Updated: Jun 30, 2022
“Love is a fruit in season at all times….” -Mother Teresa-
Like plants in a garden, we grow, we blossom and bear fruit. Eventually, we scatter seeds before we fade away. Such is the cycle of life.
For as long as I can remember, Dad loved to grow tomatoes, brag about his tomatoes and give his surplus away. He liked to grow ‘Big Boys’ or ‘Better Girl’ tomatoes, not the petite cherry kind. Mom was keen on tomatoes too. She liked them sliced, ripe and juicy, tucked in sandwiches, slathered with mayonnaise or as a side served with fresh corn on the cob.
Over time, my parents, as well as their relationship with tomatoes, slowly changed.
For most of us, awareness of our parents’ aging comes gradually. We notice a lag in their step or a subtle change in their appearance. With my parents, the condition of Dad’s tomato garden was another tell-tale sign.
After I was married, I saw my parents only on holidays and other important occasions since they lived in Iowa, several hours away. Seeing them less often, their aging was more apparent.
In their fifties, both my parents began wearing glasses for reading. The bald patch on Dad’s curly-haired head grew larger while strands of gray multiplied on Mom’s.
In their sixties, their eyelids hung lower. They looked more tired though they remained energetic. They walked, took classes, and worked full-time.
Once they were in their mid-seventies, there were other signs they were slowing down. Weeds flourished in a once pristine lawn and decorative shrubs had turned into gnarly, unsightly giants. Layers of dust and clutter accumulated inside their house and unintentional science experiments hid in their refrigerator.
Even so, Dad’s tomato plants thrived in the sunny garden bed next to their house and remained key features in salads and sandwiches.
When my parents were in their early eighties, Mom suffered a minor stroke. Energy waning, doctor visits increasing, my parents, nudged by my brother and me, sold their house. Dad was depressed about it. Mom shed a few tears. I stuffed my grief into their moving boxes.
My parents moved into a senior retirement apartment complex ten minutes from my brother’s home. Mom blossomed and her popularity grew as she connected with other residents and became involved in group activities that included art classes, water aerobics, and chair yoga.
Dad enjoyed the food, especially the desserts. Mom hadn’t done much cooking in a long time. He planted tomatoes in a raised garden a few feet outside their apartment patio doors.
For two years, my parents and the tomatoes did well.
The April before Mom turned 86 and Dad turned 87, my husband Bill and I visited them at their apartment. Sitting on the couch in their living room, Mom and Dad in their lounge chairs, TV on in the background, the four of us sat and talked.
Dad, do you want to plant some tomatoes?” I asked.
“No, not yet,” he said.
“The danger of frost is over. Now would be a good time.”
“No…I’ll do it later.”
I asked him again the next day and again, he said no.
After we returned to Wisconsin, my brother purchased and planted four tomato plants for Dad hoping that tending the tomatoes would get him out of his chair and out into the sunshine.
When Bill and I came back in July, we found Dad’s plants brown and shriveled, surrounded by a tangle of weeds. A few misshapen tomatoes clung to life while others lay rotting on the ground. I rescued the few survivors and brought them into the apartment.
“What do you think of your tomato plants?” I asked Dad.
“They look good,” he said.
“Mom, would you like me to make you a tomato sandwich?”
“No. That’s okay.”
Besides the lack of interest in his tomatoes, Dad wasn’t taking care of himself either. He was inconsistent about taking his insulin and he wasn’t wearing his hearing aids. “They don’t work that well. The batteries wear out too quickly,” he said.
He had stopped taking daily walks, reading books and writing poems. He no longer wrote passionate letters to the editor. Instead, he sat in his recliner chair most of the day sleeping or watching television, waiting until it was time for dinner.
Mom, on the other hand, still had the energy and agility of a twenty-year old and a personality that was vibrant and cheerful, but her vision and memory had gotten worse. She sometimes mistook a bush in the distance for an animal. She could only read large print books and needed a magnifying glass to read the tiny print on her pill bottles. Important dates and deadlines were sometimes forgotten.
Both my parents repeated things they’d already said.
Despite the changes, Mom and Dad continued to be the loving parents. They consoled me when I was upset and let me know when I made them proud. They continued to say, “Be careful when you drive… Stay well... It’s cold outside. Make sure you wear a hat… Don’t work too hard…Call us when you get home…We love you.”
Bill and I increased the frequency of our visits. In August, Mom and Dad celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary and for a short while, we saw glimpses of their younger selves. I shopped with Mom at Macy’s and watched as she had her make-up done at a cosmetic counter for the very first time. Afterward seeing the results in the mirror, Mom beamed and grinned with approval. She purchased skin creams and toners I knew she would never use and I didn’t care.
During that same visit, my brother, husband and I took Mom and Dad on a day trip to my dad’s childhood farm, located in Illinois along the Mississippi River. Once there, Dad was eager to get out of the car. He shook off his stiffness and trudged into one of the soybean fields. He inspected the leaves of the plants, gently holding them between his fingers and after scanning the horizon, walked, surefooted, back to the car. Eyes bright, he smiled and told us, that, as he stood on the soil, he felt energy flow up through his ankles.
Later that October, my brother accompanied Dad, a WWII veteran, on an Honor Flight to Washington D.C. My brother later shared that, at the Iwo Jima monument, Dad wanted to get out of the wheelchair that was provided so he could stand and salute his country’s flag. When they returned to the tour bus, Dad, tired and disoriented, asked, “Where’s your mother?”
The following January, less than three months after the Honor Flight, Dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. Six weeks after his diagnosis, Mom died of a massive stroke. Dad succumbed five days later. The details of their final days is a love story for another time.
Bill and I, now in our eighth decade, can’t help but wonder what signs of aging our children see in us. Do we look more tired? Do we seem more vulnerable?
Sometimes I use a magnifying glass to read fine print and like my mother, I sometimes mistake a bush in the distance for an animal. Bill doesn’t always hear what has been said and I suspect we probably repeat ourselves and don’t even know it.
Unlike my parents, we let our children know that we are aware of the changes in us and we do our best to reassure them. Before each family visit, Bill mows the lawn. I weed the garden. We dust the house and remove the cobwebs we are able to see. We vacuum crumbs that hide under our couch cushions, clean up clutter, and inspect our refrigerator.
Every summer we grow tomatoes. Sometimes we brag about them. Sometimes we give our surplus away.
We share the fruits of love we once received as the cycle of life continues.
What do you wish to leave behind?