(a true story, written ages ago…)
The ground in January is impossibly hard and icy.
It offers no hint that it is at all capable of giving life to the herb garden I want, or rather, need. The wind blows cold on my face and the flat, gray sky promises snow, so I make my measurements quickly.
My dream is of an herb garden, fragrant and green; large enough to feel luxurious in its bounty, small enough that its borders are easily within my reach.
I dream of balmy summer evenings, the humid air laced with the scent of lavender, and rosemary, and sweet, wild chives; me, idling about the narrow paths, picking this handful and that.
You see, these were to be the years for growing; for babies, for building, for nesting; for busy Saturdays and lazy Sundays, relaxing in our backyard with parents of our children’s friends, all connected by our children like deep-rooted runners are connected underground between plants.
But our seeds did not take. There is me. There is my husband. And there is our clean, orderly house. And we are only growing older. There is an unspeakable sadness. It is a sadness I refuse to accept.
I breathe deeply, the freezing air rushing into my lungs, and I crouch to read my measurements; 9 feet from the stone wall by the stream alongside the house — 21 feet from the patio to the fence. It is not an exact rectangle — the wall by the stream is irregular and uneven — nor is it an obvious place for an herb garden to be. Squeezed between the stream and the house, it is in shade early morning and late afternoon. The soil is full of stones. But I find it perfect. Having claimed my small patch of this earth, and having defined it, I am satisfied.
This, I tell myself, is manageable. This finite piece of land can be groomed and fed and made to sustain life. With good seeds, some labor, and with the passing of time, my herb garden is inevitable. This, is what I need.
The wind is still now as I stand and survey the plot before me. So much work lies ahead. When the thaw comes, I will need to dig up the thick tangle of weeds now thriving happily here. I can feel, in my back, the weight of each hard-fought shovelful. The hauling in of rich topsoil will come next. Then there are the questions of borders, of raised beds, of one continuous stone wall or tiers of railroad ties. All of this must come before any planting can be done. Still, I think as I watch the first white flakes fall softly on the ground, here is a place in my world that can be fruitful.
And so I begin.
It is February, a dark demanding time. A time to wait, and to plan, and to begin to tell the story of Mary Ann. Mary Ann’s story, for me, is a beam of light. It is a story which is still unfolding day by day. And as I go through my struggles, I witness the grace with which Mary Ann goes through hers, and I learn.
Mary Ann would have understood my need for this herb garden. Her childhood was as hard and rocky as the soil that lies beneath the snow. Her father, they say, was a big man, abusive when he was drunk, which was often. Her mother, unable to cope with the pain, deserted the family when Mary Ann was seventeen. Yet somehow, Mary Ann found strength inside herself, and in her brothers and sisters. Somehow she grew up full and sweet, determined to carve new boundaries for herself. She built a life that was filled with love and beauty and laughter. Now she lives with cancer. And I watch in awe as she continues to live with love and beauty and laughter.
It was a cold, blustery afternoon like today when the call came. Two-year old Michael was napping, and Mary Ann was alone with him in the apartment, so she probably hurried to answer the phone. What must have gone through her mind as she listened to the doctor carefully explain the lab report? Did time begin to pass in slow motion as she heard his words form, one by one? Did she cry when she hung up the phone? Or was she numb? I shiver to imagine.
Her husband, Jay, had spent most of the day at meetings in Manhattan. They had run late and traffic was terrible, putting him more than an hour behind schedule. Tense and impatient, he sat in the back of the taxi, mentally listing all the things that needed his attention the minute he got back to his office. Jay hated days like these.
By the time he returned, hung up his coat and threw his briefcase on the desk, his inbox was piled high with mail and a dozen pink phone messages were on his chair. One, however, stood out. As he picked it up, his secretary ran in, breathless.
“There you are! We’ve been trying to get ahold of you. Your sister Frannie called. It’s an emergency.”
Jay was already dialing his sister’s number.
“Dr. Fran Langdon’s office.”
“Jay Langdon calling. Is my sister available?”
“She’s with a patient, Mr. Langdon, but she asked to be interrupted if you called.”
Jay heard the urgency in Frannie’s voice as she came on the line.
“We have bad news. Mary Ann’s doctor checked the MRI. Mary Ann has a brain tumor. A large one. They think it could be cancerous.” Jay felt dizzy. “Her doctor’s been trying to find you — he finally got ahold of me — I called your office — Jay maybe I shouldn’t have, but I gave him Mary Ann’s number at home. It’s crucial that she get to the hospital right away. God, Jay, I’m so sorry.”
Jay called home immediately. Mary Ann answered.
“Jay, the doctor just called and…”
“I know sweetheart. I’m on my way home. I’m on my way.”
To Jay, the next ten minutes were the longest ten minutes of his life. His hands trembled as he gripped the steering wheel, and his mind raced. This is not possible. Mary Ann is too healthy. Those few headaches — how could they mean cancer? It couldn’t be. She has Michael and Erin. She can’t have cancer. She can’t.
When he opened the door and saw Mary Ann sitting on the couch, his trembling stopped. He took her in his arms and held her close. She felt small, like a captured bird. She cried a little, and they talked a little. Then, together, they began the preparations for the long journey ahead.
The tumor was called an anaplastic astrocytoma. Anaplastic meant it grew relentlessly and continuously, astrocytoma because it was shaped like a star, with long gangly protusions spreading outward from the core. It was, indeed, a large cancerous tumor. It was, in almost all cases, terminal.
Cancer must always come as a shock. It grows, unseen, unfelt, deep within us somewhere, until it grows so large and powerful it interrupts our lives. It’s been four years, almost to the day, since it interrupted Mary Ann’s. She lies confined to bed, now, quiet but awake for most of the day. And in her silence she speaks to me with an eloquence like I have never known.
My garden plot lies under a blanket of snow. It, too, is quiet. It, too, is still. But each day I wait for spring, to feel the rich soil slip through my fingers, to scatter the seeds all around, and watch the first eager sprouts reach toward the sun.
The sunlight is harsh this morning, revealing too much of the naked earth and throwing long, spikey shadows across the snowy hills. I am happy to be inside, awake and alone at this early hour, with my plans and graphs and lists of herbs all spread out around me.
Wave after wave of winter storms have kept us blanketed in snow for weeks. It takes all of my faith to believe the dead, barren landscape outside my window is waiting to burst forth with life, and lately my faith has been a little unsteady. I think of Mary Ann and I try to make sense of her illness. I think of my life and try to understand why we are still without a child. I crave some sign of hope.
So I’ve taken matters into my own hands. I’ve snipped branches from the forsythia bushes and magnolia tree and placed them in my sunniest windows, and I’ve put tulips and paperwhites in containers all over the house.
Forcing, it’s called.
I love the idea of forcing blooms. The freedom, the power of it is exhilarating. I can defy nature, I can circumvent time and force my own small spring.
The ragged, yellow forsythia flowers come easily; it’s a hardy, indiscriminating plant. My bulbs all bloom quickly. But the pale, delicate magnolias are more difficult and more satisfying. Yesterday, I watched a magnolia bud for nearly an hour as it made its way out from its thick green jacket and opened up to the sun. It was how I imagine giving birth to be. I could see the soft, clenched petals pulse, then stop, then pulse and stop again, inching their way determinedly into this world. And today, it blooms, triumphant, yet tender and curled, like the little hands of a newborn baby.
I know that these blossoms, ripped from their roots, these blossoms and their beauty are impermanent. I know this because I have learned, the sweetest love comes to us when we are open and vulnerable, yet powerless to control its approach. It comes like a wave, slow, sweeping and constant, totally engulfing and flinging us about, leaving us gasping for air. It comes unplanned, unrehearsed, and is never, ever, forced.
And I know this because when we began to conceive a baby, there was such a vigorous, unbounded joy to our lovemaking. As the months, then years passed, as we failed time and again, we became more careful, more mechanical and desperate. I would close my eyes and pray; this time, let this time be the one. And still we would fail. Lying in the hospital bed, half upside down, feet pointed towards the ceiling while the doctor injected me with a plastic syringe filled with my husband’s sperm, I would have told you then I was positive and hopeful, but deep inside I knew, I would not have a baby. It had all become too forced.
And yet, I revel in these forced blooms — their symmetry, their delicacy, their tenacity, contrasted against the stark, snowy scene outside my window. Yes, they are impermanent, but they are not unimportant.
The sun is high now. I’ve finished the sketches of my garden and I am pleased. And as I look out the window at my lifeless plot of land, I imagine walking along the pathways by the stone wall, hearing the sounds of the birds above the trickling stream, and watching over my freshly watered herbs, and I can distinctly smell the sweet scent of magnolias.
Mary Ann has emerged with the spring.
We had all held a kind of vigil by her bedside these last several months, quietly wondering each day if it would be her last. The priest had come and gone, the doctors said it was just a matter of weeks, or even days. But Mary Ann has decided otherwise.
It began the night of Michael’s birthday. She awakened with a chilling shriek that shattered the darkness. When Jay reached out for her she was sobbing uncontrollably. She hadn’t cried more than a few times since she became sick and had barely spoken in weeks. But something powerful erupted in her that night.
Unable to articulate, or maybe even understand her terrible sadness, she wailed and cried and struggled for hours, until she finally fell asleep, exhausted, in Jay’s arms.
She spent the next few days quiet, as before. But slowly, daily, she made the climb upwards from her silent depths. She began sitting up more, then talking more, then sleeping less. Now, she sits for hours at a time, out of bed, in a chair.
And all around me spring has begun to bring the earth back to life. The sun, still weak, is up earlier now, and darkness hesitates before it falls.
I have in my bedroom a tray full of herbs that I planted as seeds, but have now pushed past the surface into the world. They charm me; so tender, yet so purposeful. I can’t imagine how they will ever withstand the rigors of life outdoors. The dill is so delicate and feathery; the basil, leafy, but top heavy and precarious. Only the sage is hearty and consistent in its growth, and it is still so very, very small. They worry me, all of them.
My weekends have been filled with digging weeds, hauling peat moss, and buying railroad ties. My husband has built a stone wall. I am not nearly as confident as I thought I would be with my work. I know the ground must be deeply dug and fertilized with well rotted organic material and bonemeal. So I till the soil, but I wonder, am I digging deep enough? I turn rich topsoil and peat moss into the dirt, but I only guess at the proportions. The perfect soil pH is a neutral one, close to 7, but how can I measure that? Will the weeds be strong enough to push through this soil? Will they be nurtured by it?
These are silly worries, perhaps, but they cross my mind constantly as I work.
Still, the gentle air and tender greenness of spring gives me confidence. A month ago, these hillsides were barren and forbidding. Now little yellow leaves shoot out from every branch, so full of promise.
A month ago we sat by Mary Ann’s bedside and said our silent good byes. Now, she sits, looks out her window and watches as spring returns.
The soil is cool and damp from last night’s rain.
I kneel and place each tender seedling into its shallow trench. The gentlest breeze or movement topples the tiny plants. They are so fragile. I carefully pat the soil around their delicate stems, encouraging each one to stand as tall as it can.
From a distance, it must look as if I am praying.
And, or course, I am.
It is Mother’s Day. It is a day that used to be very difficult for me. But today, I am thinking, it is a good day to start my garden.
A very good day.
It is going to be hot today. The sun has not yet found my garden, so I sit here in the shade listening to the buzzing flies, the trickling brook and occasional note from the windchimes on the barest of breezes. My cat sits at my feet, her back to me, as we both survey the garden.
It is amazing. My garden is beginning to grow.
Weeks spent digging, planting, and weeding have yielded graceful wild chives topped with feathery purple flowers, healthy bunches of mint, sweet woodruff and violets. I found hyssop, catnip and marigolds at the nursery. The delicate dill, the fragrant sage and most of the other herbs I nurtured from seeds. I placed the tallest herbs, the fennel, the hyssop and the garden angelica, near the walls to the back, with the low growing and dwarf herbs, violets, nasturtiums and thyme in the front.
It is such a joy to see them beginning to thrive where weeds and rocks strangled the soil before.
Across the yard, Mary Ann sits with her nurse, in the shade by the pool. She is dressed in white cotton pants and shirt, white tennies and a jaunty straw hat. Sitting quietly, half smiling, her eyes are fixed on Michael bravely edging his way down the steps into the pool.
The doctors now tell us Mary Ann’s tumor is gone. They have no explanations. They have never seen a tumor like this simply disappear. It is the kind of miracle that leaves the experts speechless and the rest of us lighthearted at the news. Still, the tumor, the surgery, the radiation and chemotherapy have all damaged her brain to some degree, so some of what we know of Mary Ann is gone. She struggles to articulate simple thoughts. She needs someone to help her walk and eat. What is left is the essence, the beauty that is Mary Ann, and that glows with a pure, strong light.
Mary Ann does not know my name anymore, but when I greeted her this morning she touched my hand and said, “I love you.” And when I walked into the room yesterday, she clearly announced to all the message on my T-shirt: “Party Animal.” I believe, on some level, she knew she was teasing me. She smiles almost all the time, and she laughs often.
“Mommy, watch me,” says Michael, touching his tiptoes to the bottom step and lifting his chin to keep his head above water. He need not have asked her; she had watched nothing else all morning.
The shadows grow longer, and Michael and Erin fall asleep in the warmth of the afternoon sun, curled up together in a lounge chair, wrapped in big red beach towels. Mary Ann is sleeping inside.
And in the the corner of the yard my herb garden is lined with rows of tender young plants, fresh and green and growing.
The bright afternoon sunlight pierces each droplet, shattering its image as it is falling, falling in a cascading arc over the lush green garden. It is a dance, a dance of light, of hundreds and hundreds of shimmering, flickering prisms alive in the air. A bare cool shower gently touches my face in the shifting breeze, sweet and clean against my sweaty skin. The thirsty plants glisten, the soil grows a rich blackbrown and the water runs down the leaves and the stems deep into the parched roots.
I have spent the last few peaceful hours tending my garden and harvesting herb flowers — chamomile for soothing teas, lavender and rosemary for fragrant potpourris, tiny purple basil flowers and bright orange nasturtiums to add to tonight’s salad. The blossoms are best picked just before they reach full bloom, in dry weather and in the early afternoon, when the concentration of their oils is at its highest. I picked them by hand, taking care not to touch the petals, and laid them flat in my wicker basket which is resting on the stone wall beside me.
The garden, well groomed and watered now grows happily in the deep heat of the day. I turn my attention to my harvest, tying the herbs into little bunches and stringing them up to dry, stems upward, in the gently flowing air by my open kitchen window. Their scent fills the room.
Next winter I will take the bunches of rosemary and use them to perfume a roasting chicken on a snowy Sunday afternoon. The thyme will be wrapped with fresh parsley in bouquet garnish to flavor my winter soups. And the lavender will be tied in muslin or placed in crystal bowls around the house to sweeten the air.
I read that once an herb has been cut, and the supply of water and nutrients ceases, the cells begin to die. Indeed, the entire chemical composition of the plant changes. And if cut at the right time, if the leaves are picked just before the plant flowers, and flowers are picked just before the blooms are full, the flavors and aromas become deeper and stronger and more powerful than when the plant was alive.
Like a memory. Or like a dream.
But if I stand very still in the middle of my garden, with the afternoon sun on my back, the damp soil sticking lightly to my bare feet, listening only to the buzzing cicadas and the beating of my heart, so very still, I can feel the life that is now, that is real, that is in me and around me. It is not the yearning dream of life I felt making plans for my garden on dark winter mornings, or the yearning dream I have dreamed of my unborn children. And it is not the memory of this beautiful garden which I will carry with me next winter when the snow pushes against my door and keeps me inside, or the memory of Mary Ann which we will carry inside us after she is gone. It is life, and it is now, and it is precious.
Maybe that is what Mary Ann knows. Maybe that is why she is so peaceful, and so intent on each moment, drinking in Michael’s laughter, struggling to put ribbons in Erin’s hair even though her fingers won’t do what she tries to make them do. Mary Ann is alive, and with her family, now, and for her, that is enough.
My dreams and memories are powerful. My hopes drive me forward to tomorrow. But Mary Ann’s silent wisdom gives me pause, and for a moment, I forget about the herbs I dried for the winter, I forget about the memory of last winter’s toils, I forget about my dreams. I stand in the garden, with the afternoon sun on my back, the damp soil sticking lightly to my bare feet, and I feel, really fell, alive.
Now, the work is over.
Now my garden gives, uncoaxed.
It grows lush, almost ragged. Long, leggy stems emerge, flowers blossom and give off seeds of their own, in the natural order.
The air is warm and moist and heavy, gentle upon the skin. My garden demands almost no energy from me. Indeed, I have none to give. The sun lures me into its light, I close my eyes as it beats down on my arms and legs.
Mary Ann has become quieter again. The tumor has come back. This time, there will be no operation, no chemicals, nothing to deter the tumor’s growth. Now, there is just the steady passing of time.
It is Mary Ann’s birthday today. Early this morning, I went to visit her. The nurse has combed her hair back and twisted it up on top of her head. In a light blue dress and pink lipstick, Mary Ann looked elegant and pretty. I had brought a handful of flowers from my garden, flowering wild chives, purple violets, and white and yellow chamomile blossoms, all wet with dew, all fresh and fragrant. I placed them in a jar and set them next to Mary Ann. “Those are gorgeous,” she said. It was the clearest, most perfect sentence I had heard her say in months. It made me smile, and she smiled back.
In the heat of the sun I drift away, not quite asleep, not awake. I hear a distant rumble of thunder, and in my mind Mary Ann’s words echo over and over again.
My house is very old. Late at night it creaks and bends in a comforting way. But tonight, there is no comfort to be found.
I awaken, startled, and run to the window. There is a stillness and a blueness to the night outside. I shiver. Did I hear a sound? I crawl inside the womb of my bed, and pull the covers up tight around my chin.
Sometimes, in a sleepy blur, I see lights dancing on my bedroom walls. I know these are spirits in my house, or in me, and I know they have come to help, not harm.
But tonight, I am afraid. My heart is racing. Nothing is sure.
Mary Ann is dying.
She lies so still, so very still. And my heart is racing.
Outside my window the last lone firefly flickers over the garden, sending its signal to no response. The herbs are spent and faded. The overwhelming silence of the night screams in my ear, in my soul.
Mary Ann is being ripped by the roots from this earth and this earth is not ready to let her go. Mary Ann has children that she loves, children that need her to hold them, to stroke their fevered foreheads, to calm their childish fears, children who need to run from her filled with innocent confidence crying, “I can do it by myself,” all the while knowing that she is a half a step behind them, children who will never again say, “Mommy, watch me,” children who will never again fall asleep in the perfect shelter of their mother’s arms.
I wait for the ringing phone to splinter the darkness. But the silence brings the dawn. Then another. And another.
Mary Ann is dying. And my heart races on.
I lay on my back looking up at the colorless sky blending in a hazy line with the early morning clouds layered one against the other like giant paper cutouts falling off into a pale infinity. I feel light and rested and peaceful after only three hours of deep sleep, the deepest sleep I have slept in many nights.
The call came minutes ago. Mary Ann has died. I sense rather than see her now, in my mind, in the powdery haze of the clouds, eyes dancing, laughing, arms outstretched, pure and free and joyful. I am certain she is there and that she is happy and I lay in the coolness of my sheets and feel completely and totally calm.
I did not think it would be this way. I thought death would be ugly. But seeing Mary Ann last night, serene and untroubled and surrounded by her family in her home, breathing easy, shallow breaths, slipping heartbeat by heartbeat away from the heaviness of this world, she was beautiful. Beautiful like a newborn baby, just pulled from the womb, wet and crying and sweet, fresh from God’s arms.
Jay was holding her as she took her last breath, then held her a while longer. He woke the children, and as they all gathered around her bed, Jay took out the prayers he had planned for them to say. But they began talking about the good times, the funny times, the wonderful times with Mary Ann. They brought out the pictures, from Australia, from Brooklyn, from Crystal Lake. And suddenly the prayers seemed shallow and cold by comparison. Together, they cried and talked and laughed and looked at the pictures and said goodbye.
There was no more fear, no more dread. Mary Ann died as she lived, with love and beauty and laughter.
I lay a while longer in my bed and feel her shimmering radiance wash over me. She is whole again now, strong and intensely lovely. I wish she had never been sick and there had been no tumor and no pain and that she was waking up to a normal Sunday making pancakes for her children and discussing the day’s plans. But this morning, she died. And like an herb picked just before it reaches full bloom, her death revealed her essence, her beauty — which is deeper and stronger and more powerful than any that exists on this earth.
Swirling grey tendrils curve slowly upward and gently eastward carrying the musky smell of this morning’s woodfire, as overhead a chorus of geese passes by, honking, calling, heralding the season’s change. A thin crust of leaves, crackling with a silvery dusting of frost, clings to the herbs as if guarding a secret. I can see my breath, grey and silvery too, and I cup my hands around the warmth of my coffee, holding it close to my face as I sit huddled on the cold stone garden wall.
A brown barrenness is all around, and the wet scent of rotting leaves mingles with the smoke. The herbs, once lush and verdant are now effete, weary in the autumn chill. But even as the leaves wither, I know the sturdier herbs, the aromatic herbs, rosemary and thyme and the sages and mints, will be back, stronger still in the spring. Even now, their roots reach like fingers deep into the ground clinging to the earth seeking the warmth and nourishment they will need to endure the winter.
I brush away the leaves with my hands, then put on my gloves, cold and rough against my skin. I place mulch around the plants one handful at a time, slowly, as if tucking a blanket around a sleeping child.
This, now, is my garden. Amidst the weathered plants I feel the life that is here, that grew sweet and fragrant in the warm summer air, that will grow sweet and fragrant in the summer air again.
There are still no children for my husband and me, and some days still feel long and empty. But the deep down sadness is gone. There is so much life around us, the quiet beauty of a summer rain, the majesty of a heavy winter snow as it clings to the branches of the trees, the laughter of friends, the tears of a child, a simple garden. We have so much. To mourn for what we cannot have takes too much time. Mary Ann knew how to savor all that was precious in this life. And she has taught me well.
I place the final handful of warm, moist mulch around the wilted violets, and I am done.
A rich patchwork of deep brown peatmoss cloaks the garden and the plants are pressed flat against the earth, listening, listening to footsteps that have come and gone, to the haunting music of an ancient windchime, to the laughter of a child running, to stories told.
It is Christmas Eve.
The piny scent of the Christmas tree fills the darkened room. The candles burn. It is a dance, a dance of light, of hundreds and hundreds of shimmering, flickering prisms alive in the air.
It is the dance we saw at the memorial service for Mary Ann, when we each placed a candle on the altar for her, one by one by one, hundreds of us, and when we were done, the altar was filled with an ethereal light, shimmering, radiant and alive, and we all felt Mary Ann with us.
It is a dance we saw when I went with Erin to Paris after Mary Ann died. We strolled the Seine for hours under turquoise skies. We knelt in Notre Dame. We ate cheese and watched the old men play boules in the park. Then, on Erin’s birthday, we journeyed from Paris to Giverney to see Claude Monet’s gardens.
The trip was long, and we had trouble finding our way, but after many hours we arrived, only to find the gardens closed. Fermee. Desolee. We walked a little, stretching our legs before our long trip back to Paris, when suddenly Erin saw a door, a back door, ever so slightly open. She pushed it, and it gave way, and we both caught our breath. There, before us, were the gardens, filled with flowers and bridges and waterways and no one but Erin and I to wander them. And as we strolled through his gardens, ten thousand times more magnificent than mine, and saw the light dancing off the water, we felt Mary Ann with us.
That night, the night Erin turned fourteen, I sat across from her at the Jules Verne Restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. She looked like an angel, shining and so beautiful. All around us the lights of the tower sparkled golden lights like stars, like champagne, like heaven. And in Erin’s eyes, and in the night, I saw Mary Ann again.
Tonight, the candles burn, the tree lights quiver and a mother’s love shines eternal.
Tonight, a whisper of snow falls lightly on my garden. It is a dance of light. A dance of life. A dance of love.