by Karen Lauritzen
“A garden is not for giving or taking. A garden is for all.”
Once again, the same voice woke me from depths of soundless sleep, “Now. Rise. Come to this place. Come.” I rose, my body all the while resisting leaving the companionable warmth of my bed. I dressed and climbed to the cemetery at the top of the hill in dark November cold. My yellow lab, who usually lept from his bed on the floor next to mine, now just stirred slightly, opened an eye, then closed it. Too early even for him.
I shivered and dressed, ran my hands through my hair and turned on the flashlight. I was indebted to the silence of the house and to separate bedrooms. Grateful my shuffling didn't wake Everett, my husband of less than two years, this man who told me he loved me because my life seemed so manageable. I knew differently. I scrabbled through my closet for warm clothes-- shirts, pants hung askew, a few scattered on the floor, to greet me. This chaos mirrored the reality of the past ten years of my single life-- my life before our marriage. I'd cared for and buried five family members-- my late husband, both parents and two aunts-- and raised two sons alone.
I knew if Everett saw me awake and dressing at three o'clock in the morning, walking to the cemetery through the black night to wrap my arms around the crepe myrtle tree, a torrent of questions would spill from his lips. I was even surprised at myself, at this ritual that was becoming predictable. Yet, night after night, this urge pressed me on.
Everett looked quizzically at me last week when rocks dug out of the garden by Agatha, our Cherokee landscaper, were left piled in a mound where they were dug. He didn't understand at first
why we couldn't get rid of the stones. They were messy, disorderly and distracted him, he said, when all he wanted to see was the beauty of wildflowers. I explained Agatha believed moving the stones disturbed their place of rest in the garden. He stared at me blankly, then a small, “Oh. I see,” slid from his lips. I knew he didn't see at all, but he trusted me. I also knew he'd become upset if he learned it was the nightly trips to the cemetery that left me tired and foggy the next day.
I pulled the wrought iron latch on the garden gate forged with black laurel leaves, swung it open, and set the flashlight on the river rock wall sides that formed the base for the fence. A half moon illuminated the flat brass markers on each gravestone. In the row closest to my feet lay my two aunts, side by side in death as they had been in life. In the second row were my parents, and furthest away, in the first row, my late husband, Henry. At each grave I bent down, ran my hands across the name in a greeting and blessing. Behind me a circle of native shrubs-- holly, quince, and bayberry-- defined this land that had been an open field. I'd bought the shrubs believing they were dwarfs, a species that were compact and and would grow close to the ground. Yet, each had outgrown its space so there was no longer room between plants. An unbroken circle of green growth, of life flourished here, encircling the graves.
”Don't go, don't go, don't go. . .” But Henry, my husband of twenty-two years was already gone. I stood over his bed. Then, I leaned over him and kissed his cheek. I slid back into the chair next to the bedside, cupped his cooling fingers between my palms feeling the gold of his wedding band warm slightly between my hands. Even though the hospital suggested he do so, Henry refused to remove his ring, “No need. I'll be home in a couple of days.”
A nurse arrived on soundless feet, leaned over my slumped shoulder, “Stay as long as you like. Take your time with him.” She stilled the machine with two clicks and left. The only breath in the room was mine and with each exhalation the word loss echoed in my ears.
I watched the stillness of his body in death, intently hoping for slight eye movement, any small, shallow stirring of his chest. Henry remained lifeless, unmoving and unchanged. His body affirmed the truth. I sobbed and watched his skin turn from pale pink to gray. Time vanished with my grief. I couldn't believe what was. It just wasn't acceptable that this 6'2”, 200 pound vital, take- charge man was a lifeless corpse. All of me worked to reject what I'd witnessed. Still unbelieving, still trying to distill hope from the truth, I waited for him to open his eyes.
Henry was supposed to die at home in the presence of his family reading the daily Wall Street Journal, listening to the whir of the fax machine spit out numbers for his latest business projects, while enjoying the welcome distraction of his sons running in and out of his home office. He was supposed to wear his favorite gold wool blazer, the one that kept his body temperature just warm enough when chemotherapy left him chilled. The plan for him to die at home didn't, however, include a critical case of pneumonia that raced through his already weakened immune system, sending him to the hospital. He died, dressed in a thin institutional gown in a place where no one knew him. A part of me understood he'd been well-taken care of by strangers here, as much as medicine could do. But, this was not what he chose, what we wanted. But then, his death wasn't either.
I shifted in the straight back chair next to him, knowing I had to leave him, not being ready to do so. To leave now seemed disloyal and final. There was nothing left, but still I was unable to leave his side. I stroked the length of his forearm back and forth, longing for the comfort I'd always found touching him. I nestled my head against his arm wanting one more moment of him, just one more. I felt a hand touch my shoulder. Two women friends arrived to drive me home through the black November night.
The drive was filled with images of Henry's body being zipped into a black body bag by strangers who would not know what he needed. My mind was still married to him, occupied with the way he liked his laundry done, the way he drank his coffee, the way he slept with his blanket just so over his lower legs. Later that night, I awoke with a start, my pillow wet with tears, hoping the funeral home was treating his body gently.
The following day I arrived at the funeral home feeling as if my feet were sinking in soft sand. My body was as ungainly, as inaccessible, as my feelings. I entered the parlor disguised as a cozy living room to conceal the business of making agonizing decisions. I glanced down and looked at my abysmal blouse, one I hadn't known I owned. It hung loose over dark brown slacks that fell in folds onto my weather-beaten brown shoes. I felt like a splatter of mud standing next to the funeral director's impeccable black suit and highly polished shoes.
“Where would you like Henry to be buried?” His voice was soothing, smooth.
I looked at him blankly. Words seemed difficult to form. My mind required a series of mental gymnastics and I barely had energy to stand upright. Henry's death was sudden and we hadn't made necessary arrangements thinking there was always time, always time. We'd only lived in our house three months. I knew of two cemeteries in town. Both were located on busy streets, one across from the high school, the other along a four-lane highway. That wouldn't do. I still felt ownership of his care and shouldered the responsibility to make right decisions for him. Then, the haze that shrouded my thinking cleared long enough for me to remember what Henry said about the highest point on our property, “It's so beautiful, so peaceful. This would be a good place for a cemetery.”
So I, a tenderfoot from Chicago, transplanted to the mountains of Western North Carolina, built a cemetery, a sacred space. A local stonemason built the wall of North Carolina river rock. A blacksmith welded black wrought iron laurel leaves in a pattern I drew for the gate. I researched the history of the area and discovered it was called Sweet Woods, so to the stone wall near the gate I attached a brass marker and scripted it, “Sweet Woods Garden.”
The process of planting Sweet Woods Garden became an emptying experience. As I found myself in touch with black dirt, my mind freed and became unburdened, and all disquieting thoughts spilled into furrows left by roots pulled from weeding. Several hours of gardening left my fuzzy mind calm and clear. My body felt the good kind of tired that hard physical work produced. My clothes, smelling of sweet, black soil, cleansed me.
Gardening led to more planting throughout the property. Growing flowers was a satisfying promise: a plant took root and bloomed, as it always did under Agatha's careful tutelage. Flowers produced color and vigor year after year. I strolled among the gifts of the garden scattered at my feet to find foxglove with its tall lavender spikes, columbine with blooms in pink and yellow, azaleas splashed orange, pink and candy stripe, sturdy daisies, and a multitude of day lilies pledging their bounty. I'd stand at the end of a full day of labor, back stiff, sunburned neck and arms, on this ground I'd tended, first with a sense of obligation, now with a feeling of connectedness. I'd found my new partner in the earth, this soil beneath my feet.
Over the next ten years four more family members died and were buried in Sweet Woods Garden, one every two years. When grief ensued me, I grieved as I gardened following the same ritual.
The cemetery became a place to meditate. It was the place to go for the comfort and the continuity of long-term family relationships. They were all there and seemed eager to speak with me as I developed the ability to hear. As I spent more and more time in this space, my mind cleared. Messages came about how to raise my two sons alone, how to manage the myriad of everyday issues that arose as I lived my single life. I'd ask questions and wait, sitting on a stone bench under the dogwood tree within the circle of shrubs. Shiny green holly leaves mixed with the coarser threads of evergreens mirrored my own struggle to mix my rough grieving life with the new. Giant bumble bees drank nectar from fuscia bee balm behind the dogwood. Monarch butterflies stopped to rest on the top of the gate between feedings on the last few blooms of azaleas. All nature seemed to welcome me and create a place for me.
One summer a raccoon climbed the crepe myrtle tree and died, its leg wedged between two close-growing branches. Agatha pried the small, stiff body from the tree and buried it in the woods. She recounted the story and explained that this sacrifice was a cleansing ritual, “How blessed you are!” She grinned. I'd not told Everett about the raccoon or the ritual. The crepe myrtle then shed its bark to cleanse itself of this sacrifice. It now stood perfectly formed, its bark smooth as gray clay, top to bottom. The tree had been a scraggly stick until that summer. It was now a guardian tree, its symmetry perfect and tall outlined against the Carolina sky.
The crepe myrtle stood fifteen feet tall with several large heavier branches supporting small ones. The smooth, gray bark glistened in the moonlight. I pressed my body into its trunk feeling its unwavering strength. I wrapped my palms around a smooth thicker branch, then stood still beneath the silent sky. Within seconds the tree emanated energy. Vibrations began in my fingers, traveled the length of my arms, through my torso and down my feet. I found myself mouthing names of family members now living, now needing comfort and healing. If I'd stepped outside myself to watch, I'd feel like an empty headed old woman. Yet, these actions felt altogether natural. It was as if being here was the yield, the harvest for years spent planning and tending Sweet Woods Garden. And now, with the knowledge of the guardian tree, the cemetery became my compass. During these nocturnal visits my focus shifted. No longer were my children, husband, brother, church or my books the anchor. This place was my center. This change of course felt certain.
As each family member was lowered into their grave, my life seemed to develop a new rhythm and harmony on the wave of the loss. Loss, burial, grief, renewal became my landscape. The pattern of living and dying was like planting. I became one with the process of growth, life, death, renewal. A new, sweet-smelling melody was imprinted on me as surely as the genetic code for the color of each rose in the garden. Nothing vanishes. I looked outward to the living, healing testament of the garden. Nothing vanishes. Nothing.