Smell the Roses

This past week, during my self-prescribed vacation from my blog, I spent a lot of time thinking about my dad.

I haven’t thought a lot about him since he died.  That’s not to say that he hasn’t been on my mind; I just didn’t want to relive memories and start crying at a moment’s notice at odd and inappropriate times.  Had I thought too much about him, I was sure to do this.  So I kept my cool as best I could.

This past week, however, was different.  I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time at my parent’s house– sorting through closets, drawers, and other hiding places; deciding what to sell, what to keep, and what to throw away– or if it’s just because it was time to start really thinking about him again.

I found that I had forgotten a lot of things.  I had forgotten how he liked to do “taste tests” between Heinz and Hunt’s ketchups or Jif and Skippy peanut butters, just to entertain my sister and I.  I had forgotten how loving he was when we were hurting– either physically or emotionally– and how understanding he was when we were upset about something. 

But the thing I was the most upset about was that I had begun to forget the sound of his voice.  His inflections and his mannerisms.  His hearty laugh. 

Immediately I checked all of my voice mail systems.  Surely I had saved a message from him somewhere.  No luck.  If only I’d saved one of his messages, I could record it and keep it forever. 

And then I remembered that I have all of the recordings my parents made of me and my sister when we were babies and toddlers.  My dad is talking constantly on those tapes.  I suddenly realized that the Dad I wanted to remember the most was the Dad that was on those tapes– the loving, compassionate, caring and understanding dad that I grew up with.  Certainly, the Dad that died in July was the same man in the physical sense, but he wasn’t the same man in the emotional sense.  Of course he still loved us, and cared about us, and had feelings for us– but emotionally and even at times mentally, he was not the same person.  That Dad was an angry, bitter man… haunted by a lifetime of setbacks and missed opportunities.  Embittered by jobs that never lasted and success that never came easy.  Broken down by a disease that stripped him of everything he enjoyed in life: from smoking cigars to driving cars to–most importantly to him–growing roses.

While going through Dad’s personal belongings, we found a lot of things.  Some were garbage: notes scribbled on tissue boxes and various other cards; and some were treasures, such as a datebook from 2000 that has a note written for Monday, April 17:

“This morning at 6:50 AM at the Emergency Vet’s in Racine, Cubby was put to sleep.  We will never forget….”

Reminders of his humanity.  Remants of his life.  Photographs and memories, in drawers and boxes and cubbyholes. 

On Saturday we found an envelope of pictures with a note written in his hand: “Roses, once a long time ago.  How it was…”

Inside the envelope are pictures of the backyard in (we are guessing) 1998, one of the last years that Dad grew roses before he decided it was too hard to do it anymore.  I took the pictures.  I remember doing it.  But to Dad they were reminders of what was lost to him.  Dad loved gardening.  He loved making things grow and becoming something beautiful.  And when he couldn’t do it anymore, he lost the last shred of his life.  From that moment on, my father began to die.

These photos were probably torture for my dad to look at.  I imagine he wrote the note on the envelope and tucked them away, never to look at them again; for fear he would remember what he no longer had in life.  Once the roses were gone, the only other thing he had to look forward to was my sister’s wedding.  And once that was done, he sat in his house, drew all the curtains, pulled the blinds, and closed himself off from humanity.  He didn’t want to see people walking on the sidewalk or cars whizzing by, because he couldn’t do those things anymore.  And he certainly didn’t want to see the back yard– stripped and removed of all reminders of his wonderful roses.  They were all carted away by friends and former fellow rose growers who were still able to grow them and enjoy them.  The yard was a shadow of its former self.

Just like my dad.

Below are a few of the pictures from the envelope we found.  If you click on them, you’ll be brought to my gallery where all of the photos are housed.  At one point we had over 200 rose bushes in our backyard.  Today there are maybe six or seven left– most of them hardy shrubs that survive no matter what, and a few in the fence bed that never were taken and have managed to survive after all these years.  The rest are gone. 

I’m sharing these memories with you so you can enjoy them as I once enjoyed them.  Someday, if I ever own a home, I will grow roses.  I’ll never be as good or as dedicated as my dad was, but the mere memory of him will live in every cane, thorn, bud and bloom.  And I’ll treasure that memory– and the memory of his roses– for the rest of my life.