I am sitting at my desk, and I’m looking at a tomato.
It’s orangey-red and sort of heart shaped and haphazard in that way homegrown garden tomatoes usually are – fruit left to come up semi-wild and just in the manner it pleases, made of sun and dirt but tasting mostly just like the sun part, in the end.
This tomato has been left in the fridge too long, which means one side of it is starting to pucker in, and that I’d better eat it up with my dinner tonight or it will turn mealy and sour and end up in the compost bin.
It’s the lonely last from a small brown sack of tomatoes gifted to me a week or so back by my step-grandmother, Shirley. I used the others to make a vegetarian pasta sauce for my French conversation group two Sundays ago, but I left this one out, on purpose, even though I wasn’t sure what else I’d do with it, and even though a solitary tomato makes for kind of a sad metaphor when you stop and think about it, and even though what sad thing it might represent I haven’t yet sorted out.
My grandpa Joe’s hands coaxed this tomato to life from a stalk in his prized backyard garden. He’s been dead since June.
Now, it’s October here in Oregon, unreasonably balmy, yeah, but the time of year for growing things is fast coming to an end. Maybe this week, or maybe next week, the frost will shine out all along his tomato plants and they, too, will go to sleep and not wake up.
Like us, they were never made for enduring. Like us, they are granted just one season, and then, an eternity to slumber beneath the topsoil.
This is it – the very last one, and then there will be no more ripe, red pieces of fruit to weigh out in my hands, to count backwards by.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to do or say in the face of such inarguable finality.
* * *
Last night, I cut my middle finger on an empty black bean can that had been left sitting in the sink with all the sharp bits sticking straight up. It didn’t hurt, really – just a quick little zing larger part surprise than pain as the metal lid sliced through my middle knuckle – but man, did it bleed.
I found myself momentarily astonished at those watery rivulets of blood that came squirting out, tiny waterfalls running down the porcelain sink. I found that I could even elicit a neat little rhythmic spurt just by bending my finger at the sliced knuckle. It was sort of cool.
A few cotton balls and a wad of surgical tape staunched the flood, but I’m still thinking about it a day later, not least of all because the location of the tape renders my finger locked in the open position, which forces me to flip off everyone pretty much all the time and anywhere I go.
But I digress.
It is a good thing, now and again, to see your very own blood, I think. It reminds you that you are, of course alive, and by that I mean bitingly, achingly alive, but the sight of blood also calls attention to the incredible tenuousness of that alive-ness. Those raging rivers of blue blood coursing through that might, at any moment, by the agency of a million tiny carelessnesses, come surging out into great, glorious red puddles, leaving you gasping and gray in the gills, and, if you don’t move quick, maybe dead.
Your own blood can even drown you, if you hang upside down long enough. Another metaphor that tugs at me but currently resists extraction.
That’s been happening a lot these days.
* * *
I don’t think about dying much, as a rule. My beliefs are a crusty, credulous amalgam of flinty Buddhist philosophy and staunch Atheist practicality, and as neither of these frameworks of meaning worries itself overly much about what happened before or what could or should happen after, I don’t worry, either.
Thing is, though, such riddles loom a bit larger when you’re sorting out how to remember somebody who’s gone away from you for good. They get way bigger.
Papa Joe’s obituaries hailed his many civic involvements, his deep religiosity, his love of family and neighbor and country. There’s already talk of a wing in a local hospital being named after him. Hundreds and hundreds of people came to his funeral.
But who were he and I to each other?
It’s a dicey question to tackle, except in the obvious, platitude-laden ways, and those don’t interest me very much.
As a result, I’ve left the question much like I’ve left this very last tomato – shelved and shriveling, a ticking bomb that I lack the art or the gumption to dismantle.
It’s hard to say this, but I guess I’ll just say it anyway: my grandfather and I did not get along well. When I was a baby, I’m told, I’d scream hysterically each time I was handed to him.
“She doesn’t like me,” he’d lament to my mother, handing me right back.
“Don’t worry, Joe; she doesn’t like anyone,” my mom would tell him.
Our mutual bafflement blossomed and then flowered over the course of my growing up years.
As I fumbled my way into young adulthood, my maternal grandfather, Papa Tom, delighted in my youthful bent for rebellion – colorful clothes and hair, ill-advised tattoos, an aching desire to travel the world.
From his deathbed, Papa Tom gazed up at my Smurf-colored hair, stroked my cheek, and called me “Blue.”
Grandpa Joe was less amused by such displays. He wanted me to become a lawyer or a police officer, like the other grandkids had done, become something, anything but what I was turning out to be: a mostly itinerant would-be-writer without a plan or a retirement account or even much of a clue.
He didn’t like any of it, and he told me so, or told others to tell me so, on many occasions. These interventions rarely went well.
I wanted to please him. I really did. But what I wanted more was to be left alone, to take my lessons the hard way, so I’d mostly just accept his hard-bitten ministrations with a clenched jaw and then go about my business:
“You’re moving to Mexico? Well, my friend went there and a gangster sliced open his stomach with a knife. He was holding his intestines in his hands!”
“We live in the best country in the world! Why in the world would you want to leave?”
And, the eternal refrain:
“So … when are you going to go back to school and get a real job?”
We managed to forge an uneasy peace in his final years. I’m not sure how, but I supposed both of us softened in the ways we were able.
I consented to grad school and opened up an IRA and discreetly covered up my tattoos at family parties.
He invited me to the Milwaukie Rotary Club, of which he was president, to give a presentation on my travels in South Korea.
I guess you could say we managed to encounter each other, finally, in that vague place where your best hopes for the people you love and your desire simply to be someone they are capable of loving and admiring in return intersect, and for that I will always be so grateful.
* * *
The last time my grandfather and I ever spoke was in his living room. His lungs were filling with fluid and he could no longer walk around the house without great assistance, plus a little oxygen tank on wheels trailing after him like some sad puppy dog.
I’d driven out from the coast to say my goodbyes. The house was a flurry of muted activity – nurses whooshing in and out, silent as ghosts, huddled processions of friends and family coming to pay their respects and discuss arrangements. And, as always, the TV on, volume low.
But there came this one moment when everyone had somewhere else to temporarily be and the room got perfectly quiet and it was just him and me sitting there together in front of the television.
I felt that old familiar anxiety wash over me, an illness of ease calcified over all those years of never knowing quite the thing to say, the kind of restless nerve that comes from being left alone with a person whom you’ve known all your life but have rarely been completely alone with and, as a consequence, fear you don’t really know too well at all.
Some golf tournament was on, and I gazed at the sweeping panoramas of some faraway and totally inconsequential swathe of green grass, terrified. I could feel him staring at me from his recliner, the very spot where he’d take his last breaths two days later. We both knew it was coming, I think, that this was likely our last chance to make everything right before oblivion intervened.
Everything inside of me screamed, “Look at him! Say something! Do it now!”
But I was paralyzed with fear. So I kept watching golf instead. I don’t even like golf, but I fixed my eyes on that television like it was a life preserver in some great, existential hurricane.
“You’re precious to me,” he whispered, his voice garbled, and I turned to face him, and he reached out his wrinkled, old-man hand for me to take.
Later, it will remind me of the time I saw that famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City, the one where Adam is reclining on a cloud, reaching out his hand to God, and God is reaching out, too, to impart to him the spark of life, and they are made as mirror images, the same, but also the opposite, and I’ll remember how an artist once told me that he thought that tiny little space between their outstretched hands was the most singularly beautiful thing any human had ever created.
But there, then, I merely turned and I slipped my hand into his, my heart pounding mightily. And I said, only, “Thank you.”
It didn’t feel like nearly enough. I was supposed to be the emotional one, the one with the words and big, showy feelings, too many of them, most of the time. And he was supposed to be the silent patriarch, the one who couriered his thoughts and feelings to me through a vast network of intermediaries – my aunt, my father, my mother, my step-grandmother.
Now there was nobody but us. And I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, was lucky, was happy, was lonely for him already, even in this moment when I still had him.
Instead, I just squeezed his hand tight as could be and turned my eyes away. And do you know what we did next?
We held hands, and we watched some golf.
And all the while, the life inside of him ebbing away, even as it raged on inside of me, me with my eyes overflowing and my heart pounding and my cheeks burning brilliant red – the color of blood and tomatoes and of ferocious Alive-ness and passionate outbursts and of a fabled and fiery hell that either was or was not waiting somewhere far below us.
And, too, far above, perhaps, some glorious firmament that might have been readying itself, even in that very moment, to reach down and yank him home-and-dry upwards, to a place where things grew but never withered, and where my clasping, hopeful hands would never, never reach.