Title: Legacy of Paradise (Written for the Elemental Ficathon)
A/N: Special thanks to seattlecsifan and mingsmommy for being such wonderful betas. I couldn't have done it without you!
Everything important I learned in my life seemed to happen in Paradise.
For as long as I can remember, whenever Mom had something on her mind, she would make her way out to our expansive gardens, both inside and outside. I remember a time when the grass in the backyard was big enough to play football on; yet over the years it's shrunk and shrunk, as green blades have been replaced by desert soil, trees, and colorful wildflowers.
Within a short amount of time after moving back to Vegas from the jungles of Brazil, she even built a conservatory. The immense sliding glass doors and windows opened to the elements of the arid Nevada heat. She did this to rebuild Paradise…
That's what she's always called it. Paradise. A massive room, filled with tropical trees, shrubs, and plants of brilliant colors; climate controlled to maintain the heat and humidity levels necessary to sustain them.
She once told me that she could find my father in this place that stood so similar in nature to the Brazilian forest in which we'd buried him. Him. My father. The man I would never meet face-to-face, as he died while I was still nestled in my mother's womb, kicking at his hand. Yet somehow, even I could feel him when I spent time in Paradise.
Built in an octagonal shape, with French doors leading from the kitchen, it was the room in which mom and I prepared and nurtured with loving care the plants we grew. It was really nothing but a tall two-story building of massive windows and wonder, filled with every hue in the world – from soft white to blazing red to vivid blue.
Often, with the doors leading to the backyard left open, butterflies would flutter in and land in our haven; sometimes, this would make her eyes mist. Always it would make her smile.
The southern wall connected to the kitchen, and a small patio table lay just off that room of culinary (vegetarian) delight, as Mama and I often ate our meals in Paradise, chatting and laughing about the events of the day. The north glass walls of the warehouse-sized room contained the arbor, which Mama built with loving care. Brazilian trees, some up to eighteen feet in height, all the way up to the rough wood beamed ceiling, provided shade throughout the heat and humidity of the room, making it bearable if not breathable. Passion fruit and dwarf mango trees stood within easy reach of the arbor, giving off their succulent harvest.
The western wall contained glass shelves, each several feet long. They were stacked three high, and on these, Mama would keep plants of every type and color imaginable. Several glass doors opened into our ever-shrinking backyard, as Mama replaced grass with desert sand and arid foliage. The east side of Paradise is where we would dig our hands into moist soil, and where Mama taught me all about planting. This special place, with my own bench at which to stand and my own tall stool on which to sit, is where Mama and I toiled side-by-side. Our workbench – our potting table.
In Paradise, we would talk about… everything. It was always in this room that my father would guide me in his own special way – in his letters. They always seemed to be given to me at the most important moments in my life. I didn't realize until I was a grown man what it had taken for my father to anticipate my life as he had… or for my mother to know when to give them to me, as he'd asked right before his death. Yet give them she did, and with each letter from him, I felt an outpouring of love from her.
I remember the day I came home from school crying. It was first grade, and we were reading "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr. Seuss. A little boy noticed my initials E.G.G. – Ethan Gilbert Grissom – and called me an egghead.
Mama was waiting for me when I got off the school bus, watching as tears streaked down my face.
"He was mean, Mama," I cried. "Just mean. He called me names," and I told her all about it.
"Robbie probably didn't understand," she said, kneeling in front of me to wipe away my tears; but I shook my head.
"Yes he did," I said, wishing she could understand. Then I whispered, "He makes fun of my hearing aids, too."
It was then she sat me down on the cushioned bench in Paradise, wiped my tears, kissed my curly head, and said, "Wait right here." She reappeared only moments later, with a letter in her hand. I couldn't make out all the words at first; but Mama sat with me while I sounded it out.
The parchment envelope read: When he comes home crying
How I wish I could be there to tell you how to handle mean people. The best and only wisdom I can offer is that if you are kind, other kind people will like you. It is hard to ignore others when they say or do things to hurt you. Those types of people can become bullies. So you have a choice to make. Remember what Aesop once said, "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."
I watch over you in wonder, for I know the kind of boy you can be. Listen to your heart, dear son. It will guide you well.
P.S. – If that doesn't work, your mother's got a mean right hook.
I remember that letter and what I did the next day. When Robbie Banks walked up to me and started teasing me, calling me names, I knocked him flat on his butt. It turned out I had a mean right hook, too.
If I hadn't been so young, I might have been a little more surprised by the fact that I got another letter the day after the first. My bruised cheek gave proof to the tussle Robbie and I had gotten into. Mama led me into the arbor, placed an ice pack on my face and gave me the look… right before helping me read Dad's next letter, written on the familiar parchment paper: My son's first fight. By the end of it, I was squirming pretty good.
A couple of years later, another boy made fun of my hearing aids, but by then I was older. I'd learned to blow off the insults. Mama said I was a lot like Dad in that respect. I was wrist deep in soil, potting yellow and blue pansies, feeling the sun on my back as it dipped over the horizon and cast a shade of crimson over the white window frames. With clippers in hand, Mama began to prune back the bougainvillea vines that were trying to crawl into the arbor and take over. The plants, flowering in the most amazing purplish-magenta burst out, nearly covering the walls, reaching toward the window panes.
"You're so much like Gil," she sighed as she approached me, taking in my mass of curly hair. We'd been bantering for two weeks about my needing a hair cut, and I prepared myself for battle. What she said next simply took the wind out of my sails, and left me feeling a little… sad.
Her voice choked up a bit, when she added, "Don't try to be too much like him, Ethan. It's okay to ignore some things in this world; I know he would never want you to ignore as much of the world as he did."
I still remember the sudden hug, even if the words left me confused.
Yet, this was Mama, and to put it simply - Mama outright confused me occasionally. Sometimes, she would simply talk to me, and I knew she was trying to tell me something important, but I couldn't wrap my brain around it. It never bothered me when I was confused, because I know Mama simply cared enough to actually talk about things. I always knew how she felt, just as she always knew how I felt.
To put it simply, Mama and I never held back from one another. If something was going on, I couldn't ever seem to keep it from her, especially if it left me confused. Sometimes, I'd talk to one of my uncles, but in the end, Mama would know all.
One day – I was in fifth grade – I came home and immediately went to my room. Normally, I would stop and talk with Mama… with Mom. I'd find her either in the xeriscape garden out back or Paradise, as she sat in her favorite arbor in the misty shade provided by deep green foliage. She loved being surrounded by the small Miracle trees and their blooms of pink and white, and the Love Tree, giving off its pale orchid-like flowers. Normally, I would go to Paradise to find her and speak with her. Together, we would often sit on the small bench centered in the arbor, with the small table set in front of us. The ever creeping bougainvillea would give us plenty of shade. But not that day.
When she hadn't heard from me, she worried, because I always let her know I was home. She found me in my bedroom. I don't know what I looked like, as I hadn't checked the mirror, but I know she got this thunderous look on her face. My eye sported a nice bruise, and my lip was cut. However, I wasn't feeling any of it. I'd gotten my first kiss that day by defending Maria Ash from an older kid in junior high, who wanted to steal her stuff. I'd told this kid to leave her alone, and gotten a couple of punches to the face.
"It was worth it, Mama. Mom. It was worth it, because Maria Ash kissed me and said thank you," I stammered. I know I must have looked dazed, because I pretty much felt that way. That was the day I grew up, and Mama became… Mom.
She took me by the hand, led me down to Paradise, and sat with me in the arbor. For a moment, she looked a bit dazzled herself, as she laid one casually callused hand over mine, and ruffled my always unruly curls with the other. "Wait right here."
When she came back, she placed the envelope in my hands, and instead of ruffling my hair, just gently ran her fingers through my curls. This time, she didn't need to help me sound out the words. As a matter of fact, this time she smiled at me, a tinge of sadness in her eyes, and left me alone to read the envelope, and its contents. I didn't understand that sadness then, but I do now. I was growing up on her.
The envelope read: My son's first kiss
I remember my first kiss well. It was with Lisa Cohen down the street, and I was ten. She screamed when a spider landed on her shoulder, and I got it off. She kissed me on the lips. I'd been kissed by aunts, by my mom, and even by my second cousin twice removed. It was the first time I'd ever been kissed by a real girl. You know what I mean.
My Dad, your grandpa, had already passed away, so it was left by my mom to explain a few things to me. It's weird when a girl, even if it is your mom, has to explain the facts of life and love. I didn't want you to have to experience that, so I wrote it down in hopes that you would read and understand. If you don't, and really want to talk man-to-man, then I want you to go see one of yours uncles.
While Mom was in the house, I read through the letter and the sheet of paper that gave some rather interesting examples of mating rituals. In the end, it was the fact that he explained it so carefully and scientifically that made me comfortable with the topic (or as comfortable as any kid can be). I read the page with the diagrams and sketches through twice before I finished the rest of the letter.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "A gentleman is one who puts more into the world than he takes out." This includes kindness, compassion, respect, and forgiveness. Above all, it includes love. I've known many such gentlemen, such as Nick, Greg, Warrick, and Jim. When you need a man's words, let them guide you. I only wish I were there to do so.
Sticking my head into the kitchen, I yelled, "Mama? Mom?" and watched her approach, smiling at me. Standing my full height (a whopping 5'2"), I squared my shoulders and said, "Do you think I can call Uncle Rick? Dad just confused me with the diagrams of the cockroaches."
I saw her smile widen, as she handed me the phone and kissed my cheek. Uncle Rick explained the birds and the bees to me over a burger. He took me to Frank's, the diner where he, Mom, and the whole gang would hang out. Sometimes us kids were included, too. So, chewing on my fries, I told him about Dad's diagrams, felt my face flame up when I told him about Maria kissing me, and listened to him laugh.
"You're growing up, little man," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder as we walked out of the diner. "And your dad's right. Your uncles and I will always be here when you need us."
My uncles helped me grow up. They guided me as best they could. Uncle Jim taught me about the rules of life. Uncle Greg taught me how to bend the rules occasionally, and to have fun. Uncle Rick taught me about self-respect and being street smart. Uncle Nick taught me the meaning of a being a true gentleman.
In the end, though, it was Mom, Aunt Catherine and my cousin Lindsey that taught me the true meaning of respect when it comes to women. It was the women that taught me about love.
I'm glad they did, because it helped me understand Mom and Dad better. A couple years later, I found Mom having one of what she called her discussions with Dad. It was in her arbor, surrounded by vivid shades of blues, pinks, reds, greens… I came home early from staying the night at Jeremy Hudson's house and I saw her talking to Dad. I don't know if she ever heard an answer, but I remember her asking a butterfly, as it swooshed by to land on a yellow daisy in a pot, "Gil, am I raising him okay?"
Apparently, she'd gotten the call from the principal after all. I think I'd figured that if he was going to call, she would have made me come home from Jeremy's house. I was in eighth grade, and I had gotten caught cheating on my homework by copying someone else's. That night, while Jeremy smiled and had fun, I'd been miserable. So I'd come home to tell on myself.
"Mom?" I whispered softly, startling her; and when she looked at me, her brown eyes so filled with disappointment, I felt as if I was the most terrible son in the world.
"I'm so sorry, Mama," I said, trying to feel like the young man she said I was becoming. Instead, I felt… wretched.
Rising, she made her way slowly to me, never dropping my gaze. Without a word, she held out her hand. I don't even remember placing mine in hers, but pretty soon, she turned away, and led me to a long workbench filled with pots and bags of soil.
"I was pretty sure it couldn't be my son who'd cheated," mom said to me as she pulled down a faux pottery container and grabbed a bag of potting soil. "I was also pretty sure that if my boy had gotten into trouble, he would have told me right away."
My gut twisted a thousand ways, and I couldn't seem to raise my head to even look at the flowers in front of me, waiting to be planted in the rich, black soil. All I could feel were tears slipping down my face; and when she said, "Stay right here. I'll be back," I should have felt relief. Instead, I had this feeling of dread creep up my back. By the time she came back, I was trembling.
In front of me, she laid an envelope. The misery I felt was amplified when she leaned down to kiss my cheek, and went into the kitchen. I recognized the parchment paper envelope.
It read: My son's first time in trouble and its contents made me contemplate my future. I must have stared at that letter re-reading it five times before I set it down on the workbench and went into the house. I found mom sitting at the breakfast bar, sipping on some ice water.
Pulling myself up to my full five foot eight, I looked her in the eye and said, "I should have never gone to Jeremy's house. I should have told you that I'd gotten caught cheating." More quietly, I said, "I should have never cheated."
When she finally spoke, I was surprised to see this woman who always seemed to have an enormous amount of energy, and a spine of steel look tired. Really tired. It was in that instant, my mom was no longer Superwoman. She was a middle-aged woman, raising me on her own; and my choices affected someone besides me.
"I want to be the kind of man that can be counted on to do the right thing. I want to be the kind of man that others respect and admire," I said, and watched her eyes mist. They pooled and spilled over when I more quietly said, "I want to be like Dad."
It was that night while eating dinner that I asked mom how often she talked to Dad.
"He's never far from my thoughts," she said. "I can't imagine not conversing with him."
I tried not to show my surprise, and must have been successful, but she'd just implied he talked to her, as well. After all, the word 'converse' intimates a two-way discussion. Since, I was not a big believer in ghosts, I stumbled over the idea that she could actually talk to him, or that she could hear his reply.
If I were being honest, I also felt a pang of envy, as I would have given anything to be able to say something to the man I would never meet. I would give anything simply to hear his voice…
However, I am who I am, and I am who I come from, so I learned young to keep a neutral face, file away this knowledge, and move forward.
Since that day, I noticed more often how Mom would take a book into Paradise, and sometimes hold a conversation with a butterfly or a beetle or a ladybug. She didn't even mind the occasional cockroach. In fact, she smiled at them fondly. As I got older, I worried a bit about it, especially at specific times of year, like around Dad's birthday or the date of his death.
It wasn't until I was a teenager, and began to understand the concept of loneliness, that I saw what those conversations with him did to help her. I was sixteen, and I'd been dating a girl for a couple of months. We'd broken up that day.
Sitting in the arbor, my shoulders hunched morosely in the afternoon sun, I watched Mom cross the room with a tray of iced tea. A gap in the foliage had blazing heat penetrating my dark t-shirt, and sweat trickled down my neck onto the cotton. I just felt hot and miserable. Placing the tray on the small table in front of the bench, mom took a seat next to me. Like she had so many times before as I'd grown up, she handed me a cookie, poured me some iced tea, and just held my hand while I munched on the treat.
"Did you love her?" she quietly asked. I didn't know how to respond, so I shrugged, like a typical teenage boy. So for awhile longer, we sat in the quiet conservatory, the thickly high heat and humidity beginning to feel less oppressive and more comforting with its familiarity.
I finally asked, "How do you know if you're in love with someone? How do you know when it's the one?" and watched her smile in a way I'd never seen before.
"Oh, Ethan. I've only ever truly loved one man," she said, her smile becoming shy and her voice turning husky. "The day I met your father, it was like a light switch had been turned on. Yet, I was so used to the dark, I didn't see it for what it was… and neither did he."
She told me of their struggles over years to come together and accept what they felt for one another. For over an hour, she talked, and with every passing moment, I could see her age fall away. By the time she was finished recounting the heartache, the pain, and the absolute joy, this woman in her fifties sat before me, yet again twenty six years old and attending a lecture held by a man with sparkling blue eyes… my eyes.
She simply glowed, and for a moment I thought of the pictures of my father, all those years younger, and could see through her words what they had. It was in that instant, I realized that all those times Mom would come and talk to Dad in the arbor, she was shedding the loneliness of life without him.
She also talked to Dad a lot when she worried about me. I was eighteen, and the doctor gave the go-ahead for surgery to see if we could repair some of the damage done by the otosclerosis. Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, I looked out into Paradise and watched my mother's lips moving. Without my hearing aids, I was deaf. Leaning my head against the door frame, I simply watched her speak, checked my watch, and knocked on the wall. When she glanced up, I signed, "It's time, Mama."
That night, as I lay scared in the hospital bed, Mom laid in my hands another of my father's letters. It would be the only letter I ever received outside of Paradise. The parchment envelope read: If My Son Has Surgery
Glancing up at mama, I saw her smile and step away to take a chair on the other side of the room – to give me some privacy. Ripping open the envelope, I read.
Surgery can be a scary thing to experience. It terrified me when I had corrective surgery for my otosclerosis. If you area reading this, then you inherited something I wish I'd never passed on. Dear son, try to put aside the fear and think of the possibilities. I've heard so many people say, "Don't get your hopes up – that way you won't be disappointed if it doesn't work," or some variation of this sentiment. Son… I say, "Get your hopes up. Whether the result is good or bad, you will have had a chance to dream."
Thoreau wrote, "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined." Regardless of the outcome, reach for the stars.
Early the next morning I had surgery. That afternoon, I woke to my mother's smiling face. Within a few days, I could hear sounds again. They weren't clear at first. I had dreamed of perfect hearing, but even given time to heal my hearing would occasionally cut out. Yet, I'd had a chance to dream of life less impaired, even with its limitations.
The experience left me less afraid of life… at least until the following fall, when I was ready to head off to college. As I packed up the last of my bags and loaded them into the back of the car, Mom came to me and held my hand. For a time, I wasn't the young man who'd grown up in the shadow of my father and the physical presence of my uncles. Instead, I was the little boy with a scraped knee and wounded pride, not wanting to ask Mama to make it all better, but knowing she could.
With a sad smile, I looked at the front of our large, adobe and wood home, and sighed.
"Come sit with me for a moment," she said. Mom led me through the house to the arbor. When a ladybug skittered across the petals of a pink desert rose, she asked, "Is he ready, Gil?" More softly she added, "Am I ready to let our son go?" Staring deep into my eyes, I felt her lay something in my hands, as she stood. "I'll wait for you in the kitchen," she whispered, kissing my cheek.
Opening my eyes, I read the parchment envelope before tearing it open. It read: When he leaves home.
It was the first time my father's words made me cry – really cry – because it brought to the forefront all that I would be missing in leaving home, yet inspired me because he… I… knew it must happen. Making my way into the house, I found Mom sitting at the breakfast bar. Impatiently wiping the tears away, I held out my hand to her.
Holding onto me, she asked, "What's wrong, Ethan? What scares you?"
I couldn't help sniffling when I quietly murmured, "I'll miss you, Mama." Looking into those brown eyes I knew so well, I finally asked her the question that weighed heaviest on my heart. "Who will take care of you when I'm gone?"
Leaning in, she kissed my cheek, ran her hand through my hair, and smiled. In a watery voice, she replied, "Oh, baby. I'll be fine." With fierce conviction, she added, "So will you." I had to smile, because she reacted just like Dad had said she would in his letter. For a minute longer, I searched her eyes, and saw the truth in them.
In that instant, I really noticed several things. My mom was tall, but I was so much taller. At six foot three inches, we used to joke about how I towered over her. At that moment, though, I didn't just tower over her. I felt like a giant standing next to a delicate flower.
Instead of the strong as steel woman with a straight-forward manner, athletic build, and dark hair, I saw something new in mom. She seemed so small to me, gray streaking through her hair. Her athletic build had begun to fade, as time and age had taken their toll. I suddenly realized just how beautiful she truly was to me, and how lucky I'd been throughout my life.
From before I was born, I was wanted and loved, and I think in that particular moment, I recognized it. Not only did I have my aunts and uncles surrounding me, but I had the most amazing woman standing beside me as I grew one step and one letter at a time. Leaning in to kiss her cheek, I watched tears spill down her face, and I gently wiped them away for her. Trying to be brave, I peacefully said, "It's time, Mama."
Holding out my hand, she took it, and we made the drive to California. It turned out I truly was following in the footsteps of my father. I was enrolled at UCLA. I took after my mom mostly though in academics, as I intended to study physics. I took after Dad after my freshman year in that I discovered I wanted to study everything else too; which is how I ended up studying English literature and psychology, as well. I thought this event – my moving away – was painful, at the time. However, I didn't understand real pain. I didn't experience that until my sophomore year.
When mom called to tell me that Uncle Jim had passed away, I was overwhelmed with this blank numbness. Truth be told, I don't remember driving home from Los Angeles. I just remember walking in the front door, making my way immediately to Paradise, and standing quietly in the doorway.
"Oh, Gil," she whispered, tears pouring from her eyes. "It happened so quickly. At least with you, I had a chance to say goodbye." When she cocked her head to the side, I wondered what kind of response she was receiving from my father. Suddenly sniffing, she wiped her hands across her face, and said, "Honey, I'm not going to cry yet – not until I've finished what Jim asked of me." It was moments like this that I admired my mother most. When things needed to be done, she would be the woman for the job. I knew it hurt her to take care of the details, just as I understand why my uncle asked her to take on the burden.
Looking over her shoulder, she caught my gaze and rose. With a sad smile on her face, she slowly made her way over and gathered me into a hug, murmuring, "It's okay to cry, baby. It's okay to feel it." I cried. Hard and long. Each sob was filled with a memory – fishing at Lake Mead, camping up in the mountains, hanging out watching baseball... I wept until I was so tired I could barely stand. Mama led me through the house, helped me off with my shoes, and tucked me into bed.
Kissing my curly head, she whispered, "Sleep, baby. Sleep and dream about happy memories."
The memorial was a couple days later. A lot of people showed up for it. To tell you the truth, I don't really remember much of it, because of the buzzing in my head from too much emotion. However, I do remember the wake.
Mom managed to get Frank's to close down for the night. Hundreds showed up, and I got to meet a lot of new people, and get caught up with ones I already knew. It turns out I have no desire to have a memorial, even though I understand its purpose. Instead, I just want a wake. Uncle Jim's wake turned out to be a fabulous party, which I can guarantee he would've wanted. He was never one to dwell, and would've gotten pissed off at the sadness during the memorial; and would have been the life of the party at his wake. Hell, he was the life of the party at his wake – at least his memory was, as people young and old swapped stories of the old curmudgeon.
Yet I missed him horribly, and as the rest of the week progressed, I felt this weight lay heavier across my shoulders. Mom and I were standing at our workbench repotting some fragile white desert zinnias into larger pots, when I asked, "Does it ever get easier? Will it always feel like this? Will my heart always hurt?"
Very thoughtfully, Mom continued to dig out potting soil and carefully pop the zinnia out of the small container. As she laid it in the large pot, she finally said, "When your father died, part of me wished I could crawl into the ground beside him. He was my one and only and always will be. Over time, the pain has eased, although the ache still remains."
Standing back to inspect the freshly potted plant, she finally looked at me. Removing her gloves and placing them on the bench, she held out her hand, and led me to the arbor. Smiling, she ruffled my hair and sighed, "You've gotten so big on me – so grown up. You look exactly like your father – only taller." She smiled wide when she said that, and ruffled my hair again. "Wait right here."
By this time, I had an idea of what was to come. Every time she said those words, it seemed it was accompanied by that familiar parchment paper. Returning, she laid the letter in my hand, and sat down next to me. I began by glancing at the front of the envelope.
It read: My son's first loss
I remember the day my father died like it was yesterday. This man, who seemed so solidly always there, suddenly left this world. I was so confused, hurt, angry, and… everything all at once. I didn't know what to feel or say or do. It just seemed so all-consuming, and I wanted someone else to take that pain away and make it all better. I was so much older before I finally figured out that grief is what it is, and must be dealt with in its own time.
Shakespeare once wrote, "My grief lies all within, And these external manners of lament Are merely shadows to the unseen grief That swells with silence in the tortured soul." It's okay to feel and show pain. Just remember to treat the internal wound, too. The ache in your heart is the knowing that in the end, someone you loved has left this world for the next. Remember the gifts you have been given in memories and love, and that unseen grief will find relief, and your soul will not be so tortured.
Remember that I love you always.
I recognized the men and women of my life in a whole new way after Uncle Jim left us. Time took on a new meaning, as my elderly uncle had always been bigger than life, yet now lay dead. With each new experience and lesson in life, I grew a bit wiser.
Yet apparently men are not destined for any true wisdom until they've made a complete ass out of themselves.
I was thirty four years old. A friend of mine came down with a serious case of the flu, and so I was filling in for him for a week at UCLA. Normally, I worked forensic psychology – profiling – for the Las Vegas Police Department's new Psychological Profiling unit. Mom had long since retired, enjoying spending her time in her garden or hanging out with the uncles or my aunt. All being around the same age, and having retired within a matter of just a few years of each other, they had their own little gang. They were a wild bunch.
I'll never forget the day I came to visit mom, with that dazzled look in my eye, and feeling like a moron. Uncle Greg and Uncle Nick were standing in the kitchen, while Aunt Catherine and Uncle Rick manned the barbecue out back. I have no idea what my face looked like, but it must've been quite telling. I don't think I'd ever seen mom laugh so hard in my entire life. Tears actually streamed from her eyes.
Uncle Greg got a grin on his face, slapped me on the back, and asked me her name. I answered before I even thought about it, "Emma Ellis." I then warily frowned at the wicked gleam he got in his eyes. After all, I could always count on him to give me a bad time about girls.
"How often have you gone out?" Uncle Nick innocently asked.
My frown became fierce, and I felt uncomfortable under everyone's scrutiny. "We haven't," I finally muttered. "I haven't asked her out."
"Why not?" Uncle Rick queried, walking through the open patio door, carrying skewers of grilled vegetables. "Ask her out, man. She's got you all starry-eyed."
It turns out it was Aunt Catherine that put it most aptly, when she walked in leaning heavily on her cane, her silver hair flowing smooth down her back. "For crying out loud, Ethan; don't be an idiot, like your father."
I think Mom and I must've had similar expressions on our face at this – our eyebrows shot straight up. I might've gotten upset over that if I hadn't seen mom suddenly smile. Her eyes glazed over a little as if she were searching through her memories; then her laughter rang through the kitchen and open family room. When she eventually excused herself to Paradise, no one followed. We all knew she was going to talk to Dad. About an hour later, as I finally got everyone off my back, Mom returned and grasped my hand.
Leading me into the arbor, she waited until I sat on the well-worn wooden bench, surrounded by fragrant blooms, before handing me the envelope. Kissing my cheek, she patted it tenderly, and left me alone there to read.
The envelope read: When he's met her
You'll know when you've met your one true love. I knew it the moment I laid eyes on your mother. Neither of us was all that smart about it, if you want to know the truth. We danced around one another not knowing what to do with this feeling between us, and denying ourselves the completeness we had in each other. Every obstacle was a self-made excuse to mask our fears. There are no real obstacles that cannot be negotiated or ignored. Do not let age, job, or anything else stand between you and her. You deserve better than that, as does she. Don't hurt her like I hurt your mother.
Thoreau said, "There is no remedy for love but to love more." Love your soul mate much and well, dear son. Make memories to sustain you both through the best and worst of times. Never fear what the future will bring, because having someone by your side can make everything fearful seem like… nothing.
You are loved, well and true, by all who have been touched by you. Never doubt. I wish I had done better by your mother, and not denied what was meant to be. In this, I was the fool and she the wise one, for she understood long before I accepted it that we were meant to be. I can only pray that you learn from my mistakes.
I love you so much. One day you will understand just how much.
"How did he know?" I asked in awe, making my way into the house. "How does he always seem to know?" While everyone looked at me quizzically, I laid the letter on the counter and gave Mom a hug.
"What makes you so nervous, sweetheart?" she asked.
"She's twenty five, Mama," I lamented, and for a moment felt like a whiny eight year old. More calmly, I stated, "There's almost a decade between us. How do I know she feels the same?" More quietly, I asked, "How do I know she won't get tired of me?"
"Because your father was fifteen years older than me, and I could never get tired of him. What is meant to be is simply meant to be," she quietly stated, her voice ripe with conviction. "Ethan, answer me this question. Is she the one?"
I couldn't help the smile that crept across my face when I answered, "Yeah, mom. She's it."
That's how I married a woman working on her doctorate in Physics. Emma and I dated for six months before I asked her to marry me.
We were gathered at the house, and the whole gang was there. Everyone had met Emma on her last visit to Las Vegas, when she applied for the position at UNLV as an associate professor in the Physics department.
When we walked into the house, Uncle Nick was grumbling to me over having to use a walker. I sardonically replied, "If you weren't hell bent on trying to show up all the young bucks, you would've never been riding that electronic bull at your age." The man was a senior citizen, and he'd already had a hip replacement.
I didn't miss the glare – I just chose to ignore it. Mom had called me when it happened, partly to warn me that my uncle was in a pissy mood, and to caution me not to purposely aggravate him. I don't always listen to Mom. It's sometimes just plain fun to harass Uncle Nick, and listen to his accent get thicker, even after all these years away from Texas.
"So, what have you two been up to?" Mom asked, purposely turning the topic. It was kind of cute when Emma turned really shy (because she's never shy) and held up her left hand. She showed off to the ooh's and ahh's of everyone the ring I'd given to her just days before. That's when Mom looked at me and said, "Please tell me you at least set up a romantic proposal."
My bright red neck and ears, and Emma's husky laugh seemed to take center stage as everyone stared at us. I was saved from answering by my soon-to-be wife.
"I believe his words were – You win. Marry me," she chuckled. Unfortunately, I'd been sitting a bit too close to Uncle Greg and couldn't avoid the hard smack to the back of my head. Everyone knew about how my dad proposed to my mom. She hadn't talked about it until after they'd married, and before Dad died. Apparently, Dad had been the butt of a lot of jokes for awhile because of it. Someone had even gone so far as to leave honey on his desk every day for a month.
Later that night, as Emma settled into our bedroom and everyone else headed out, Mom and I made our way to Paradise, flipped on the special heat lamps she'd installed years before, and started potting some hanging baskets of moss verbena, blue birds, and daisies.
"I'm proud of you," she casually stated, straining under the weight of a large bag of soil. Quickly taking it from her hands, I placed it on the workbench, and helped her open it, feeling the lush soil across my palms. Stopping in the process of putting on her gloves, she said, "I see the way she looks at you, Ethan. It does my heart good to see that."
When I grinned, she gave me a conspiratorial wink and whispered, "I see the way you look at her, too. Believe it or not, I know the feeling well, and in my heart know that you'll be happy together."
Catching her gaze in mine, I asked, "Is this how you and Dad felt?"
Her eyes misted when she said, "It's how I still feel… how I'll always feel." Shaking off the mood, as she usually did, she stood tall, handed me a pair of gloves and said, "I think I'll go sit in the arbor for a bit. Plant these flowers into the hanging pots in the corner."
Turning my head, I watched her make her way to her special place in Paradise. As I potted the vivid purple and white plants into the hangers, I worked quietly. Every now and again, I could hear her voice softly speaking to Dad. That piece of me that envied that relationship now understood, because it's what I had with Emma. It also made me realize why Mom never considered dating another man. She had all she ever wanted in my dad, and would wait to find him again. It was a love to be admired.
What was best about my mom and Emma meeting was that they became the best of friends in almost no time whatsoever. I'd never known two women to bond so quickly. Hell, it almost gave me whiplash. I had to laugh when they informed me one night when and where Emma and I would wed. There was no discussion (or if there was, I was never part of it – the women handled it all).
When Aunt Catherine informed us that she'd gotten us the grand ballroom at the Bellagio, I wasn't surprised. Mom and Emma were grateful enough to let the Willows women in on the planning, too. Lindsey had become a successful interior designer and had a hell of an eye for detail and organization. In that, she took after her mom. Overall, it seemed the process of the planning did wonders for the most important women in my life. Since Emma's mom had died when she was a teenager and her father had passed on just the year before, she loved having my mom's input. I found it rather amusing when they simply informed me of what needed to be done, while they planned.
The day of the wedding was beautiful, although all I remember is making the promise to my Emma. If I close my eyes, I don't see the beautiful white gown that I'm sure she wore. Instead, I see her brown eyes all smoky and how wisps of her normally straight hair curled down over bare shoulders.
Mom chuckled about my perpetual grin on the day of the wedding. And she thought my honeymoon memories were hysterical. When we got back from our honeymoon in Brazil, where I introduced Emma to my dad's forest, and took her for long walks into the jungle, we went through wedding pictures. Every other picture I had to stop and ask Emma when this or that picture was taken. Apparently I'd been a little starry eyed. It got bad enough that every time I opened my mouth, the two most important women in my life dissolved into fits of laughter. Eventually, I gave up and called up the uncles to see if they wanted to go have a beer with me. Even knowing the women were back at the house making fun of me, I couldn't help but feel like life couldn't get better.
A year later, I found out I was wrong. When Emma walked into my office, tears of joy in her eyes, and a smile on her lips, I must've spun her around five times in my arms before putting her down. The horrified look on my face had her saying, "You didn't hurt the baby. We're fine."
For fifteen minutes, we stood in the middle of the LVPD forensics lab, and held each other, like we were the first man and woman to ever conceive a child. I looked forward to all of it – cravings, moodiness, watching her grow large with my child…
The first person we told was Mom. I can still remember that wistful grin on her face, as she led me to Paradise and sat with me in the arbor. With quiet anticipation, I waited as Mom walked into the house and came out with that familiar parchment envelope in her hand. She laid it quietly in my palm, and watched me read the words: My son's first child. His words were soft and sweet, and in them I could see what he felt for me – what he wanted of me and for me. In his words, I could see myself.
Emma was not quite three months along, and we were having Sunday dinner at mom's house. Aunt Catherine was staying with my mom, as she and Lindsey had gotten into another argument. This happened every now and again, and usually lasted a couple of days, before the two stubborn women finally sat down and talked everything out. So, it ended up being the four of us for vegetarian lasagna, my favorite.
I found mom talking to Dad in the arbor, and sat down next to her. When she finished listening, she patted my cheek, and asked, "How's my grandchild?"
I laughed and replied, "He's doing fine, mom."
This caught her attention. Throwing her arms around me, she outright squealed, "I'm having a grandson!" Of course, to hear that come from a normally sedate woman, I broke into laughter, and she joined me. When we were done laughing and dreaming about the child to come, she patted my hand and said, "Wait right here." Knowing what was to happen, I anxiously anticipated the words of wisdom my father would bring, and was not disappointed.
It wasn't until she caught my gaze and held it that she spoke. Her eyes were misty as she placed the letter in my hand, and said, "He waited for this. Your father waited for this moment and defied the odds of every doctor to do so."
Feeling my own eyes already mist, the glorious mood began to dissipate into something eager yet sad.
The envelope read: Preparing for his child's first kick
Your first child will bring you so much joy and so much wonder long before his or her birth. I know what you feel at the thought of your child's birth. I feel it now as I write this letter to you. It is for you I have waited. It is for the kick, the surest sign of life that I have wanted so much to feel. Life. Love. Sorrow. Joy. All are a part of the miracle that created you, and will sustain you.
While your wife will know the feel of the child in her womb, I understand it is only the feel of the kick – the tangible evidence – that satisfies you as the man in the partnership. It is proof of life, my darling son; and it is proof of the future. Your legacy.
As the proverb says, "Any man can be a father, but it takes a special man to be a Dad." I know I haven't been there as you've grown. I would give anything to have done so. Instead, I can only hope that the aunts and uncles in your life have helped you grow. Another famous proverb from Africa says, "It takes a village to raise a child." Never forget, you were raised under the influence of the best village I've ever had the honor of knowing. Those people who have guided you are the most capable of loving and giving as I have ever known. Yet, how I wish so much I could be that special man you call 'Dad', instead of just writing it at the end of these letters.
I love you more than you can know.
As tears fell and I broke down into sobs, Mom pulled the letter from me and laid it on the table where we often placed our tea tray. Pulling me into a hug, she simply held onto me like she had when I was a child. The sobs eventually faded, and I finally whispered into her ear, "He's always been my dad. I wish I could tell him he's always been my dad."
Pulling back, she ran her hand through my curly hair, and serenely smiled, before quietly stating, "He knows, Ethan. He knows." I watched her face as she looked beyond my shoulder, and she smiled at something behind me – something I knew I would never see, even if I turned to look.
Hugging her close again, I abruptly wiped away the tears, and blew out a breath.
Mom was there to see Gilbert Everett Grissom born. Emma was thrilled to have another woman in the room to hear the squalls of our son as he came into the world. She was also there when Alyssa Sara Grissom was born two years later. My mom was a wonderful grandma, and loved every second she spent with her grandkids.
Hell, the woman would, at times, run us ragged. Mom had more energy than the lot of us put together, even well into her senior citizenship, which is why it shook us so hard when we came over for Sunday dinner, and she didn't immediately come out to play with her grandkids. When I found her in the arbor, I thought at first she was napping. I don't know how long I sat there, holding her hand, but Emma eventually came and found me. Silent tears fell, as I held my mother's lifeless body in my arms… as I cradled her in my arms as she had so often done for me.
X X X
Ethan folded up the notes of his mother's eulogy and settled the tear-stained paper in front of him on the podium. Looking around to the faces in the crowd, he caught the eyes of those special people who helped raise him. They sat in the area reserved for family – because they were his family.
"Mom loved all of you so much," he choked, standing at the podium. Taking a deep breath, he sobered his face, taking control of the emotion. He'd promised himself he would let himself grieve, but not until he'd done his mother's memory justice. His job wasn't quite done.
In the silence around him, Ethan began to fold up the letters from his father and carefully place them back in their envelopes. He'd spoken of a few, but there were so many more he'd received in his life. They'd ranged from When He Gets His First Pet to When He Gets His First Job.
It was when he began to shuffle the stack that one slipped out, and he read the parchment: When He Rides His First Rollercoaster. He'd been ten when it had happened. His mother had taken him on the ride; but his father's letter had been slightly off. While it had explained to Ethan that it was okay if he threw up, it had turned out that Ethan was okay. It was his mother who had turned green and hurled across everyone behind them. They'd laughed for hours that night, sitting in the arbor, recounting their day together.
His drifting mind began to refocus, feeling a bit more in control. His voice strong, forty two year old Ethan Gilbert Grissom resolutely stated, "My father was my sage, guiding me with his words. My mom, though…" For a moment he had to stop, breathe slowly to stop the sudden sob choking in his throat before he continued, "My mom was my hero."
He turned and admired the portrait of his mother. Next to it sat a framed picture of his parents. They stood in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, carefree smiles gracing their faces – a reminder of when they first found each other all those years ago.
Ethan quietly said, "I miss you both." He gathered together the notes from the eulogy, as well as the letters from his father. As he stiffly walked away from the podium, the priest took his place and began to tell the story of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes – his mother's favorite saint.
He knew there would be a party after, thanks to Uncle Greg's help; his mother would hate to end on a sad note. For now though, he needed the feel of Emma's arms, and her shoulder on which to lay his head.
It wasn't until a few days later that he made his way back to his mother's house. The usual clutter lay across the kitchen counter – mail to be dealt with, a forgotten coffee cup she always seemed to be searching for, and other miscellaneous items.
Making his way into Paradise, he walked first to the arbor on the other side of the large room, and sat, listening to the silence. It seemed too quiet, even after he opened the large glass doors that exposed the gardens out back. No signs of life appeared, begging entrance into the lush surroundings. Quietly, he walked over to the workbench, where he and his mother often sat in tall stools to pot plants. Feeling the comfort of this place, he grabbed a large clay pot, and reached over for a couple of plants and some potting soil.
He saw it when he reached for the spade, sitting next to her gloves.
The envelope read: When my Sara comes home to me
With shaking hands, he picked up the letter and carefully opened it.
In this life, you will be blessed if you meet only a few people who not only impact your life, but make it better; make you better. If you have met your one true love, you will understand this. Your mother is the one and only woman who has ever made me see true beauty, and it is her.
Do not grieve too long, for if you are reading this, she has come home to me. She and I were meant to be, truly and always. Neither time or space, nor life and death can come between us.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 says,
"For everything there is a season, And a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;"
Our time apart is at an end, darling son. It is simply our time to once again be together. Live your life to your best, and know we will always be watching over you, together.
I always feared I would not leave this world a better place than I found it. Yet I know I have. I've left this world an amazing legacy. I've left it you.
In this, my last letter to you, always know you have my love.
For some time, Ethan sat in his stool, trembling as he read through the letter again and again. When Emma found him there, she laid her hand on his shoulder and whispered, "I love you."
Glancing from the letter in his hands to his wife, he said, "Dad died before I got to meet him. Mom is gone now, too." Sniffing brusquely, feeling a little like a lost little boy before, he more quietly asked, "Is this how you felt after your father died, Emma?"
Laying her head on his shoulder, she replied, "Yeah." Looking into his eyes, she reached up and slightly ruffled his unruly curls before adding, "It's okay to feel a little lost without her, even though you're a grown man." Laying the back of her fingers across his cheek, she said, "It's okay to feel like you're an orphan."
Softly, she kissed his cheek and headed into the house. Taking a deep breath, he rose to follow, as his wife disappeared through the French doors into the kitchen.
It was then that he heard the flutter of a butterfly's wings echo as it landed on the magenta bloom of the bougainvillea near the arbor. Turning slightly, the flutter turned into a husky laugh. Gazing into the floral haven, he saw the wisp of them. His father stood as young as he was when he'd met his Sara, sporting a boyish grin; a face and stance identical to his son's. His arms were wrapped around a vibrant laughing young woman, her dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. As Ethan watched their lips meet, he felt a tear slide down his cheek. Turning together, they said nothing, but held to one another, smiled at their beloved child, and slowly faded.
As the orange sun dipped below the horizon, the light of Paradise faded to memory, and Ethan finally heard his father's voice. It whispered on a gentle breeze. "We will always love you, son."
FIN. …but his legacy goes on…