I practiced my speech for a couple of days, and I knew exactly what I was going to say. But, just to be sure, and because public speaking is not my specialty – especially under the circumstances – I had my notes placed gently under the soft light of the holder in front of me.
The last time I stood in this spot was at my grandfather’s request, and his words were all that would command my presence here for a second time.
Looking into the audience, I realized there was not one thing that I could tell these people that they didn’t already know about my grandfather. It had been more than 20 years since my parents and I moved from the rural farming community to a city about 200 miles away. I was a very young girl then, and I came back every summer to my grandparents’ small farm.
Needless to say, I had a lot of material to choose from because there were a lot of “Samuel-and-Lori” stories that I had preferred to keep to myself. As I looked down on my notes on the podium, there they were all neatly written out and ready for me to share with the rest of the mourners.
I could feel tears burning my eyes, so I looked across at my mother, my father, and my grandfather’s baby brother. They couldn’t look at me. I could feel their overwhelming sadness steeping from so far away. There was a rustling behind me that was the pastor beginning to stand up from his chair, but I put my hand in the small of my back as a slight signal to give me just one more minute.
When I finally opened my mouth, nothing but a squeak came out. Granddaddy would have loved that. A room filled with people, with him at the center of attention, and I squeak. He had no idea how difficult his request would be for me to fulfill when he asked me to speak about my grandmother three years prior or about him on that day.
Children never expect to see their parents or grandparents grow old or sick. They are our parents. They are invincible. They never cry, always laugh, have superhuman strength, have answers to every question, know how to fix every broken item on the planet, and never need rest. They are the perfect specimens of humanity.
And, then one day…they aren’t.
Granddaddy had been fighting what we first thought was the flu or pneumonia earlier in the year. It wasn’t. He had two heart bypass surgeries the last of which was more than 10 years prior. He was healthier than anyone else in the family. He had never known the ache of arthritis or a bad back, but the pain of two heart surgeries was plenty. This flu or pneumonia, or whatever it had become, was now the final stages of congestive heart failure.
It made for a very long summer.
My father moved in with Granddaddy, and I would leave work every Friday evening taking the long drive to the small farm to cook and clean for the two men in my life, spending as much time as I could with both of them. During the week my father would call with updates, none of them very good. My mother would drive down with our pups to visit and bring as much joy as she could to what would prove to be a short life.
It was August 25, my 40th birthday, when my father and I got the news from his doctor who sat us down on the couch on the opposite side of the room from his hospital bed. Granddaddy’s kidneys were shutting down. At his advanced age and given his heart failure, it was a question of quantity and quality of life, and now it would be up to my father and me to explain the facts and carry out my grandfather’s wishes.
I think I was in shock when the doctor left the room. Daddy asked if I would be okay for a little while so he could go outside and make some phone calls. I remember nodding. When the nutritionist came in with the lunch tray, I walked over and gently woke up my sleeping giant and asked him if he was ready for something to eat.
“Depends on what’s for lunch.” Granddaddy was never a picky eater when my grandmother was alive. I never remember seeing him push back from a plate of food in my entire life, even a bad one like hospital food.
“Well, let’s see.” I said. I took the cover off the tray. We both laughed because each compartment had a small cup or plastic wrapped morsel nestled in it. He tried to unwrap the small glass of tea, but his hands were shaking so badly it spilled on the blanket covering his lap.
“They don’t make it easy for you, do they, Granddaddy? Let’s get everything unwrapped, and we’ll see what we have.”
It didn’t look that appetizing, and I was tempted to call Daddy to run across the street to get something else. I unwrapped the green beans, mashed potatoes, baked chicken and roll that was so hard it could have been used as a weapon. He fumbled around with the plasticware until he rescued the fork. He never said a word about the meal – just stabbed the green beans dead center with the fork and sat back.
I didn’t know whether he was angry at what the doctor said about the prognosis, angry at the horrible meal, or just angry. I looked up at my grandfather, and he was smiling.
“Green beans are only good for one thing. To hold up your fork.”
That was all it took. A pile of over-cooked, mushy green beans and a plastic fork set off a bomb of laughter between an ailing grandfather and his heartbroken granddaughter. We laughed so hard that the nurse came rushing in holding her stethoscope around her neck with my father hot on her heels thinking something had gone tragically wrong. It had…in the hospital’s kitchen…but we were just fine in the room at that moment.
That was the story that I told from the podium that afternoon. That was the one thing I knew about my grandfather than no one else knew. Everyone knew that my grandfather loved his community enough to fight with county commissioners and other local government representatives to protect the farmers. Everyone knew that he fought for decades for better roads and bridges for the safety of the residents of his county. Everyone also knew that a large part of his heart died in 2006 when his bride of more than 60 years passed away in the house he built for them on the farm they lived on since the 1950s.
A couple of weeks after the funeral, I went to lunch with a friend to a Southern-style restaurant that specialized in “meat-and-three” lunches. I was in a fried chicken, peas, corn and green beans mood. We sat down near the window, and she was telling me a story about something that had happened in her office when I realized I was no longer listening.
I was staring at the green beans. I don’t like green beans, and I wasn’t sure why I chose them…especially when there was mac-and-cheese on the table. I stabbed the green beans with my fork, and I watch amazed when the fork stood up perfectly straight. Even before the first tear hit the table I realized what my grandfather was really trying to tell me that day in the hospital.
I told my friend the story of my grandfather’s green beans and his fork, and we had a good giggle. I also told her the meaning of the story he had tried to tell me that day, but I wasn’t ready to hear it then knowing I had precious few moments left with him.
He and my grandmother spent a lifetime together. They were married more than 60 years when she passed away. They survived some rocky times, some good times, some great times, but all the while, she had been his foundation.
She had been the one thing that always held him up when he stumbled. She had been the foundation of the family they created together, the foundation of the little farm they built together, the foundation of their life together. Without that foundation, everything crumbles.
I didn’t have my Prince Charming, but I had my foundation with my friends and family. It would be up to me to keep that foundation and nurture it with everything that I had. That was his final lesson to me. He tried to teach me that lesson that day in the hospital over a plate of mushy beans, but the only thing I wanted to hear then was that he was going to get better, walk out of the hospital that next morning, and everything would be just fine.
It wasn’t fine, but it was better. It took a lot of time for me to accept, as we Southerners like to say, that he was in a better place with my grandmother and no longer in pain. My pain would eventually subside as I came to realize my lesson and understand that it was something just for me, even though I shared the story with all those people in the chapel. It was mine, and mine alone.
My foundation grows stronger every day. I’ve learned that relationships with my friends and family are much like the cotton and peanuts my grandparents grew on their farm. They must be cultivated, nurtured, loved…or they wither and crumble away into the dirt below. Some of my relationships already have through the adversity I’ve faced following my grandfather’s passing. But, those whose roots were already strong have weathered the storm with me and continue to grow stronger as new relationships come into the mix.
All because of a plate of green beans and a fork.