Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Empty Beds and Summer Blooms

When we first moved into this big, wonderful house, we toiled and planted together in our many gardens. We were building something long-lasting, rich, sensual and vibrant. The flowers in our garden were breathtaking. Our plants were exotic. Butterflies were abundant. Every clod of dirt became a colony of life. We loved every lizard, flower, hummingbird, bush, spider or tree. And with each plant’s growth, annual or perennial, we rejoiced. As part of our morning ritual we’d walk, hand in hand, around the whole yard to look at what had bloomed or sprouted or spread the previous day. Those communions with nature were deeply entrenched in the fiber of our relationship. We loved our gardens and we loved sharing our gardens with each other. It was simple, pure joy.

Various cancer treatments ate away at our time in the gardens. It’s hard to dig holes when you are nauseated or tethered to a chemo pump. Eventually, it became a rare event when we’d share those tender garden-tending moments. The last gardening pleasures we had were walking around, still hand in hand, observing the changes that nature had orchestrated in our stead. It was still nice (how could it not be?) but it was sad, too, seeing all that we built succumb to nature’s entropy.

Eventually, the garden, like the inhabitants of this big house, fell into complete shambles.

Three weekends ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I spent all Saturday working on the sprinkler system. It was broken in many places. Multiple blown-out heads sprayed like misplaced fountains. Several broken pipes had to be dug out and repaired. Most sprinkler heads were clogged or misaligned. It took all weekend and multiple trips to Lowes but by Sunday night the sprinkler system was back in good working order. I felt accomplished.

Two weekends ago, I bought some plants. I can’t tell you why. I got in the car and ended up in our favorite Austin plant store, Red Barn. I left with $100 worth of plants which were dropped into the ground in their perfect places in three flower beds. Other plants in those beds that had migrated were repositioned back to their correct places. Other plants were trimmed back and reshaped. Those three flower beds were beginning to look like flower beds again. It was nice to see. It was renewal.

Last weekend, Red Barn took another $100 of mine in return for a wonderful set of plants perfect for one more bed. They aren’t planted yet but I’ve prepared the bed. I’m so excited to see how they look in the ground and how they’ll fill in over time. It’s going to be beautiful. I’m excited.

As I look around, though, it’s hard see the world without the tint of what used to be - the garden that we built together and was overflowing with blooms and beauty and love. A friend of mine commented that the garden was the most beautiful she’d seen. I responded that there’s just no comparison to what it once was. The definition of innocence; she had nothing to compare. I can’t avoid the comparison. What Once Was is stinking up my enjoyment of What Is.

It’s amazing to me how the gardens here at our house have reflected the health, both mental and physical, of the occupants. Looking at the gardens now, it’s apparent that growth is beginning where just months ago were just memories. This is good. I’m excited to see what blooms.


  1. Your description of the gardens parallels what happened during a span of a couple of years when I became ill and had to have surgery, and then my husband's cancer and eventual death. Three or four years is a long time to a garden - in which it can turn very wild. It was a little difficult to watch this happen while I was caring for my husband and unable to spend time out in the gardens. I have since sold our place but have been building a new and different garden on the grounds of a delapidated old summer house which I'm rescuing here in Nova Scotia. It will never be the same as my old garden - much wilder - but perhaps better reflects where I am at these days.

  2. My God! You could be writing my life.
    My husband and I bought our last house ten years ago for the sole reason to plant! It had a big huge empty lot and we have transformed it into a garden of Eden. Every evening we took a walk down our stone path and through the garden to look at the plants. We loved to go to the nursery together and shop for new plants. It is in constant bloom.
    My husband had a special spot to sit and look at the house and the garden. It is in the midst of a shade garden and so every time I look out at the yard I see his empty bench. I have been trying to bring the gardens back after two years of semi neglect ( mine while my husband was living and dying from a brain tumour ). Every time I was out there working this spring I cried. Thinking of the "before" when we excitedly started the day in the garden together, working and planting.
    On Sunday the family was here for dinner and I said to my son "the gardens don't look as good as when Dad was here, I can't seem to get it all together" . He looked at me and smiled and said "it is absolutely beautiful, it doesn't have to be perfect nature never is".

    He reminded me that even when my husband was alive, we were always transplanting, moving things, removing things that didn't grow right or at all. I also remembered my husbands strategy "work on one garden or problem at a time". So inspired by your post and the need to grow. I am going out to the nursery today to pick up some new perennials for the long border I have. I will plant my husbands favourites and next year rejoice when they bloom.
    Thank you Chris.

  3. I love this post. Thank you. It is very parallel to what's going on in my life right now. Attention back on the gardens, making new from old, neglected areas. New life and energy is starting to sneak up on me, and I too am excited to see what grows. Thank you for putting my feelings into words.

  4. Ha! My gardens have been neglected for 3 years now. (The first two I had sports injuries requiring surgery each spring and then of course last year Dave was fighting cancer and then died in June. The gardens have been neglected for 3 solid years.)

    Earlier this spring I went out there and pulled some weeds. Last weekend I dropped $100 on some annuals for the planters. These actions just seemed dutiful and unfulfilling. But last night I finally got at it and started removing some overly aggressive plants and moving a few others that had grown too large. It actually felt good to uproot & haul a few large plants around to transplant them. It was hard work.

    Oddly enough, I don't like bugs or dirt under my nails, but I enjoy the satisfaction of growing things and the pleasure of viewing a garden that I've created.

    We need to keep it up.

  5. Here's a poem that someone sent to me when my Mike passed:

    It Won't Rain Always

    Someone said that in each life some rain is bound to fall
    And each one sheds his share of tears
    And trouble troubles us all
    But the hurt can't hurt forever
    And the tears are sure to dry
    And it won't rain always
    The clouds will soon be gone
    The sun that they've benn hiding has been there all along
    And it won't rain always
    God's promises are true
    The sun's gonna shine in His own good time
    And HE will see you through.....

    I hope that he shines on your garden!

  6. Hey Chris,
    I've been following you here for a while. I'm just down the road in New Braunfels...Austin is practically my neighbor! Seems I rarely find other widow/widowers in my neck of the woods. Do you know of any young widow/widower groups in the area? You can find me on my blog at http://2peasinthepod.blogspot.com

  7. Well said! I have always found solace with gardening. I don't have the garden I once had in my married life, but my new garden (in pots now) is equally just as satisfying in creating new growth. And as the saying goes, when no one is there to bring you flowers, you learn to plant your own. :)

  8. Great post. My husband and I started a vegetable garden with our children many years ago. When the kids out grew the "project", we continued the tradition...just the two of us. We shared the hard work of getting the garden just right and marveled at the vegetables we were able to grow. The first hint of spring, we were happily planning and purchasing. The first year after his death, I went to the garden and just sat and cried. I couldn't even pick up a shovel without crying. This second summer without him, I was able to plant the garden and find that I feel incredibly close to him. Thanks for reminding me of this simple pleasure.

  9. Love your comment "What Once Was is stinking up my enjoyment of What Is" - so very true in so many areas of my life.