THE GRIEF GARDEN
During the months that my stepson Ryan lived with us last year, he borrowed some books from our guest room bookshelf. He especially liked one called Native American Wisdom. When he wasn’t feeling well, which was often, I would find him lying in bed, leafing through the pages, mesmerized.
Later I saw that one page in particular was folded at the corner. On it was written, “…everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission.” The quote is from a squaw named Mourning Dove, who died in 1936 at the age of 48.
Ryan died this year at the age of 34 in a small hospital in Flint, Michigan. I had been his stepmom for about ten years. Aside from his many talents (musical, athletic, social), Ryan had a buoyant, generous spirit. He was one of the kindest, sweetest and mellowest guys on the planet. If he had a mission, I think it was to make people happy. In fact, he always seemed to be more interested in other people’s happiness than his own, which is why I am starting to suspect he sent us the crocus.
Two weeks after he died, I went outside one morning and saw the first sign of spring: a single purple crocus. This would not have been so strange had it not sprung up right next to the Happy garden stake. It’s not like we have garden stakes everywhere. We only have the one. It’s rusty, made of recycled metal, and simply spells out the word Happy, with a stake on the bottom to stick in the dirt. Whether it was coincidence or not, we’ll never know. All I know is that from that day on, we’ve been digging up soil, pressing in plants, and patting it all back together.
Shortly after finding the crocus, I went to Walmart and bought about a hundred seed starters, multiple seed packets, and some seed starting soil. By night my husband and I would stay up way too late comforting each other with stories and memories of our departed loved one. By day we would fill the compostable seed starters with soil, sprinkle in a few seeds, water them delicately and then watch for signs of life.
Our house is a long raised ranch and we’ve arranged the pots and flowerbeds so that you can circle the house and water, fertilize, spray deer repellent, and weed continually all day long, if you had that much time on your hands, which of course, we don’t. This year, though, whatever free time we’ve had has gone into the garden.
For Father’s Day, the kids and I bought Mike a greenhouse. It was the first Father’s Day in three decades without his first son, Ryan, so it had to be a good one. It took him almost a month to lay the foundation and erect the structure, but now there are carrots, Roma tomatoes, and two different kinds of poppies coming up in there.
Ryan’s death was the seventh loss of a loved one in just over a year for me. At a certain point I decided that the garden this summer needn’t be just for Ryan. There were all the others, too. Why not cherish their memory with roots and blossoms of their own?
In early July, I planted the Malibu garden in honor of my aunts, Irene and Bernice, who died a month apart last year. I moved into their condo near Pepperdine when I was twelve, and that’s where I first learned how to put a plant in the ground. My aunts and I drove up PCH to a nursery where they bought a bunch of flats, then we dug the holes and tenderly inserted lobelia, begonia and fuschias. It turns out the same flowers that thrive at the beach also love the shade on the east side of our house here in Colorado.
Mike’s dad Paul, who passed away last summer, used to tend rows of zucchini and peppers on their 20 acres in Bennett, Colorado. There was always more than they could eat, so he would make zucchini cake and jalapeno jam. This summer, Mike put up a new fence around his vegetable garden to keep the deer out, and then he filled it with peppers and squash, pumpkin and cucumber.
A good friend from college died last summer. He was one of my roommates in a 5th floor walkup in New York City. We were all broke back then and for dinner most nights we would make spaghetti, so the tomatoes and the basil are for Jimmie.
There’s an assortment of herbs in the garden window, parsley, sage rosemary and thyme, and it takes me back to the songs we’d sing at my summer camp in the San Bernardino National Forest, where I learned so much from our head counselor Celia, who passed away last February.
My uncle Mike, who was like a father to me, inspired the two huge hydrangea plants I put on the deck. Their lush green and purple foliage is intentionally placed right outside our sliding glass doors, and seem to be part of our dining area. This is in homage to my uncle’s architectural firm, where the philosophy was always that a good house brings the outdoors in.
I know it’s not much. I know it doesn’t bring them back. But the loss of family and friends leaves a hole in your heart, so why not fill it with moist, rich soil and take good care of whatever you can grow there?
It’s been a warm, rainy summer. Although it’s almost September, everything from the begonias to the zucchini is still very much alive and flourishing. It’s as if the Fates themselves have conspired to prove that just as life must end, so also must it go on.
The covered vegetable bed is full of salad greens. As the fat romaine leaves crunch on my tongue, my sense of loss is replaced with the flavors of a freshly cut life force. I chop tomatoes and parsley and basil and sage and chives and put them all in the quinoa salad for my son’s back-to-school picnic. The bowl comes home licked clean, and that makes me Happy.