She dropped me off at the end of the long gravel driveway. I stood outside the open car door. “Go on,” my mother’s hand motioned. I looked towards my Grandparent’s farm house. I turned back to the car. “But what if…” I started to plea my case.
“Don’t get in the way. And don’t get dirty.” She closed the door from inside and drove off.
I stood there in the gravel.
Well, that was all just fine – I nearly had myself convinced. I started walking towards the house. I kicked up dust with each step. Don’t get in the way? Of what? It didn’t appear that anyone even knew I was coming. I stopped at the front steps. Yep, this would be just fine. The sky was bigger than the one in town. I leaned my head back on the top step. The air was clean, like only Spring could produce. The clouds seemed to breathe with first and second chances. So I made up my mind to sit there and wait for mine.
I was singing a song I had just made up in my head when his shadow covered me. I sat straight up. His head blocked out most of the sun, except for just the very top beams. It appeared as though he was coming directly from the sky. He was as vertical as the stripes on his overalls. His skin looked as worn as the leather on his boots. I stared. His upper lip was big, and rarely left his bottom. His large, callused hands looked as though they had never seen a glove.
He broke the silence. “Where’s your mother?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Where’s your Grandmother?”
Again I shrugged.
“She must be inside. Why don’t you go on in and play or something.”
I shook my head no.
He looked confused. “Aren’t there cartoons on or something?”
It didn’t matter what he was saying. I was mesmerized with the sound of his voice. It was deep and unbroken. I had never spent any time with him, or anyone like him. His presence was so powerful, I could understand why some people were afraid of him. I had heard stories…stories of how you didn’t cross his path, don’t cheat at cards, don’t talk during dinner. People painted him as an immovable force, something to be feared. But compared to the empty driveway, that immovable force looked like something good to hang on to.
“I wanna go with you,” were my first words. I said them quietly, but I meant them.
“No, we’ll be gone for hours.” He was going to pick rock with three hired hands. According to them, it was the hardest work of the season, but it had to be done before any planting.
“But I wanna go with you.” I said it louder.
“You could get hurt. It’s dirty and you’ll just be in the way.”
By the look on my face he could tell that wasn’t what I needed to hear.
“It’s just for tough old men like us.”
I refused to be left behind.
“You’re not so tough,” I said in my loudest girl voice.
His hand came up like he was about to really argue his point, but then he stopped. He looked me straight in the eyes to see if I was really ready to go head to head with him. I stared straight back. I knew if I remained strong, I would win. Yep, just hold my stare and I was in. He blinked and turned to walk away. My heart sank below the cement steps. Didn’t he understand that when I said “You’re not so tough,” what I really meant was “I’ve got no where else to go…I need you…I love you.”? When he got to his truck he stopped. I was about to memorize the license plate when he hollered, “Well…get in.” I beamed. He did understand. I raced to the truck.
We stopped out in the middle of the field. It was never ending black. Dirt and rocks, everywhere. I stood there frozen in complete awe, or disgust, or fear, or a combination of all three. I had no idea what I was in for.
He looked at me as if to say that he had brought me here for other reasons than just to stand around. My mouth was wide open. There was just so much dirt…so many rocks.
“You pick up a rock and you throw it on the trailer.”
I didn’t move. It was just so big.
“I can’t glamorize the dirt you know.”
“I know it,” I told him and leaned over and threw one on the trailer. Know it? Know it, I couldn’t even say it.
There were rocks and more rocks…dirt and jagged edges. Within a half an hour, I was completely dirty, completely tired and perfectly unwilling to admit either…but I guess it showed.
“I suppose you want to go home now…”
“No,” I lied. Maybe this was all a mistake. Maybe he wasn’t going to be my savior from the gravel driveway. Maybe I went from one mess into the other. Maybe he didn’t love anyone. Well maybe I wouldn’t either. Maybe I was better off alone. No…oh, I don’t know. I just wanted…I just wanted to be with him, I just wanted him to want to be with me…I just…
The thoughts raced in my head as my lower lip quivered.
“Well?….,” he asked again.
“No, I said. I want to stay.”
Each rock seemed to give birth to another. I was so tired. But Grandpa didn’t seem to be. He just kept picking those rocks, one after the other. He seemed to get stronger. There was precision in each movement. I watched carefully. It was like an oil pump that didn’t have a beginning or an end to its motion, but just kept going. I had been throwing the rocks with anger, but he moved them with purpose…and that was the difference. That’s how he could take such a mess and later make something grow out of it. The black that surrounded us would turn to green and gold. It amazed me and I wanted to be a part of it. It was hard, but that was ok. I did want to stay. My lip stopped quivering and I placed another rock on the trailer.
The sun and I reached our highest points together. My grandfather came towards me. “Hold out your hands.” he said. I held them up to his. For every callus he had, I had a blister. He touched them softly.
“Looks like you’re not so tough either, but you’ll make it.” And then he smiled at me. We were connected and it was worth every dirty rock.
I knew each year he would turn that mess of a field into something beautiful. And whenever there was an extra rock blocking my path, his strength got me through. He had shown me that there was something so powerful and so glorious in a struggle survived.
When I was nineteen he got pancreatic cancer. I stood in his hospital room. The tan face that I had once seen glow out of a blue sky, had now turned gray. I folded my arms against my chest and leaned against the sterile wall. My aunts hovered over him. I saw him turn away from their well wishing lies, “You look so good…” “You’ll be fine.”
I wanted to leave, but I didn’t.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
He breathed slowly. I just stared. How could he let this happen? He was supposed to be the one with all the strength, all the power. He was the one that made me a believer, and now he was giving up. Why? I was so angry. Why wasn’t he fighting?
“I suppose you wanna go home now,” I said.
A small laugh came through his lips at my stupid attempt to show him my anger.
“Hold out your hand.” he said.
I did and he took it. He placed in on the scar that was hidden behind his flannel pajama top. They had cut him in half. The railroad track that held his upper body to his lower body went from side to side, but led nowhere. I ran my hand slowly and gently across the staples.
“Pretty ugly, huh?” he asked.
I could barely catch my breath. “I’ve seen worse,” I lied.
We were connected.
Tears ran down my face. He was still fighting, as he knew I had, and always would.
My tears hit his hand. “You’re not so tough,” he said, “but you’ll make it.”
“I love you too,” were my last words to him.
He died on September 26th. I corrected those who called it a blessing. He had taught me that what can grow out of a struggle is beautiful, but you can’t glamorize the dirt. His death was painful and it was ugly. It was his life that was a blessing.
They placed him in the ground two days later. It rained the whole day. Mud surrounded his grave. The wind destroyed every flower. It truly was a mess. I touched the soil that covered him. I didn’t know then that what would grow from all of this would be me.