I started gardening the summer before my mother became sick. The man from whom we purchased our house was a “Master Gardener” and had bequeathed to us eight raised garden beds, an asparagus patch, and a small orchard of a dozen or so fruit trees. It was a bit intimidating, but I was eager to take on the challenge of stewarding it, and I was eager to see whether or not it was something I would come to love. I had been raised in the city, long before I became acquainted with all of the creative ways that urban dwellers grow their own food, but I suspected that I would love it. I imagined that it would be exciting to grow my own food—it is. I wondered if the feel of the soil on my skin and the sunshine on my face would provide calm and healing for my typically high-strung and anxious self—they do.
That first summer, 2013, was wonderful. Without having had much experience, I grew so much—peppers, onions, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and more. I tried my hand, unsuccessfully, at strawberries and corn (there was so much to learn). I discovered a new way of being in the world and found new ways to share myself (and my food) with friends. That summer, I beheld a beauty and wonder in nature that I hadn’t yet known, and I unearthed parts of myself that were surprising and exciting.
My mother helped in the garden when she could. One afternoon, as we worked together to pull weeds and prune where needed, she said, “I have to admit that I’m very pleasantly surprised—I never expected that you’d love this so much, and it’s so nice to see.” I gazed at my garden and marveled at the work of my hands; she gazed upon me and marveled at the work of hers.
In September of that year, my mother felt unwell. Her illness began with what seemed to be a nasty chest cold. After weeks in which she only seemed to get worse, we guessed it was pneumonia. A few weeks and several tests later, her doctor noticed something curious on her chest x-ray. There were small masses in the lining of her lungs. She was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. We learned that even with aggressive treatment, she would most likely live for a few months, at best a year or two.
By November, my mother spent most of her time, when not in treatment, in bed. Her cancer treatment seemed to be making things worse, not better—she was so, so tired and was often in great pain. But she ordered my father to get me a very particular gift for my birthday—a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi that could be placed in my garden. And in the card the accompanied it, she wrote in shaky handwriting the words of his prayer:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love….where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy…For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”
By March, the cancer had spread to her brain, and she died in early April, two weeks before Easter.
I have a confession to make: on Ash Wednesday this year, I didn’t step foot inside a church. I tried, unsuccessfully, to avert my eyes whenever I saw the crosses emblazoned on passersby. “There’s a church a block and a half from our house,” my husband reminded me when I offered up the “I couldn’t find a way to get there” excuse. “I think I’m having a bit of a spiritual crisis,” I told a trusted friend.
I spent some time pondering what was happening in my inner life. Lent is a reminder of death-my mother’s death, Jesus’ death, my own death. “Remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Sometimes, it just feels too painful to bear. So a part of me wants and needs to be defiant. And sometimes, a part of me wants to wrap myself only in the comfort of denial. Easter cannot come soon enough. But I know that it doesn’t work that way. New life comes, I know, but I have to first walk through the landscape of death. Every year, I have to work through this in new and very personal ways. And anyway, I ultimately trust that God always has a way of finding me and bringing me back.
Sometime shortly after my mother died, a guest brought me some potted lilies. They sat on the mantle of our fireplace for weeks. I was, understandably, distracted, and it took me a while to notice them—neglected, slumped over, dried up. “So much for my green thumb,” I thought to myself. I decided to bury the bulbs by my statue of St. Francis.
The summer came. We grew snap peas and onions, carrots and summer squash. We still had trouble with strawberries, but we finally grew a few (just a few) edible ears of corn. “How lucky I am to have this garden,” I thought. It was a good, comforting companion in my grief.
But it was the next summer—the summer of 2015—that I noticed them. I was in the garden, trying to pick and prune and find ways to get my children to participate, and I spotted them. Two lilies had sprouted at the feet of St. Francis. I hadn’t known that lilies in the garden usually bloom in the summer. I hadn’t imagined that those bulbs still carried life within them. I still had much to learn about the mysteries and workings of the natural world.
Lately, my mother has been visiting my dreams. I wish I could say that she appears to me as some beaming, heavenly figure, offering words of consolation and wisdom. But she doesn’t. In the dreams, she and I are sometimes engaged in some kind of conflict, some kind of heated conversation. Similar to many people who have complicated relationships with family, my relationship with my mother wasn’t always an easy one, and she died before we had the chance to work everything out. These recent dreams are not always pleasant, but they are comforting, because they remind me that even as my mother died, our relationship remains a living one.
I think every bird in Durham has shat upon my poor St. Francis, and three years on, he is looking more weather-beaten and weary. As I write this, I can see him from my kitchen window, overlooking my snow-covered garden beds. He also has a wise and generous look about him. He will welcome the birds this Spring, in spite of their indiscretions.
And I imagine a time when I can get back into the garden and dig my bare hands into the soil. I dream of the first tips of asparagus, peeking up from the thawed ground. I envision snap peas and peppers and eggplant, all bursting with color. It will come. But not yet.