The Peppermint Plant
From the first time they laid their round, deep-set eyes on each other, it was love. They understood each other. Even as a small baby, my son was as content to be with Grandpa as he was with me. Grandpa loved that baby with all his heart, and felt as if he had been given a chance to do all the things he couldn't with his own children. When he was a young man, supporting a large family, there simply wasn't the leisure time to take long walks with babies in strollers.
My son worshipped his Grandpa. By the age of 2, he could name every tool on the jeweler's bench. They'd go for walks along the creek that ran behind the house, and pick wild peppermint. Rubbing the leaves between their hands, they would inhale the summer-fresh scent. They went fishing. They played with trucks in the back yard. And when my little boy was fighting sleep, Grandpa would waltz him around the living room to Eddy Arnold singing "He'll Have To Go". They understood each other.
Around Thanksgiving of 1992, when my oldest son was 4 and I had a new baby boy, too, Grandpa found out he had colon cancer. The doctors performed a complete colostomy, with serious doubts that Grandpa would make it to Christmas.
Maybe it was because of Grandpa's indomitable will, or maybe the doctors were just plain wrong, but Grandpa saw both that next Christmas, and the one after. He did very well for 16 months, and spent every minute he could with his two grandsons. He held his oldest grandson's hand, and balanced the little one on his hip, and they took long, lazy walks where the peppermint grew. The oldest one still held a special place in his heart, for what they had together was something more meaningful and deeper than the usual grandchild-grandparent relationship. On some deep level, they understood each other.
By the early spring of 1994, it was plain to see there would be no more Christmases with Grandpa. He had taken a serious turn for the worse, and the entire family (there's a heap of us) held our collective breath: we were all afraid that he might die on his oldest grandson's birthday which was coming soon.
We brought our little boy to see his beloved Grandpa in the hospital. At the time I thought it was strange that my highly-inquisitive son didn't ask any questions. He sat next to Grandpa on the hospital bed, held his hand, and just smiled into his Grandpa's eyes. Grandpa smiled back. They didn't need to talk. They understood each other.
The day before my son's birthday, Grandpa was taken to the nursing home. There was nothing more to be done for him in the hospital. We took shifts to sit with him so he would have some family with him at all times.
The next day, while my son was having a dinosaur birthday cake with his kindergarten class, Grandpa quietly passed away. My sweet hubs had picked up the two-year old from me at the nursing home and went to get our oldest boy from school. He didn't have to tell our little boy what the news was; it was written all over his face. I expected a million questions when I came home that day. I was wrong.
With a troubled expression in his round, deep-set eyes, my little boy asked me the question I was most afraid of: "Why did God take Grandpa to heaven on my birthday?" I don't know where the answer came from, I only know I didn't think of it: "Well, honey, that makes him your own special angel now." He accepted that answer in the simple, peaceful way of a child, and asked no more questions. He had not cried a single tear, and daddy and I were both concerned by that.
When my sister and I went with Mom to make the final arrangements, the sweet hubs took our two boys out to the nursery. It was spring: time to plant the flower beds. With the little guy in the stroller, daddy looked over the flowering plants to make his choices. He turned to discover our older boy gone. Missing. Nowhere in sight. Anxiously looking all around, he finally found him. Standing at a rack of kitchen herbs, with a leaf of peppermint in his little hand and enormous tears rolling down his little face.
The hubs, he has an amazing presence of mind. He bought all the peppermint to be found that day, and planted one whole, enormous flower bed in mint. Our little boy could often be seen to pick a few leaves and crush them in his pudgy hands. A distant look would come over his face and he would smile. I tell myself that the smell of the leaves brought him back to his Grandpa...and his Grandpa back to him for that moment. They understood each other.
He's 21 now, and much like his Grandpa in many ways. Strong and silent and stubborn, disinclined to take advice, unexpectedly tender, with dark hair and round, deep-set eyes. And still, I see him pick a few pepperment leaves and crush them between his hands, now strong and calloused, and breathe in the summer-sweet scent. And smile.