they didn’t arrive at their campsite until late in the day. They would have to wait until morning to make the trek up the mountain slope through the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to their patch of king boletes, a patch they had discovered before they had married more than 50 years ago.
Just yesterday Henry and Gwen had been at home. It was early morning when Henry stepped into the backyard and made the first of his twice daily rounds. Henry had retired fifteen years earlier from teaching and research at the University of Washington, but he continued with his habit of measuring the world. It was raining, and the scent of damp earth soaked into his very core, invigorating him. He began by reading the dial on the soil thermometer, then the ambient temperature from a shielded thermometer on the north side of the house, and lastly the rain gauge near the blueberry bushes. Back inside, he dried off and sat down at the kitchen table to record the numbers in his journal. He hummed Ode to Joy as he paged back through his notebook, a tingle of excitement in his fingertips. This fall looked like it would be ideal growing conditions for the Boletus edulis mushroom, the king boletus.
He felt a small thrill as he looked out the kitchen window. Like most lawns in Seattle that weren’t watered all summer, the grass entered dormancy by mid-July and became golden and brittle by August. But he knew that during the long, hot summer months, just a few inches below the dry and dusty surface soil, vast subterranean tangles of fungi had been busy: spores grew into hyphae, hyphae combined to form branching mycelia, and then the extraordinary occurred. From the nest of filaments, a fruiting body engorged with rain pushes through dirt and worms and rocks and roots into the world of grass and trees and people.
He turned around when he heard the clink of ceramic cups against plates. Gwen looked intent on emptying the dishwasher.
“Those dishes are dirty,” he said.
She stopped and examined a white bowl, turning it around in her hands. “It looks clean.”
“No. I had rinsed it, but it’s not clean.”
Gwen set the bowl on the counter and walked over to the family room and stood looking out the French doors at the backyard. She left the dishwasher wide open.
Henry placed the bowl back into the dishwasher. Afraid to make a loud sound, he eased it closed and returned to his journal. This was not like Gwen to walk away from a task, to leave the kitchen untidy. Gwen could be one to brood, but for the most part, nothing much could disturb her equanimity. Henry relied on that. She was his foundation. But lately she had complained about not remembering the names of things and for the past week, ever since her visit with her doctor, Gwen had become withdrawn, preoccupied, you could even say secretive.
She looked good, much younger than her 76 years. No, not just good, she looked great, as beautiful as ever. If she was in pain, you’d never know it and there was nothing physically she couldn’t do. Maybe it was just a mood that would pass. Either way, he’d have to wait for her to tell him, and this soured his joy and made him feel on edge like a puzzle whose pieces did not fit together.
It also reminded him of other disconcerting events that he would rather not think about. Erik had taken that job in Redmond. It wasn’t too far from Magnolia, but with traffic, it was far enough to make travel an effort, and with Thomas in Shoreline, the boys and the grandchildren didn’t visit much anymore. Each weekend carried its own demands of soccer games and baseball games and ballet and homework. To add to it, James and Rachael, old friends from college, announced a few days ago that they were voluntarily moving into a retirement home. A retirement home. If that wasn’t grim enough, they said they didn’t want to burden their children when the time came. Last year Steve and Ginger had moved away, to a warmer, drier climate. Then Steve had a stroke and couldn’t travel anymore. The world seemed to withdraw as he grew older, but Henry was grateful that he had Gwen. At least she would always be with him.
The rain fell harder, making spectacular splashes in the deepening puddles, the sound a battle drum of defiance. Life was change. Henry wasn’t going to let Gwen’s unwarranted preoccupations bring him down, not when the rain and warm temperatures at this time of year were turning out to be ideal growing conditions the king, his and Gwen’s favorite mushroom, their mushroom. Of all the edible fungi, these beauties were a miracle of nature: thick, bulbous, white stems; meaty, crunchy, wide golden caps and a nutty taste that complemented almost any meal. These fairy-tale mushrooms looked like round, magical loaves of bread that grew right out of the mossy forest floor.
Yes, there was no need to worry. Henry had his Gwen. They had each other. He wanted to walk over to Gwen and wrap his arms around her, but when she was like this, she didn’t always like attention drawn to it. Instead he called out from the kitchen, “Gwen, let’s go to our enchanted forest tomorrow. The weather’s been perfect for mushrooms. We’re sure to find boletes.”
When Henry didn’t get a response, he walked into the adjacent family room. Gwen stood with her back to him facing the rain outside. She stood tall, five foot ten, only four inches shorter than he was although her characteristic erect posture had loosened over the years.
“We could go tomorrow. The rain is supposed to let up.”
“I’m not sure I’m up to it. And I haven’t finished the laundry.”
He walked further into the room, but not close enough to touch her.
“According to my notes, it’s going to be a good year for our mushroom. We don’t have to go for long.” He stepped closer and this time dared to wrap his arms around her waist. “Can the laundry wait?” To his relief, she didn’t push him away. This was his Gwen.
She nodded and Henry took it as a yes. He kissed her on her cheek. He would hook up the sleeper camper to the 4-Runner, get the grocery shopping done, pack their bedding and all she’d have to do is pack her hiking clothes. The fresh scent of pine, the sight of snow-capped mountain peaks and invigorating crisp, late September nights under brilliant stars were sure to pull Gwen out of her funk. Then she’d tell him what troubled her.
At the campsite the summer revelers had returned to school and jobs so Henry and Gwen had the place to themselves. Massive old growth western red cedars, their bark fine lined like the faces of the ancients, shaded their camp and a nearby river. Henry stretched his legs after the long drive and breathed in the sweet fragrance of conifer sap, a scent reminiscent of dried strawberries. He felt disappointed that they wouldn’t have time to search for mushrooms until morning, but it felt good to be back in the forest and out of Seattle with all its traffic and noise. Gwen, despite some mild osteoarthritis in her hands and knees, moved with characteristic efficiency and had already unpacked the camp stove and was making her way into the forest. “Daylight won’t last. I’m going to go collect kindling.”
She didn’t ask him to come along, and he wanted to give her space so he did not follow her. He smiled and waved and then wandered through tall ferns to the edge of the river. Now that they had a sleeper camper, there wasn’t much to set up. When they were younger they would have backpacked, but they’d be able to reach their patch of mushrooms from the campsite in a day trip as long as they left early in the morning. He sat down on a log and watched the water froth and swirl as it hurried over and around small colored river rocks, bobbing tree branches, and smooth boulders.
Nearing 80, Henry found that there were few memories that he treasured. He rarely revisited the many activities of his life, activities that had seemed so important to him when he was doing them: the years of education, the years of teaching and research, the conferences, the awards, the rivalries. Rather than accomplishments and failures, the memories that bubbled into his consciousness were often of those times he spent growing up on the Minnesota farm and those with the boys when they were young, but most often of those times with Gwen.
As he watched the water flow, he thought about a day in this area from long ago. Fingers of fog had stretched and receded through the forest. He had lost the group of professors and graduate students, but Gwen had found him and together they had searched for mushrooms. “Isn’t it a beauty?’ She had reached for a large, stocky, brown-capped bolete and cut the base with a pocket-knife. She held it up to him. He nodded yes and admired the curve of her full lips. How he felt the nearness of her. How his heart pounded as he reached for that mushroom. He had wrapped his hand around hers before he took it. Her grey eyes held his. He detected a faint smile before she turned back to the mushrooms.
She asked, “Did you know that the Boletus edulis lives symbiotically with the trees? The fungus envelops the underground rootlets of the conifer and helps the tree absorb water and nutrients.” He remembered her long form looking up at him from where she kneeled in the moss, a sapling herself. She cut the base of another mushroom, smiled as she looked up at him. “The tree in turn provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom, a mycorrhizal relationship.” She stood and placed the mushrooms into the basket on her arm. A slender ray of sunlight filtered down to them through the fog. It found the gold strands in her hair, dazzling him. She held out the basket. “Neither one can live without the other.” How soft her lips had felt.
The shadows around him had grown. They’d be out of daylight soon. He meandered the short distance back to camp, collecting kindling along the way. He expected to see Gwen nursing a fire; instead, he found himself alone in the growing darkness. The light had become grainy, and he rummaged in the trailer for a headlamp.
He stood near the fire pit and scanned the surrounding area. He did not see Gwen. She should have been back by now. He listened for the sounds of twigs snapping, but there were none. Not even the chiding of a squirrel. “Gwen?”
He studied the area in the direction he had last seen her, searching for movement. She knew the outdoors well, especially this area, but she had not been herself and he worried. There were also bears and cougars. She would know better than to surprise a bear, but a cougar was different. He glanced at his watch wondering how long she had been gone. Maybe he shouldn’t be alarmed, but it was almost dark. Perhaps she had found some mushrooms and was at this moment bringing them back in her hat, wearing a triumphant grin. But she didn’t have light and she would have a hard time seeing.
“Gwen!” This time he called out louder. His voice sped away through the gaps between the trees. He shivered in the cold. This was not like her. He paced the perimeter of the campsite and then made a loop around the campground area, taking long strides, stumbling over rocks and tree roots when he strayed off the paved road. The uneasiness returned and he couldn’t shake it. There was no sign of Gwen. No sign of any other human being in the area. “Gwen!”
He felt himself tighten, annoyed. This was irresponsible, careless of her. He turned on his headlamp, and pushed his way into the forest. He stepped hard on fallen tree branches and took an angry pleasure in the cracking sound they made under his feet. He could hear little above his labored breathing, but he pressed on, following the narrow beam of his headlamp.
He paused to catch his breath and look back at the way he came. Silence engulfed him. In the dark forest, the outlines of trees and bushes and ferns were lost in the shadows. He had to go back. He would get lost too. He tied a red bandana to a tree branch to help mark the way. In all their years of mushrooming from the Himalayas to the jungles of Colombia, this had never, ever happened. He held his breath and listened for a sound, any sound. He let out a roar, “Gwen!”
And then he heard it, weak and weepy, “Henry.”
The sound was forlorn, she could be injured, but he wasn’t ready to forgive her. Not yet. “Gwen, I’m coming. Just stay where you are.”
He climbed a short slope and pushed through brush before he stepped over a mossy nurse log and stumbled into a small clearing. Gwen was sitting on the ground with her back against a Douglas-fir. A lopsided, waxing gibbous moon had risen above the trees and high mountain peaks and illuminated the clearing. Bright red-capped mushrooms with their characteristic white spots, like coarse salt, the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, dotted the forest border, a sign that king boletes might be found here. Gwen had one in her lap, its cap brown and as wide as her palm. She made no move to get up. “You found me.”
“Are you injured?” he asked. She had been crying. He could tell by the redness and puffiness of her eyes. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes from his glaring head lamp.
He turned it off.
This was not like Gwen. Nothing seemed right. They should be back at camp, eating dinner. She patted the forest floor next to her, signaling him to sit down. He didn’t want to, but she made no move to get up. He kicked away a few rocks and eased himself onto the ground. They sat in silence. His breath came out in short gruff, huffs that gradually eased. He looked up at the moon, its light cold and indifferent. He wondered, with a certain grimness, if this was how the sun looked from underground.
“Oh, Henry. I must tell you.”
Henry tried to listen to what she said, but his anger had dissipated and was replaced with relief and fatigue. He had found her and she was safe by his side without any injuries. The rest, whatever she explained now, could wait. If he had been able to listen, he would have heard her tell him that she was terrified. That she often felt disoriented and that she no longer trusted her memory. Her doctor had confirmed it, early stages. She told him that she felt at peace in the forest and had thought about not returning. But Henry felt too grateful for finding her to focus on anything else. Along the forest edge he saw small golden-brown loaves, magical in the moonlight. King boletes. Beauties. He could see why Gwen had stopped here and waited for him. She wanted to share this with him. This was his Gwen.
He got up and cut a mushroom at its base and admired it in the light, then he cut several more beauties and placed them in his hat. Gwen didn’t get up to join him. Instead she remained seated under the tree, silent, watching him. He collected a few more. It was time to get back to camp.
Two months later, Henry walked in on Gwen in the bathroom. He stopped at the doorway and watched her empty a bottle of pills into her open palm, her narrow hips pushed up against the sink for balance, her eyes focused and intent on the tablets of Tylenol. She tossed the tablets back like one would shots of tequila and washed them down with water. Without turning around, she stared at him, dry-eyed, from the mirror above the sink. Henry dialed 911.
At the hospital the doctors added citalopram for depression to her donepezil for dementia. When Henry visited Gwen, she had been fierce and angry. “Why didn’t you let me be Henry? We agreed. Don’t you remember?” Henry said he didn’t, but he did. Part of it was a treasured memory, one he liked to review. The other part he tried to ignore. But the two were entwined.
Years earlier they had watched Gwen’s father spiral down. As his dementia progressed this normally jovial, intellectual man grew paranoid and violent. Gwen’s mother suffered terribly. Only after he threatened to kill her at knife-point would she agree to send him to a nursing home. Over the course of seven years, his mood swings worsened as did the violent outbursts. Eventually he lost his ability to care for himself and became bedridden. In the two years before his death, he had frequent hospitalizations for delirium caused by urinary tract infections and pneumonia. Despite the nurses rotating him frequently and the use of an alternating pressure air mattress, he developed bed sores that became infected. Mercifully, his dementia progressed to the point that he lost his ability to swallow. He died from complications of aspirating on his own saliva. His ventricles had the decency to fibrillate and then stop.
Gwen had been in her fifties when her father died. She missed him and for what seemed like days, she stopped eating and going out and she slept all the time. Here was the part of the memory Henry liked, but also the part that troubled him now. They took a vacation to Kauai just the two of them. After a day of mushrooming, they found themselves on a Poipu beach that appeared deserted save for a monk seal sunning himself on the sand. Palm tree fronds rustled in the grove behind them. The foamy Pacific waves rumbled as they rolled into shore. They sat on their towels, side by side, and watched the humpback whales far out at sea spray plumes of water into the air.
Without looking at him, Gwen said she would take her own life if she developed dementia. She asked him to promise her that he would not intervene. He remembered feeling the long bones in her hand and how smooth her skin had felt. He drew her hand to his lips and kissed it. He promised. That time, if it ever came, was part of a future too distant to imagine. In that unimaginable future, he would be there for her.
Her skin smelled fresh and he rolled over on top of her and pressed her into the sand. The monk seal raised its head and then lay back down. Gwen felt warm and soft and very real in his arms. Afterward, free of clothes, they ran into the ocean waves, now red and purple from the setting sun.
Before Gwen returned home from the hospital, he locked all the medicine in the house in a tool box, then gathered all the potential poisons and locked those in the spare room closet, hiding the keys in his trombone case. He had promised to take care of Gwen long before the other promise.
After she returned home, Henry prepared her favorite meals: chicken marsala with criminis, grilled steak with chimichurri and marinated portabellas. He sautéed shiitakes in sesame oil and hedgehogs in butter. When he could find edible mushrooms in their neighborhood, usually shaggy manes and sometimes slippery jacks, he’d sauté those too. During the first couple years after her diagnosis and after the incident with the Tylenol, her moods fluctuated between anxiety and angry outbursts. When she had trouble finding words, Henry helped her think of them. When she forgot the names of things, he wrote the names down on Post-it notes, flagging common household objects in small banners of neon green, orange and bright pink. Later he posted notes to remind her which items belonged, where like milk in the refrigerator not the kitchen cabinet.
Now and then he thought about his promise, but every time he thought about it, it felt too soon. He admitted that she was losing her memory, but Gwen seemed happy for the most part, and she hadn’t tried to kill herself for months. That spring Henry made his usual rounds through the backyard. The evening air carried the fragrance of lilacs and sweet honeysuckle. He listened to the buzz of a distant lawnmower and a familiar chick-a-dee-dee-dee call from the branches of the nearby apple tree. When he leaned over to empty the rain gauge, he noticed a small cluster of brown, medium-stemmed mushrooms. He hesitated before lifting the umbonate, shiitake-like cap and confirmed that it was gilled on the underside. He pulled his hand away. The deadly webcap, a cortinariaceae species. He had not seen these before in the garden, but he had only recently moved the rain gauge. He stared at the mushrooms and contemplated their innocuous appearance. The assassin’s mushroom. Benign in flavor. Rarely causing symptoms after ingestion, but two weeks later, the kidneys fail, a relatively painless death.
The strong scent of damp soil reminded him of the unseen world underground: beetles and earwigs, earthworms and centipedes, ants, spiders and woodlice, all weaving through the maze of mycelia. Death feeding life, life returning to death. What if Gwen found these? Even as her memory faded, she could recognize and name any mushroom they encountered. He picked up a fistful of soil and sprinkled it over the mushrooms, then more and more until he buried them.
Over time, her mind loosened further as her neurons succumbed to plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, a steady erasure of all that made Gwen Gwen. Henry forgot about the deadly webcaps and focused on keeping Gwen safe. Their world grew ever smaller, outlined by the confines of the locked fence around the house. Their days were marked by meals, walks, afternoon naps in front of the TV, and restless nights of wandering. Visitors were few and Henry was afraid to leave Gwen alone at home. After five years, the memory of past promises faded; the promises had been, after all, for an imagined future. Gwen could no longer imagine a future, nor could she remember past promises.
Henry sat at the kitchen table and jotted down the morning temperature readings. Outside the kitchen window the February grass grew green and thick after months of rain. The moisture would be good for the tangles of fungi, those efficient decomposers who secreted enzymes that broke down cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, releasing carbon back into life’s cycle. He thought about what green, leafy carbon-sequestering plant would complement a salmon dinner and settled on kale. Gwen had just fallen asleep, and it was a good time to go grocery shopping. He couldn’t leave her home alone for long. On one excursion, she had left an empty tea kettle on an active burner. He came back to a smoke-filled house and the high-pitched, panicked beeping of the smoke alarm.
When he returned home from the store, he could hear the sound of running water. He set the grocery bag on the counter and didn’t bother getting the rest of the groceries out of the car. This was not good. Gwen must be taking a shower. She would need help. He hurried through the kitchen, down the hallway lined with photos of mushrooms, and into their first-floor bedroom. He found Gwen naked except for a towel draped over her left shoulder, hair wet and dripping, droplets rolling down her sloped, boney spine, darkening the bedsheets. She sat on their bed, head bent and hands busy; she was trying to open a bottle of Tylenol without success.
His heart smacked against his ribcage and he clenched his fists. He had left a bottle of Tylenol out on the nightstand. Early this morning around 4 o’clock, after Gwen had finished pacing the house, he had a pounding headache. He had planned to lock the bottle away after he got up. He had been careless. He watched her twist the child-resistant cap round and round. The cap click-clicked as it turned, and the pills rattled against the plastic container. “Do you need some medicine, Gwen?”
She remained intent on her task, her lips pursed.
“Can I have that bottle?” He inched closer and reached for it.
In one rapid motion she looked askance at him, narrowed her eyes and pressed the bottle into her sagging breasts.
He stepped forward and a cold dampness seeped into his socks. The faucet. It was still running. He rushed into the adjacent room. An urgent flow of water thundered into the bathtub and cascaded over the sides onto the tile floor. He lunged to turn it off, but the tile floor had become as slick as river rocks in late August. He reached for the side of the bath to catch himself, and his hand slid. His ribs hit first as he fell backward, but his right hip took the brunt of the fall. His hip crunched and he plunged into a shocking pool of pain. Cold water soaked his clothes. He took short, shallow breaths as he struggled to get up, his arms and legs trembled. He called out to Gwen, but she did not come.
The water continued to flow, persistent, relentless and he had to turn it off. His body shuddered as he pushed himself up. Bone tore through tissue and grated against splintered bone fragments as he twisted to reach the faucet. A halo of throbbing, lancing pain surrounded him and filled the room. He cried out. His trembling hand found the faucet and turned it off. He fell back and passed out.
Henry remembered little of the events that followed his fall. Erik told him that the house cleaner had found him late in the afternoon and that he would have died of hypothermia if she had not been by that day. His heart rate had slowed to 30 beats per minute. He had broken his right hip and a few ribs. Erik told him that Gwen had almost died too. She had been found naked in their bedroom trying to open a bottle of Tylenol. Erik insisted that it was not safe for either of them at home anymore: Gwen had been moved to an adult family home in Redmond and Henry should consider moving out of their home too. He was lucky to have survived.
The days that followed blurred one into the next. His hospital bed faced a dry-erase board with the date and the name of his doctor scrawled across it, a TV, and a clock that resembled the wall clocks of his school days.
The clock became his companion and he watched its march through the minutes of the day. It was there when he fell asleep and there when he awoke. It waited with him for the doctors, the nurses, the physical therapists and the social worker. It watched patiently as the phlebotomist searched for a vein on his bruised arms and hands. It looked down at him as the nurse’s aide assisted him with meals. The clock waited with him and passed no judgement as he waited, despite Erik’s and the doctors’ entreaties to the contrary, to return home with Gwen. She had not been brought in to the hospital to see him, but hopefully, she would be strong enough to visit him when he was transferred to rehab. He would get stronger and then have his Gwen by his side once again.
The evening before his hospital discharge, Henry’s primary care doctor came by. He had been Henry’s doctor for 30 years, and Henry had called him.
Dr. Fischer sat in a chair next to Henry’s bed. Henry leaned back against a stack of pillows. Henry was pleased to see him. George Fischer was the rare physician that took the time to listen. He was a large man, with bear paws for hands, thick lips and a ready smile that revealed slightly crooked teeth.
“So it looks like you’re finally getting out of here Henry.”
“You better believe it. But I don’t get to go home. They want me on rehab for a bit.”
“They’ll work you hard, no doubt.”
Henry leaned forward and spoke in a lower tone. “George, I need to ask you something about Gwen.”
Dr Fischer leaned in, resting his thick elbows on his wide knees. “What is it?”
Henry rubbed the sweat from his hands on the bedsheets. He wasn’t sure how to ask his question, or if he should ask.
He looked up at the clock. Its long black hands moved efficiently and steadily forward.
“I don’t know how to say this other than to just say it. When Gwen was diagnosed with her memory problem, she wanted to take her life.”
“Yes, I remember. Depression is a common problem for patients with dementia.”
Henry shook his head from side to side. “George. She wasn’t depressed. Depression wasn’t in her nature. You know her father suffered from dementia, died from it, but it took a long time. She didn’t want to go through that. She wanted to choose when she died. Isn’t that legal in Washington?”
“You’re asking about physician-assisted suicide? It’s legal in Washington, but Henry, Gwen never met criteria for that.”
“What do you mean?”
“She can’t be depressed, she needs to have less than six months to live, and she needs to be mentally competent to make the choice. As it stands, PAS is not designed for patients with dementia.”
Henry leaned back against the pillows, ran his hand over his face and through his thinning hair.
“Of course, there is palliative care and hospice. As her body succumbs to, well, time, you can choose not to intervene. Hospice can help her stay comfortable.”
Henry focused on Dr. Fischer’s wide, brown eyes. “I stopped her, George. I didn’t let her do it.” He glanced up at the clock. What he couldn’t quite bring himself to say was that he wasn’t against her taking her own life when the time came.
“You did the right thing, Henry.”
He stared down at his hands, at the thickened joints, the prominent veins, purple bruises. “I didn’t do it to stop her from killing herself. I stopped her so she wouldn’t leave me.” He had promised, a man of his word. But when they had arrived at the imagined future, the landscape terrified him. He hadn’t been ready for “now.”
After three weeks in the hospital and six weeks on rehab, Henry arrived home in the evening, hopeful. Although he had not been able to see Gwen, Erik had given him updates, and now that he was home, he would be able to drive up and visit her. After he got settled in, he planned to bring her home.
Large pinkish-white blossoms perched on the otherwise bare branches of the magnolia in the front yard. Gwen had planted that tree 40 years earlier, when the boys were still young. As Henry made his way up the walk, he noticed that someone had cut and edged the grass and trimmed back the rosemary. He could see that the boys had been taking care of the place while he was away. The boys meant well, they were good boys, but how could they understand the steady loss of aging? Their lives were full of life’s bounty: careers, children, friends, good health. If anything, they likely felt that they had too much responsibility, too many obligations, too many friends that they could not find the time to keep up with. How could they know that the cornucopia empties? That the loss of a friend is the loss of a part of oneself, a part of all that one had been and done. In a few days, Henry would drive out to see his Gwen. Even if she could no longer remember him, he would nourish her memories.
He used his cane as he was taught by the physical therapist: right hand on the railing, cane in the left hand, step first with the good leg. Inside the house was quiet and dark with a faint musty smell. He walked through the house, room by still and silent room. He paused to look at the many photos of mushrooms on the walls on his way to the bedroom: bleeding tooth hydnellum peckii taken near Ross Lake, a fan-shaped xeromphalina species from the Bolivian Amazon basin, omphalotus nidiformis, a funnel-shaped bioluminescent mushroom from Tasmania, and a red-capped amanita muscaria taken just blocks away in a soccer field. He paused to look at a photo of Gwen, holding up a prince mushroom, agaricus augustus. The cap was wider than her face. They had found that mushroom backpacking and had cooked it over a small fire. He could taste its delicious almond flavor. Each “now” had been so real and tangible.
In his bedroom, he undressed, stretched out on the king-size bed, and stared up at the white ceiling. He couldn’t sleep; the vast bed was made for two not one. He took a pillow and a blanket and carried them to the living room sofa. He was home, but it was as though his home had been rattled by an earthquake: everything felt shifted, unsettled. This place was a house not a home without Gwen. He paged through Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The adult family home was in Redmond, not far from Erik’s. It had a large garden and the mature rhododendrons near the door displayed showy pink blossoms. It also had views of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains and a small view of Lake Sammamish. Henry’s hip felt a little stiff getting out of the car. He gripped a bouquet of pink and orange Skagit Valley tulips in his right hand while he steadied his gait with the cane in his left.
The nurses warned him that Gwen had been agitated for several weeks. She paced a lot and tried to leave the facility several times. She had tried to bite a nurse’s aide yesterday when he tried to stop her from leaving. He found Gwen sitting at a table staring out the window. Her hair was cut short. She looked thinner. She gripped an empty bottle of Tylenol in her right hand. She smelled of urine, and there was a small spot of dried oatmeal on the front of her shirt. A wave of guilt washed over him. He knew what she had wanted and not wanted, and he had been a coward.
She didn’t recognize him. Not one sign of familiarity. She remained polite and introduced herself and asked him his name multiple times. When their conversation turned to spring and mushrooms, she grew animated. She said she wanted some mushrooms that grew in the spring, brown mushrooms; she had somewhere to be and asked if he could help her get there.
That night he dreamed that he and Gwen had returned to the mountains. Gwen carried a bag full of brown, gilled, umbonate-capped mushrooms. He recognized them, but couldn’t think of the name. They came to a giant western red cedar, thuja plicata, arborvitae. The tree’s roots were enormous, but their bodies fit nicely amongst the curves. They sank into the soft, warm soil. His body curved around Gwen’s, his arm wrapped around her waist.
In the morning, harsh sunlight streamed into the living room through the large glass window and evaporated last night’s dream. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. The day had advanced without him. Time had a way of doing that: it didn’t wait for unfulfilled promises or cowards. He knew what Gwen wanted and it was long past time.
He hobbled out the door, cane in hand, and walked the short distance to the Discovery Park Loop Trail. Licorice ferns waved above him from the long branches of the sprawling, big leaf maple trees; wild roses, hazelnuts, sword ferns, and more plants than he could identify grew in abundance in the undergrowth. He searched the ground as he walked. As he approached the sand pit near the meadows and open views of the Puget Sound, he found what he had been looking for. He leaned down for a closer look. His hands trembled as he pulled out his pocket knife and cut each brown, gilled mushroom neatly at its base.
Rasa Tautvydas is a retired hospitalist physician. She continues in her role as mother to a teenage son and faithful servant to a middle-aged dog. She likes to forage for wild mushrooms and would like her dog to learn how to find truffles. She believes that we all harbor undeveloped potentials, even middle-aged canines.
© 2018, Rasa Tautvydas