The day couldn’t be better for planning a garden, clear and not too warm. My husband, Richard, has gone to a photo show and I have the time to myself. This is the first day in two months, since I learned the meaning of the word angina, that I am not taking care of Richard or shopping, cooking or cleaning up.
I have had the worst of my exams, the mammogram, and the results indicate that I’m fine. A few more to go and then I can stop worrying about my health being next. Ever since the discovery of Richard’s heart disease, I can’t help thinking there’s some dark menace lurking beneath the surface, waiting to pounce. Now that he is recovering and getting better every day, I want to feel carefree about life. But I know this is a mistake.
In my philosophical moments, I tell myself that it’s important to strike a balance. I look to weigh an obsessive fear and preoccupation with illness and death with a calm acceptance of the inevitable. When I’m thinking this, it sounds easy. Yet I know people spend years studying Buddhism and meditation, and still aren’t able to reach this balance.
I wonder if the acceptance of aging and death would be easier in a less youth-oriented society. I have read that we aging baby boomers are going to make getting older cool. I haven’t seen any evidence of that yet.
Today, though, I am worry-free and glad to have several hours without plans. I have a pile of gardening books and a big drawing pad. My goal is to design a garden for next year and fill out an order for spring bulbs.
It might be the gorgeous weather that has made me so content to be home planning my garden today. Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else. I put the purple umbrella up over the round brown table on the patio and begin drawing in the plants and flowers I am hoping will reappear again next year.
Then I flip through my books, trying out different plants and flowers in my mind. A yellow Forsythia next to the old teal blue shingles of the house, its branches forming a lacework pattern like a dancer’s arms. Lilac climbing the same wall and reaching around the white trim of the window. Or perhaps in the corner there, so it will wind around and drape over the back porch, on the side where the grape arbor doesn’t reach. And some Wisteria in front, dropping down over the back gate.
There are so many varieties of tulips, daffodils, irises and other spring bulbs, it’s hard to know which to get. I mark my choice in pencil, then erase and start again. I have come to the middle years of my life never having planted one single bulb or even thought about such an act. Last year, before Eduardo cleared the weeds and the old tomato and squash plants away, the thought of planting anything terrified me. Now that I have had success and nearly all the living things I planted have survived, and some, like the Clematis and the Foxglove, have even thrived, I am less afraid.
Still, designing the garden seems close enough to math to feel intimidating. I read books that explain the need for shrubs and year-round interest and think I understand. But then I sit down with the books and color photographs of flowers and say to myself, This is what I want. After all of these garden-less years, how can I settle for a plot full of dull green shrubs, when there are these ravishingly colorful blooms to enjoy?
It’s hard to imagine the whole garden at one time. I, in fact, have four different spaces to fill, two in front of the house and two on the side. I also want to plant in the parking strip, which is now covered with dirt, weeds and brown grass.
But I can’t think of everything at once. Today my task is to order bulbs. If I think only of that, the job won’t seem as daunting.
I narrow down the color range to a palette of purples, lavenders, yellows and white. I search for flowers that will thrive in some shade, as those are ones I can plant in front. Then I pick small groups of bulbs that will flower in consecutive months.
By the late afternoon when it’s gotten too hot to sit outside, I’m done. The whole garden isn’t planned but I’ve begun.
Only a little more than a month ago, Richard was in the hospital, hooked up to tubes. This wonderful Victorian house and the garden, these concrete material symbols of my commitment to time and place, are deeply intertwined with my marriage to Richard. Before the angiogram and during the days that followed with the bypass surgery and the scary recovery, I knew I couldn’t hold onto Richard too tightly. There is no way for me yet to comprehend a loss as deep and terrible as the death of my husband, a love still fragile and new as the miniature rose I kept trying to save this year. If Richard had not survived the surgery, how could I continue fixing up this house, planting and ordering bulbs?
Designing the garden means I believe we will both be here in the spring.
Yet the lessons of this summer remain. I now understand that middle age means less certainty and the garden ought to be a lesson in that. The lily that hasn’t bloomed since a week after I planted it in June now has two buds about to open. The miniature rose I feared dead sprouts new leaves almost every day. On the other hand, the cheerful sunflower I imagined growing tall as the one peeking over my fence from the neighbor’s garden quickly withered and died. I don’t have a clue what killed it.
As the child of a career military man, moving nearly every year, I learned the subtle dance of living in a place and always being ready to leave. I learned how to hold on just enough but never too much and not to develop roots. I learned that attachment is a dangerous thing because loss is the one friend I could always count on to be there.
Richard is driving now. The heart-shaped pillow he was given in the hospital is held in place by his seat belt to protect his still-healing chest. I have healed as well. I spent several hours today so absorbed in the garden. I didn’t worry about Richard and his health even once.
Our hundred year-old house is a good reminder that in this transitory world, some things do manage to last. Unlike this house, the spring flowers I hope will grow from bulbs I’ve marked on my order today only bloom for a short time, some a few days or weeks. They remind me that moments of beauty and joy are not to be wasted or overlooked. And that some things are more precious because I know they won’t last.