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Who lived here? He must have been a gardener that cared a lot, Who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop, And we are so amazed, we're crippled and we're dazed, A gardener like that one, no one can replace.

—Elton John, Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)

I finished weeding the two rows of okra for him on Sunday evening, after the sun dipped low in the sky and a breeze developed that helped keep the irritating gnats out of my eyes. As I squatted in the sandy Ohoopee soil, I glanced up to see footprints left in the sandy soil between the rows — the last steps of an 82-year journey on this earth.

My stepfather, Johnny Collins, died last week. In the following days, I would hear my mother recount the last moments of his life to friends and family members several times.

“We were working together in the garden — getting the weeds out of the okra,” she said. “Johnny was using a push plow, and after a while, he said, ‘I’m just so tired. I’ve got to find a doctor who can help me.’ And I suggested that he go over to the side of the garden where we keep a chair, sit down, and rest for a little bit. A few minutes later, he called out, “Wanda!” I ran over there, and I knew it was bad. I called to him and rubbed his face, but I believe he was already gone.”

Mom had to leave him in the garden while she ran inside the house and called 9-1-1. The paramedics arrived and tried to revive him. Sometimes they can work miracles, but that day, they couldn’t bring Johnny back to us.

“Well, Johnny loved that garden,” people would say after listening to the story. “If he had to go, then at least we died doing something he loved, with someone he loved.”

As is customary in the South, friends and family stopped everything to rush to Mom’s side. They entered the house carrying food, drinks, paper plates, paper towels, toilet paper, and flowers in their arms, but most of all, they carried love in their hearts — wrapped that love around my mother like a warm blanket on a cold night. It’s comforting to have loved ones around when something so devastating happens, even when there are no words to ease the deep ache.

I think we all feel closest to him when we are in his garden. On the day of his funeral, I walked to the far row and cut several colorful zinnias to place inside the casket with him. I tucked the small bouquet on his left side, next to his sun-darkened hand — garden dirt still caked underneath his fingernails.

A few days after we buried him, his daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Rusty, dug up a mess of red potatoes to take back to Oklahoma with them. Mom and I fought back tears and picked his Blue Lake green beans.

“Have you ever seen so many beans in your life?” she asked me, as she stood up giving her back a muchneeded break.

“It’s unbelievable. There must be 40 or 50 beans per

By Amber Nagle continued from page

plant,” I answered. We’ve given away beans left and right this week. We snapped and blanched some and froze enough to feed an army over the long winter months. I took a marker and labeled each freezer bag, “Johnny’s Green Beans.” And the plants are still producing … I wandered back into the garden on Sunday evening, trying to finish the last task on Johnny’s earthly to-do list. After I plucked the last weed from the okra, I turned on the sprinkler and let it shower the tiny plants with sulfury well water. The garden seemed so empty without him, but at the same time, it’s bursting with life — beans, peas, okra, squash, tomatoes, peppers, that row of showy zinnias, deer tracks, and the song of a mockingbird. They are echoes of Johnny’s long, illustrious life. That garden is living proof that if you take the time and tend to things, they will grow, and you will be rewarded for your hard work and patience.

I stood at the garden’s edge waiting for the lump in my throat to go away, but it wouldn’t go away. Days later, the lump is still there when I swallow.

Johnny’s death is still fresh, and we are all still trying to process it all. We are grieving, but we are grateful for the time we had with him. We’ll continue to tend his vegetables; we’ll think of him often and find ways to honor him; and we’ll bask in the glow of each cherished memory of our gentleman gardener, who left footprints on the sandy soil as he took his last steps in the garden before taking his first steps into the great beyond.

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