We thought my grandmother Forest was going to die many times. One time, we even thought she was dead. Three handsome paramedics arrived at her home, transferred her to a flat bed and wheeled her down the walkway. They were almost to the ambulance when Forest whispered to my mother in a soft, Georgia accent, “Get my lipstick.” That’s when we knew she’d live.
Another day arrived when we were certain it was her last. Forest lay in bed at home, not eating, breathing rapidly as her lungs filled with fluid. “In the freezer,” she instructed. A few minutes passed, as she garnered energy. “A shoe box… Mexico… on it.” Under frozen bacon and coffee beans, we found a shoebox tied shut with the word “Mexico” scrawled in her free-flowing hand. She had traveled in Mexico years ago. Perhaps this was some illegal drug, a way to make dying easier. We untied the string and removed the lid. Inside we found six bars of dark, Godiva chocolate. “It will help,” she said and held open her mouth.
One day, I went to go say good-bye to Forest. She had fallen, no broken hip, but she was bruised and hadn’t spoken in a week. My daughter, Sunshine, who was 2 at the time, came with me. I placed lavender roses on Forest’s bedside table. Sunshine reached to grab the petals. “Don’t touch,” I cautioned.
And then Forest spoke. “But how will she learn to love them? You’ve got to touch to love. It’s all right, you may touch the flowers,” Forest said. With a nod from my grandmother, Sunshine touched one petal and then smelled the flower. When Sunshine smiled, Forest exclaimed, “Oh, she likes them!” Forest had something to talk about. She was alive again.
The day I knew my grandmother was truly intimate with death, I sat at her side and I could hear my mother on the phone in the kitchen talking to the caterer. “We’ll be expecting 80 people,” my mother said, making plans for my grandmother’s memorial service.
When my mother hung up the phone, she turned to my aunt and said, “If the caterer calls back, tell him he can reach me at home in an hour.”
I pictured the caterer telephoning my grandmother’s house and my grandmother answering her phone. “Yes,” she’d say.
“I’m calling from Continental Catering regarding the memorial service for Forest Burgess.” There’d be a long pause.
“I’m still alive,” she’d say. The anger would add at least another week to her life.
But the caterer didn’t call back, and my grandmother died the next day. We were there, her two daughters, a nurse and I. Before her hand lost its warmth, I tucked a rose petal in her palm and closed her fingers around it. I have speculated that Forest died in front of us just so that we would believe she had died.
As I stood there, so close to the presence of life and then death, I waited for an epiphany. One moment she was there, breathing hard, sweating, calling for help. Then she was gone. It was the closest experience to being in labor that I’d witnessed: the suffering and then the peace. I could only hope she’d been born in the other direction and had come out on the side of heaven.
But I can’t picture Forest in heaven. She was made for living and loving things of the earth. I can’t say for certain heaven has men, chocolate and roses. Even now, as I cut roses, I find a particularly fragrant one and I want to share it with her. I tell myself, “She’s gone, she’s gone.” Then I hear a firm voice with a soft Georgia accent say to me, “I’m still alive!”
Published June 8, 1999 The Arizona Republic
|A Rose Garden||quotes about life from a little man wearing a bow tie|
|A Rose Garden|
|quotes about life from a little man wearing a bow tie|