“More grows in the garden than was sown there.”
— English proverb
I was in the garden the day the nurses called to say they were sending Art to the hospital, an emergency so long in the making.
I’d called early that morning to say I wouldn’t be there to feed him his lunch, but I’d make it out for supper. It was fall, late in the year, and I only had a short window of opportunity to get things done. Other gardeners know how it goes. I was working under pressure, trying to preserve both past and present – and at the same time, anticipate a future that was uncertain.
I’ll be honest, it was not a day of usual contemplation and joy in my flower beds. I almost always love being in the garden, on my knees, trowel in hand and pruning shears at the ready. But that day, it was nothing but work. It was put your head down, don’t think, don’t look around and work like there was no tomorrow work.
Which there wasn’t.
As fate would have it, Art only had a couple more weeks on this Earth, and I was never far from his side.
When the nurses called, I took off my gloves, leaned my shovel against the tree and left things as they were: undone and unresolved.
The decision to leave came with unimagined consequences. I had to leave my grandmother’s daffodils behind, the ones grown on the family farm that are as much my heritage as the color of my hair or the shape of my hands. There wasn’t time to dig up the wild roses – a gift from a neighbor to my first garden – transplanted soon after our wedding. The miniature lilac, the clematis, the climbing rose bush, the Shasta daisies, the Easter lilies I rescued from the trash at church when no one claimed them – all memories, left behind because there wasn’t time to gather them up for the future.
This June, I am in a new garden, one once tended by a woman I never met — but who is hardly a stranger. I know who she was by the fairy ring of bluebells she once planted, the bleeding hearts and ferns, the trillium and snowdrops that showed up unexpectedly in the spring. I recognize her heart in the peonies and hydrangeas and redbud tree that is poetry in air. I know what kind of gardener she was by the trowel tucked into a piece of driftwood just outside the garage door.
Her daughters tell me not to judge the garden by what it looks like now. Their mom was ill the last years of her life and unable to keep things up.
Not to worry, I tell them. This new garden is a gift in my life filled with promises once made, but that went unrecognized. It is a reminder that a garden is always more than its flowers – or even its weeds.
This month, Art and I would have had our 16th wedding anniversary. The last two years, we celebrated with cake and friends at the assisted living facility where he lived. Last year, I had to feed him the cake. He couldn’t eat by himself anymore. When our friends said their goodbyes and left the party, he asked who those people were and if he knew them. He thought I was his mother and that he was back on his Army base. Earlier in the day, he told me he was on vacation in Florida and that the weather was particularly beautiful. Before I left, he told me we’d better hurry. We had to get to parents’ house for dinner by 6 o’clock. It’s barely been eight months since he died. There are days I have to work to remember what it was like before he was ill, back before anyone else noticed something was amiss. Most of all, I miss our conversations. We were friends and colleagues long before we were married, so we had years of conversation to keep us company – even toward the end.
I managed to bring some poppies with me that last day in the old garden and some iris and coral bells and a bird bath that were an inheritance from a neighbor who used to watch me weed. I’d scratch away while she leaned against the fence and tell me about the gardens she had when she was a young woman. I’m glad to report that her miniature iris and coral bells live on in my new space, my new life.
This year, I might just have a piece of anniversary cake on my own, or depending on my mood, I might make a toast to what once was with a glass of wine. I won’t know until I get there.
But this much, I do know.
I’m sure the garden will need weeding or dead-heading or tending to that day. It will do me good to lose myself, looking at what is and what was, not knowing what will be and being fine with whatever comes.
Susan Harrison Wolffis is an award winning writer known for her engaging writing style.