“You better tell him you love him,” she said. “You don’t have much longer.”
I stared so hard at the sunflower border on the nursing home wall I think one of the petals wilted.
No tears. Not now. Grandma needed me to be strong. My family needed me to be the messenger. My heart needed me to protect it. I’d just come for a visit. I wasn’t prepared to watch my grandfather die.
The supervisor’s eyes were red as she hugged Grandma. I kept my eyes down and slipped past them into the room.
His skin was grey and fragile. I was afraid I might bruise him if I hugged too tight. I tried not to look at his eyes. They were half-closed and completely vacant. I closed my eyes and tried to remember Grandpa before all this. A shadowy wisp of a memory teased my mind, but came no clearer.
“I love you, Grandpa,” I whispered, even as a sinking feeling told me he couldn’t hear any more than he could see me.
I’m not ready to say goodbye. It was a prayer, somehow. He’d been sick for so long. To ask for him to live would be selfish – to ask for his death, unthinkable. I settled for a stoic silence and trusted God would interpret it correctly.
Two hours of waiting, watching the sun come and go at the window. The family gathered one by one and dragged their chairs around his bed, reaching to touch one last time. I kept my gaze down, memorizing the water droplets on the rim of my cup, loathing that sunflower border. I risked only one glance when the end came. I didn’t want to remember him like that.
The next few days were a colorless blur. I went to church. I went to work. I laughed with the kids. I smiled at my coworkers’ jokes. I met no one’s eyes.
Water droplets. Sunflowers. That glimpse of his face I tried to forget. I tried telling stories of him before the stroke, before the sickness. The images in my mind were hazy at best, overshadowed by listless days in front of the TV, or staring out the window as my uncle farmed the land around the house. My grandfather the farmer had died when I was 16. It just took another six years for the rest of him to give up the fight. Somehow, I resented that.
I kept up the smile and the composure when I arrived at the funeral home. I kept my eyes on the bouquet of yellow roses next to the casket, on the tractor embroidered on the inside of the lid. I wouldn’t look in. I couldn’t.
The family arrived. They were calm, celebratory, even. They said they were happy he was at peace. I nodded, eyes on the roses. I was happy, too. I knew I had to be. It was what everyone needed to see.
I memorized the grain of the casket wood during the first song and scripture reading and moved on to counting bouquets. Roses. Lilies. The casket spray included wheat stalks. No sunflowers, at Grandma’s insistence. I was grateful. I could still picture the six droplets of water on the rim of my cup.
I was focusing on the roses again when the preacher stood up and told a story of working with Grandpa as a young boy, something to do with rat tails. I laughed – and suddenly, I could see it. Grandpa happily ensconced in the cab of his John Deere combine, harvesting the fields of heaven – just like he had done for so many years on his Kansas farm. He was smiling, about to crack a joke.
And then came the memories. Those tractor rides and Sunday afternoon drives through the country. The grandpa who left to do chores before dawn and fell asleep with the paper on his belly after lunch. My big, strong grandpa who knew the best blackberry patches and could tell by looking when it was time to pick the sweet corn. The tough, strong, loving man who taught me how to drive a four-wheeler and gave a savings bond and a money lecture every Christmas. It was the last six years that seemed hazy.
I cried so hard I couldn’t see the yellow roses, the wood grain, or the preacher.
No more water droplets.I have my memories back, and a hope to treasure. One day, I’ll see him again – with no sunflowers in sight.
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