75: Dad’s Tomatoes
75: Dad’s Tomatoes
Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there.
My father was always an avid gardener. I think his Irish blood called to the earth in much the same way his own grandfather’s had. One of my earliest memories is standing barefoot in the freshly tilled soil, my hands blackened from digging in the ground, still a bit cold from the turning. As a small child, the garden was an amazing fairyland, full of possibility. As a teenager, though, it was often a source of contention between the old man and me.
As a child, I loved following Dad around in the garden. I remember Daddy pushing the tiller ahead in perfectly straight lines. His gardening gloves, banana yellow, would grip the handles of the old tiller; the roar of the machine was pleasantly deafening. After a while, he would stop and pull the gloves off to wipe his brow. Daddy loved growing all sorts of things: yellow and green onions, watermelons almost as big as me, rows and rows of yellow corn, and our favorite — ruby red tomatoes.
As I grew into a cantankerous teenager, I didn’t get so excited about gardening with Daddy. Instead of the magical land of possibility, it had turned into some kind of medieval prison. It was one extra chore, one more thing to keep me busy and out of trouble. One more thing on a list of demands that I imagined no one else in the world had to deal with.
“Aww, Dad, I was going to the movies with my friends,” I would whine.
“Tina, I could sure use a hand weeding the garden today,” he would remark.
“Today? Sorry, Dad, I already made plans,” I would stubbornly say, digging in my heels. “Why do we have to have a garden, anyway? It’s stupid. You can buy carrots for a quarter at the grocery store,” I would point out. He would just smile knowingly. I usually got my way, and didn’t have to help out if I really didn’t want to. After all, I had better things to do with my time.
As Dad grew older, his passion for gardening never waned. After all the kids were grown and had started families of their own, Dad turned to gardening like never before. His garden took up most of his backyard, which was quite a stretch. Even when he was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer, he still put out his garden. Still, he planted the zucchini and yellow squash, the juicy cucumbers, the spicy jalapenos, and of course, the tender tomato plants. Sometimes, I would come over to visit, and we would enjoy a glass of iced tea or a cold soda on the patio while he lovingly watered his garden in the evenings. The sunlight reflected off the spraying water and created shimmering rainbows that played hide and seek on the grass. He would share the bounty of his garden with me, as we would walk together through the carefully weeded rows.
But then, something changed. Like the weeds he so carefully kept from his little patch of heaven, the cancer, bit by bit, invaded his body. Like the weeds, it stole his livelihood, his independence, his humor. Like the weeds that took over his garden, the cancer grew rampant in Dad, and the oncologist had run out of treatments.
Hospice is a whole other ballgame. Somebody has to be with the family member twenty-four hours a day. I found myself in all kinds of uncomfortable situations with Dad, and more than once I felt the brunt of his anger at his helplessness. Little by little, I had to do the things he used to do. Soon I was cutting his grass, paying his bills, putting his pills in a cup, and adjusting his oxygen. These things he resisted, but I knew things were definitely changing when I began caring for the garden.
Though I had heard the words of the oncologist as well, what really convinced me that Dad was dying was the state of his garden that year. That year, the rows and rows of multicolored vegetables were gone. That year, he only planted tomatoes. Too tired to weed them, he simply tied them with twine to the fence and let them be. It made me sad to see them neglected, so I would come over and water them occasionally, and pluck out the weeds. I still remember the day I picked the last tomato from the vine. That day was one of the saddest I had ever experienced.
Five years ago, Dad planted his last little patch of tomatoes. For the first few years after he died, I couldn’t even bear to look at anyone’s garden without having strong memories pour over me like cold water from a bucket. Three years ago, though, something changed, and I decided to plant my own garden. I decided I would start out with just a few tomatoes.
That morning, I got out the old tiller and it roared to life, almost as if it had been waiting. After breaking up a fair amount of soil, something caught the corner of my eye and I had to smile. It was my eight-year-old son Nathan, standing barefoot in the freshly tilled soil, his hands blackened from digging in the earth. He was happily playing in the freshly tilled soil, still a bit cold from the turning.
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