"To live—is that not enough? Let us then live, let us affirm!" D.T. Suzuki
I think a lot about my mother these days, as she sits in a wheelchair in an Alzheimer’s unit next to I-69 that leads to the town where I was born over a half a century ago. If she could see distances, she’d see the new Chase Bank, the LA Fitness, the BP Station, and down the street the Super Target, in the ever-expanding and replicating subtopia that spreads over the farms of central Indiana.
When I visit her, I roll her out of her room and the sterile, homey hallways where women like her roam and wait at the locked doors, hoping someone will let them out. I take her to the back of the facility, behind the parking lot, where there's a gravel pit of sorts left from road construction. It's surrounded by weeds with tall cotton woods and oak on the other side. We listen to the birds. We shoot the breeze. We absorb what we can.
My mother had a garden, and I walk in it, circling the paths she's made, as I think about my visit with her before I return to my other life. I watch my father from inside it, as he sits in a lawn chair on the patio with his oxygen tank as he watches his squirrels. My mother’s garden is what I’m worried about these days. What is going to happen to it when she's gone?
My mother’s garden is like a lot of gardens in America—not the gardens in the magazines or the ones cared for by teams of Guatemalan men with gas-powered leaf-blowers on their backs. Her garden is the type of garden I like to stop and look at when I walk through neighborhoods of Chicago where I live; one that has defied the cookie cutter landscaper's guide and feels as if someone has spent many years adding to, many years loving it. It sits under a canopy of old American hardwoods, planted there years ago for a farmer's woodlot, before suburbia overtook it in the 60's. Under the stand of smooth, sexy- barked beech, maples, and fingery-leafed oaks, she has spent 38 years adding creeping ground cover, flowering shrubs, and sticking in whatever would work from the half off rack at the nursery. The soil was terrible though she improved it by mulching and watering. It grew from a plot that stretched four or five feet out from along the drive way to over-take nearly a half an acre, as she cleared out invasive species and made room for wildflowers, her favorites—like trillium and paint brush and the spring beauties that would blanket the yard in the spring. She also planted daffodils, scores of them, that over the years turned into hundreds as she separated them and spread them out, bulbs from hers and my father’s mother’s gardens.
Over the years it became a refuge for her and for our family, as the two other neighbors had virtually let their woods completely go and thickets grew so dense that the neighbor’s 1948 Dodge truck disappeared from view.
My mother gardened until we took her to a dementia unit, that week my father was hospitalized a year and a half ago. She’d made paths by placing fallen limbs to serve as bordering, and in the last weeks before we had to take her, my sisters and I wandered slowly around those paths with her, helping her to pick up twigs, which was what she did every day in her last months at home. My mother’s garden became a kind of lover, a textured world of sensual pleasures, bird song, shadows, light, variegated color. It held her, as she told me once walking on a beach in Florida, "nature holds us." There she could communicate and be understood; there she was not confused by what was happening to her body and to her mind. It was a sensuous thing to see: her fingering the flowers, kneeling for long moments staring into a patch of pale purple phlox.
How we relate to the land is the most important subject before our world. Our food, shelter, water, and--yes, the energy that powers most everything we use to sustain our way of life. But, we also need the land, like plants do, to flower. This is not a romantic idea. This is how our skin and other sensual organs work. We are pollinated, one might say, our brains feed on the nectar of what our perceptions absorb from the world around us.
My mother left us this garden and I’m not so sure what will become of it—become of her wooded sanctuary of spring beauties and trillium and periwinkle and vines of poison ivy.
This past spring, my father told me that the man, who lived across the street, came over and told him that his wife had died, a woman in her late forties, of diabetes. And then, he added: “You know, the oddest thing happened before she died. I didn't tell you this, did I? This man came up to the door one morning and said he had a favor to ask. ‘My wife is very sick,’ he said, ‘and I’d like to bring her some of your daffodils, would you mind? We always looked at them from our window. She always liked those daffodils. Could I take a few?’ Well, I told him, you just take as many as you want. I was going to tell him, you know, about mom, but I think, I think he knew.”