I didn’t put in a garden the year my mother was diagnosed with leukemia. Her phone call came in early May, before any planting had begun. I spent the rest of that summer traveling the 500 miles between my home and hers. She died almost one year later and when I tallied up my mileage, I realized that I had driven those roads between us 13 times in 11 months. There was little time or energy for anything else.
My mother was a self-taught gardener. Flowers were a passion, especially common, hard-working varieties like marigolds, zinnias and sunflowers. She called them “rewarding” because they gave so much for so little. She had little patience for fussy roses and delphiniums, but was always eager to give a Joe Pye weed or a butterfly bush a try. Russian sage, coneflowers, daisies, bee balm, lemon mint, sweet Annie and black-eyed Susans ran wild in her yard while pots of bright geraniums and fragrant rosemary filled her deck. There was always room for one more climbing vine, one more shrub, a few more limestone rocks hauled home from her beloved Kansas prairie.
But the year of her illness was a barren one. Between the long hours at the hospital and the time spent taking care of my father, who was in poor health himself, I struggled to keep her gardens growing. Exhausted and heart-sick, I’d water and weed until night fell. It seemed imperative to keep her flowers alive when she was struggling so valiantly to do the same. The thought of them dying was as unthinkable as the thought that she might die. But she did die. Easter was only days away and the air was rich with spring. I had expected to be numbed by her death, to be deadened myself, but instead the world took on a stunning vibrancy. I remember the brilliant early evening light as my brothers and I sat silent on the deck after returning from the hospital for the final time. I remember the smell of shoe polish as my husband gently worked on a pair of my mother’s pumps for me to wear to her funeral. Hundreds of white lilies glowed against the dark cherry wood of the sanctuary as we arrived for her service and a hundred voices sang “Home On the Range” as we left. I remember hot black coffee and the zest of fresh lemon cake; the quiet sound of weeping and of laughter; the heavy, warm weight of my little nephew held tight against my chest.
A month after her funeral, I returned to Kansas to visit my father. When I pulled into the driveway, all the gardens were in bloom and my heart was briefly tricked into believing that all was well, that my mother was home and that this terrible mistake hadn’t happened. I stood amongst the sweet Annie, overwhelmed with disbelief that the world could go on without my mother in it. But it had. And it does. Out of cold, harsh winters life continues, even when we think it cannot. It continues even when we wish it would not. And so, at my father’s request, we gathered family and friends to tend to my mother’s gardens one last time, working together and sharing a picnic after and letting the flowers serve as a final testament to my mother’s life.
Two years later, my father was dead. Fifteen months after that, my little nephew died unexpectedly. We had arrived into a decade of death, into a cold, harsh winter of the heart. I was afraid that those of us who remained would not survive intact as a whole. But out of this darkness roots deepened and a newly fashioned family flowered. Those of us who had been the children learned to be the elders instead. Phone calls became more frequent. Birthdays and holidays were celebrated and vacations taken together. Marriages were made, step-children were welcomed, and miracle baby Matthew arrived, born into the family who had lost their little boy.
On our final day at my parents’ house, I dug up violets that my mother had transplanted from her mother’s garden to carry home to mine. The wheel turns. The circle abides. The devastation of grief may feel incapable of growing anything at all, but in truth it is fertile ground if tended with kindness. It is all so precious and so fragile that I don’t know how our hearts bear it. But somehow they do. Somehow they are stronger than we think. Somehow they find their way back into the sun where they bloom and flower again.
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Jamie Stevens-Beel recently relocated to a remote acreage in northwest Missouri where she tends to her animals, picks wild blackberries, hosts monthly locavore potlucks and writes both prose and poetry. Her work has appeared in the publications Wholeness and Healing, Country, When Smoke Filled the Sky, and the anthology A Crack in the Air. Currently she is at work on an adult fable about a little gypsy girl and the orphaned wolf cub she befriends.