It was a typical fall morning in Pennsylvania. The kind you anticipate. Crisp, clean air, all crinkling and spiced from rotting apples and dry leaves. Weather like this called for the planting of bulbs. Heirloom tulip bulbs, to be exact, generations old, white, pink, orange, and red, all handed down from my grandmother’s mother. I took a deep breath and looked up at the baby blue sky. the clouds raced by like the sails from the Australian cup. ” They are anxious too,” I thought, as I began to turn the soil.
My Grandma, a small, soft, round, sweet-faced woman, was sitting on a wooden folding chair with her cane between her knees. She held it like a scepter, or pointed with it, as we did now, for emphasis.
“Make four rows, here, here, here, and here. She said quickly.
Yes, on this day, I was to do the planting. Grandma wasn’t up to it today. She was in her twentieth year of congestive heart failure. She had survived rheumatic fever as a child and had been crippled up with arthritis for as long as I could remember. Still, it was only in this last year, her eighty-sixth, that she had begun to slow down to a snail’s pace. And I’m sorry to say, that even now, in my thirties, I was still nervous and a bit irritated, that my Grandma was telling me how to do things.
“I KNOW how to plant bulbs”, my ego thought, as she pointed the old wooden cane at each bulb, but I said, nothing. The rest of me was happy to be out in the sunshine with her again. It was the first real interest she had in anything for weeks. My Grandma didn’t feel well, she didn’t look well, but her demand for precision was still in tact. I took that as a good sign.
“Put the bigger ones in the front row, the smaller ones in back. They need time to grow up.” She said.
She’d point with her cane, and I’d plant. There were one hundred bulbs, in perfect rows, in front of her patio. I was hoping that it would help her look forward to Spring. But she wasn’t happy. She wasn’t down in the dirt, so it wasn’t the same. We had always planted together, sitting side by side, on the ground, her hand over mine, since I was old enough to walk. Well, I waited for the usual scolding, about how I had dug too deep, or too close, put the wrong ones in the wrong holes, but here was none of that. There was no lecture about how I had not taken the proper care of storing the bulbs, or my random planting. This time; this first time, she had not one critique. I had pleased her.
I had finally learned, according to her standards. I learned the patience and joy of tenderly and precisely, placing each tulip bulb solidly into the richly prepared soil that was to become its new home. I had pleased her. She leaned down and gave me a pat on the head. It was golden, like a crown.
I could visualize the tulips, standing at attention like little soldiers in brightly colored hats. I visualized my Grandma and I admiring them in the Spring. I was already looking forward to the pride that I could feel as each one would open and testify about all the love that went into its care. Spring was going to be great, I thought. But I couldn’t get my Grandma excited. Her passion was waning.
The bulbs were in, and they were in correctly. I tried to get her to stay out and enjoy the day with me. But this woman, who lived for the out-of-doors, was tired.
It was one week to the day that my mother called us to come quickly to the hospital. I was concerned naturally, but Grandma was always beating the odds. It wasn’t as bad as they said, we thought. We all consoled ourselves in the waiting room, “She’ll come out of this, as she does.”
It had been an all night vigil. The entire family tenderly watched over her with the same constant eyes that she had always given to each one of us. I remember how she made a roast for the entire family. The care she took in marinating and in the blending of the herbs. The rich smells from her kitchen always filling the neighborhood. I breathed in deep and recalled the smell of roasted onions, potatoes and carrots. “Ahhhhhhh”, I said to myself. No one held a candle to her cakes and cookies. Her spaghetti and meatballs ruined any Italian restaurant experience. They were that good. I thought about her pizelles, steaming off the press, wafting with anisette, so strong my childhood dog Sparky sat in puddles of drool whining for a tasty treat. And her apple pie, apples so plump from our tree, and a crust so perfect, blue ribbons seem to just ooze from the juice.
As she lay there, with the monitor above her head, charting her heartbeat and pulse, I tried to think of my Grandma in her vegetable garden, How she had covered her tomatoes with old blankets to protect them during an unscheduled frost. The way her beans went in just so, and grew obediently up the poles. The way she fenced off the rhubarb so my father wouldn’t mow it down when he cut the grass. Oh, those rhubarb and plum preserves from her trees that we canned! How sweet they were on a wintry morning with fresh hot biscuits! As I listened to the sound of her heartbeat beating, ever so slowly, now, I recalled how she had at one time or another held us, each one of us, in her ample bosom as she was wiping away tears, or squeezing us with laughter, yes, lecturing us down some bad habit or other. I felt the knife of grief plunge into my gut and twist. Sorrow filled my face like a helium balloon. My shirt was soaked with tears.
She was holding out. She wanted to hold court, one last time, to say goodbye. She told us not to be sad. She told us she loved us, not to cry. But we were. We hugged her. We hugged each other. We became one in our love for her. Separate, though, in our aloneness. She meant something different to each one of us. Our grief was personal. But I, more than all the others, was an uncontrollable bawling heap of mush. In my head I began to comfort myself with the tune that Grandma always sang to us. I was only into the first line when I was called back into the room.
It was my turn to say goodbye, I was hoping to get the same kind of conversation she had with everyone else. What instructions would I be given? What important task, what words for me to carry in my heart for the rest of my life? It seemed that all the important things had already been said. She was the morals manager, the spiritual instructor, and financial coach. Everyone had been given a lesson to follow. But when my time came, I simply put my arms around her and whispered in her ear,
“Thanks, for being my Mum, “I said, choking back the tears. “Thanks for being my granddaughter”, she replied in a voice so low and weak, it could hardly be heard over those horrible beeps from the monitors.
I raised myself up to meet her eyes, now only half-open. Where were those precious words of wisdom? she beckoned me down again so she could whisper in my ear. This was it. Here it comes, the big awesome moment that is going to make this all bearable. And then she spoke.
“When the flowers come up in the Spring, put Miracle Grow.” To my surprise, I stopped crying, just for a moment, to smile.”I promise.” I said.
There it was. The profound moment. The big task. Put Miracle Grow! I felt tragically cheated! It was bad enough to lose my best friend, the one I lived to please, whose every word I hung on, to lose her, and be left behind with, “Put Miracle Grow.” “Is this some kind of cosmic joke?”I said in my heart. And then I realized, as I looked at her perfectly weathered face, that she had already told me everything there was to say. I had learned everything she had to teach. I had lived by her instructions all my life. I was a faithful child. I had made her happy. She had completed her work.
She half-spoke, half-breathed, “Prayer”. Her minister praised her for a life of faithful service and ended with a heart-wrenching prayer. She said, “Amen”. And closed her indigo eyes for the last time.
I took her hand in mine. It was warm, but unresponsive. I had to shut my eyes tight to make a dam for the tears. It was useless of course, and the tears flowed like the rain that made my grandmother’s golden garden grow. I began to sing, whimpering really, at first, until, a calm lay over my heart and I formed the opening line:
“Grandma made this song for you. The words are whiu-lu-lu. Hush-a-bye, now don’t ye cry, to the tune of Whiu-lu-lu.”
My family looked at me like I had completely lost my mind. However, my Auntie, with tiny tears on her wrinkled cheeks, quietly followed. Grandma’s eyebrows raised in recognition. I knew she was singing with us as she slipped away gently into death’s sleep.
Grandma died with regal dignity. Awestruck by her strength and courage, the medical team stood quietly sobbing outside in the corridor. It was the single most exceptional experience of my life. Her absolute conviction as she entrusted her faithful life into God’s memory was our final lesson. I know, just as those individual heirloom tulips will bloom for me, my Grandma will bloom gloriously in God’s Kingdom.
Outside the air was warm and still. The sky was indigo. It was an absolutely quiet dawn. – 2006