The day you left us, your Joseph’s Coat was in full bloom. Just like you said it would, the rose took on different colors, bright reds on the tips sliding down through oranges to its yellow ruffly center. Dew on the edges, reflecting the sun.
Somehow I know I would have never noticed those intricacies before.
I see flowers and think they’re pretty.
You saw flowers and noticed the details—the different shades within the plant, the way each stem weaves in its growth, the subtleties between one bloom and another on the same stalk, when two different flowers are beginning to combine to make something new, and how each bud reaches for the light.
You seemed to know, to really understand each flower, to be able to see each one for what it is and what it can be with a little attention and a lot of love.
It’s what you gave each one of us, a grounding in those small moments that bring us to life. The moments we forget to notice when we cruise through life, seeing only the colors on the side of the road as they blur by.
In these empty days, as we find ourselves uprooted, all those simple specifics are so vivid—reds sliding into oranges sliding into yellows, now I can see your colors of love through small moments in time:
Throwing my red suitcase in your car for a weekend at the house on the hill.
(Pretending to still be asleep when I felt Papa’s arms carrying me inside the house.)
Swimming in your pool for as long as I wanted:
Shiny blue water from the magic never-ending fountain you made with your hands,
“Watch this, Mema! Hey, Mema, Watch! Watch!”
to your eyes that always seemed to see.
Red, ripe watermelon.
Aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings, each with our own half-moon chunk, leaning over the deck, dripping down below and spitting seeds onto the grass.
Your navy blue T-shirt with “Virgie” in felt vertical letters. I wore it like a dress, hopping around toys sprawled all over the floor because you’d rather be busy being with us than picking things up.
Pink nails clicking on piano keys as you played hymns in the church choir,
Played carols at home,
Played ABCs, 123s, shapes, and fun on your kindergarten classroom piano.
Brushing my wet pool hair, you worked through knots with gentle song and detangler that kept chlorine from turning my hair green.
“Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” “The Little Green Frog,” your soft smile grinning through soft songs, moving hands in soft gestures to make me laugh.
Christmas songs in the car.
You taught us all how to harmonize and sing in the round.
Voice soft, you nudged us along, keeping us all tune without taking the lead.
Corners browned and bent on my favorite postcards from your adventures, my collection of the Corn Palace through the years. Those exotic castles of color made entirely of corncobs, planting the idea that something common could become something extravagant.
Branson together. Colorado together. The beach together. Showing us the importance of seeing the world with the ones you love.
Pinks and purples and greens and yellows and blues—Easter took over the kitchen table, crayons and glitter and stickers and cups of dye waiting for each egg of our seven cartons. Then we’d run outside to find treasure-filled plastic eggs all over the yard.
Greens and reds of presents wrapped under your Christmas tree. Presents that couldn’t be opened until AFTER our Annual Christmas Talent Show.
Sean and Shaylin singing, Tricia twirling her baton, Taylor doing gymnastics, my brother and sister and I lip synching to The Beach Boys—just a few of the acts I remember. Then the onslaught on presents began. You made sure every single one of us had a gift to open (even when that number became 23) and cards containing cash down to the penny because you wanted to make sure we knew you spent the exact same amount on everybody.
As with all of the very best teachers, you taught the big lessons by living, and your stories are etched in my heart:
Your three little girls at the front of the sanctuary, sitting on the piano bench beside you. Ijames Hill General Baptist, the old country church on the hill, filled with love, filled with sweet gospel music from the Miller girls. You could play any song number the choir called out, no matter the hymnal, and adjust the key as needed.
I’ve held that black and white picture in my hand, the one of your itty bitty girls laughing and bathing in a horse trough, a relic of sacrifices made when you and Papa decided to break the mold and go to college, risking it all on the gamble that education would lead to a better life.
Working and schooling at the same time, Papa collapsing on the couch after a long and hot day’s work building ammunition boxes for the war, my mom on the floor reading his textbook to him. You once worked long hours in a toy factory, then you both realized it would be better for everyone if you took turns taking semesters of classes, commuting daily to Cape Girardeau and back to become incredible educators.
And how the first thing you did when you got that very first paycheck was have surgery for my mom’s cyst… and buy a dishwasher.
You came alive around children.
Blue eyes sparkling, hands ready to squeeze and patty-cake and catch and craft.
You taught us to read and to math and to create through song.
And when my son came home with profound learning challenges, you never stopped engaging with him until you found a way to reach some part of him. You saw beyond his behaviors to his unique gift and potential. “He’s smart,” you’d say.
Countless pictures of countless events in my life—big and small—have your face in them, smiling beside Papa, usually with a grandbaby in your arms, usually with my aunts and uncles and cousins beside you because you taught us all the importance of showing up. If it was an event you knew about, you were there, whether the seats were uncomfortable or the room had no air conditioner or the walkway was hard on your ankle.
You came. You stayed. You cheered.
You and Papa loved telling how you met, and I’ve created a vivid movie in my mind: Papa, tan and muscle-y, reclined in a chair, smiling, reading his Donald Duck comic book. You, walking through his front door, looking like a blonde movie star, with your best friend Mary–Papa’s sister. I imagine your eyes locking, twinkling, and your two souls saying to each other, “Hey, I know you.”
Celebrating your 60 years together last September, the two of you giggled and held hands like you were still those lovestruck teenagers.
I watched Papa hold your hand through those days of health and I watched Papa hold your hand through your days of sickness. Days when you could see things we couldn’t, when your memories were so slippery, you still seemed to remember how to banter with Papa, popping off one-liners and grinning, even when your eyes were closed.
One of your final days, I sat beside your bed. Papa on the porch talking with my boys, you asked me, voice soft but firm, “Will you go get Ronnie and send him in here? I want to talk to him.” And Papa immediately responding, trading me places, he put your hand in his and smiled. “Well, Virgie, what do you want to talk about?”
We’ve all joked about our “Miller Goodbyes.”
The ones that lasted much longer than necessary, because we all kept hugging and kissing and waving and forgetting whether we missed someone, and then hugging and kissing and waving again. Windows down, we yelled goodbye out the window, as we pulled out of the drive, you and Papa hollering:
“Come and see us!”
“Call when you get there!”
“I love you!”
“I love you!”
“I love you!”
“Come and see us when you can!”
For years, plants I’ve loved have withered away in my care because no matter how much I loved them, I would forget to care for the basics—water and light.
I’d bring my plants to you and you’d magically transform brown into green, returning them to me full of life.
Now I see it’s not magic.
It’s because you always knew it’s the basics that bring us to life:
You take care of the ones you love.
And you make sure they know how you feel about them.
Flowers into bloom.
On one of your last days, you lay with eyes closed, smiling. I kissed your forehead and traced the lines on your face, each one a smile line, telling your story of a happy life.
I didn’t realize you were so close to leaving but felt the urgency for you to know how much I loved you. I whispered memories, told you how you were a solid rock for me, how you made me feel special and loved, specific moments of how you taught me to love.
There was a pause and and I wondered if you had heard me.
And then: “I love you,” soft voice through soft smile. “One hundred percent.”
As much as I cherish that moment between us, you didn’t even need to say it.
I already knew.
These last couple of months have been hard for all of us.
Each visit your flowers in pots, your roses, your azaleas all began to wilt and wither when you couldn’t care for them.
It took us a bit, but we remembered.
And we took our hands, put them in the dirt and planted. We pulled weeds and filled pots and placed them all around your porch, just like you like them.
We watered them. We pointed them toward the light. We watched them grow.
Your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, bringing life to your garden.
Just the way you taught us.
“On heaven’s stretch, there’ll be no more dying,
No chilling winds or tempest, ever will blow,
It is a land of love and wondrous beauty
Where fragrant flowers ever will grow.”