The Camellia Project

The Complicated Languages of Love



According to Gary Chapman's popular book, The Five Love Languages, my daddy was a gift giver. He gave extravagant presents but was a man of few words when it came to expressing his emotions.

Even though my daddy and I spoke different languages, he was always my go-to guy. When the thousand-year flood hit back in 2015, Daddy's health had deteriorated, but that reality hadn't set in. He was still bigger than life, the smartest man I knew, the man who solved my problems.

As the water poured into my garage and the refrigerator started to float, calling my father seemed like the thing to do. I regret that phone call. I knew speech had gotten difficult for daddy, but until that morning I didn't realize how bad it was.

I dialed the landline number. Mama answered and relayed my questions to daddy. He got on the phone, ready to take charge and tell me what needed to be done, but he couldn’t get the words out. He couldn’t make the words. His mind was as sharp as ever, but his body wouldn’t allow the words to come. He could only stutter and stammer. I sat on my bedroom floor and cried. My tears had nothing to do with the water rising into my home.

Gene Davis was not an idle man. He could not abide laziness. He loved to work. When his body wouldn’t allow him to work, his favorite thing was watching others work. And bossing. He loved to boss others. Sixty years of managing a cotton mill had given him plenty of practice.

As the construction phase of my flood experience began, I had no idea how to pick a contractor. Thankfully, somebody left a sticky note on my desk at school that said, "Call JB. He will be your contractor and will do a good job." I still have that sticky note. I did call. He did do a good job. I'm thankful for the person that left the note and to JB.

My daddy would have been the best crew foreman ever, but I knew I couldn’t ask him to help. He was confined to a wheelchair by this point, and his speech had deteriorated.

The flood waters had long subsided, but I was still drowning every day. As I tried to rebuild my house that had been demoed down to the studs and and tried to rebuild my life destroyed by divorce, I needed my father more than ever. Because he was sick, I thought the man who had raised me was gone. No husband, no father. I felt all alone. I was wrong. I had no idea I was about to learn another of my father’s love languages – the act of service.

As the post-flood recovery kicked into full gear, daddy didn’t want to miss out. He would have his helper, Glen, drive him to Columbia so he could oversee the construction crew. Supervising meant sitting in his wheelchair in the garage or the driveway and watching the activity. I never knew when he daddy would show up, but my contractor would always send me a message, “Your daddy is sitting in the driveway again. Please come home on your break.” Even though he wasn’t any help to the workers at all, it was a wonderful help for me. What a beautiful love language, the act of service. He was there for me. He couldn't talk. He couldn't walk. He really couldn't be helpful in any practical way, but he was there for me.

At some point, daddy decided that I needed some flowers in my yard. Or maybe it was Glen's idea. It probably made his life easier when he could keep daddy busy.Either way, for Daddy “some” meant “lots.” That’s when the camellia project began. Daddy and Glen would drive to the nursery on the other side of town to hear some of the gossip of the day and would load the Suburban with camellias bushes. Pink, because that’s my favorite color. Daddy would supervise while Glen would plant the bushes. The holes had to be just so. Not too deep or too shallow. Not too wide of too narrow. Daddy couldn't dig the hole himself, but he could make sure each hole was dug properly. Patient Glen, under the watchful eye of Gene Davis, planted flowers everywhere. Side yard, back yard, front yard, beside the drive way, wherever he could squeeze one in.

During this time, this time of the Camelia project, we established a routine. Glen and Daddy would plant the camellias while I was at school, and I would call home that evening and tell Moma to tell Daddy how much I loved them. Daddy loved a compliment. We called it "making over." Daddy didn’t give words, but, oh, how he loved to receive them. He loved to hear how the shrubs from the his good friend's small-town nursery were so much better than anything I could find in a big-city Lowes. The camelia project routine worked for everyone. Planting camelias gave daddy a sense of purpose and kept him out of the worker's way. And, it gave me something I didn't even know I needed.

Daddy has been gone almost five years now, but I'm still learning about our relationship and our love languages. I read Chapman's book years ago and though I knew all there was to know about the five love languages. I was confident I had identified mine and my father's. I lived most of my life thinking our languages weren't a good match, that we weren't compatible, that we could't give the other what we needed. What I didn't know until after Daddy passed is that those languages can change, even in the end stages of life, even after death.

While daddy was alive, I stayed frustrated that he couldn’t give me the words I wanted to hear. “I love you.” “I’m proud of you.” “You are special to me.” I understand now, that I wanted something from him that he could not give. I see that now. I needed something from him that he did not have to give. It had nothing to do with me. People can’t give what they don’t have.

One day, during the flood construction, while he was sitting in the driveway, in the cold, in his wheelchair, he motioned for me to come to him. I’m pretty sure he said, “I’m sorry.” I let myself think that is what he said. He probably meant he was sorry about the house, about the divorce. I like to think he was sorry that we hadn’t figured out how to communicate better. I said I was sorry, too. Me, too. Those were really the only two words I said, but I think he got the message. I was sorry that it took me 50 years to learn that people show their love in different ways. I was sorry that it all seemed like such a waste. I was sorry that I spent all that time feeling frustrated, instead of grateful.

Now that daddy’s gone, I feel closer to him than ever, and I know that seems odd. As my daughter and I back out the driveway to go to school every morning, I look at those bushes, loaded down with buds and hear my daddy saying, “I love you." As I see my favorite flowers bursting from the bushes outside my kitchen window, I can imagine my daddy saying, "I know you're tired, but you're a hard worker like me. You can keep going."

This morning, on this cold, rainy Valentine's Day, I clipped pink camellias and put them in pretty vases all over our house. I made a little arrangement for my daughter and set them beside her favorite chocolate candies. I know my daddy would be proud of the camelias and of his grand daughter, and of me. I like to think he is watching over us somehow. Even though he's not here to say it. Even though he's not here to show it, I know my daddy loves me, and that it’s all going to be OK.





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