Back in 2015 when Michael was bending under the weight of his insidious cancer, spring arrived anyway, as we desperately cast around for any kind of new treatment. In the midst of that struggle his eyes were still on the future. What he wanted more than anything was to get his annual herbs and vegetables in the ground, a life-affirming act if there ever was one. I took the photo above as he sat in his dirt, directing our son,who was home and doing the physical labor at that time, telling him where he wanted all the new plants to go. He was too weak to do it himself. That year’s miracle was finding a targeted therapy which bought him another year in which he could do what he’d loved for decades. He planted his garden and like the food-lover he was, canned tomato sauce and salsa, made pesto which he froze in ice cube trays which he’d pop out, two cubes at a time, for pasta and pizza. Who knew how many recipes existed for cucumbers and peppers?
We both loved working in our yard. While Michael did the vegetables, herbs, berries and lawn mowing, I was busy with flowers, shrubs and trees. I don’t know what the magic is in this big old house and its big old lot, both of which had been neglected for decades before we bought it. But reclaiming it was our shared labor of love, wresting from us a boatload of sweat equity. Both of us are in this ground in some indescribable way.
In January, 2017, Michael’s years’ long tangle with cancer took the turn we’d been dreading. Despite his unwillingness to accept the inevitable, in my despair I supported his efforts to stave off death while casting about for ways to grapple with my grief at what I knew was his impending death. Always the more realistic one in our partnership, I was looking around, trying to imagine life without him, on every possible level. While he slept more and more, I needed to work. For my whole life, when I was sad, angry, frustrated or confused, I wanted to do physical labor, to get out of my head and exhaust my body. I started thinking of how enormous our house and garden were, way too much for one aging woman. I’d never been motivated to can anything in my life so Michael’s oversized vegetable patch was a daunting prospect staring me in the face. As soon as the weather allowed, I decided to get outside to attack that ground. I wanted to convert that space from food for humans to food for pollinators. I was always paying attention to the reports of habitat loss and the decline of so many species of bees, butterflies, moths and birds. I thought that I could make a small contribution to our weary planet by creating a haven in my tiny corner of the world. So into the yard I went, digging my brains out, feeling Michael’s essence rising up in me while I cried mine into the ground. I saved his perennial herbs, his berries and his raised beds for honorary tomatoes, peppers and annual herbs. As for the rest of his garden, I planted what I thought would benefit the most insects and birds, adding what I could afford, a few more plants and seeds every year. Michael died in May, 2017. I continued to salve my aching soul out there, listening to music as I dug, weeded and planned this life-affirming sanctuary.
Unless you’re wealthy enough to hire a gardener who arrives with truckloads of established plants which will cascade from season to season, gardening requires patience. As I worked my way through my PTSD from the years of dealing with cancer and fear, while I coped with the misery of Michael’s absence, I found that I had more patience for my plants than people. That garden brought solace. I gave in to the mystery of Michael’s otherworldly, constant presence and enjoyed the flying visitors who started showing up after the first year of swapping out vegetables for flowers. I felt like I still had something left to contribute to this troubled world and the energy I drew from that was positive.
I’ve lost track of how many hours I spent out there. I felt mightily rewarded by the wide variety of visitors who were showing up. I got to watch fledglings make their clumsy way into the world under the watchful eyes of their parents. I found a monarch caterpillar which I brought inside so I could watch it evolve into its chrysalis and new life. I starting keeping lists of every bird, butterfly and moth species that made its way into my yard, also enjoying the bees, beetles, mantises and countless other surprise guests.
Overall, I’ve felt pretty comfortable with the evolution of this garden. I’ve derived peace from this place. When I’m out there I often feel like I’m inhaling Michael’s spirit which is odd, restorative and unexpected. I had no idea how I would feel or how I would manage my life after such an egregious loss. Apparently he’ll never be lost to me and somehow our shared 45 years live on and empower me moving forward. Generally an even-dispositioned person, not someone who experiences emotional extremes often, I mostly feel okay. I no longer expect joy – I think Michael was the steady font for joy in my universe. But being okay is fine. However, life has a way of abruptly delivering abrupt curves. That’s what’s been happening to me for the past three days. My surprise has been an unexpected bit of joy.
I don’t know about everyone else but having passed age 70, I’ve been giving lots of thought to what my life has meant on many levels. As a woman, a life partner, a daughter, sister, mother and grandmother, a friend, a coworker and a professional, have I accomplished my goals? Am I a good person? Have I made a contribution to my society? Have I made a contribution to the world? I think about this stuff regularly. While my engine is still humming, I know that ultimately I’m on the short end of my life. Feeling that I will leave something of value to mark the time I’ve spent on this planet is definitely a thing for me. So imagine how I felt when somehow, in this fourth year after I started my pollinators’ garden to do my bit for the beleaguered earth, my spot got in the pathway of the valiant monarchs on their challenging journey to Mexico. In the company of more bees than I can fathom, hundreds and hundreds of monarchs have descended on my little dirt patch for the past three days.
I think the word “awesome” is over-used and abused but truly, I think it’s the most appropriate one to describe what it’s like to stand in the midst of so many butterflies, whose delicate wings flapping in synchronicity make a whirring sound loud enough to hear. I never thought I’d experience anything like that in my own backyard. The only camera I have is in my telephone and I’m far from a professional videographer. As I twirled in circles, trying to document the rapid movements of so many fliers, I realized that my jerky movements were more likely to nauseate people rather than inspire them. So I settled for a few videos and way too many still photos to share. I also made sure to just stand still in the midst of this wonder, to soak it into myself and feel the experience instead of just recording it. There’s a world of difference between those two approaches. I think what is the biggest takeaway from these magic few days is that I was able to feel that spark of utter happiness that I thought was lost to me forever. I created the opportunity for magic and it unfolded right in front of me. All this way into my life, I made an impact on something of value to me. The natural world. A gift in and of itself. Enjoy a little look.