Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Roots of a Gardener, epilogue

Dad's garden
I wrote about my father's stroke in November 2013, shortly after starting this blog, in The Roots of a Gardener. My dad passed away on Thursday, August 16, at the age of 87. As an epilogue to that earlier blog post, this is what I read at his funeral service.
My father liked to tell stories about his childhood, but a lot of the stories weren't very happy ones. My dad overcame hardships and obstacles most of us can barely imagine. He started with nothing, and I do mean nothing, and made a good life for himself and for his family. When I was a kid myself, I didn't have any understanding of that, or how those things shaped him. It took me a long time to appreciate that everything I took for granted, everything that was given to me, he had to fight for.
My dad was a fighter. He was also a stubborn man, and don't you dare tell him he was wrong, or tell him what he could or couldn't do. He fought his way back from a stroke that would have killed anybody else, and by stubbornness and sheer force of will he recovered more than I ever thought was possible. Just a couple of days after his stroke, when he could barely move or speak, he asked us to bring his Kindle and told us exactly how to use it.
The last few years were hard ones for my father. The stroke was a cruel thing because it took so much away from him, literally overnight. He couldn't go back to his own home, and couldn't work outdoors anymore. But my dad refused to believe he was disabled. More than once he told me, "that's some good land your sister has behind her. Just put me out there with a hoe and I'll plant some corn." And he was entirely serious about it. I remember helping him plant his rhododendrons, more than 40 years ago, and over the years they grew enormous and bloomed beautifully. They were his pride and joy, and when the deer started eating them, he put up deer fencing before going to Florida for the winter, and took it down every spring. But where the rhododendrons are now, we had a vegetable garden when I was a kid. My father didn't even like vegetables, but farming was in his blood. He planted tomatoes, and cucumbers, and green beans, and peppers, and zucchini. Oh my god, the zucchini. My mother would sneak them into things like zucchini bread and chocolate zucchini cake and more than once she would tell us shhhh, don't tell your father it has zucchini in it. But at least we all grew up liking vegetables, even if my father didn't. 
I hated working in that vegetable garden. But looking back, what I really hated was working in the garden alone. When I remember working alongside my dad, those are some of my happiest memories. One day, he told me to go out to weed the garden and what 14 year old kid wants to spend a weekend afternoon weeding a vegetable garden? I was so mad that I swung the rake against a tree so hard that the handle snapped in half. I was terrified, but when I told him he didn't seem angry and he didn't punish me. Well, when my dad was 14 he was driving a farm tractor. He told me years later that he once backed the tractor into his foster father's truck, not out of anger but just by a stupid mistake, and his foster father wasn't angry and didn't punish him. Maybe my dad remembered his own frustration, and anger, and loneliness when he was my age and had a whole lot more work and responsibilities than I ever did.
My father and I weren't close after I became an adult, because we didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and because I was just as stubborn and pig-headed as he was. (That seems to run in the family.) But I always knew he loved me, and I always knew he was trying to do the right thing, even if we didn't always agree on what the right thing was. The one gift his stroke gave us was that we spent a lot more time together, we became a lot closer, and I think we both came to understand and forgive each other for all those years we lost. I just wish his last years could have been happier ones. It brings me comfort that my sister was visiting, and that he spent his last days with his baby girl and the granddaughters he loved so much. The one thing that kept him going was his family. If I've learned anything from this, it's that life is too short, and everything can change overnight. So go home and hug your family today, and tell them that you love them, because you don't know what tomorrow will bring.