January 15. A wind chime across the street is ringing in the howling wind. My window panes are rain-splotched. It’s still dark out at six in the morning. West, a massive line of red fills the weather map. Storms are on the way. With each gust, they push closer, bringing a cold front.
Yesterday, I took the patio furniture—wicker sofa and chairs—into the garage for shelter through the worst of winter. With them went bold red and yellow cushions with designs of a hummingbird, a parrot, a pineapple. They need protection from rain, snow, ice, and green moss that will set in on them, too, just like on the yard stones and wood of the deck.
When light comes and I walk and observe, the back yard sits in confusion. In what used to be a thick Kentucky fescue, every kind and sort of weed is coming up. Weeds I have never seen before; weeds I cannot identify. Used to be that with winter, the weeds died.
Used to be that when Christmas came, the weather turned cold. January came with jackets and caps and gloves. February, still consistently cold. The green blades of daffodils didn’t break ground on New Year’s Day. But now, the clump of daffodils set out against the Rose of Sharon is four inches high. Daffodils are heralds of spring. But spring is two months away; warm is three months away. Yet it is now.
Dad’s garlic is a foot high. Come spring, Dad will be gone fourteen years. When he was living and loving his garden in Mississippi, I dug up some of his garlic plants and brought them to Tennessee to plant at the Wimbledon house. When it was time for me to move, I dug them up and brought them to the Wade House. They’ve been pulled in so many directions, here and there and up and down, they’re as lost as last year’s Easter egg.
The hydrangea bush does it right. Big showy lime-white blooms have dried to brown crisps. Some get clipped by the wind, fling themselves to the ground, and roll through the yard like tumbleweeds. The entire bush goes to brown, bare, and into self. But you can bet your bottom dollar that, come spring, it will shoot up in all its showy beauty and bigness and stand up before the world and shout, “I am me, and I am here,” and will grow the biggest flowers you’ve ever seen.
Winter is a time of introspection, when all of life falls back to earth—goes into self to think, assess, conserve strength, and prepare. Even me.
It’s quiet out. Nothing’s quieter than a low, gray sky, or a soft, cold rain, or maybe a falling snow. The trees are silent, empty, exposing every noded twig, every twist of a limb, every turn of a branch. Growth is taking place deep down, in the quiet.
In winter, the day’s light is not long with us. I must use the time I have, look deep within, and trust that a good work is taking place beyond my perception. My power begins in the quiet.
In the quiet, with growth pushing up from the deep, which way will my branch turn? Who am I? Am I being true to the stature of my former self? To my creator? In the words I say? In the life I live?
Or will I succumb to winter’s heavy winds? Will I follow that cold, dark creek as it rolls over itself, over the rocks, lost in the empty canopy of scrub trees, turning its back to the source and moving toward sundown. Because it’s easier to follow the path downward, to go with the flow, to stay quiet. To let my light stay lost in winter’s short days.
I am in the cold, dead season building up, preparing for my future. For when spring comes. For when it’s time to move out of the quiet, stand up, be bold, and show truly who I am and who I belong to.
I planted my back yard garden in pots this year. This came out of need—out of frustration and despair over the last two seasons’ results. No yield of tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes. I lost everything I planted to pests, rot, fungus, weeds, and disease. Oftentimes, before those menaces could even get a grip, birds pecked holes and ate the flesh and juice.
I’m a Southern girl. I have to plant things in the dirt and watch them grow. I come from a long line of farmers, from my grandfather back. My father, too, had a garden in his town yard, a yard that was once a fertile Mississippi Delta cotton field before it was a neighborhood. My garden area is small—twelve feet wide and three feet deep, in a corner against the wooden fence.
In the past, come spring, I’d pull weeds, hoe and air the dirt, add some new soil. I’d select my varieties, pick some heirlooms, put in a few cool things like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. I’d water, feed, and wait, and by June, tiny vegetables appeared, and then July brought an onslaught of hundred-degree heat. The plants curled, browned, gave in to it. I gave up, too.
I’ve lived in this house for six gardens. Before I got here, the yard was a pasture, prone to weeds, hard to tame. Beneath the bags of garden soil, conditioner, and humus I’d laid out was clay. There was nothing winning about this combination. The plants growing out of it were small, spindly, and sick.
Pots—my last hope. I bought big plastic terra-cotta-colored ones. Real clay pots were too heavy. I lined them up in my garden space and filled them with new dirt. In the first three, tomatoes. Then cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. I tend them daily, water them, help their vines trail safely. I’ve been blessed with the fruits of their growth.
Having a seasonal garden is like watching before your eyes a sped-up version of life. New tender plants are put in their beds. Watered, fed, watched, fussed over, cared for. Their stalks are straight, leaves green, baby fresh, perfect, no flaws, nothing but potential, a blueprint to fulfill and feel out beyond. Then life comes and brings its good and bad. Plants grow and bloom and produce. Nourished by spring’s sun and rain, they flourish. Then it turns on them and beats them down and rots them out. It’s an all-out attack of the elements and the outside forces that begin to suck the marrow out of life. There’s nothing you can do. You can water with a hose, you can put poison out to kill the bugs, you can cut off the sick and dead parts, but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, and you sit and watch the deterioration, and wait for the decline. Until that once strong and happy life succumbs.
And then in winter you sit on your deck and wonder what else you could have done. Or what you could have done differently to make it work, and last. And the answer is, Nothing. Sometimes things are out of your control.
Last summer my friend Nancy gave me some bean seeds to plant. She’d already planted hers along her white picket fence in downtown Franklin. Before the bean pods came, flowering red blooms would appear against the green bean leaves. We’d watch them grow and have fun comparing our bean blooms during our regular get-togethers at Chop House for lunch and poetry and essay reading. Here’s what she said:
“In South Carolina we always grew Scarlett Runner Beans. They can be put on fences, posts, or anything they can climb on, have beautiful red flowers and tons of runner beans. Lots of foliage also. I went to four places here in the Franklin area and none had ever heard of them, so I ordered packs from Burpees. I planted mine along my picket fence and have a packet left. I want you to have them as I know you love flowers, gardens, and anything that is different. So when we meet I’ll bring your packet. They are so easy. Just drop about eight seeds into about a two-inch hole, cover them, and water. Sprouts start showing in about seven days. When the beans appear in about forty days, if you constantly pick them, they are prolific. I am planning on my little white picket fence having bunches of red flowers this summer!”
The vines grew and trailed. I watered, waited, and we took pictures and compared, and finally I saw maybe a dozen beans. I picked them and steamed them with some carrots. I watched for more. Then I got distracted with work, with writing, and I grew tired of waiting. This spring, a year later, I pulled all the twining vines off the poles and fence and found a hundred or more bean pods. They were hidden inside all the foliage, had ripened, and were waiting attention that never came because I wasn’t patient enough to tend them every day.
* * *
It’s been three weeks since Nancy died. I wish I had another Burpees pack, some red blooms twining up my fence, and some bean pods to look for.
I’m reminded that the season of life may be a season, or it may be years and decades, and it’s never enough, and there’s never enough we can do to sustain it. We just need to remember to always put in all we can, to take hold of all the good we can find, and to get out of life and friendship all we can.
Last week I went to the eye doctor. As expected, I had to fill out a standard medical form—you know, the one where they ask your name and age, medical history, insurance information, and social history. The form that’s not really important because nobody ever looks at it. So I did on this form the same thing I have done on all forms for ten years. I left the Social History blank. I refused to check a box.
Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.
Nope. None of their business. It’s odd how I picked this one little thing to have an attitude on. If they added a box that said All the Above, I might’ve checked it. But I refuse to check the appropriate little white square sitting beside the “W” word. If they really care, they’ll ask, and then they’ll get a piece of my mind.
Once a nurse did ask. “My husband is deceased,” I answered. I got shot a look that said, There’s a box for that, to which I replied, “I refuse to be labeled that word.” My look back said, Don’t mess with this.
Ten years ago today, after thirty-six hours of surgeries on my husband, I became that…that word I abhor. After all the heroic efforts by surgeons, the not being able to pink him up, the flatline, he went, and I was left with a social status I didn’t understand and didn’t want. That was the visual summary of the chaos I was thrown into, like a rag doll in a wind strong enough to blow the seams apart, a wind strong enough to blow the accumulated dust out of it, a wind strong enough to blow the red stitched smile right off its face.
Picking out one insignificant thing to take a position on, while holding on to the only self I knew, was within my rights, I figured. It was one simple way I could keep some control of my life, which was in splinters up in the air in a tornadic swirl of dust and debris and cloud and earth particles.
That is one of the important things I learned after my husband died. State what you need and want. If something bothers you, let it be known. (Be reasonable, be firm, and don’t be unkind in your positioning.) If it doesn’t hurt anybody, hold to it. Take some control where you can. Because you’re going to be tossed, bruised, banged around on many fronts. Getting the steam of grief out where you can is important to healing.
My husband always told me that if anything ever happened to him, I’d get married again, fast. I always came back with, No, I’ll get a yellow lab. Well, something happened to him. Ten years ago today he had an aortic dissection, throat to groin. He had surgery at Williamson Medical and then was life-flighted to Vanderbilt for two more surgeries. He died during the third.
I dated someone for about five years…and he died.
I did not get a yellow lab. I got a yellow cocker spaniel.
Life can come at us fast. Loss wrings us out. Losing someone who lives in your house every day, someone you depend on for the life you’re accustomed to living, someone you’ve built a history with, someone you’re joined to physically, emotionally, and mentally, is about the hardest thing you’ll ever do. I say “about” because I’m thinking losing a child is in that “hardest” category, too.
One of the key figures in my grief journey was my friend, Nancy Fletcher-Blume, whom we buried Monday. About two weeks after Charlie died, the shock started wearing off. I could feel my skin peeling up at the edges and exposing the raw bloody tissue under it…and a pain greater than any I’ve ever felt, a pain far greater than I could bear. I still remember the exact moment I thought, “I don’t have to feel this pain.” I’m not sure where that came from, but I instantly knew it was a thought of suicide and I didn’t need to be having it. This is a normal thought, but we have to get control of it quickly.
I called Nancy. She’d lost a husband and two sons, one just a few years earlier. I knew she’d had counseling, and I asked her who she went to. I told her I needed help. She took the ball and ran with it. She called her church and set me up with the family counselor. She told me when and where to go. I did. And that was the beginning of taking back some control in this new wild and mean and chaotic world I was living in. And for months and even years after, Nancy told me, Take care of you. And in many ways, without even knowing it, she showed me how.
After five years on my grief journey, I published a book about my loss, about my experience with grief, about my path from “our” to “my.”
And now, ten years. And it’s my house, my car, my decisions, my job, my dog, my choices. There have been some happy and satisfying moments, and there are some lonely moments. There are still the familiar “four walls” and then there’s the example of Nancy telling me to take care of me by getting out of the closed-in, isolated-from-people space. Sometimes I’m happy being there. That’s a good thing for my writing and editing. Sometimes I’m not. Do you know what it’s like to not talk to another human being for five days running?
That’s why I’ve got to be proactive, to take steps to make sure I am out and among people.
Maybe it’s time to explore ten years of changes and discoveries and growth along that road after loss. I have an opportunity to watch others as they negotiate this path. Nancy was one of them. I share this status with four others I’m with regularly. How do we live alone for the rest of our lives?
How do we live alone meaningfully?
My son worries about me and tells me not to write gloom and doom on Facebook all the time. Well, hell, that’s what life has given. I’m in it whether I write about it or not. Writing about it lets me process it and live this life more effectively, and if by chance I can speak to someone else along the way, then that’s good. That is fulfilling my life’s calling.