Denise loved watermelon. As a little girl she couldn’t get enough of it come June. Her father and I always had to keep an eye on her and those sticky black seeds. Denise was known to spit them at her brother and sister when we weren’t looking. “Denise!” I’d scold when I caught her in the act. Denise would giggle and flash her trademark grin.
At 16 Denise had lost none of her mischievousness. Not even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She had a kidney removed, then radiation treatment. My heart broke, but through it all Denise put up a brave front. The cancer came back, and exploratory surgery was our next course of action. I dreaded what it might reveal. “I’m not afraid,” Denise kept insisting. “I know God is with me.”
As playful and fun-loving as Denise was, she had a deep, serious faith. We went together to the revival at our church just before her surgery. I hoped the visiting minister would have fresh words of reassurance for us.
Denise and I sat down and the minister took the podium. He let a moment of silence go by before he began. “I don’t know exactly what heaven will be like,” he said. “But there’s one thing I’m sure has got to be there.” He looked from person to person. “Watermelon!” he said with delight. “Sweet, juicy watermelon, fresh from the patch. When I get to heaven I’m going to have as much watermelon as I want.” Everybody laughed.
Denise nudged me with her elbow. “Me too,” she whispered. She gave me that grin. I frowned at the minister. Maybe he could make jokes about heaven, but I couldn’t. Not with us so unsure about the state of Denise’s health. Besides, heaven was a place to rest after a long, full life. Heaven was peaceful and serene. It was no place for a girl who still turned cartwheels out on our front lawn. God, she’s so full of joy. Please don’t take that from her. I had to force myself to sit through the rest of the meeting.
When Denise’s father and I took her to the hospital, we didn’t talk about heaven. We stuck to happier subjects. What we would do when Denise was better, the new football team at the high school, and the garden I was planning for the yard. Jack and I settled into her room. “We’ll be here when you wake up,” I told Denise as the orderly wheeled her away.
“I know, Mom,” she said, her grin wide even now.
After the surgery was over, the doctor met us in his office. Our worst fears had come true. The cancer had spread to Denise’s spinal cord. It was too far advanced to treat. “You may be able to take her home in a few days,” the doctor told us, “but she won’t have much time after that.”
I moved as if in a fog to Denise’s hospital room, where she was still sleeping off the anesthesia. I looked at her face, trying to memorize it forever, all the details, down to her pierced ears. That’s what she’d wanted for her sixteenth birthday. We went down to the mall and picked out her first pair of earrings, small pink gems. Could it really have been only seven months ago? God, I don’t know if I can ever begin to accept what’s going to happen. I couldn’t even think it.
Slowly, Denise came to, groggy at first. I sat with her into the night. We talked about little things. She dozed on and off. “You’re really going to start a garden, Mom?” she asked. I nodded, swallowing my tears. Denise would never see it bloom. I tried to picture her at peace high above the clouds. But that didn’t seem like my Denise! Denise played jokes, did somersaults, spit watermelon seeds. Would she be different in heaven? Would I even recognize her?
Denise’s gaze wandered through the room, but she was quiet. “Mom?” she said finally. “Do you see the angels?”
I looked around. “What do they look like?” I asked.
Denise’s face softened into her sweet, playful grin. “Really pretty.”
It was strange to think Denise was seeing God’s glorious angels and grinning like a girl who’d just gotten her brother right smack on the cheek with a watermelon seed. Then I remembered that minister, how he described heaven as a place full of joy and life, full of watermelon. Maybe he was on to something, after all.
Denise didn’t mention her angels again. She got weaker and weaker over the next 24 hours. We never got to bring her home. She died in the hospital three days after her surgery. It was springtime, the perfect time to start a garden. I got as far as spreading soil, but my heart wasn’t in the job.
One morning, I stood looking at the rich, fresh dirt. I imagined how the bed would look in full bloom. Hostas and ferns, perhaps. Impatiens of all colors. A garden bursting with life. Just like that lively heaven the minister had described. I wanted to believe that place existed. I tried to picture Denise laughing and joking as she’d done on earth. I was about to walk away when I noticed a thick green vine half hidden in the soil. Jack and the kids didn’t know what to make of it. We decided to wait and see what grew. Over the next few days leaves appeared and light yellow flowers bloomed on the vine. I didn’t plant this, I thought to myself when football-shaped melons showed themselves. Not just any melons, but the biggest, brightest watermelons I had ever seen.
We cut one open one night after they’d ripened and each had a slice. I reached for seconds, knowing somewhere in heaven Denise was probably joining us—and gaily spitting seeds at the angels. Why shouldn’t heaven be full of joy and laughter? How could it not be, with Denise there?