Right before the Fall began this year, my Grandpa passed away just after he turned 90 years old. I wasn’t there with him in the moment that he died, but I saw him in the hospital near the end. He went to the hospital first because he fell, but then improved significantly and was about to be discharged to go home. The day before they let him go, though, his body suddenly turned against him. He was unable to breathe on his own or open his eyes or talk. They worried that he would never be able to breathe on his own ever again. Although we hoped he would pull through like usual (his medical history has been fraught with hospital stays and difficult diseases), a part of each of us knew instinctively that this was it. He was getting tired of fighting, it seemed, even though he wasted no opportunity to try and tear the tubes away from his body. He pulled again and again on his restraints (meant to keep him from hurting himself), but would exhaust himself with the effort. As we hovered around the hospital bed, my family and I joked that we would know he had gotten better if he were to start swearing in German. He had been doing that when he was about to be discharged–cussing at the tubes connected to him, the restraints around his arms, and the nurses for putting those things on him. Then he went quiet, and left this world even more quietly.
Or so I understand. I wasn’t there. My mom, dad, and brother were there with him. I don’t think that I regret that too much, because I’m not sure about how I would have handled this if I had actually been in the room with him when the heart monitor flatlined. I’m content to be removed from that so that I have the freedom to face this without having to keep the visual image reel of the moment of his death on replay in my head. As it is, I already have a description of the scene to feed my blessed/cursed imagination: who was holding whose hand, the tubes removed, tears, swear words, beep, beep…beep…beeeeeeeep.
Grandpa’s other name was Trouble (with a capital “T”) for lots of reasons. Too many to name here, really, but I’ll name a couple. He used to pull on my pony tails and react with mock surprise when I whirled around with a furrowed brow to tell him to stop that (“But…isn’t that what pony tails are for?”). He would try to catch my toes with his cane by lightly pounding the ground around my feet with it (“Well! Isn’t that what canes are for?”).
He also loved Mickey Mouse. My Grandma (who is an amazing quilter) made him his own Mickey Mouse-themed wall hanging which hung in his den next to the rifle cabinet. He also had this great figurine of Mickey Mouse riding a propeller plane with frightened Goofy hanging out of the bottom. He made a special wooden stand just for that figurine so that it could be placed on a shelf in his den.
Grandpa was good at making things, too. He made things like tables and chairs, but also stories and poems. He taught my brother and I to do small jobs in his workshop and tested us on our ability to successfully hammer nails into leftover blocks of wood. And as a writer and an artist himself, he recognized my inclination to be those things as well. He made and gave me a lap desk and an enormous drawing desk to complete my projects on.
Grandpa had also been in World War II. He shared stories from his army days and passed on some of the training books he had kept from his enlistment. He gave my brother his old army-issue toolbox. After his death, it was decided that this very box would bear his ashes to the ground.
Finally, my Grandfather was a Master Gardener. A degree-holding Master Gardener who never actually retrieved his diploma because he didn’t need it. “I don’t need that piece of paper,” he said. And the matter was closed. The knowledge he had gained through the classes was already enough for him, I think, because he found no value in the physical object which declared that he knew those things. (Maybe I get my love of learning from him.) His own garden in the backyard was featured in the newspaper, though, and a clipping of his Press Gazette debut was framed and hung in the hallway of his house. Many people remember him for his love for and vast knowledge of roses. Every kind of rose. They were all beautiful.
This is why he reminds me of a charcter in a book I was reading shortly before he passed, which was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. In the book, theere is a character named Sergeant Cuff who is the detictive hired to come to the Verinder residence to attempt the discovery of the fate of the famed Moonstone. He’s a patient guy, but he’s a little manipulative and very sure of his conviction of Rachel Verinder upon finishing his investigation at the Verinder household. The connection I draw between my Grandfather and Sergeant Cuff is their love of roses. Both of them would be willing to drop everything at any time to discuss breeds of roses, growing conditions, grafting, etc. That sounds like Grandpa.
Sergeant Cuff is also the reason that this post is named “The Last Rose of Summer.” Throughout the book, he whistles or hums the tune to that song whenever he’s thinking. That wasn’t a habit of my Grandfather’s at all, but the title of the song and Sergeant Cuff’s habit of singing it makes me think of him because Grandpa died a few days before the official end of summer.
Originally a poem written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, the text personifies the rose as a feminine object whose experience reflects upon the anticipation and possible loneliness felt in the approach of death. It reads as follows:
‘Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred, 5
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
To give sigh for sigh.
I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem; 10
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden 15
Lie scentless and dead.
So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away. 20
When true hearts lie withered
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?
Poem from: http://www.bartleby.com/41/487.html
Song version: Celtic Woman, Laura Wright
I have been wondering if he thought things like this while he tended to his rose garden and put it to rest at the end of the growing season. Please forgive my romanticism–I know that I’m probably putting thoughts into his mind that may not have been here. However, I wonder how he could have tended to his lovely roses for so long without considering something like that.
When we buried my grandfather,
There was moss on the ground,
grasshoppers flinging through the grass,
and a toolbox-shaped hole in the soil
with prayers lining the bottom.
We thought of roses and swear words auf Deutsch.
Two sets of daughters’ hands lay memories in the box,
three sets of grandchildren’s hands lay the box in the hole,
One set of pastor’s hands bless the soil and prayers
which blanket the toolbox.
Gone were the tool-torn hands which buttoned uniforms before inspection
and guided pens across paper with thorn-pricked fingertips.
Once specked with sawdust, now ashes.
Grass will reclaim the soil in front of the tombstone with two names
and grasshoppers will return to dash above the moss,
after the roses have finished weeping for their last rose of summer.