Silent Speech

James’ parting gift.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY HEATHER GRAHAM


Lounging on the deck, I watched the sun sink behind the spruce trees in the western sky. My mind was racing with thoughts. Why didn’t he tell me? We’d become such good friends. Was it that difficult? Why didn’t he tell me?

James was small, probably 4’ 8”, with short, platinum blond hair. Though hardly a young man, he was as full of energy as one of Santa’s elves. James had emigrated from Edinburgh as a boy, but his Scottish accent was still as thick as jelly. I’d met him three years earlier when he came to help a friend of his collect the furniture I was giving away. He smiled at me and asked why I was giving away furniture in such excellent condition. I told him that women get tired of old things now and then and need to have new ones. He smiled again—this time there was a twinkle in his steely blue eyes—then asked if I needed a handyman. Well, of course I did. Every single woman needs one, especially those over 60. He gave me his business card. A beautiful design of a purple thistle covered half of it. “Call me if you ever need help with anything,” he said.

“Are you OK?” I asked. He smiled —slightly. “Sorry,” he said. “Just felt a little tired.”

That evening I noticed that the paint on the garage door had peeled. It looked terrible. I contacted James and in no time, he had the door looking brand new. After that, he became my go-to guy for every small chore around the house.

Many times, James came bearing gifts—my favorite chocolate, a special brass hook he installed to hang my handbag, a large box of garbage bags, even a white-haired, blue-eyed garden gnome.

One day, after watching me climb on a chair to retrieve some aluminum foil, he arrived with a large cardboard box. He presented it to me and said, “I don’t want to see you climbing up on any chair again. The next thing I know you’ll fall and break your neck!”

I opened the box and saw a sturdy, lightweight, two-tier step-ladder.

James’ acts of kindness amazed me. I always wondered why he did them, considering that I did little in return.
But his ultimate act of kindness was yet to come.

During one of our tête-à-têtes, I mentioned that I needed to do something with the front yard. It was only postage-stamp sized, but the grass was patchy and difficult to mow. “It doesn’t matter what I do to try to make it lush and green,” I said. “Nothing helps.”

“I can fix it up nicely for you,” James replied.

I looked at him in surprise. “Oh, really? You do gardening?” “Oh, sure, I have lots of experience with gardens. My middle son is an expert gardener. We bounce things off each other.”


One Saturday—it was early Spring—James arrived at the house whistling sweeter than a nightingale, a delightful habit of his. We discussed options for the front yard. I thought he should remove the no-grow grass and cover the area with small, variegated river stones. James said, “Stones alone? Too dull. You should add some greenery and color.”

Putting a finger to my cheek, I began to mull over the idea. He pointed to his truck. “Let’s go get the materials we’ll need right now!”

What could I do when the gardener exhibited such enthusiasm? He drove me to Sunshine Gardens, where we bought plastic, river stones, soil, mulch, decorative stones—and petunias. When we returned home, I went inside and kept busy, allowing James to do his work.

By the time I stepped outside to see how he was doing, he had removed the grass and spread the river stones on the plastic. It took me another minute to find him—sitting on the front step of the townhouse, panting like a racehorse. He had a strange look in his eyes.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

He smiled—slightly.

“Sorry,” he said. “Just felt a little tired. I’m taking five.”

“You should have said something.”

“Yvonne, can you get a Coke from the truck for me?” I quickly brought him a can of Coke from a case in his truck. He gulped as if it were water.

“Please, come sit beside me,” he said.

I knew that was probably all he would say. I sat beside him on the concrete step and waited quietly. Looking at the yard the whole while, he finished his Coke, rested a few more minutes, and then returned to work.

After that, I started checking on him through the windows. I observed that he moved more slowly than normal—and took more breaks.

Every time I tend the flowers in the garden he created, I see his face.

As the afternoon went on, James used brick red decorative stones to shape a garden bed around the small oak tree in the center of the yard. He filled it with soil, then planted the purple and yellow petunias I’d bought. He also placed four flat decorative slabs at intervals among the river stones. “Put some flowerpots with real pretty flowers on the slabs,” he suggested.

The next day I bought four clay flowerpots and painted them green, blue, and mauve. In the pots, I planted petunias with the same color scheme as the flowerbed around the oak tree.

Before long, neighbors began stopping by to admire my gorgeous, grassless front yard with its lovely potted petunias. Then James made an amazing wooden planter for my porch and coated it with a light chocolate-brown stain to match the deck. Together, we filled it with topsoil and planted some more petunias.


The planter was James’ last gift to me.

He passed away six days later. He had been suffering from colon cancer and knew he was dying—but he’d been determined to complete the yard before he took his last breath.

Today, every time I tend the flowers in the garden he created, I see his face with its sparkling garden-gnome eyes. And I realize that James did tell me. He told me very, very much.

He just didn’t use words.


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