I am a Candidean in my heart of hearts. The garden is my church. Its lessons and parables make perfect sense to me, its rhythm, hymns, and liturgy are those of life, and are immediately recognizable as such. That’s because gardens (aside from sex and death) are always about returning.
I’ve always been a fan of the great outdoors. In the summers of my youth, my parents flung the screen door open at dawn and did not expect us back until dusk (except maybe for a PB&J around noon). I hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail in my twenties and worked in an orchard in New Hampshire on and off for years after college. But I didn’t get into gardening until later, in my thirties.
It started with a phone call. My father had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. His prognosis was 6 months to a year. We had been semi-estranged, as they say, for some years, both seething from some unspoken insult, so common in relations between fathers and sons. He had not been The World’s #1 Dad. I had not been The World’s #1 Son. We both bore a ridiculous grudge about it, as you do.
I was living in Boston, and, of course, traveled back to Indiana to do what I could to help. I say of course, but to be 100% honest: I only offered because I fully expected them to say no. I knew there wouldn’t be much I could do. Maybe lend a hand around the house, run errands. I had never faced anything quite like this, and had not an inkling of what was involved, thank God. Because had I known I would have sent thoughts and prayers and missed out on what was one of the most profound, complex, sad, joyous experiences of my life.
It was December, and as bleak a homecoming as you can imagine. My father had just had emergency surgery to have a tumor in his brainstem removed. He had had a round of radiation, and had fallen ill with pneumonia. We spent Christmas with him in the hospital, but it was the first Christmas in memory we had all been together. There was some Christmas Magic in that. It was the first of many such strangely hopeful, happy moments in a seemingly dark and hopeless situation.
We got him home and it was decided I would stick around and help out for as long as necessary. There was a mixture of elation at reunion and anxiety about the reason. But it was a time of gratitude more than trepidation. I took over running the household day-to-day. My father had been retired for years, but my mother, who was much younger, was still working full-time. My brothers and their families pitched in daily as well. As we adjusted over the next few weeks to this odd new normal my attention turned increasingly to a sad, nagging sight outside the breakfast nook.
My father had a small “secret garden” outside the nook that he had designed in all its details (typically, with my mother in mind, who was simply grateful that in retirement he had found a hobby that kept him out of her hair). There was a hedge around a large round bed with four fussy beds in the corners. It was now as forlorn and haunted as an empty tomb. He had fallen ill in the autumn, and had not had a chance to lay it down for the winter, everything had died but remained there to be seen day after day from the nook.
The ravages of cancer were relentless, and the view of that forlorn, abandoned garden day after day seemed to amplify the despair in the house. The January snow covered it, and for a while it was invisible. By first thaw my father was frail. Mentally and emotionally it seemed as though he was aging in reverse, and he had reached a brief, charming phase of reverse childhood where he said silly things and spoke in ways that were strange, romantic and bright, and because of the way the morning light fell in the nook that time of year, I would often roll him out there and we would have breakfast together overlooking that forlorn, ravaged garden.
He would peer out of the window, squinting, and tell me about the apparitions he saw. My father had not had a poetic imagination, that I could recall, but in these last weeks of life his mind seemed flooded with Blakeian visions.
One day as we sat looking out on his secret ruin I realized it was my time to get my hands dirty. It’s strange how the obvious can so often strike us as a revelation, isn’t it? Had I been waiting for some other gardener to show up and clear away the remains of a wasted harvest? Who had I expected would come and plant flowers in the spring in my father’s infirmity and absence?
I have seldom launched into anything with such a spirit of unabashed hope as I did that garden at the first thaw. I went to the nursery daily and brought home whatever I could find to add a pop of color. I was inept, but if anything didn’t take, I didn’t hesitate to pluck it out and throw something in the ground that would.
Finally my brothers and I pitched in on a fountain, which was the only accoutrement the tiny garden lacked. We ran plumbing out to it, and it trickled and gurgled serenely amid the purple coneflowers and orange and vermilion butterfly weed, the Virginia bluebells and black-eyed susans. The morning of that reveal, just a week or two before his passing, my father’s eyes lit up like a child’s, and I knew that whatever I had given him in that moment, he had already returned to me a hundredfold.
(See what I mean about parables?)