Dandelions can grow anywhere, even up through a crack in concrete small enough for ants to negotiate.
More than one grown-up insisted hopping down a row of grave markers disrespected the dead, so I turned downward for entertainment. The coarseness of the sidewalk looked like Grandma’s backyard firepit, particularly the spot where Dad once put his hand to wet cement. Cracks implied this cemetery must have been older than Grandma. A dandelion with a full head of cotton pulsed in the mild breeze without losing its fibers. If I picked it carefully, I could blow all its bristles in one breath and my silent wish would come true.
Mom kneeled next to a marker recessed below the grass and trimmed overgrowth with scissors, surgically beautifying names and memories. Sunlight reflected off bronze name plates bearing the same typeface, the same design, the same frame pattern. Boredom set in as it always did when the grown-ups took us places. Nostalgia for this sidewalk kept me from complaining, though I was much too young to know nostalgia; the slab’s gestalt projected the character of ghost towns with their abandoned stories suspended in dust. I liked the grains of cement, the cracks, the ants, the weeds, the overgrowth. They gave me a wilderness to admire.
I stole a pinwheel from some other family’s memorial and spun it. Mom told me to put it back. This marker didn’t need Mom’s aesthetic touch. The birth year was the same as mine. I decided that marker would be my favorite of the whole cemetery.
Grandma had us over for watermelon. I tested my hand against Dad’s firepit impression. The bees admiring the vines on the chain-link fence scared me away from joining the afternoon grape harvest. Someone said Grandpa had planted those vines and told a story about his days as a California agricultural inspector and getting to cut straight into the hearts of the farmers’ best watermelons. He had died not long after my older sister Auburn was born. Playing in the backyard left foxtails in our socks. While the grown-ups packed the car to leave, I picked the foxtails and left them on Grandma’s living room floor, not remotely considering the kind of mess this left for her. We said our goodbyes and soon into the half-hour drive home, I fell asleep in the car.
Mom and Dad pulled into Grandma’s driveway and asked me to help her ascend to the front passenger seat of the largest SUV I had ever driven. Camille stayed in the running car with our toddler daughter Samantha and five-year-old son Kenny while my parents and I knocked the door. Grandma recognized Dad right away but needed me to remind her I was her grandson, Chuck’s boy. She hugged me, said she was glad to see me, and let me help her mount the seat far too high for her to reach herself. Her jacket’s weave texture at the elbow gave me a firm grip on her arm. Her greetings to her great-grandchildren in carseats in the back persuaded me she didn’t need to recognize the person to regale them with childlike affection. I was still family despite my name meaning nothing to her.
We arrived at the cemetery and brought chairs this time. I fretted about sunscreen, knowing my children could sunburn worse than I. Mom brought scissors again. I summoned Kenny to the grave she trimmed and pointed to the marker bearing his name, reciting the story of his namesake who had died those many years ago in a train collision. Grandma once knew we had named our son after one of hers.
The heat compelled us to return Grandma to air-conditioning. While walking the sidewalk to the car, I noticed a crack under my feet. There weren’t very many pinwheels or dandelions that I could see. Samantha and Kenny were hot and thirsty. I saw dust ghost across the cement and crab grass clutch the pavement.
We grabbed some fast food before dropping Grandma off at her house. I helped her down from the passenger seat and walked her to the front door. We said our goodbyes. I couldn’t tell whether weeds or vines occupied her fence and had I paused to blow a dandelion that afternoon, I would have wished to have compared my hand to Dad’s cement relic in the foxtail-ridden backyard.
Grandma’s three surviving sons, the remnants of a family of eight, had relocated her to an assisted living home six hundred miles up-freeway and sold the house that she insisted, when she exercised a more capacious memory, she would never depart. The buyers said they loved the old backyard firepit. Camille and I had moved to Utah some years before, so they listed me as a next-of-kin in case of an emergency. Uncle Doug lived within eyeshot of the facility and handled most concerns.
Mom came to visit Grandma, and this year instead of visiting a cemetery Grandma wouldn’t recognize, we decided on a drive through the canyons. I had learned introducing myself as anything other than “family” confused Grandma. While escorting her to the car ramp, I told her we were all family who wanted to take her for a drive. I lifted her to the same awfully elevated passenger seat knowing it terrified the nursing staff who braced for a slip or tumble. She still trusted my grip on her elbow. We mostly looked out the windows that afternoon. Grandma was enthralled to see leaves on the trees. We later returned her to her room and said our goodbyes. She waved at Kenny and Samantha as though she knew them all their lives.
While Doug’s family vacationed out of state, Grandma fell. Nursing staff said as next of kin, I needed to convey her to the hospital or call an ambulance. We rushed to the facility and found her still on the floor below a dining table. Staff had resisted moving her for fear of legal liabilities until a family member had arrived. Enduring the hard floor and a half-hour prone heightened her confusion. I kneeled down to tell her I was family.
“Oh, bless you, bless you,” she said. I tried to help her to a wheelchair. She groaned. The hallway to the car ramp presented several occasions to tell her I was family. A dark bruise had formed on her temple. Her eyes had the dim of pain in them.
At the hospital, the first try of the blood pressure cuff frightened Grandma into desperation. I could only soothe her for a minute at a time. She let me hold her while nurses wrestled through a vitals reading. A surgeon requested an MRI scan of her brain. Everything confused her, exacerbating her distress. The nurses learned to tell her I was family. The MRI machine demanded she be left alone in a claustrophobic tube while a technician captured the scan. Our dress rehearsals of the scan drove her to a panic. The ordeal produced a single image that left no mystery. The surgeon considerately explained how such bleeding could only be slowed by brain surgery, which probably couldn’t purchase much time. I relayed the information to Grandma’s three boys. We all agreed Grandma didn’t deserve a cranial saw. The surgeon looked relieved. Nurses helped Grandma to rest. She returned to her assisted living apartment the next day.
Within the month, Auburn drove her four children the six hundred miles to visit Grandma. Our two families spent an afternoon enjoying frozen yogurt near the table that had knocked Grandma off balance. She smiled through spoonfuls, reflecting back to great-granddaughters the little girls’ delight at sharing a treat. We said our goodbyes. I pushed her in her wheelchair to a gallery where other residents listened to a teenaged soprano perform a selection of church hymns. When I turned to leave, she gripped my elbow.
“Please don’t go.”
“I’ll see you soon,” I assured her. “I love you, Grandma.”
With the face of an eight-year-old making a dandelion wish and spinning a pinwheel, she looked into my eyes and said, “Oh — I love you, too!” and reclined her head to listen to soaring tones praising God.
Today, Dad and Mom texted a photo of a grave marker with the same typeface, the same design, the same frame pattern, except with a new name. Mom surely brought scissors. There were no grains of cement, no ants, no cracks, no overgrowth. Still, dandelions can grow anywhere. ◼︎
Memorial Day, 2021