Essay Non-Fiction posted January 11, 2012


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The last year of Dad's life was the sweetest

Planting cannas

by artemis53


To my Father. It has taken me 5 years to be able to write this.
In 2006 my father's life was winding down. The man who had won numerous football awards, taken first place in diving at state and had the heart of a child was entering his last summer. Though his body was betraying him, his mind was sharp and his blue eyes would shine as he imparted his jokes. Mom was in good physical health but her mind had dimmed to a mild dementia which brought complications of its own. The couple had been married for almost 64 years and their devotion was palpable. I had taken FMLA during 2005 to evaluate their care but the writing was written clearly upon the wall by the next year. It was time to step in.

I was a registered nurse of 20 years, trained in critical care, and left my job to help Dad and Mom navigate the stormy waters of the healthcare system. When asked by others as to how I could leave my job, I only answered with how I could not.

I maintained a travel position in a local hospital and on my time off would fill my days with driving father and mother to various medical appointments, arranging for in-home care and filling the house with groceries. I took my position of caretaker for them with the same gravity as I did the patients who had passed by me in my career. It was my time to give back and I took it seriously.

The home that they lived in was a reflection of their lives together as they had climbed career ladders and established themselves in their church. It was an expansive structure located upon seven densely wooded acres nestling itself up to a ravine. There was a 70 foot drop to a creek running through the shale that supported the earth it was built upon.

The structure included two living rooms with fireplaces possessing over sized picture windows extending one foot from the floor. You could look out into the canopy of trees or down to the ravine, often seeing deer foraging amongst the branches. It was a place of wonder and delight for their grandchildren and I taught my son's how to climb the steep walls of clay and shale. Many expeditions were taken down to that creek to look for tiny treasures of minnows or crawfish. Water could be heard trickling from the shale walls to feed the creek and we always gleaned wonder by it's sight. It was here, the home of my parents' dreams, that they would make their final stroke of the pen. My brother, sister and self were committed to that goal.

There was a redwood deck at the back of the house that one could survey the ravine and the errant deer that passed through. In retirement, Dad had made it his mission to become a gardener after a career of electrical engineering. He practiced his new found art on that planking.

Plant stands had appeared over the years spilling out numerous colors and giving one the sense of the 'hanging gardens of Babylon.' Dad's favorite planter was a wooden, half barrel that he filled with numerous species of flowers. In the center of the arrangement would always be brilliant, red cannas. Without fail, he would plant the bulbs after the first frost to behold their splendor in the months to come being the focal point in that piece. The wrought iron table and chairs would be brought out at first warmth and the newspaper read amongst a myriad of birds and flowers. It was it's own little Eden.

By the time I had come back to take on my duties, the beloved deck was almost barren of flowers. I had taken up gardening in my home state of Florida and proudly could make a dreary stick bloom with care, love and a whole lot of urging. I was determined to bring back the deck's former glory one more time. It would take some work.

I searched the garage for errant flower pots and purchased potting mix and my favorite fertilizer. I bought flats of impatiens, begonias and geraniums of every color and even tried my hand with pansies. In no time at all that garden was restored to it's former, lush beauty with hummingbirds visiting feeders and a muted sound of honeybees gathering nectar. The barrel held only the minimum of flowers and would be a work in progress. With the restoration of this lush garden, Dad came back out to the deck to read the morning paper. I would paint my toenails in the sunlight and listen to country music that had invaded my heart for I was a Southerner. The time was idyllic.
Coming home from the grocery store on an outing, my father brought from a bag some flower bulbs. I looked quizzically at them and then him. I had never planted bulbs before and the outside garden was thriving. He read the confusion in my face declaring that they were cannas.

A light of recognition flipped on in my mind but I was still at a loss. The plant stands were filled, hanging baskets dripped with fuchsia and it easily took thirty minutes to water all of the blooms. I remained in place looking at the bulbs and back at him. I finally relayed that I had never planted bulbs before and would be at a loss. The blue eyes sparkled and a tiny grin appeared on his face. "I'll teach you" he said with great mirth. "They'll go in the barrel."

After putting all of the groceries away it was time to do more planting. Dad's stamina had waned precipitously and he drew up a folding chair placing it next to the enormous planter. Within his hands he held the package of bulbs. I grabbed all implements of my gardening hobby and placed them upon the deck in readiness.

He opened the plastic bag of his beloved bulbs and detached the planting guide. My gardening gloves were in place and he gingerly handed me a single bulb. He then began to read from the instructions in his hands. Surveying the soil of the barrel I followed his prompts as he read each line to me. He took great amusement with my questions regarding which was the top and which was the bottom of each bulb and if he thought that each hole made for placement was too shallow or too deep.

Within that moment my mind transported me back to childhood and a perplexed scenario unfolded over the tying of my first shoes with laces. I could recall a much younger father standing near while I sat on the floor attempting to make the bows. With each endeavor the frustration built. Seeing the quandary that his youngest child was experiencing, he put down his own task and talked me through each loop. Success was finally mine and he shared the joy of my tiny victory. I hugged his legs then trotted out the door to play with the objects of my achievement adorning my feet. Within an instant the scene vanished.

As I pushed each bulb into place I gazed up to him as he sat in the chair above me searching his face for approval. With each planting, he nodded his head and I continued until all were neatly tucked away in the soil. The task was finished. I gathered up all of my tools and placed them neatly away for the next batch of flowers that might come my way.

Dad had already entered the house, sat in his lounger and had dozed off by the time my clean up had concluded. Mother had already drifted into her nap in the chair opposite him. I tidied up the kitchen.

Each morning after work or, on my days off, I would grab a cup of coffee and stroll onto the deck. Each piece of dead growth would be pinched off from each arrangement and watering would commence if necessary. I would scrutinize the barrel for any signs of new sprouts but they appeared to be a long time in coming.

Approximately 3 weeks later I saw the familiar leaf formations of my father's favored flowers breaking through the soil. I felt that glow of childhood wonder once more and padded through the house to see if Dad was awake. He still lay sleeping so I poured another cup of coffee and waited in the sunlight for his arising.

Within the hour I heard movement in the kitchen. I hopped up from my place to join him and gave news of my discovery. He followed me through the glass door onto the deck.

Adjusting his glasses, he peered into the barrel and a smile lit his face. His cannas had 'taken' and he would see the glorious blooms once more. We shared a cup of coffee in celebration and a bagel. A simple action had become momentous in our eyes and a deep feeling of satisfaction engulfed us.

Each day I would be drawn towards that barrel and became amazed at the rapid growth of the plants. By the time they reached 12 inches in height I could see blooms wrapped tightly to the stalk belying a scarlet explosion beneath their leafy coverings. Dad had noted it also and waited patiently for the flowers to unfold in all of their brilliance. He knew that they would take dominance over the begonias that shown white and red beneath them. It wouldn't be long.

I arose one morning fulfilling my routine of brewing coffee and once more slid out to the deck. There they were. The cannas had burst forth standing high above the surrounding plantings in a majestic display of that promised bright crimson.

While gazing at them, my mind reversed itself to years gone by. I could see my grown sons as little ones standing besides that barrel of color so tiny that the blooms towered over them. They were crowded around my father as he would name each flower and have the boys repeat the words in turn. I stood in the kitchen behind the screen door watching the teaching session before me. I was a young mother with coffee in my hands admiring my brood and the interaction with their grandfather. I did not interrupt. I had an acute awareness that this time belonged to my father and his grandson's placing the moment indelibly within their minds. It was not my place to intercede. It was my moment to embed the scene playing out before me in my heart. A smile crossed my face and I'd felt a deep reverence for the sanctity of the moment shared from afar.

As quickly as that scene appeared it left in haste. I could hear movement in the kitchen. I dashed inside to find my father pouring coffee and a rolled morning newspaper on the kitchen counter. I shared my discovery with him.
We both went out to the deck and surveyed the objects of wonderment. "That's great, Dee. That's really great" he said taking the glorious petals in.

I could feel a tightness welling up inside of me as he took the brilliant vision in. I knew that this would be his last season for cannas and my throat began to ache. I turned away only to wipe tears. They were filling my eyes from this harsh revelation that had been whispered in my ear by a voice that I'd come to depend upon. I turned back to look once more, cherishing the view of my father surrounded with flowers of every name and color, yet fixated on those blooms of his desire. I heard the call of the cardinals and finches and saw a lone hummingbird join us at that moment to retrieve nectar from a feeder. The moment played itself out flawlessly.

Within three months, Dad would be closing the book on his life in a hospital room with his family gathered around him. The children and grandchildren would hold his hands in tandem as the hours dragged on with day turning into night. This cadence repeated itself until he softly slid away surrounded by those he loved and loved him back in return.
His ultimate passing was as serene as that morning that he had discovered those cannas taken bloom. My eyes remained dry in that dimly lit hospital room at 2 am. His death was performed as elegantly as his life and the nurse in myself was standing at full alert not to fall prey to the overwhelming sorrow as a piece of my heart left with him.
I believe that the sweetest moments between a parent and child occur during teaching. My last lesson from my father was the grace displayed by his passing. The sweetest moment of teaching was out on that deck as he instructed me in how to grow cannas.

Copyright-DSN-2012



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I can only hope that my Father was standing besides me as I wrote this.
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