Grandpa’s favourite place to be was his garden. Granny and Grandpa lived in a little character home and every corner of the yard had garden in it. From the impatiens in the shade under the dining room window, to the lilies that made up the border between them and their neighbour’s driveway, to the huge, huge vegetable garden that always seemed to grow everything perfectly. It was a beautiful yard. And when I was growing up it felt almost magical to be there. I first learned how to “snap” snapdragons with Grandpa. And we’d always pick an assortment of flowers (I especially loved the pansies and sweet peas) to put in a little vase in the living room. I remember hopping along the stones to the far end of the vegetable garden and being so worried about stepping off one of the stones.
While the time between Grandpa’s diagnosis with cancer and his death was only one week, he knew and we all knew that there was something wrong months before his death. Grandpa was always the one out doing things — working in the garden, making jam, putting up Christmas lights, playing games or frisbee with the grandkids. He was always active. It was inspiring. And, though the last couple months of his life Grandpa lost a lot of weight and eventually had to use a walker, I am so glad that he got to plant a garden while he still had the strength in the spring of the year he died. We ate vegetables from his garden on the day of his funeral. I still have a few carrots and potatoes in my fridge from his garden that mom sent back with us at Thanksgiving. And I have one more jar of jam. I really don’t want to open it. And at some point I’m going to have to start buying parsley again– Grandpa would always send me bags of parsley from his garden that he put through his food dehydrator.
The morning after my Granny died August of last year, my uncle (who was staying at the house with Grandpa) got up and could not find Grandpa. He wasn’t anywhere in the house. My uncle, just a little worried by this point, found Grandpa out in the garden. He was picking green beans. When I think about that, it makes me feel both sad and inspired. He had just lost the woman he had loved for almost 70 years — the loss he felt must have been so great. I wonder what was going through is mind that morning when he got out of bed? Did he go pick the beans to get his mind off of Granny? Did he pick the beans because they simply needed to be picked? Did he pick the beans because life has to go on?
On the day that Grandpa died, he was brought in to Emergency just before 9am and the family spent all day at the hospital. My aunt brought up a bouquet of different flowers from the garden and put it in the window. We brought up a framed picture of Granny and Grandpa and one of Grandpa in his war uniform. We wanted the nurses to know who Grandpa really was — he wasn’t just this skinny old man who didn’t have his dentures in. We looked through picture books and told stories. He slowly faded away through the course of the day, becoming less and less responsive. My dad came after work and while he was there we sang some songs — some old hymns and some of Granpda’s favourites. It was hard to sing some of them. I couldn’t sing some of them.
But we were all there around his bed, holding on to him and reaching out to him in his last moments. I remember my mom’s youngest brother at the foot of his bed rubbing his feet (and commenting earlier in the day that Grandpa was still ticklish), another was at his right side, my mom was at his head. I was at Grandpa’s left side, with my hand on his heart. And I will never forget feeling a series of rapid hearbeats and then nothing. I felt the last beats of his heart. It was surreal. The nurses gave us as much time as we needed with him after he passed away. And we took it. The worst part isn’t the moment of death, it is walking out the door.
But before we left, we placed three things on Grandpa’s chest, all from his garden: a “golden anniversary” lily, a pussy willow, and a sweet pea. I don’t know why, but it felt just a bit easier walking out the door knowing that Grandpa wasn’t all alone in that room. There was a bit of his garden in there with him — the things that he’d watered, and nurtured, and cultivated with his own hands. I thought about those flowers. I wonder what the nurses thought when they saw them laying on Grandpa’s chest. I wondered how long it would be before the flowers were discarded into the garbage. I didn’t like to think of that. But the point of those flowers was not that they would last forever. The point was that they symbolized something; they were an extension of love. And then life goes on. You water the plant, it grows, you pick it, and it dies. And if there was anyone who understood that, it was Grandpa.