The year I was born, my grandfather discovered that he was dying. He was diagnosed with emphysema and quickly became convinced, along with the rest of the family, that he didn't have much time left. Once he began experiencing complications from the disease, he made peace with God and various feuding family members. He summoned my mother from her home in Georgia to his deathbed in Tennessee and prepared to say his final goodbyes.
And then, miraculously, he got better and everyone rejoiced. As I grew up, I watched my grandfather's near-death cycle play out again. And again. And again. Knowing Grandaddy and his penchant for melodrama, I'm convinced he enjoyed his many rendezvous with death at least a little bit. Much like a wedding or a birth, the deathbed scenario is a major milestone, a time in which everyone's attention is focused on you.
Most of us get to experience it only once, but my grandfather was treated to 25 years of final goodbyes. The man clung to life with the same tenacity of a bride-to-be gripping a deeply discounted Vera Wang gown. After two and a half decades of holding on, we decided he was likely to outlast us all.
So I was shocked when I received the phone call 10 years ago that my grandfather had at last let go. I had known for a couple of days that he wasn't doing well, but that was nothing new. We assumed he'd roar right back once he had everyone's attention, complaining about the nurses and the temperature on the thermostat and the current state of country music. But this time, the impossible had happened.
My Grandaddy had actually died. At his funeral, I was fascinated by all of his distant relatives, who came down from the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky. I'd never met most of them before and marveled at seeing my great uncle's nose on this one, my own brown eyes on that one, and my long departed great-grandmother's face peering out from behind the glasses of one elderly twice-removed cousin who came through the room on a walker.
I spent a Steel Magnolias-esque couple of days in pajamas at Grandaddy's house, sharing memories with my mother, grandmother and great aunt, and alternately laughing and crying as the stories flowed. My grandfather was a complicated man and our tales of his life bore that out. But flawed as he was, he had loved me a great deal. He'd been a major presence in my childhood. And I missed him. A few days after the funeral, I returned to Nashville, bringing with me a peace plant from his memorial service as a tangible reminder of his life and death. I've had it ever since.
I'm a horrible gardener and often joke that I have a brown thumb. But I managed to keep Grandaddy's plant going strong year after year. Each time I watered it, I'd think of him and wonder if he was pleased that his only granddaughter was keeping his memory alive.
This past Christmas, though, things changed. Granddaddy's plant ended up temporarily hidden behind our tree, and during a hectic holiday season that culminated in my entire family coming down with swine flu, I forgot to water it for a while. By the time I remembered, the leaves were brown and limp. The soil was dry. The plant appeared to be dead.
Disgusted with myself, I watered it anyway and waited for a miracle. If any plant could come back from the dead, it would be this one. But it soon became clear that the plant's luck had indeed run out. Unable to get rid of it, I left it in a corner, where I tried my best not to look at what had become a painful reminder of my grandfather's death.
And then one night, just a few weeks ago, I was talking to my 5-year-old daughter as she sat at the kitchen table. I said something silly, she made a face and in that moment, I saw him. I saw Grandaddy in the shape of her mouth, the twinkle in her eye and the sassy jut of her chin. For one second, it was like he was looking right at me. And I knew then that my grandfather's memory was still very much alive, whether I remembered to water the plants or not.
"What is it, Mommy?" Punky asked, noticing the change in my expression.
"I need you to help me throw something away," I said, standing up. "We don't need it anymore."
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