"Grief Garden," An Essay About Death

My father died five days before last Christmas. There was a foot of snow on the ground the day he was buried and his grave looked like a raw gaping wound all through a cold wet spring. It may be healed over with grass by now; I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been there lately. I’ve been too busy gardening.

When I first heard my father’s prognosis (death-sentence), I instinctively turned to nature. I drove to where our house was being built, walked to the nearby creek and stood on its banks and watched the leaves fall from the trees. Each leaf’s whispery flight was a sigh from my heart, a breath from my own life, leaving the earth with my father. He wasn’t gone yet; this was only the beginning of the stages where we would bargain, deny, hope against hope that his case would be the exception to the rule, the special miracle from God.

But I think I knew even then, as I stood by the creek, that I would soon have a reason to never feel the same about fall, that I would never see a leaf float to the ground without thinking of the day I found out that my father had pancreatic cancer.

I had always been extremely close to my father. We didn’t always talk that much, and I may have assumed more closeness than he really felt, but I had always counted him as my closest ally and friend. Besides that, he was a rarity: a genuinely good and kind man. I had always joked to my husband and children that they didn’t want to be around me whenever he died, because didn’t think I would handle it very well. I say “joked” because I always laughed when I said it. I didn’t really believe that day would ever come. But it did, and my joke had become a nightmare. My chips were being called in. I was being forced to face the unimaginable.

To make matters even more complicated, we were in the last stages of having a house built, a house my father never even got to see except for in some Polaroids I took to the hospital about two weeks before he died. I had some more pictures ready to show him when I got the phone call saying he was gone.

We moved into our house and every day I walked through the barren woods and along the frozen creek. While everyone around me was complaining about the long siege of snow, I felt somewhat comforted by the bleak and frozen conditions that mimicked those of my heart.

Before my dad’s illness I had been looking forward to the day when we would have a “virgin” yard in which to garden. We wouldn’t have to put up with anyone else’s concepts; everything we put into the ground could be entirely our choice. I devoured gardening books, magazines and catalogs, and even began to keep a gardening journal where I jotted down every idea and dream.

But after my dad’s death, I lost my enthusiasm for almost everything: my writing, our new home, my family, my husband, my church and most of all for my garden. It seemed almost too painful to consider engaging in something that would remind me of our relentless journey from birth to death. I had yet to see the hope in the miracle of growth and rebirth.

Our new house has lots of light and a few weeks after he died, my mother sent me home with two ficus trees and a large palm because she and my father had agreed that they would prosper there. That was the day that my grieving process began. As so often happens with those who are grieving, I found myself engaging in ritualistic behavior, as if the steady repetition would somehow give my life a structure and therefore a meaning. Unfortunately for my family, my rituals did not include cleaning or cooking, What I did become almost obsessive about was my parents’ plants.

I watered, rearranged, trimmed and fussed. I worried when the leaves dropped off, and my heart lifted, just a little, when they stopped. Then they began to grow. Though our sun-lit rooms began to come alive with life, I felt ambivalent. The growth seemed almost insulting. I had trouble accepting that anything could be alive, let alone thrive, when my father was dead. I hated being reminded that in some forms life continued.

But I was also comforted by the ritual of caring for the plants. Maybe fussing over the plants took the place of the care I could no longer give my father. His days in the hospital had been mercifully few, but I regretted not being able to nurse him there or at home. I had had no desire to see him suffer, but I had wanted to minister to him, soothe his pain, smooth his brow. One of the last times I visited him, I had stroked his head and he had closed his eyes and sighed, “That feels good, honey.” Now I had no head to stroke. I had only these plants of his to keep alive. And it seemed inordinately important to me to keep them alive, a feeling I soon transferred to my outdoor gardening efforts.

As soon as the spring rains slowed, I headed outside, puny trowel in hand, and began planting every plant I could get my hands on. I ordered flats of marigolds from the Boy Scouts and picked up an odd assortment of perennials at the local garden center. Every time I left the house I came home with a plant. I scoured the local discount store for bargains, or whatever struck my fancy. Not content with just our front garden, I bought window boxes and planted ivy and red salvia and white geraniums and blue lobelia, then fretted when the lobelia succumbed to the sun and the heat, and felt a small but recognizable thrill of excitement when a hummingbird paid daily visits to the salvia.

Meanwhile, most of the marigolds fell victim to bunnies and grasshoppers, and the sandwort and English daisy pomponnettes struggled in the unyielding and undrainable clay soil. A few plants shriveled away until I finally gave up and gave them a decent burial. Others clung to life with a tenacity that gave me pause on those days when I wondered what the point of living was.

Because I am middle-aged in a neighborhood of young families, I know how I must have looked to them, fussing in my garden morning, noon and night. I know I must have looked like my father had to his young neighbors, and the thought didn’t make me sad.

There were many times when I wondered why I was going to all the effort to nurture something that would die in a few short weeks. It is only now as I write these words that I think to wonder the same thing about the creation of a human being. Why does God go to all that effort to create, to nurture, to sustain, when we are only going to be here for a few short “weeks”? But I would push that thought away and plunge my hands deep into the soil as if by doing so I could somehow become one with something eternal.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but I look back now at all the symbolic burials I performed: digging the hole, leaving the mounds of dirt at the “graveside,” then depositing the plant which had only my ministrations to separate it from death. How wonderful to see a plant enter into its glory instead of decaying in the ground: to see the evidence of growth and the bloom of life. Even the daily nipping of spent blossoms did not diminish the steady progress of my precious plants’ new life.

As the summer’s heat bore down on my garden, I was careful to slake its thirst daily, then worried that I was drowning it Our tender young ash tree, which we did not pick or plant but which I was still determined to nurture through its infancy, began to turn yellow and lose its leaves as if it was fall. In my ignorance, I thought I had drowned it, until a friend assured me that, during that summer’s drought, I couldn’t water it enough. I also worried that it was suffering from still being wrapped tightly in its burial shroud. It was too late to remove it, but I did the next best thing: I pushed away the dirt, tore off the top layers of burlap, and then gently covered it over again—and watered and watered!

The next day I swore it looked perkier, and I made each member of the family examine it and offer his or her opinion. I’m sure they were humoring me when they agreed, but after two more weeks of incessant watering and despite the drought, our tree looked freshly green while all our neighbors’ trees were yellow and shedding. Once more I felt as if I had scored a point on the side of life.

Summer wore on into August, and then suddenly the garden took off. The moon flower vine that had taken two months to look even remotely vine-like began to grow madly. The marigolds mustered their reserves and began to show off both foliage and flowers. The English daisies came back to life and rewarded me with a second blooming. The yarrow divested itself of its dessicated shoots while birthing feathery shootlets. The delicate moss roses offered flowers stunning in their intensity, as if to make up for the brevity of their existence. The eight miniature roses I had rescued, half-dead, from the local grocery’s flower shop (for only $1.50 apiece) were developing cores of tiny buds and growing like crazy.

But even as the garden was bursting into life, I suddenly lost interest in mine. I withdrew into myself, caring little about anything. My husband faithfully took over the watering, and once reduced me to a stony silence when he accidentally sheared a newly planted azalea off at its base. One more piece of evidence that things die, I remember thinking. What’s the use?

My depression deepened until I finally sought treatment. Weeks later, as I began to climb out of the hole in which I had been entombed, I saw my garden afresh. More beautiful than ever, it beckoned to me. Don’t be afraid, it said. Enjoy me while you can; I will be gone soon enough, either dying or sleeping. But I can be reseeded and regrown, and I will emerge again, over and over, until the end of time.

In my shaky recovery, I fear the coming of winter, but I cling to my garden’s promise. I am already making plans for next year’s gardens (in the plural, you will note), and dreaming of a greenhouse someday. I am very busy these days pinching blossoms, ordering bulbs, and lining up large pots for the replanting of my father’s ficus trees, which have grown too big for the pots they came in.

As I work, I absorb the silent lessons that my grief garden has taught me: that life is ever-changing, and death is not permanent. My garden assures me that my father’s lifeless form was ministered to just as lovingly, until he reemerged in Another’s garden, resplendent in his glory, and bursting with new life.