I received an email from my father today. It read, “My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”
Attached was a photo of several smallish reddish tomatoes, with only a few scars from growth, photographed in a tangle of thick, sweet tomato leaves and vines.
It’s not necessary to write he is very proud of these tomatoes.
Eight months ago, I heard him make rumblings about buying some tomato plants. He mused about it for a while, thinking aloud. Then one day I came to the house and found two large decorative terra cotta pots, once neglected and cracking with hard cores of gray dirt cast inside, filled with fragrant, moist ebony soil and two optimistically leafy plants tucked inside – a tomato and a pepper.
The pots were equally spaced and set on tiles, for proper drainage, on the front patio my parents never, ever used during the 30 years they lived there together – and in the two and a half years since cancer took my mom. I was quizzical.
Soon after, he left town on another of his “if-I-am-moving-my-grief-is-more-bearable” trips and asked me if I came to the house to be sure to water his plants. I came by only once or twice and dutifully and skeptically gave them drinks. I figured the plants would be dead in a month or so, composting victims of his scattered focus, collateral damage of the other distractions of the new life he was jamming awkwardly together.
But they didn’t die.
When he came back from the trip, I mentioned to him he ought to move the pots into the sun.
I figured he would forget.
But the next time I came to the house, they were in the sunshine and had small, white blooms. He was nearly ecstatic with these latest gifts of nature — blooms on the vines!
“Do you think I’ll get tomatoes?” he asked, a kid, asking me to predict the Christmas morning take.
“Well, if you’ve got flowers you’ll probably get tomatoes. That’s what that means,” was my snap-ish, erudite response.
Then he left again, this time recruiting a neighbor to support his campaign.
When he was gone too long and the weather was too hot, she fed them and cooled them and reported back. The tomato and pepper plants hadn’t expired of heat exhaustion. They were thriving.
He asked me about them all the time. Had I been by? How had the tomato plant seemed? Was the soil wet? Were they wilting?
I. Didn’t. Get. It.
Finally, the neighbor sent my dad a text. “We have a tomato.”
The night before a Transatlantic journey home, he wrote to me excitedly, “I can’t wait to see my tomato !!!”
I was miffed. He might also mention his daughter and her family. Enough about the tomatoes!
Maybe it was another goofy stage of his grief process, which is a maze for us all, and presents particular challenges for a child who must observe a beloved parent suddenly and tragically forget themselves, go astray, come back, follow rocky paths, want to die, want to hide, want to go back, pine for happiness, try to disappear, then reappear and need you (only you) and not need anyone at all ever again and need someone who is never, ever coming back again. These are agonizing circular challenges of your loss and their loss and your loss and their loss. Ad infinitum.
But still I puzzled, not seeing anything other than tomatoes. Fruits masquerading as vegetables.
When I got the email today, I glanced at it on my phone without really reading it. I asked him about it. He serenely told me he had invited his neighbor over so they could both be there when they picked the tomatoes. “I was afraid a critter might get them,” he said, his voice bearing all the protectiveness and vulnerability of a new mother.
And something in my heart changed. Dissolved. Clarified.
My father had planted, nurtured, worried over, babied, cooed at, cajoled, fed, and then, finally, brought to life something way more significant than fruits or vegetables.
He had harvested hope. For the first time in three decades, he wrote. (But I think he meant four because my oldest brother is 40.)
After Prima and Secondo were tucked into bed, I crept to my computer and looked again.
“My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”
I love you, Dad.