A few days ago, I sat beside my brother's deathbed and asked him to walk with me through the woods that surrounded our childhood home. As he drew his last breaths, I was hoping that he could hear the rustle of fallen leaves beneath our feet and feel the breeze that sent them drifting from the trees.
Today, it is I, who feels shaken and cast adrift.
Death is as natural as a change of seasons; bare branches follow the flowers of spring. Years ago, when I was searching for a spirituality that spoke as clearly as birdsong, I found a Zen verse that I have cherished ever since: "The plum tree, dwindling, contains less of the spring; but, the garden is wider and holds more of the moon." I have held onto that image these last few days, searching for the moonlight. However, Jeff's passing came too fast, and far too soon, it has felt so un-natural, that clouds have shadowed my garden. My only consolation has been the release he must have felt at the end.
Jeff's cancer was "virulent", his reaction to the chemotherapy devastating to his system. There were complications, crises, and trauma. Fortunately, there were also moments of hope and comfort. One day, in the hospital, I asked him to share his favorite memories about growing up together, and he reminded me of the clandestine bike trips we used too take to the Hudson River, some eight miles from our home. I was twelve, and Jeff must have been about nine years old, when we set out on those adventures. We would ride through forests, past highways, and over steep hills before reaching the river. Once there, we'd skip rocks, watch the ships trafficking the wide expanse of water, and dream about building a raft and floating away. I was glad that I asked.
Several days after his funeral, I cut a rose from my garden and walked to the cemetery where Jeff is buried. As I knelt beside the tumbled clay of his gravesite, I talked with him, letting him know that he would always be alive in my heart. I left the flower among the faded funeral blossoms and walked slowly home. As I turned down my street, I saw several trucks parked in front of my house- the contractor I've hired to do the heavy soil work needed to start my garden was standing in the front yard. He and his crew were ready to get going after weeks of rain delays.
And so, I am beginning again- a new garden and a new internal landscape await me. As I write this, my back yard is a series of scars where we have bulldozed out bamboo roots and dug trenches for the new irrigation system. My own scars are not so visible, though I feel as if I could trace them with my finger. I have found that grief has its own physicality, it seems measurable, like wave patterns on a hospital monitor.
The torn earth of my backyard is the same dense clay found in the cemetery, just a few blocks away. Once turned and exposed to the air, it hardens to a brick like consistency and becomes a tumbled puzzle of clods. It must be knit back together by adding compost and other organic materials, a healing process that will take some time. Eventually, the soil will improve to a loose, friable mix that will reward both garden and gardener alike. Working the soil is something I know how to do, however, I wonder if I am up to the task of providing the healing that my family and my soul require.
What my soul seems to require is this- telling stories. During the memorial service, I shared a few of my favorite Jeff stories: about the time we got lost in the woods during a blizzard, about his outburst of first grade temper when he defended me from the discipline of "Sister Mary Adolph" and our Catholic school nuns, about his quick wit, his loyalty, and his vulnerability. The stories we tell one another, and ourselves, are how we make sense of both the ordinary and the senseless; they provide the understanding that we crave. We till their narratives into the tumbled chaos of our lives, enriching them, and making them whole.
Our gardens tell stories as well. As we create these places of sanctuary, memories take root. Jeff, my sister Diana, and I grew up in a garden created by loving parents. The stone lined terraces built by my dad served as our castle, the forsythia bushes doubled as hiding places where we'd peek out at the world through a cascade of yellow blooms, we marveled at the dependability of the four o'clocks, and drank in the scent of lilacs on spring afternoons. I cannot find a home for all of these plants in my new garden, but the sense of wonder instilled by those who nourished them, and us, will guide my hands.
Our memories fall and tumble, shaken like leaves from a tree. Some skitter down the curb; others float on the wind as graceful as a bird. Let us gather them together, turn them in together, offering their gifts to one another, and the world. Empty branches, black with rain- but the stream is filled with gold.
Dedicated to Jeff Spencer October 21, 1959 - October 20,
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