It was just three small items. Small enough to fit into the pocket of my jacket. As we hugged during our meaningful goodbye, she wouldn’t even notice that they were there. A spoon, a frog and a black pocket knife. She wouldn’t even notice they were gone.
Over the past week I had been staying with her and my brother. He was lying in a hospital bed set up in their spare room, dying. The tumour that was growing inside his spinal column had paralysed him from the neck down. His two small children slept with her in the bedroom upstairs while I stayed with him through his restless nights. Mostly I just slept. It seemed there wasn’t much that the dying actually needed.
In retrospect, I probably should have taken the opportunity to speak with him more. To share a laugh about our unhinged childhoods, about the day he pushed my face through a glass door, about what an arsehole he actually was.
“Do it you little shit or I’ll keep pushing!”
Then the smash and the blood.
“Fuck, quick, don’t tell mum! You ran into it, you thought it was open. Don’t you fucking tell mum or I’ll kill you!”
The kind of older brother who had it all sorted.
I was spending a week doing this, before Dad could take over the job. But my brother seemed to be getting perilously close to his death and my departure date started to seem like it was way too far away. What if it was me who woke up with a dead body lying in the room where I had been sleeping? I was eating Lindt balls by the handful to relieve my stress. There was a kilogram of them sitting on the fridge. I could have left one I suppose. But, I mean, what kind of person has a kilogram of Lindt balls just sitting on their fridge for fuck’s sake?
Every morning she and I would have a cup of tea and toast, my two nephews sitting in high chairs at the table with us. Too little to even eat Lindt balls. She would scoop the tea out of the tin with a small wooden spoon that her parents made her. It was red cedar, a tree once prolific in the valley she was now living. Then she would take a cup into my brother and help him drink it through a straw.
I’m not even sure why I wanted it. The love that had gone into making it for her? The generosity it symbolised as she tirelessly brewed the perfect pot of tea for me and my brother every morning? Perhaps I just needed a spoon for making tea.
In the evening she would run a bath and soak in the hot water with my two nephews and I would listen to them playing tugboats, whales and hippopotamuses. They had a bar of transparent soap which had a frog inside and I heard them scream in excitement the night they finally got the frog out. A little green frog with two red stripes which now sat on the side of the bath waiting for playtime.
So why the frog? A symbol of her devotion to her family? A reminder of this time, of the only time I would be close to them all? Maybe my garden pond could do with a little plastic frog.
In the evenings I helped my brother write a list of things he wanted to leave his children. A bunch of shit from a life he had given away to work years ago. Did I mention that this was family number two? Three nephews and one niece, who I loved, were living somewhere else while I stayed here with their dying dad. Sure, she welcomed them for visits, anytime, and their mum too. If I were him, I’d be wishing this hospital bed was in their spare room instead of this one though.
I wrote item number 5 on the list, a black pocket knife. Black shiny plastic, with two small silver pins in the handle. It had been tirelessly cared for and sharpened by my brother and he wanted to leave it to his third youngest son, who was just a bit too young to have one of his own.
No reason why. I just liked pocket knives.
During my final night I took the spoon, the frog and the knife and put them into the inside pocket of my jacket.
In the morning she hunted for the wooden spoon to make my final cup of tea before I left.
I hugged her close and felt the sharp plastic toes of the green and red frog press into my chest.
Then I was gone.
I just made it.
A day later and I would have been the one to wake up to my brother, dead, in the bedroom where I had been sleeping.
I was gardening when the phone rang, probably two weeks after my brother’s death. Enough time to start looking at the list. She said she wanted to check if I had taken the pocket knife home by mistake?
Why she would think I had taken it home by mistake?
She said she had been looking for it to give to Jack and couldn’t find it anywhere. She said it meant so much to him to have his dad’s pocket knife. She said she hoped I might know where it was because I was one of the last people to sleep in his room.
I said I wasn’t sure and that I might have it. That I had a few pocket knives and what, exactly, did his look like?
I put down the phone and continued weeding. I was creating a small garden in memory of my brother. I sliced a hydrangea cutting with the small sharp blade and polished a muddy finger mark off the shiny black handle.
I just really like pocket knives.