This summer, my Dad’s tomato garden was quite possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Abundant and generous far and long beyond the summer season. My lycopene intake since July has been so off the charts, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if eensie little grape tomatoes were currently coursing through my veins.
The summer before, his fence had been infiltrated, and whatever got in there decimated much of the usual seasonal bounty, and also did a number on my dad’s spirits. the timing of which wasn’t great. He’d just had some fairly serious back surgery for an 86-year-old guy who’s barely had so much as a cold, so the death of his garden somehow felt a little bigger than just, “Aw shucks, we’ll get ’em next year.” Because what we realized was, despite his continued and amazing great health for a man his age, at this point “next year” is not something to be taken for granted.
Today, I made a tomato sandwich from one of the last few precious red orbs that he gave to me over the weekend — a big treat for late October not in the least lost on me. I gently cut and generously salted quarter-inch slices, spread a little mayo on some bread, and piled up the layers — brown, red, brown. Such a lucky little lunch. The kind that, next week, will likely just be a juicy, sweet memory. Like I learned last year, you just can’t take these things for granted, and when you are given something so pure and beautiful and lovely, acknowledgment of its fleeting nature goes a long way.
Last Friday morning, before heading out for the weekend to collect what I expect are my final tomatoes for 2014, I got word that an old friend had passed. An old friend who also happened to be my first real love. Which, now that I type that, seems like a dramatic and slightly selfish claim to make, the way people do when something bad happens and they feel compelled to attach themselves to a tragedy. Which it is — he leaves behind the true love of his life and their two young boys; a kind of painful reality that knocks the wind from your chest with the force of its horrible unfairness.
But from my tiny corner of a corner of his life, I will say this: He was a pivotal figure in mine. Like my dad’s decimated garden, we’d lost each other, but for much longer than a season. We broke up, like kids will do, and I hurt him enough that being in touch just wasn’t an option. Twenty years of fallow ground grew thick with other people and experiences and places and things. About five years ago, he contacted me (on Facebook, as people who are out of touch do these days, myself included) and, in whatever small, virtual manner it was, he gave me his friendship again — which, really, was what we always were at the core of it. We talked about food, career dreams and plans, our lives in the present, our worries for our siblings, parents, friends, nieces and nephews. He asked my advice on restaurants a couple of times. I felt a hole had been filled and was grateful; I felt forgiven.
Two years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. I found this out when he sent me an odd, garbled DM that made no sense. But instead of turning angry and negative, cancer just seemed to make him nicer — open, accepting, positive, and perhaps more full of life than anyone I’ve ever known. He changed his Facebook banner to a snapshot of a funky, backlit marquis that said in stark, plain, black letters: Everything Is Going to Be Amazing.” He seized life, loved his family, danced when anyone else would feel silly, embraced the world. It was amazing.
The last time I heard from him, he wrote me this, apropos of nothing and everything: “[You] were so good to me all those years ago. Just wanted to thank you. A good friend and guide.”
I remember feeling a raw streak of panic in my chest. It sounded an awful lot like goodbye. It was. It was also an incredibly generous late-season gift, I just didn’t realize it at the time.
This afternoon, I sat near an open window to feel the warm breeze gently pushing its way through the screen, odd for such a late October afternoon, and consumed my last tomato sandwich of the year. I ate it slowly, carefully. Tasting every bite, feeling the cold of its juice, its funny, acidic tang on my tongue. A fading kind of sweetness you can only really appreciate in the latest of late seasons, and for which I can feel nothing except entirely, thoroughly grateful.