I have been away from my desk for several months.
Certainly there has been no absence of delight in the long, cool spring that is only now beginning to turn into stifling summer; nor is it for want of topics – as the garden throws them at me faster than I can catch them. Some seasons simply present us with a straw more than we can comfortably carry and this is one such season.
My father has died. That is the long and short of it. Even in the midst of notifications, obituaries, emails and letters to friends far away, to write those words still seems strange, and not lessened by the modern verbiage of ‘passed’ – the intransitivity of which used to give the two of us great delight in moments of shared wickedness.
Passed water? Passed out? Passed a stone? Here we would giggle and gasp for breath.
No. My father has died. And though my hope is great that his soul is soaring, he is no longer here with us.
This naturally presents some problems, and we are left to deal with them in our own ways – my mother, my husband, my children, my siblings, their spouses…their children. A life beautifully led rippling mightily through the lives of others.
We discover those ripples at the most inopportune times – at dinner with friends, at a business gathering, in a thrift store where the remains of so many lives are suddenly and glaringly obvious. We are incapable for a moment. Then we are back. Laughing at a joke, networking with a colleague, buying a trinket at a beautiful price. Getting on.
I will spare both reader and writer the ‘garden as comfort,’ pablum – both because Dad would not appreciate the mawkishness that would weave itself through such predictable cloth, and because I am not sure that it is, at this moment, a comfort.
It is a place where I must do, or be done. And the comfort is in the doing I think, not in the result of all the doing, as it might be in happier times. Trimming an edge is the therapy, the trimmed edge itself seems inconsequential once done.
When I do step back and lift my head, there is no question that established beds are far neater than they once were. One cannot undertake the enormous amount of mindless micro- and macro-weeding I have undertaken without making an impact. I have tweezed fine threads of clover from between clusters of succulents without counting the minutes spent, and taken the tiny point of my trowel to the roots of tinier grasses without resenting the effort in any way.
I am not sure that the garden is, at this moment, a comfort. It is a place where I must do, or be done. And the comfort is in the doing I think, not in the result of all the doing.
It is gardening by rote. But it is purposeful.
I realize that I am merely cleaning – putting things right where I have the power to do so. When I call my mother to see how she is coping, she has filled another two wheelbarrows with weeds and pruned back all of the struggling rhododendrons under a hot California sun. She asks me if I will fix the pathway lights when we come for the memorial in August. Yes, I can fix that. I will fix that.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of grief is balancing this manic activity with pure apathy. When I opened the bees yesterday – a full two weeks later than I should have – I found one of the hives struggling and a capped emergency cell signaling that either a) they knew it, and were re-queening, or that b) half the hive swarmed and I never realized it.
I did not try and solve the problem. I merely closed them up, cranked up The Jayhawks on my earbuds, and watched them come and go for a half an hour while I sat in the sun and thought about how much I appreciate seeing bees in the garden once again.
They’ll get on with it. We will have honey or we will not, and life will continue.
The apathy continues into domestic life, with dinners of eggs and toast, or just toast with a bit of jam. Or perhaps a glass or two of mid-range red shared with my husband in the evening.
We sit on the deck and grouse about our work days and for those moments neither of us really thinks of the enormity of what has happened.
My daughter comes out looking for dinner and I tell her to have a piece of cake. Thrilled, she retreats before I can come to my senses. She needn’t run – there is little chance of this when the dog is eating cat food and I have broken out the powdered milk and instant coffee to avoid trudging to the market. Life is in a holding pattern at the moment.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of grief is balancing manic activity with pure apathy.
But I still walk around with my camera in the early morning. I still balance the edge of my coffee cup against the heel of my hand as I fumble with the settings to capture a beautiful combination.
‘Silver Lining’ pyracantha against a wine-red ‘Bonfire’ patio peach…tall verbena weaving itself through white phlox and African blue basil…fine threads of carex softening the deep greens of a fasciated chamaecyparis. It is gratifying to see these plants coming together in the absence of any real effort on the part of the resident gardener.
This is, ironically enough, the first season where I have felt some sense of solidity to the garden, and such feelings should be celebrated, not ignored. The design is slowly evolving and plants are beginning to knit themselves together as if they have always been there. Indeed I have to squint my eyes to remember what was.
Though I have found it hard to put more than three sentences together in any meaningful way, or pay a parking ticket before fines have doubled, the garden is still growing, and will be growing when I fully return to it.
Meanwhile, in shallower arenas, I have continued to share these photos on social media along with many of the great gardens I have been visiting in between emergencies…without actually mentioning the emergencies.
This is either a) completely harmless or b) final and irrefutable proof that social media platforms are curated fantasy realms of the highest order and should always be regarded with a critical eye. There have been many moments in the last few months where I have thumbed through the photos of others, and wondered where the truth lies.
But that is grief – picking out your own path, wondering why everyone around you is acting normally, and in the end, getting on. We will have honey or we will not and life, remarkably, will continue.