An almost unseemly green against the otherwise desiccated garden, the peppers peek out from under a lush growth of tousled leaves. Along with a few earnest green beans, the peppers are all that remain of summer’s bounty, thriving among shriveled tomatoes and bolted lettuce.
These late summer days when the hot afternoon sun fades too quickly into the cool of evening always remind me of the last weeks of my father’s life. That fall I took a leave of absence from my teaching job so that I could spend time with him. I got caught up in the rhythm of what was left of his life–the visits from old friends, the care from the in-home nursing staff and the devotion of Randy, the man who mowed my dad’s lawn, shoveled snow, and did odd jobs around the house. Before the nurses and hospice people swooped in, Randy spent nights on the sofa in case my dad needed him.
Randy grew a garden in a corner patch of ground next to my dad’s toolshed. I remember growing sunflowers there when I was a child, but it was never used for much after that. He’d put in a tomato plant or two and sometimes some zucchini, but the peppers were his pride and joy. All that last September, Randy would offer me bags of gorgeous green peppers. He told me how he loved to make stuffed peppers with ground beef and “whatever cheese I got,” smacking his lips and saying, “Man, that’s good eatin’.”
I remember those days as vividly as if they occurred yesterday. They were oddly peaceful and filled with the beauty of small things. I walked to the same corner drug store I did as a child except now instead of ordering cherry cokes, I bought swabs to moisten my dad’s mouth and milkshakes he craved but couldn’t drink after a few sips. I’d go to the post office to pick up the mail, admire Randy’s most recent pepper harvest, and read prayers with my dad at bedtime. Even when my father could barely speak above a whisper, his lips moved when I read the Lord’s Prayer.
I share this story because it seems that so many friends have recently lost parents and loved ones. Even these fourteen years later, I remember what it’s like to live moment to moment, to sit in vigil, to not sleep waiting for a phone call. And yet, there are treasured times in the midst of the pain and anxiety and sadness. People who pick up our burden for a while and make us smile. People who hold us close and tell us to take a leave of absence from our jobs because we’re never going to get this time back again. People who love that person almost as much as we do and offer us bags of green peppers when everything around us is dying.