on gardens

On a scale of one to ten, how overwhelmed are you these days? Me? I’m wavering between fifteen and seventeen. I am fascinated by what’s happening in Washington these days. I’ve done a fair bit of reading about the special counsel and ties to Russia and what impeachment looks like and how this compares to Watergate. There is so much to pay attention to.

That’s one thing. But that’s mostly external. Events much bigger than myself that I have pretty much nothing to do with daily, except reading about it and being flabbergasted. The internal, the personal, that’s also overwhelming these days. Our family is in the midst of a ten-day triduum—if you’ll allow it. Last Monday was my dad’s birthday. He’d be seventy-three if he were still alive. Saturday was the thirty-third anniversary of my uncle Kevin’s death. He drowned in 1984. And on Thursday, it’ll be the seventh anniversary of Shaun’s suicide. In many ways this year, I’m opting out of these holy days. Yes, I thought of my dad on Monday, and on Saturday I thought of Kevin and my grandparents and his siblings. On Thursday, I will have a Bud Light for Shaun.

But my heart isn’t in it this year. I don’t think my heart can handle it this year, so it’s just decided to move right along. That seems like a luxurious statement to make: I don’t want to deal with it, so I’m choosing not to. But I know better. There will be a time when this settles, when I can handle it, and so I will.

Ryan died on a Tuesday. We were scheduled to get new doors put on our house that Wednesday. When Patrick picked me up from work and we were figuring out what the next steps were, he said he would cancel the doors. “No,” I said. “I need something to be right, normal.” I knew right away that I couldn’t be powerless in this grief; I couldn’t let it stop everything until I had to. Shaun’s death made me passive; Ryan’s has made me active.


One of the worst things about anxiety is that it often makes you feel powerless, passive. Last summer, I struggled with this a lot. After Shaun died, I struggled with this even more. It makes sense: Shaun did something that no one could control, that we were all powerless in the face of, and our lives changed in ways we still don’t understand. Anxiety exploits this loss of control and creates, in my case, a fear of doing. On March 7, that changed for me. The moment I found out that Ryan pulled a trigger that took his own life, I knew this was different. I am no longer afraid of doing.

And the things that I’m doing, the ways I am starting to move and be in this world, are very consciously tied to pouring myself into life. I am so tired of being weighed down, defined by, the deaths in my world. These have made me who I am, and they will continue to do so. Loss is not something we escape. But I want it to push me to something good, something life-giving.

On Mother’s Day weekend, I started a project I’ve been wanting to do ever since my husband and I bought our house: I put in a flower garden. There are two rock gardens in the front of our home, and I have hated them from the get-go. I started with the smaller of the two on Saturday and removed all the rocks, dumping them in the backyard around Patrick’s raised vegetable garden so we have a nice little pathway back there. I pulled up the plastic and netting under the rocks to find old dirt and dead plants and a few random odds and ends. I cleaned it out and added new, good dirt and mixed it all up. On Mother’s Day, I got up and went to a local garden shop and bought perennials: peonies and hostas and coral bells and bleeding hearts. And a few impatiens as well. Each one a tribute to my mother and memories I have with her. I planted them and watered them, using garden tools from my mom and a garden hose nozzle from my great-grandmother. I put green things in the earth and planted some hopes for them to grow in the midst of this crazy, chaotic world.

Every morning I walk by that little garden and my heart leaps. I never used to care about gardening. Weeding or watering with mom was a chore, not something for fun. I hate worms, and it all just seemed so tedious. Funny things happen as we get older, I’m learning. If we’re lucky, we turn into the people who have loved us. My mother pours her heart into her garden. It is a place of peace and joy for her and for those who see it. She makes it thrive. Yes, the metaphor applies: I have been her garden too, and she has made me thrive. In the midst of not enjoying that garden when I was growing up, I still learned a thing or two about how to make things grow from my mom.

When there are so many big things about, so many crushing or scary or overwhelming or obnoxious things that can tear us down, wear us down—maybe the best thing we can do is find a little spot in which to plant a green thing and see what happens.