Okay, confession time. I actually have no idea if the beautiful flowers in this pic sent in by artist, writer, and Instagrammer @poetry_art_quotes are actually rhododendrons. After an intensive search of flowers that come in the color purple, though, that was as close as I got. Not only that, but when I began to do research into rhododendrons, they fascinated me, and I knew I wanted to write a story about them. A story that provoked both emotion and contemplation. Hopefully you will experience both of those as you read.
I feel as if this story was a kind of pointed lesson for myself, enough that I stopped multiple times while I was writing to think through the message I was trying to convey. If it ends up making you think, too, that’s great! But if not, I hope that you enjoy the story nonetheless 🙂
Here is, ‘Rhododendrons’:
Rhododendrons. That’s what Grandpa called people. He’d done it since as far back as I could remember.
One day, as we sat in the woods, leaves brushing in whispers against each other, gnats trying to commit suicide by flying into the moisture of our eyes, I thought to ask him what it meant. Calling people Rhododendrons.
“Beautiful, but only sometimes,” came the curt reply, something to be expected from him. If the raindrops hadn’t begun falling right then, I would have asked for clarification. As it was, we were too busy dodging rapidly forming puddles and avoiding sagging tree branches across the path to hold conversation.
I remember the day we learned while standing in the emergency shelter that our house had been consumed by the wildfire that also devoured sixty-thousand acres of forest. Over the buzz of playing children, ranting adults, and overhead announcements, my parents wept together.
The cause of the fire? A discarded cigarette butt.
“Rhododendrons,” Grandpa had said from his cot, eyes dry, face calm despite the crisis. “Big, fat rhododendrons.”
Climbing onto his lap, though at eight I was getting too big for that sort of thing, I hugged Grandpa tight and repeated the word against his shoulder, as if I had any idea what I was talking about.
When Grandpa’s only child lost his battle with cancer, leaving me a fatherless fifteen year old, the church folk put together a schedule to make sure my family was well fed and the house fully maintained for the next three months.
“Rhododendrons,” Grandpa murmured, eyes brimming as he learned of the care his family was going to receive.
Somewhere in the midst of the grief suffocating me, I decided that particular use of the word, accompanied by emotion, was meant endearingly. Thinking more on it would have to wait, though. I finished buttoning my black shirt and grabbed a handful of tissues for the hard day ahead.
At eighty-two, Grandpa went to the hospital because of intestinal pain and learned he would never leave again. When Mom called me with the news, all I could think of to say was, “Rhododendrons.”
For some reason, I had come to associate the word with tragedy.
When I saw a purple variety of the flower growing near the hospital entrance, I wanted to raid clippers from a nearby grounds cart and hack the plant to pieces. The middle-aged man in the cart, seeming to feel my ill intent, eyed me warily before putting the small vehicle in gear and driving around the corner of the building.
Sunken eyes watched me walk into the hospital room. More deep set lines than usual were around Grandpa’s lips, and I realized it was pain that had introduced these newcomers to his face. Other than a slight tremor in his voice, though, he gave no other signs of the suffering he was enduring.
Twice during my two-hour visit did he use his familiar and oft-used term for humanity.
“Rhododendrons,” he muttered when the man in the dark suit and slicked back hair insisted on bullying and talking over the hospital staff whenever they came to see the man who appeared to be his father in the hospital bed on the other side of the room.
“Rhododendrons,” Grandpa said with a sheen in his eyes when the sweet nurse in the peach colored scrubs asked with true sympathy if she could get him anything. That same lady squeezed my shoulder as she passed and gave me a nod that said she was available if I needed a shoulder to cry on.
Pulling the stiff chair a little closer to the hospital bed, I placed my elbows on the mattress and studied the man who was both abundantly familiar to me, yet a great mystery. I always thought I would have all the time in the world to unlock that mind of his. To glean more details about serious things, like what it was like to fight in Vietnam. Lose a wife to childbirth. Raise a son alone. Details about lesser things that still blew my mind, like restoring a ’73 Mustang. Building a house. Dealing with a grandchild who had an insatiable curiosity growing up. And most importantly, learn just why people were like Rhododendrons. Suddenly, time was short and fragile. Finite.
In that moment, a desperation overcame me to stop time from robbing me of those details. As soon as I left the hospital, I called work and told them I was taking two weeks off.
Every day, I spent as much time as his body could handle asking my questions. Getting my answers. Recording every second on a camera I had purchased for that purpose. Every day, Grandpa was a little weaker and my heart a little heavier.
On the last day with him, we wrapped up the story of the cottage he had put together with his own two hands over the span of three years. A cottage my mother still lived in. One Grandpa had lived in, too, until two weeks ago.
As I placed the camera back into its protective case, I finally remembered to ask, “Why are people like Rhododendrons?”
The right side of his mouth lifted in a smile, then drooped again as if the action took too much effort.
“Do you know what a Rhododendron is?” he asked, his voice low and weak.
“Sure. It’s a flower.”
“Right. Here, people love them. They’re beautiful. They spread happiness with their beauty.”
I pictured the peach-dressed nurse and nodded. She was certainly a person who spread happiness with her beauty. A beauty that put trivial things like outward appearance to shame.
“Rhododendron,” I said as I thought of her. “That makes sense. But you don’t always use it as a term of beauty or happiness.”
“Rhododendrons don’t just grow here in the U.S. They grow all over the world. Over in Ireland and the U.K., you’d think people would find them beautiful, too, right?”
Giving the tiniest shake of his head, Grandpa said, “No. A lot of people don’t like them over there.”
“Because the flower is an introduced species. It spreads and overcomes the native plants, killing them. Destroying the natural order wherever they go. Bullying its way to the top, refusing to be killed off because its roots constantly move and grow to new areas. The flower looks regal and elegant, but in reality, it is destructive.”
I thought of the person who had dropped the cigarette that started the ground-eating wildfire. That person had rained down destruction on the native plants of those burned up forests. Not just the forest either, but also others who lived peaceably close to it. I thought of the man in his high-priced suit who insisted on drilling and bullying the hospital staff. An outsider trying to disrupt the natives. Rhododendrons, both of them.
“Rhododendron’s also symbolize danger in the language of flowers,” Grandpa continued. “An apt symbolization at times.”
With a tight look of concentrated effort, he managed to lift his hand a few inches from the bed. I stepped forward and wrapped the weak appendage in my own hands.
“We’re all rhododendrons,” Grandpa said, his eyes piercing into mine, trying to fully impart his last words of wisdom. “Be beauty and happiness. Not destructive,” he said. “Good looks and a superior air don’t mean a thing if you’re choking out and destroying those around you, understand?”
Swallowing against the lump in my throat, I nodded and said, “I understand.”
In the last few moments before I left, we spoke of lighter things. None of them important, though each word a gift to me that I’d always remember.
Before I walked out the door, I turned to look at the old man in the hospital bed. He was weak and tired. Sick and wilting before my eyes. Too thin. Yet, in that moment, thinking on the strength of his character and the love he showed me all my life, he was the embodiment of happiness and beauty. A rhododendron in its best form.