Springtime in the Garden of Good and Angry

June 25, 2014

This week’s guest blogger is author Meg Wilson, who lives in Maine and ordinarily blogs about the Appalachian Trail. Her middle-grade novel, Crappy New Year, follows Tess Amory’s extraordinary new life after losing her father to cancer. Please visit www.megwilsonauthor.com.

It’s the day after Easter, yet spring has not fully trumped the bitter cold Maine winter of 2014. Karen’s garden beds were still trapped under April snow just a week ago. But we’re finally blessed with temperatures on the right side of forty. A gentler breeze today will prevent dried leaves from scurrying back under her beloved hydrangeas. I grab a rake and a tarp, and throw them in my car. I will drive to Karen’s and play private gardener to my dearest friend.

She and I had planned to go to the hospital together this morning, to meet with social worker Liza a third time. Liza would lift us both with carefully chosen words, and walk us through guided imagery and some breathing exercises. These are simple comforts I rely on, too. With four months gone on a “year or less” cancer prognosis, Karen’s anxiety is worsening. I am running out of ways to help her. Her weight slipped below one-hundred over the winter. While she used to look merely sick, Karen is now drawing stares, with frightened eyes that appear bigger than her face. Her hair grew back course and spindly. She has stopped eating out, going to movies, being social. The hospital and drug store are her big adventures nowadays. Before too long, a stroll around her gardens will be the most she can manage. I know this. I am preparing for this.  I will make these gardens beautiful.

When I arrive at her house, Karen has already left for the appointment with Liza. Her mother and sister Susan are joining her this time. I am happy for the break from clinicians today. I want to be outside, breathing spring air and listening to the songs of spring birds. Besides, her mom and sister could benefit from a frank chat with Liza. A reality check is in order. Denial has been running the show for a long time now.

To my surprise, I am greeted by her younger sister, Diane, who is playing soccer in the yard with her two little boys. We embrace and trade small talk. I ask how she’s holding up. She doesn’t seem to understand that I’m referring to her big sister’s illness. She answers that the day care back home in Massachusetts is closed, so the boys, ages 6 and 8, are her responsibility today. She chose a trip to Karen’s house for their diversion. My wince is invisible, but it’s there. Karen confided in me, weeks ago, that those boisterous boys are getting to be too much. Today, they’re high on Easter candy – the pastel wrappers fluttering in a basket by the front door. The soccer ball slams off the garage door and into the garden bed that I drag my tarp toward. I don’t hear any spring birds amidst the shouting.

Diane watches me rake crisp, brown leaves from among the tender new hostas, the lamb’s ear, and Karen’s beloved Endless Summer hydrangeas. Strangely, she offers no assistance while the boys play within sight. She tells me that they skied thirty-one times during the winter, thanks to all the snow. She tells me that the boys play soccer year-round, so it’s tough to do everything.  But they manage. While I think about asking for help, Diane asks if there is a spot where the younger boy can dig a hole.

“He’s my digger,” she says. “He loves to dig. I can find him a shovel.”                               

“Yeah,” the boy offers. “Can I dig there?” He points to the area where Karen’s peonies are finally sprouting, reaching toward that tardy, elusive sun.

“See those little red buds?” I point. “These will be big, beautiful flowers by June. But you can dig if there’s something that died over the winter and we need to take it out.”

“I want to dig. Is this dead?” He points to the tiny hosta spirals.

“Look closely. These are going to be giant, leafy plants pretty soon.”

“Aw, I want something to be dead. Can’t something be dead?”

I cannot answer. Sadness envelops me. Diane, who stands listening to her son, walks off to find him a shovel, just in case. I continue my work, blocking out the trio as Diane urges the older one to get his helmet if he’s going to skateboard in the driveway. I listen for the songbirds. I don’t hear them. I think about Liza doing breathing exercises – right now – with Karen, her sister Susan, and her mother. I need someone to breathe with me right now.

My rake snaps while I’m finishing up the third bed. I yell to Diane playing in the driveway. Can she look in the garage for a replacement rake? A few moments later, she delivers one triumphantly. There are still four flower gardens to go. I have already filled and emptied the tarp a dozen times. I am dirty and breathing hard. I feel like hired help. I wonder why I’m there. Why do I keep coming back when everyone else seems so…oblivious?

Is it because they seem so oblivious?

I want to go home to my own gardens, to my own birds. I’m mad at feeling sorry for myself as I scratch at stubborn ice under the leaves near the back door. The youngest boy finds me there, carrying the shovel that his mother fetched for him.

“Is anything dead yet?” he asks again.

I swallow, I scratch at the leaves. “Nope. Everything survived the winter,” I tell him. “Everything came back.”

In spite of how hard it was. In spite of how hard it continues to be.