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The Perfect Sunflower
Our small red car winds along the twisty country road, golden light of the setting sun making everything melt into warm, pleasant colors. My mother is driving, crying, driving, cryingâ€”an endless cycle that seems so out of place in the bright surroundings. I want to cry, too, but I am transfixed by the fields and fields of sunflowers we pass by, forever keeping up with the car. The farmers out here have planted them all, so many it boggles the mind. I know who they’re honoring with this tributeâ€”my grandfather. Memories instantly wash into my mind as he is mentioned, and I try to trick myself into thinking that we are going to visit him. And, actually, I guess we are. The problem is that we’re going dressed in black.
My mom is whimpering now, and I’m afraid she’ll start sobbing if I don’t comfort her. But how can I comfort her? Her father was a great man, and there is nothing I could do to make his death hurt any less. And besides, I’m not really comforted myself. I know I don’t have much of a choice now, but I don’t want to let my grandfather go, not yet. I just couldn’t do that. I lean back on the stained upholstery of the car, and let that tsunami of memories hit me.
I don’t know if you could’ve exactly called me a great kid. I was just a little overexcited, you know, but I guess my head was still ready to be filled with knowledge. My grandfather wasn’t overexcited at all. He could literally sit in a field watching the flowers and birds for two hours, while I just wanted to go, go, and go.
He’d tell me, “Life is for doing, but there’s got to be some room for enjoyment in there too.” I smile thinking about that now, knowing that at the time I didn’t understand his words. But now I know they are completely true.
The flowers my grandpa loved to watch the most were the golden, tall sunflowers, always reaching for the sun. He had fields and fields full of them around his big, lovable farmhouse. He said he planted them himself year after year because they brought contrast to all of the horrible things he heard about in the world. Mom said he did it to honor grandma, who had died of cancer when my mom was a kid. I think it was a little of both. Whenever I would come to his house, alone, away from mom and dad, he would talk to me and take me to the most beautiful of the quiet places. The talks were short and airy, but he always told me things that I found helpful later in life.
When I was feeling down, he’d ask, mischievously, “Would you like to see the most beautiful place in the world?” Often, these places had many sunflowers.
I remember, in great detail, how he’d walk slowly to the tallest sunflower, stroke its petals and leaves and stem, and say loudly to me, “Oh, JoJo, I just wish I could find the perfect sunflower.”
This would set me off on a mad dash through wherever we were, shouting, “Grandpa! Is this the one? Is this it?”
But every time the response would be, “No, keep looking! That isn’t quite it!” I have to admit that today, I’m still looking for his flower: the perfect one. Every time I pass by a particularly tall one, I wonder if I’ve found it. But I can always hear him saying no.
The car turns suddenly, throwing me against the side. I am instantly shaken to life again. The memories have left me with mist in my eyes. How could anyone ever be ready to give up such a man? How will I be ready when I come to his final resting place? I return to the present situation.
“Whoa! Mom, you want me to drive? Maybe you should take a break.”
She actually turns around and looks at me.
“I’m fine. I’ll be okay. Everything will be okay.” I sigh. She was taught this chant by a grief counselor after dad died in a car crash. I hated it, because I don’t think a chant ever makes anything okay, it just traps your true emotions behind false and meaningless words. I settled back in my spot, but now a new set of memories were coming, memories I didn’t want. I fought hard against them, thinking again of those lovely places I had been with my grandpa, and the times we had shared. The times before things got darker, before people died, before our conversations had little words. Just comforting. They came anyway.
Coldness, pain, and grief. In the days after my dad died, these were the things that followed me and hovered over me like unwanted demons. The death had been for a bad reason, a drunk driver, which just made it sadder. The rest of a life was wasted, and for nothing. I turned seventeen the summer it happened, when our house became a black hole. No light, no joy, and no happiness could ever escape the despair and worry that clouded everything. In these days, I would often drive to that big old farmhouse, that place where I could always be comforted by the soft blue eyes of that man, my grandfather. He didn’t seem to take the death as hard as I did, or at least that’s what I thought. At least, he always had a smile for me when I would walk into his arms.
But once, the house was dusty and dark, the magnificent sunflowers that surrounded his house were drying up and dying in the heat from lack of water. As I walked in, tears in my eyes and my mouth stuck open; there was no smile from him. He sat, wrapped in a blanket despite the summer weather outside.
And all he had said was, “Is it wrong to feel I’ve lost a son?” The croak in his voice suggested that he had been crying. I had never heard him cry before, and it scared me. What also scared me was the fact that I didn’t know how long he had been this way, because I was forced to go to a weeklong dealing-with-grief camp.
At this point, I walked over to him, touched him lightly, and asked, “Would you like to see the most beautiful place in the world?” Hugging him, I cried and he cried, tears mixing together to create a waterfall. I don’t know if our reasons were the same, but one thing’s for sure: we cried for hours that day.
It was nice to get everything out, but after that he was never truly the same. When his wife died, he had children to distract him, a whole life ahead of him. And maybe, just maybe, he still had some faith left in the world. But then, when my father died, what did he have? He was out of faith, out of distractions. All he had were me and the sunflowers.
Now, if I think about it, I’m not surprised that it was his heart that gave away. But I am surprised that he made it this long, and I love him for it.
We pull into a run-down funeral home, just over a mile from where grandpa used to live. Many relatives, friends, and neighbors are there, all dressed in black. Oh, how he would have hated this, I thought. He had always hated black.
My Great Aunt Edna, her face in heavy make-up, comes over and starts to talk softly to me, like she’s nervous about giving me even more pain. It’s not possible, I think bitterly to myself.
“Joanna, I’m so sorry. I know you and your grandfather were really close. We all were. He was such a joyous man! I wish that I had such a close relationship, like you had. I wish I could be his â€˜perfect sunflower.’” I pause.
“Where did you get â€˜perfect sunflower’ from?” I wonder aloud.
“That’s what he always used to call you, at least to the family. Isn’t that right?”
I smile to myself, a teary smile, as I realize that all that time, every moment I had spent looking, the sunflower had been me. I almost let out a cry at the thought of losing this man forever. Was I just being selfish? He was going to a better place, but I wanted him back on earth with me. I distract my mind with a question to nobody in particular.
“Are we going inside for the service?” Aunt Jane, my mom’s older sister, answers.
“Yes, in a minute.”
She says this part louder, to the rest of us. “But first, we have to change.”
And everyone, no matter how sad or tired, throws off their black garments to reveal yellow ones underneath. All of us, the parade of human sunflowers, shout to the heavens with glee, knowing that somewhere up there, a smile spreads across the face of a man we all loved.
A thought hits me, like my grandpa sent it to me. You can let me go, and still keep me.
So, slowly, I did let him go, all of the memories floating away across the horizon, out to him. But always and forever, there is a little piece of him tucked away in my heart, and I know that I will always be his â€˜perfect sunflower.’