Faith in the Garden

“See, right here where the plant forms a “V”? See this little leaf poking out? That’s a sucker. Just pinch it off.” He held my fingers and showed me how remove the suckers without damaging the tomato plant. 

I might have been six or seven. We had moved to a rural part of the county a couple of years earlier, and Dad had planted a majestic garden. For decades, we grew almost all of our own fruits and vegetables, only venturing to the store for dairy and dry goods. Dad loved to garden. He loved tilling the ground, planting the seeds, tending to the plants, and harvesting. And I loved being near him.

All the years I lived in San Francisco I longed for a garden. I longed to grow tomatoes, beans, okra, eggplant. I longed for my own Rural Hall garden.

The first year I was in Asheville, I traveled so much for work. I was rarely home, and when I was, I was battling the weeds that had overtaken the yard. The second year I gave up the notion of “I can do this by myself”  and hired someone to help landscape the yard (weeds be gone! mulch, welcome!) and build a raised bed. That was in November 2018. I was so excited about the possibilities that lay ahead for the spring. Dad and I talked about what I could plant, where to buy seeds. 

And then he fell ill in December. And I moved back to Winston-Salem to help care for him and for Mom. And spring came. And Dad died. And I moved Mom to Asheville since she couldn’t live on her own anymore. Well into the summer I planted tomato plants. And still traveled for work. And was so busy. And grieving. And the squirrels came. And the bears. And I found half-eaten tomatoes throughout my yard and on my doorstep. And I cried. And cried some more.

And then came the pandemic. I turned the soil, planted the tomato plants, and caged them. I’m not traveling for work anymore, so every morning after my morning tea I walk outside and tend to the tomatoes. I pinch the suckers carefully, just like Dad taught me so many years ago.  The smell of tomato plants is very particular. I love having that smell on my hands when I go back inside to start my day. 

During one of Dad’s last stays in the hospital, we were alone in the  ICU. I held his hand and we talked about what was happening. We knew he was dying, we just didn’t know when. We thought we had months and in reality it was only days. 

As we sat there, I asked him how he was thinking about what would come next. Of what happens once he dies. The afterlife. His soul. He responded, “We die, and that’s it. There’s nothing more.” I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. Dad was such a spiritual and religious person. What was he saying? I asked some more questions, and he was so matter of fact. Death is death. Was this what he needed to believe to let go and leave this life? I wanted to scream, “NO! There has to be more. You can’t leave me. We have to continue to have a connection even when you’re not physically here. A part of me will die with you if that’s not true.” 

But I didn’t say that. I fought back tears and listened.

I held his hand and we talked about his former baseball career, about family, about friends, about dreams and hopes, and about books we were reading. We told each other we loved each other and held each other tight. 

And today, when I was in the garden, tending to the tomatoes, I thought to myself, “There is something more. You’re still here, Dad.”

Happy Juneteenth!

A day of celebration, a day of remembrance, a reminder of the work we still need to do towards a just society.

I started the day by listening to “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” performed by Fresh Cut Orchestra and Melanie Charles, hosted by Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center back in February. I wasn’t able to attend in person, but my goodness, what a performance. I especially love “Tears for Johannesburg.” Take a listen.

“Why Are They Killing The Black People?”

“Why are they killing the Black people?”

Over the past weeks, I had felt Mom becoming more and more distant. Her eyes were glassy and conversations often didn’t make sense. This was lucid.

“I… I don’t know, Mom. We live in a racist society. I don’t know why they’re killing them.”

“They didn’t do anything wrong. Why are they killing them?”

I could hear CNN, or maybe MSNBC, blasting in the background. I heard Mom start to cry. “I just don’t understand.”

“Mom, why don’t you turn the tv off. Would you like to go for a walk and talk?”

“I need to be alone. I don’t understand.”

How is it that I’m having this conversation with my Mom, 78, with advanced Alzheimer’s, about the insanity of what is happening in our country right now? How do I answer the question that she’s asked? Why are we killing Black people? What do we have to do to stop the killing? To stop the hatred, the rage, the prejudice, the racism, behind the killing?

I cried for the rest of the day. I’m not shocked by what is happening. We are a racist society, in which many people (me included) benefit from that racism, and I’m tired of it. We have got to dismantle the systems that allow this to continue.

My friend Michelle put together this list of resources, Racial Justice, A List of Resources for White People Who Are Not on Twitter 24 Hours a Day. I’m donating, I’m writing, I’m speaking out. I have no delusions that it’s enough.

Friends During Quarantine

I had a hankering for egg salad. Who knows why. Maybe it’s because I thought it was the advent of spring, even though it was 50 degrees outside? Maybe because I was nostalgic for Sunday afternoons of my childhood?

I read the recipe carefully. “Boil a large pot of water and carefully lower the eggs into the water, making sure the shells don’t crack.” Well, goodness. the first two eggs into the pot of water cracked. Now what?

As I pulled the eggs out of the boiling water and doused them in ice water, I laughed at the two cracked eggs. One had a mustache and one had a toupee. And I couldn’t bring myself to crack them (more), because of the dynamic conversations that they were having. At some point, I’ll eat them. But for now, they’re great companions. Cracked Eggs.jpg

Thankful for a pandemic

I’m not quite sure how to process this.Today was one of the happiest days in memory.

I realize that the world is in a horrible state. We’re sheltering in place, worried about a disease that is spreading at unprecedented rates. I haven’t had in-person connection for almost two months. There are so many uncertainties.

And yet, I am so happy.

I woke up without setting an alarm, something that is a rare luxury. I meditated, knowing that I wasn’t racing against time, that I could stay in that state for as long, or for as little, as I wanted. I talked to Mom, the same incomprehensible conversation about a man planting a tree for her, six times today. I am so thankful that I’ve learned not to care about the truth, and learned instead to care about connection and laughter. I cooked a new fish curry recipe that turned out surprisingly delicious. I made a beautiful salad with nasturtiums. I joined my San Francisco Glide Zoom service, and clapped and danced and hallelujahed. I sat on the porch, sipping iced tea doing the NY Times crossword for an hour and a half. I completed it successfully; the first time this year! I laughed when I was shown a congratulations message for a 1 day streak. That’s not a streak; that’s a first. I discovered words in the NYT Spelling Bee app and reached the genius level. I closed my eyes and felt the warm winds meet my face as I swung in the swing that prompted me to buy this house. In July 2017, I climbed the 20 steps from the street to the porch, saw the porch swing, swang in it, and declared, “This is my house.” I sat swinging today, thinking that may have been the best decision I’ve made in my life. I came inside and precisely cut material for masks. I had forgotten how much I loved sewing. I love measuring the patten, cutting to the precise 1/8”. I love feeding the material through the machine, stitches even, cutting threads to the quick. I love assembling cloths I bargained for in Zambia markets, in Indonesian markets, in Indian markets. Thinking I would make dresses, and fabric sitting 20 years in a trunk. Pulling them out, knowing this was the best use of fabrics bought eons ago. Listening to jazz and Motown on Pandora. Singing along, imagining my life as a back-up singer, wearing a short fringed dress and shaking a tambourine. And then joining a book club by Zoom, recently reunited, of friends from the year 2000, when we were bright-eyed and new to San Francisco. Unlike in-person books clubs, where the book is rarely mentioned, we discussed the plot, character development, author choices. Another Zoom call, discussing a class we’ve taken online. Another FaceTime call with a long-time friend.

So thankful for connections. So thankful for time. So thankful for choices that have brought me here. And, strangely enough, thankful for this pandemic that has invited me to examine what is important. And what is not.

Pandemic Surprises

One of the things that I’ve loved about this pandemic is porch surprises – both given and received. It’s a delight to drop something off on someone’s porch and text them, “Surprise waiting for you on the bench outside your door next to your rain boots!” or “Enjoy what’s in the brown paper bag on your porch!” And equally delightful to receive a similar message. I received a message saying there was a piece of funfetti cake on my porch (and who doesn’t love brightly colored cake with sprinkles?!?) and was delighted to be able to talk to the givers from a distance, because I immediately ran out to fetch the said slice of cake.

I’m taking a class on the science of well being. One of the ways to increase happiness is to interrupt it, so that you don’t get used to it (hedonistic adaptation), and then you can have multiple instances of happiness. I thought about this when I took a first bite of the cake. It was so good! I can’t remember when I last had cake. Gosh. The sweetness. The sugaryness. The crunch of the colorful sprinkles on the icing. I thought about the principles I had learned about happiness. I told myself I’d have just one more bite, then save the rest for later. And I had one more bite. And one more. And one more. And then I ate the whole thing. And I was pretty darn happy.

Funfetti Cake

I forget to take a picture until it was gone…

New Life, Gone

On Saturday morning, I went to the porch to sweep it off and to set out the basket of granola bars and packets of nuts for delivery folks. The little wren flew out of her nest when I opened the door, and I quickly did what I needed to do, then went inside and closed the door. I stood out of site and waited the two minutes that it normally takes her to return to the nest. Sure enough, she did, and I watched as she nestled into her home, hidden from site once again. I felt so lucky that she had chosen to build her nest there and that I was witness to it.

Around noon, I peeked out the door to see if the mail had come. I noticed something on the table below the nest. What was that?

I slowly opened the door, and moved closer. No. NO. NO!

Two cracked eggs were on the table below the nest, yolks spreading across the table laden with pollen. I stood on a chair and peeked inside the nest. All the eggs were gone. The little wren was nowhere to be seen or heard.

I held out a glimmer of hope that the chicks had hatched, and miraculously left the nest already. A quick Google search confirmed that was impossible and the most likely culprit was a predator – a blue jay, a snake, a raccoon, honestly, any critter.

The tears began streaming down my face as I cleaned up the mess. I went inside and continued crying. The tears were for the mother wren. But also for the loss of hope. And for the loss of what used to be normalcy. And for all the other times that I had felt like crying, but hadn’t.

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New Life

I opened the door and started walking across the porch to sit in the swing. I saw something coming at my face from the corner of my eye and ducked. It was a tiny wren, and it had come out of the nest in the Christmas wreath hanging on the outside wall. I moved closer (but not too close) and peered into the nest. There were eggs!!!! At least four, maybe more. I was delighted! And then regretted interrupting the little wren. I went back inside, closed the screen door, but left the front door open and waited. The wren came back to the nest, nestled inside, then poked her head out and looked all around. I stood perfectly still until she retreated into the nest, and then walked into the house. I can’t wait to hear baby chirps soon! eggs.jpg

A Very Good Day

I went to Mom’s to refill her pill boxes (her caretaker, Gloria, isn’t allowed to dispense medicine, only remind Mom to take it). Gloria brings all the medicine and pillboxes down to my car (which I’ve Cloroxed repeatedly) in a plastic bag, I refill the boxes, Clorox everything I’ve touched, and she takes them back up to Mom’s. Today I asked Gloria to have Mom come to her balcony.

Mom initially looked out into the distance, and I, three floors down shouted, “Here! Mom! I’m here!” She eventually saw me, we waved at each other, and we tried to talk, but Mom couldn’t hear me because she won’t wear her hearing aids. I yelled louder, then realized it was futile, so we blew kisses instead. And she smiled. And I attempted to take a selfie of us, because I realize we have so few pictures together, and got a portion of my forehead, and her smiling. And it was a good day.

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A Flood of Fears

I’ve reflected a lot on why yesterday’s conversation with Mom upset me so much. The most obvious; Mom was disappointed and I was the cause of that disappointment. That never feels great as a child, and that’s my Achilles Heel. It didn’t matter that I actually can’t do what she was expecting. In her Alzheimer’s mind, it was Saturday, and that’s the day that we go out (which has been the case for almost a year). I don’t know why she remembered this yesterday, and not any of the other Saturdays this month I haven’t been able to see her, and I’m grateful she’s only remembered once.

Yesterday was one year to the day of me getting ready to leave for Charleston, and Mom came and sat on my bed and quietly said, “I think Dad is hurting.” (Mom and Dad called each other that when speaking to any of the children). I rushed into their bedroom. It was the one-year anniversary of my only time ever calling 911. And silently begging the paramedics to hurry. And asking the ER doctors if the infection they discovered could be fatal. And breathing a sigh of relief when they said, “No, it’s a routine infection in dialysis patients; we just need to get him on the right antibiotics.” (They were incorrect; it was fatal.)

For the past 363 days, the words of someone (I’m not sure who – a social worker? the ICU nurse? An assisted living facility director? Her doctor?) have constantly sat at the back of my mind. “Statistically speaking, your Mom will likely die within the next year. When someone spends that long with a partner (60 years in their case), it’s common for them to die of heartbreak.”

I’ve been rooting for Mom to hang in there. We’re almost at the year mark. I realize it’s a silly wish; people die when they die. Her making it to Tuesday will not buy her any more time beyond that.

And when she asked me how long it would be like this, my own fears were suddenly exposed. I don’t know how long it will be like this and up until that point I had done pretty well of staying in the moment and focusing on what was true right now. With her question, all those questions I hadn’t allowed myself to ask came flooding over me: Will I ever see her again? Will she suddenly pass away and I won’t be there like I was with Dad? Will she die alone? Will she know that she is loved, even though she’s alone? Will she ever understand that I would be there if I could be, but I can’t?

And, that’s why I couldn’t stop crying.