“Sometimes I just look up, smile, and say, ‘I know that was you.'” Unknown
I pick it up every year; a small, unassuming tin, secured with hinges, but no lock. It’s blue and white and green with print in black, yellow and blue, and once upon a time, it was filled to the brim with ‘curiously strong’ mints. Everyone has seen this type of box gracing the shelves of candy shops, grocery stores, and even gas stations, but this little metal treasure is, to me, the most special container in the world. What it was six years ago was so much more than a wintergreen treat, it was an object that offered a chance to share hope and love, and provided an opportunity to distract. That’s a big job for such an innocent trinket, but I think most people will understand when I explain why.
Two years before he passed, my father was diagnosed with cancer. As time progressed, we all became acutely aware of not only how our lives were being affected by his illness, but how, as a family, our roles were changing. He, my mom and I lived and worked together, and we had managed to develop an unconscious routine that saw us through everyday life. Papa, being a person with a strong personality, lived to take care of his own by providing for us and offering us an amazing sense of safety and protection. It was his great joy to be the man of the family and he took that role very seriously. Then, when he became ill, he was forced to relinquish more and more control over some of the tasks he had always been able to complete. The first time this happened, I nearly missed it. It was a typical day when we were making the long journey home from work. I drove, which was normally his job, and when we arrived at the end of our driveway, my mother got out to open the gate. Yes, that was one of his jobs too. I heard him mumble something from the back seat and looked up into the rearview mirror. There was such a look of frustration and sadness on his face I thought my heart would break.
“What did you say, Papa?” I asked.
He quickly drew himself up when he saw me turn to look at him, hesitated, then said softly, “I can’t stand that your mama has to get the gate. I can’t stand that you have to drive. I can’t stand any of it.”
For the first time since he had been diagnosed, I noticed the tiny crack in his armor. He had every right to scream at the world, but still his only thoughts were for us. I had to remind him of our family promise, one always takes care of another. “Papa, how many times have you been there for us? How many times have you sacrificed for us? It is our privilege to do things for you. Please let us do this.” He gave me a weak smile but I knew I hadn’t won the battle. Then I remembered the mints in the car console. Now why this is significant has everything to do with my father’s enormous love of sweets. “Besides,” I pulled out the Altoids box and opened the lid, “I need someone to share candy with.”
The car was suddenly filled with his laugh as he put out his hand for that little wintergreen mint. He knew what I was doing as much as I did, but from then on, I made sure I had candy in the console because we never missed a day sharing a mint break at the gate.
Then the saddest day of my life came to be when my Papa passed away. My family was devastated. None of us knew how to move on, but move on we did, with my father’s example set before us. We went to work, we came home. We took care of our chores, shared as best we could the jobs that were his, and we moved forward. But there were moments when the reality of his physical absence came crashing down and we sat stunned and at a loss. Remember that I mentioned my father’s strong personality? Well, let me tell you, that personality still shined through.
My sister had taken a small break from helping us at our business and our farm a few days after the funeral, and decided to visit her husband for a while in the home they shared. (I know that sounds odd, but if you’ve ever been part of a family of caregivers, you’ll understand.) My mom and I had made yet another long journey home from work. She got out to get the gate, and I sat behind the wheel suddenly feeling a wave of sorrow wash over me. I sat there, realizing how good a distraction my sister really was, and then I fell apart. I missed my Papa so much I couldn’t breathe. Everything outside the car began to dissolve and I felt all I had to hold onto was my grief. Then, out of nowhere, I heard every door on the vehicle click into the lock position. The car wasn’t moving, my foot was still on the brake, so why would the automatic locks be triggered? I snapped back to the world and noticed my mother was still at the gate, working with the chain. It had only been seconds since she had gotten out of the car, so how could so much have transpired for me? I looked over the hood before my eyes drifted to the rearview mirror. There I saw him, winking at me, my Papa, smiling and motioning to the console. What? As quickly as the vision had come, it disappeared, but I suddenly knew what I needed more than anything else at that moment. I would continue the tradition. One mint for me and one for Papa. Feeling hopeful, I quickly opened the console, took out the tin, and raised the lid. Oh no, no, there was only one mint left inside. Just one mint. It was such a little thing, but nothing could be that cruel, could it? Sure it could. My Papa was gone, wasn’t he! Frustrated, I plopped the container back onto the console. Why hadn’t I bought another box of candy? What was I thinking? I stared at the open box as it had been the devil incarnate and then it caught my eye. That one mint, the lone reminder of singularity, was broken cleanly in two, right down the middle. I grabbed the tin back with a giggle and toasted my dad in the rearview mirror. “Here’s to us, Papa!” And I have to say, no Altoids mint ever tasted sweeter.
I pick up that unassuming little tin every year on this date and I smile at the little things my Papa still does to make me smile. Most people would say it was grief, or stress or just plain weirdess, but I just wink at the mirror and say, “I know that was you.”