this should be no secret if you've been following my blog.
it's been an arduous journey to discover...
that, i can see.
the rest, is obstructed by weeds; thorny growth threatening to overrun the path i trudge. i hack with shiny, new tools sharpened every morning. i clear cut ferociously, my hands become bloodied, but strong, my body and soul satisfied by hard work. and i get glimpses. i rest my sweaty limbs and lean forward, peering into the future. golden slats break through the thinned-out shrub, like the bars of a jail i have escaped and i see it.
i see the petals of a rose turned in for the night. layer upon layer recharging in repose. waiting to unfold by the light of dawn and sing out with its perfumed voice, fragrant and full.
i see enough to keep me willing. i see enough to keep me coming back.
in the rooms, they dole out the tools. if you ask.
in the rooms of the coffee-clutching humbled, we find something greater than ourselves.
and still, despite the love and understanding that drifts down and settles on my skin, mixing as an elixir with my salty skin, basting me to a golden zen, i still defy. i cross my arms and raise an eyebrow. with hand on hip-bone-thrusting circumspection, i wonder.
who is this god you speak of?
and where has he been?
i began spending summers with my brother, n., in denmark in 1977. i was 8, n., turned 7. we would spend the entire 2 and a half month summer vacation with our danish family - my mother's sister, brother, their spouses and my grandparents, bedstemor and bedstefar. bedstemor was the nut. truly. she would be equally excited over the announcement of your engagement or the bowl of ice cream presented to her after dinner. there was no middle ground for her. everything was amazing. everything was "NEJJJ!". she would grab her breasts randomly, from maximusstimulus or a viking-sized sex drive, who knew. it happens to be a genetic quirk i lustily embrace, along with swimming and cleaning house, OCD-style.
if bedstemor was the nut, bedstefar was the shell, the encasing to her grenade, tempering her explosions until ready.
he was a fireman recently retired. still strong, muscles taut, his arms would pull me easily upon his lap, a cushion of sweet confection i could sink into, marshmallow soft. against his mythical heroic frame i would lean, as we sat outside and gazed over his well-tended carpet of green dotted with miniaturized daisies, yellow-centered white weeds too delicate to pluck. the days of danish summer were long, lazy. we would watch the danish sun sink tantric style - stunning in its payoff - as it finally said goodnight well after 11pm. and we would talk.
but to talk with bedstefar, was to barely speak.
against the melting northern sky, his roses popped like characters come to animated life. even in the shadows of the gloaming, i felt safe. i would sink deeper against him and sigh, aching to stay in the comforting cool of his embrace and forever escape the hot and humid Torontonian summer. across the ocean an oppressive heat was smothering our family alive, a father choking on a sickness we couldn't name. there my limbs dragged heavy with foreboding. here, with my protector, i felt equally buoyed and free. in his magical garden, upon his Wonka factory floor of natural treats - of roses and plum trees and afternoon naps - i could twirl, light and lithe. with desperate gulps i would fill my lungs with his roses' musky aroma, clearing out the skunk stench that i could never sigh away.
and i could breathe.
i would point to the painted sky and say "heaven..."
he would look up and reply, "himlen." i would giggle.
i would point at his manicured lawn. "garden..."
adjusting his glasses, he'd reply, "haven."
i would squirm on his lap with glee.
and then at his roses. his beautiful roses.
i would gesture broadly. "roses..."
"roser", he would declare. and i would beam.
the same word. the same soul.
bedstemor went to night school to learn english so that she could speak to her first two grandchildren better. she was the quintessential student bringing a satchel full of sharpened pencils and enthusiastic debate over the myriad definitions of "funny."
"do you mean funny/strange or funny/ha-ha?"
this was not for bedstefar.
bedstefar was nothing if not danish. stinky-cheese-lovin', beach-strolling, schnapps-skoling, swedish-hating, 101%-akvavit-proof danish. so as bedstemor endured our relentless teasing over her endearing attempts at pronouncing "TR-H-ree TR-H-ousand, TR-H-ree hundred and TR-H-irty-TR-H-ree - the english "TH", like a gymnastics' dismount the danish tongue could never stick - bedstefar became, if possible, even more danish. he dug his clogged-heels in deep, and just. spoke. danish.
he would never over enunciate, never "baby talk" us down from our confusion over the world's strangest language.
[i mean, do they really need three EXTRA letters?]
especially when we became unfortunate buddies in the war on chronic illness, soldiering side by side into daily battle.
"i know exactly how you feel. if you don't feel well, you go and lie down."
but in danish. always in danish.
and in our near silence, i was made whole.
you get desperate at the end of a long, canadian winter. at least, i did. after months of hiking over filthy piles of city slush, it was emotional anarchy when the crocuses hesitantly stretched their reedy green arms through our back yard melt. anticipation plucked at my heart nervously, like the tuning of a violin. my neighborhood vendors - the polish delis and asian grocers alike - would finally explode with color, fanning out their array of floral imports with the technicolor sass of a peacock's tail. and for a few bucks, you could take home a little spring in your arms, like the one now in your step, and the one you could smell under the melting ice, if you titled your nose towards the certified grey sky, stood very still, and inhaled.
these were the blossoms i would hang after death, preserving them long past their expiration date. feng shui be damned! bunches and bunches of roses, like stalactites, hung from every window in our home, their now muted colors no less glorious to this canuck craving all things flowered, all the time. and an idea was born. surely i could make one of those flower-filled oil lamps becoming so popular; birthed from the early 90's zeitgeist of scented candles and designer coffee shops? and with a glass bottle, a sports shoelace and my bottomless stash of dried petals, my roses were reincarnated, mummified in an oily soup and when illuminated, floated softly like foamy patches upon a moonlit sea.
i am so awesome! i will sell these city-wide! i will build an empire!
or, i will give one away as a gift.
so with all humility, i offered one of these amateurish floral coffins to my brother, as mother, grandparents and i gathered in vancouver to celebrate the addition of two letters to his name - M.D.. we were all gathered round, squawking with praise, singing silly danish songs and offering gifts. after the requisite, ooohs and ahhhs settled like dust, i began to explain, without any irony, the subtle technique to trimming the lamp's wick to my newly-anointed doctor brother.
then i heard something. and i stopped. bedstefar had breathed something quietly, as was always his way. i looked up and cocked my head, poised for the instant replay.
"henriette is an artist."
he was lit from within, beaming brighter than the lamp's soft glow, like a car's headlight focused duly forward on its destination.
"henriette is an artist."
but in danish. always in danish.
for although he understood much more english than any of us could ever guess, it was how his skin fit best.
and he understood how my skin fit best.
almost without words.
there were often times when i would get mired in danish conversation and struggle to keep up. head bent over knees, left panting behind everyone else, lost in its abrasive rhythms and winding rhymes. but, with bedstefar, it never mattered. any gap between the two languages would be crossed. we would find our way out of the labyrinth by munching on a lifetime supply of black licorice, sharing that hot stream of Viking blood and pointing at his magical rose garden well into the dawn.
so on april 15th, a flurry of phone calls from Saskatoon to Los Angeles to Copenhagen.
bedstefar. pnemonia. hospital.
"it doesn't look good."
and my panicked heartbeat, like the whacking of a wooden spoon against a pot, growing louder with every second that passed. a child in defiance, refusing to hear the voice of reason.
and i reached my uncle who sat bedside, his painful vigil present in a strained voice run deep.
"here, henriette. talk to your bedstefar."
and i bubbled out an impossible froth of gratitude. a granddaughter unable to thank her grandfather enough for all he is and all he will be to her. despite a literal and figurative ocean between us, he dove right in and found a way to go the distance. he held his head up and kept on swimming, through the deafening roar and the eerie still, right until the end.
five minutes after i hung up, my uncle called me back. bedstefar had heard me. for after i'd closed my gushing valve of love and affection, he had whispered,
"i'm going to sleep now."
and never woke up.
i now believe god has always been with me. i just haven't been able to see.
but now i see him everywhere.
in the silence between words.
and especially the roses.