A Gardener Grieves

 It's been over half a year since I lost my mother and close friend, Nancy Asbell, yet I haven't felt the unbearable sadness that one would expect. This isn't to say that I haven't grieved or don't think of her every other hour, but strangely her memory leaves me with the same inexplicable joy that my mother carried with her through unbearable pain and disability. My education as a gardener has also helped.



Gardening has been more than a therapeutic escape for me; it's become a deep seated philosophy that has intermingled with my faith and brought me a peaceful acceptance of life in all its seasons. I'd like to share my own way of coping with death so that those of you who are suffering might find a single morsel of truth to help you move towards a feeling of acceptance. I'm not a professional, and don't claim to have the answers. Just think of this as a heartfelt bereavement card from a friend who's been there. If you know somebody else who could benefit from this, feel free to pass it along.

Keep Gardening, Keep Dancing, Keep Creating


Keep doing whatever it is that brings you joy and fulfillment. In my own experience, I've found that it was pretty pointless to deny myself happiness, because to do so would be unfair to my family and dying mother. Don't get me wrong; I wallowed in self pity all through my teenage years, but after a while I realized that against all odds my mother was still alive and happy and the whole depression thing seemed a bit pointless. Who was that helping?

It's perfectly normal and healthy to feel sadness, but because it's so easy to let healthy grieving devolve into unhealthy depression and self pity, I urge you to keep gardening. Keep fishing, cooking, hiking, crafting, designing and marketing. Create as a meditation or as a prayer, and as a lifeline to the greater world's beauty. If you're doing nothing productive and fulfilling, the silence can become unbearable.


Nancy Asbell and me, her son. This was a year before she passed.

For those of you who didn't know, I started gardening when my forty-something mother became handicapped and started to lose her vision as a result of Lupus. In the months leading up to her departure, the endless phone calls from the bank made it painfully clear that she would lose her home as well as the garden that I planted, so out of necessity I had to dig everything up to be replanted at my apartment complex. Gardening made me feel as if I was accomplishing something; bringing life and beauty into the world that at times felt pretty screwed up. I felt the same way when I was writing or drawing and it helped to ground me in the moment as well as the future. To quote that prolific poet by the name of Anonymous: "To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow."

One of my more... creative seed packet illustration drawn from the waiting room

My happiest memories with my mother were spent in the doctor's waiting rooms and the ICU, where we brought sketchbooks and reading material, but would instead end up chattering on about our creative ideas and dreams of bringing others joy. When we finally settled down, I would write out articles and draw seed packet illustrations while she jotted down new ways to market her artwork and share her story.


My mom in a ten minute still life, posing in the ER

During one of my mother's closer brushes with death, all I wanted was a chance to sing with her again... but her body wasn't cooperative. I did have three colored pencils and a pad of paper though, so I wanted her to wake up to find me drawing. She was expected to die right there in front of me, but I was able to lose myself mapping out her bald head and swollen face in a series of furious scribbles. When she miraculously awoke, she beamed with pride and stammered to tell the medic about her "talented son". Despite all the pain, discomfort and imminent death, she was pretty darned happy. 

Find Beauty in Winter

Perhaps being a gardener has taught me to embrace the everyday comings and goings of life, death and dormancy. A gardener looks at the bare and skeletal trees in winter and sees a healthy life-filled vessel, merely sleeping until the sun returns in spring to bring the barren landscape back to life. The sap has only retreated to the roots beneath the soil so that the tree can rest up to return stronger than ever next time around. 

Magnolias signalling the end of winter at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

 This metaphor might leave out the fact that this tree will eventually actually die, but then look at all the seedlings sprouting up miles away in richer soils. Listen to the birds that were born from its branches, singing songs for the world to hear. Think of what your husband, sister or best friend brought to your life, and realize that even though nothing could ever fill the distinct hole left behind in his wake, you still have those gifts with which to do what you will. I still have all the truths, laughter and purposes that my mother gave me and those gifts are now mine to share.

Beyond Buying a Garden Bench

When my mother passed, my wife and I checked with all of the botanical gardens so that we could place a bench in her honor. While there's nothing wrong with donating a large sum of cash for a lasting memorial, I'm choosing to live my life as a tribute. It sounds pretty dramatic, but living in honor of my mom could be as simple as making more of the home cooked and healthy meals she used to make, in her memory. As we lose weight by cooking what she liked to cook, we remember making meals by her side and know that we're doing her proud. Because another thing I loved about her was her compassion towards friends and strangers alike, I hope that I can learn to be a better person in her honor.


"Golden Oak" by Nancy Asbell


What my mother and I really shared was our love of art. She trained me as an artist, and we both looked at the world with artist's eyes. I wanted to do a showing of her artwork in her memory, but poverty in the end forced her to sell much of her work. She also gave a lot of it away out of the kindness of her heart. In lieu of a Nancy Asbell art exhibit, I'm taking the torch and reinterpreting her artistic vision in my own way: With plants. I am a botanical illustrator to begin with, but my mother didn't merely capture a likeness on a canvas. Her landscapes were an experience crafted by a pain riddled, nearly blind and handicapped woman who found her inspiration in drainage ditches and retention ponds.



I've been playing around with some really exciting concepts for living installation art, but in this case, the art was right under my nose. Mindlessly placing Haworthia offsets in a wide propagation tray to make new plants, I slowly started to realize that the lowly plastic tray was a canvas and the succulent plants were my brushstrokes. The next thing I knew, there was a whole landscape in miniature that I created in minutes.

 The glorified dish garden found a home beneath one of my mother's paintings in my bedroom, but one day I saw the similarity between the planting and the painting and thought to do something different. I placed the painting directly above the tray and in an instant the short, choppy brushstrokes seemed to fuse with the fat and transparent Haworthia leaves. Seven months after her passing, my mother and I were making art together. I could still imagine her rambling ideas racing through my head, telling me about depth and dimension, hue and composition. My enthusiasm and drive remains undiminished in her absence, and it's as if she never left.

A Remembrance Plant

Gardeners often have memories attached to certain plants. Some look forward to the blooms on a rosebush because their mother would always tend to her rose garden. Others grow scented plants like jasmines and gardenias to add an extra sense to the treasured memory.


But rosebushes and gardenias need pampering and are often prone to dying, so I opted for a plant that would prove to be as resilient and prolific as my mom. Every week, bright pink rain lilies pop up along the parking lot of my apartment complex. I originally planted them by my mother's doorstep so that she would always find happiness when it was least expected, but when she died, I was the one who needed that constant reminder. They've multiplied admirably in the dry and sandy soil, and every time they open their cheery blooms for a few days, I think of my mother giving me a hug and asking about my day.

In Closing

One of the hardest obstacles when a loved one passes is dealing with the feeling that nobody understands the pain that you're going through. I don't claim to understand your own unique pain; be it sharply gut wrenching or inconsolably hollow and lonely. I had the advantage of knowing about my mom's dire situation years in advance, so most of the hurt was spread out earlier in life compared to the seismically devastating shock of a car accident or suicide.

While I don't know precisely what you're experiencing, I do know that the world is beautiful in all its ups and downs and that it continues to march on for us with its own subtle consolations. A smile breaks on the innocent face of a child at the grocery store, and it reminds you of a smile you once knew. A joke on TV makes you burst into unexpected laughter, and then, a stream of happy tears when you think "she would have thought that was hilarious." An ordinary flower blooms on an overcast and dewy morning, and suddenly you're reminded of a beauty that was once overlooked but can only now be embraced.

Despite a debilitating, disfiguring and excruciating illness, my mother was often described as being inappropriately happy. Before she died, I asked her if she was afraid of dying, and her primary concern was my happiness when she was gone. Chances are, your loved one wants you to be happy too. While choosing to be happy seems like a bit of a stretch, keep doing the things you love and the joy will follow. When you start feeling happiness even though you feel as if you shouldn't, don't fight the urge. Work on that novel you've been putting off, and dust off the old piano. Keep gardening, and keep living.






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25 comments:

  1. Excellent! Your mother is smiling down on you today. An expert couldn't have said it better Steve. You keep on being inappropriately happy because I'm sure your mother is doing the same thing. My hat is off to her for raising such a smart, sharing and resilient son. I'm sure you have helped many people today.

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    1. Thank you, Susan! If it cheered up one person, then I'll be satisfied. :)

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  2. Lovely...will be sharing this with others.

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    1. Thank you Kelly! We'll have to meet up again sometime.

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  3. wow! really profound thoughts there - and so true. I know that is what she would have wished for you. I love how your plants placed in front of her picture blend into one.... You have definitely got the same talent she had, and so she lives on in you.

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    1. I guess it helps when the person I lost was a positive person... it makes it easier to be positive as well. :) Matching the plants wasn't talent, just serendipity.

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  4. That was amazing thank you:) Tom

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    1. Thank you, Tom! That means a lot to me.

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  5. You are truly your mother's son, Steve. What beautiful spirits you both have.

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  6. Beautiful, Steve. I needed this today. Thank you.

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  7. Thank you for sharing this, Steve. I'm touched by your eloquent tribute to your remarkable mother.

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  8. Steve, your story was so moving, I can barely see through my tears. My sister in law passed a year ago this month and although I think of my brother, the words don't come to me to lend him comfort. I'll be sharing 'your words' with him and I thank you for sharing your story. ~Cindy

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  9. So wonderful Steve! Your Mother is smiling right now!

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  10. Steve, as you know, I don't have much time to read blogs these days, but I had some time this morning and popped in on a few of my faves...yours being one of them. What a spectacular post to 'pop in on'. I'm so glad I didn't miss this one. I applaud your beautifully captured emotions and thoughts. Your tribute to your mother is deeply moving. She is so proud of you and your accomplishments to date. The photo of the two of you is magnificent, and I LOVE the rain lily you chose to remember her by! Thank you for sharing and inspiring!!

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  11. Thank you all so very much. All my mom ever wanted to do was bring peace, love and happiness to the lives of others, so if I did that for even a couple people I'll feel as though I've done her a favor. Thank you all for taking the time to comment!

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  12. I loved all of this. I feel all of your pain and joy of your Mother. I too have health isuses and my son is 11years old. As I raise him I Pray he'll be as Awsome as you are.

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  13. Your writings touched me as well. I haven't lost my Mom yet, but I have been caring for her over the last year and a half. I came to stay with her after a illness put her in the hospital for almost a month. My sister and I decided that she no longer can live on her own, so I left work and moved in.. everyday here, with her is a blessing. I wake up, being thankful for another day..
    Your thoughts, are somehow comforting to me.. knowing what my future will hold. A loss immeasurable..

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  14. Beautiful post, Steve; your art, your vision, your spirit, and the love of your Mom. Thank you...

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  15. What a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing. I lost my mom 3 years ago. She loved gardening and passed that love on to me. While our last decade was spent estranged, when I'm in my garden, I can look past those years and remember when love was ruling her heart and life. Thank you for another reminder of garden therapy.

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  16. Beautiful post. There IS something therapeutic in accomplishing something and I think gardening is one of the best. The ground doesn't mind if you take out frustrations by stabbing it with your trowel or sorrow by watering it with your tears.

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  17. What a beautiful story of a loving mother dealing with lupus. When I look at flowers now I will think of her. I also have lupus. It is always interesting to read how someone else holds their head high and battles lupus with courage. She left her family with so many wonderful memories.

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