It began as a spring of build and seed. Of hope and growth.
In May, in less than a period of only three weeks, my wife and I placed nearly 1,000 paving stones in our yard to plant a dream in our newly acquired side-yard, to transform the square grass plot into a living spill of rainbow, tall stalks, flourishing roots and vegetables, a thriving garden. It was a wildly busy time—loads and loads of soil, toiling with shovel and barrow—our neighbors and local friends stopping to visit every day, curious about our work, our growing dream.
And we did it.
Now, from here, in mid-August, I sit surrounded by the big blooming of what we’d dreamed—a tall, bursting array of Zinnias and Cosmos, Marigolds, Roses, Sunflowers, Morning Glories, Feverfew, Black-eyed Susans, Valerians, Cardinal Flowers, Phlox. And more. Now, too, bursting Tomato vines, Squash, Peppers, Lettuce. All around me is nourishment, life—evidence of thrive and survive. Butterflies dipping in and out, hummingbirds dashing and hovering from blossom to blossom, bees, ladybugs, all kinds of bugs. Everything buzz and hum—a winding, amazing garden, an array of color and texture, of so: Much. Life.
But some seasons bloom hard growths, shadows in between the bright petals. And that’s what this brutal summer came to bring. In June, my 27-year old niece Brittany died by suicide. A horrible, gutting shock to our family—and I spent several days working on a eulogy and preparing to preside over her memorial and burial service. Watching my beautiful warrior of a brother, John, and Brittany’s sister, Paige, standing over Brittany’s grave will endure as one of my hardest memories. Though, even amid the greater shadows—blooms: Brittany was laid to rest in a gorgeous meadow surrounded by forest behind a cemetery, birdsong blending with our goodbyes.
After Brittany’s funeral, predictably, now, it seems: my wife and I went down with Covid. And down is the operative word. A hard week of fever and exhaustion. It sucked. Period. All shadow.
But, again, bloom. Then, we embarked on a beautiful, restful trip to Pennsylvania to spend with my wife’s parents—which, in retrospect, was just enough rest and nourishment to prepare us for the biggest shadow of all, that would greet us immediately upon our return to Michigan, as my mother suffered a fall the night we arrived home. The next day I took her to the E.R., and she was admitted to the hospital.
Eleven days later—following a horrifying week at the hospital then a quick dose of hospice care, she was gone.
Hard, sudden growths are a shock to both body and mind.
The hospital stay—where I continually witnessed my mother neglected by nurses and left to scream for help until she’d grow hoarse if I wasn’t there, where I saw her slip sharply in and out of dementia, where I listened to her mental and physical agony for hours on end—broke me. Though I’ve had to maintain care of my not always stellar mental health for years, I can say for the first time ever, the morning after we rescued my mother, having her discharged from the hospital to return home for hospice care, I crossed over into a new place myself. After the priest came to anoint my mother that morning, what they used to call “last rites,” I suffered a mental collapse. I left reality and went across this bardo of trauma, this deep ravine—beyond sanity. It was terrifying. Utterly. I was outside of the world in a place of new shapes and lawlessness, new language. My mind was free-wheeling, my shock at such a feverish pitch that I was suffering with hallucinations and my own dementia-like symptoms. Bent under the weight, then, for several hours, a broken stalk. Lost in the shadows. And—thank God—there, like light, was my wife, where she’d been the whole time, beside me, holding me up, letting me know I’d be OK. And there, too, were my brothers Mike and John and Kevin and my niece, Paige, like troop reinforcements, who swooped in to be with my Mom as we began that first day of her hospice care. “You are shell-shocked and look like shit,” my brother said, wagging his finger in my face, which, I told him later, sounded like a prayer. “Go home and rest up,” he said, holding me as I sobbed. They forced me home to sleep that day away. And, despite terrible visions and horrifying dreams, I entered the dark soil of sleep. And woke up alive again.
Hospice was then its own shock—thanks to living in a culture that veils dying in mystery and keeps it from us entirely. Here, in a handful of days, I was to not only learn all about dying, up close and personal—with my phobias of illness upwelling——but I would learn these lessons while witnessing my mother—who I adore beyond language—die. I barely knew what hospice was, to be perfectly honest. But, like everyone says, these hospice care-workers were incredible—giving me emotional support while also teaching me about dying.
How measurable the pace and movement of dying is—that’s what stunned me the most. The schedule. The metrics of our going. The checklist of signs, typically starting a few weeks out (for us, in days): the “reaching” the dying exhibit as they grasp into thin air, the conversations the dying begin to have with others we don’t see, their inwardness and withdrawing, the fidgeting with their bedding and gown, the fogged glass windows their eyes become—and, as it gets closer, the cessation of nourishment and swallowing, the marbling of their veins, the bluing of their extremities, the slowing of breath (what they call, so poetically “fish out of water breathing,”) then the rattle, then the final sigh.
Hospice workers were able to tell us she’d be gone “before the end of the work-week.” And she was. That Wednesday. Hump day.
Knowing friends, for whom this process has been much longer, more agonizing, I felt in some ways like, despite the pain of it, it was relatively far less brutal. And it was. And my heart goes out to all who live to witness far greater, far lengthier suffering. I’m well aware that despite the pain of these few weeks for me, others have endured far, far greater pains watching their loved ones go.
There was something almost too orderly to all of it, the ordinariness of the process, listening to those used to caring for the dying. But these are the gardens we make, with their illusions of control—hemmed and fenced—as life before us starts, flashes, stuns, reaches, withers. We know what the seasons do. We know what dying looks like in leaves, trees, all around us. We just haven’t learned what it looks like in our bodies, or that, despite its culturally ingrained horrors, dying can be even be seen as beautiful. And here again, as another summer wanes in Michigan, it will blaze gloriously, this going, and we’ll love it; how beautiful the last flourish, the gown autumn wears.
And God, please: Bring on the quiet dark of winter soon, my favorite season. And let me lay down in its all-knowing shadows with my grief. Give me long, nourishing dark. And the pure erasure of snow. Bury me.
My wife not only held me close throughout all the brutal hours of my mother’s going, she also kept me engaged with the process of caregiving, because she knew, as others told me (though I didn’t believe them in the moment)—that if I didn’t run from these moments (outwardly or inwardly), it would be a time of spiritual gifts, of otherworld currents. That, buried within the process of sitting beside my mother, holding her frail bony hands, rubbing her feverish forehead, placing my face close against her slowing breaths—holding her dying face under my palms—there would be rich seeds, dark as they seemed, to plant and carry forward in my heart. And these seeds, for me, may manifest as poems, when I’m brave enough to sit before that empty yard, the page, again. I haven’t written a line in months.
God, the circle. I saw it all. In eleven days. My mother became a young woman, a child, a toddler, an infant, then gone.
Gone, the leaves of language, the leaves of sight, of connection, of communication. Gone, the leaves of her living this life—as she came around to her last exhale. Then, born: her first inhales of another world invisible to me. But now, again, I know it’s there—this other world. I’d given up on it. But my mother, with her life of faith, reminded me, during her transition. And for me it goes beyond language and comprehension. None of our good sturdy boxes, our organized religions, have ever held it. For me, anyway. None of our words. No singular place, imagined or otherwise. All I can say is: I feel her everywhere. She is no longer local. No longer before me. But her wordlessness, her bodilessness, her pure spirit, I guess you’d call it, I now feel and understand as a quiet deeper than all quiet. And I’ll never be able to translate what she is saying to me. But I will keep listening with all of my being. To hear her pure, eternal poem—unencumbered by words.
Bloom, bloom, Bloom: Within this hard fast season of my mother’s going, there were many powerfully spiritual moments that utterly re-connected me to the true current within our lives. That river we have forgotten to hear, as we work and chatter and scroll.
So now I am very much out of the world, in a parallel life, a bardo I want to live within as long as I can. It is a dangerous place here, filled with impulse and lashing. Nothing makes sense outside of this inner world, much. And it would appear as pure madness from the outside, and maybe, well, maybe it is. One minute I’m thinking about leaving my job and planning a new career, the next I’m researching how to start my own press to self-publish the rest of my work (which I think I’m actually going to do), the next I’m looking into changing my name—now that the woman who named me is gone and I feel like so much of my world was buried with her. Seriously. It is tumult inside. So I’m trying to sit still. To be with these wild currents. To take from them the messages they carry. To baby-step out of the shadows but not too far into that blinding, boring ordinary light again.
And, for now, despite returning to the page, which I will do once this brutal summer goes, I have more learning to do in the real garden. Though I helped build it, I haven’t tended to it and watched and listened to it. And I mean listened to it. I see my wife having a silent conversation with the garden daily—that also speaks with its poems of wordlessness—as she sips her coffee in the morning sun, snipping and trimming and dead-heading. Lost as I’ve been in these emotional hurricanes and now these early days of grief, I’ve been a terrible apprentice gardener to my wife, this angel-artist-mother and maker of this beauty around us, busy with her clippers, pulling weeds. I need to learn more about what this garden is telling me, this world we built in our yard that we didn’t know would also serve as the ultimate dwelling place of solace and comfort.
Here it is, moments ago. Note the angelic moth that entered the frame.
So back into the gardens of the world again, I guess. With a basket full of blooms and shadows. Seeds to carry forward, cautiously, to see what springs forth. But please, until then. Bear with me.