I am working in my garden, putting hollyhocks in. I am trying to break my pattern of buying perennials and then letting them languish and wither in their pots in my driveway before I decide on the perfect spot. The hollyhocks have waited long enough. I have decided today is the day, on my best friend Holly’s birthday.
I pick a spot in the back of our yard, past where the wild strawberries grow; up against the old stone wall festooned with black caps and ferns. The stone wall is home to the fat woodchuck we can always see just out of the corner of our eye running across the lawn, big belly leaving a flattened path in the grass — the only way we knew it was really there.
I have plans that this same stone wall will be home to a fairy house my son and I will construct this summer and where we will then leave small offerings for the fairies. On the perpetual list of to-dos, like not leaving plants in their pots too long, neither the fairies nor I have built their home yet.
In my garden, I clear a large space, pulling, shoveling so that my hollyhocks will have room to drop their babies, and come back next year, hopefully every year. As I do this work I am thinking about my mom, how she loved flowers, loved to garden. Every single year, in the same blue, speckled enamel bowl, she would start sweet pea seeds, always hoping for the fragrant, darling blossoms. Never once did they bloom, but she never stopped trying.
As I dig and weed, I am thinking that I want to write something, say something about her death, as this month marks a decade of her being gone. But what can I say about grief that hasn’t already been said, what can my grief make me feel that hasn’t already been felt?
Painfully, I am not alone in my grief. This year is the seventh anniversary of Holly’s mom also dying of cancer. The anniversaries just keep coming. I know that means I am fortunate enough to be here to mark them, but this year feels big.
Ten years, I am realizing, is a lot of my life, and every second I am marching closer to the time where I will have lived longer without her than with her.
In these 10 years I have grown up, and my mom was not here to see that. She wasn’t sitting in the front row of my wedding, she did not hold my son when he was born, or hold me when I lost two pregnancies.
Somehow, without her, I have grown into loving the person who I am, and I wish she could see me now, know me now. But how could she know who I am now, when the grief of losing her is what so sharply shaped me into the strong woman I am? If I still had her here, who would I be?
I don’t really know what I am doing in my garden; I don’t really know what I am doing with my grief.
The jewelweed, I think, might bloom a tender orange flower, if I were to leave it. But with the lightest tug, it slips right out of the dirt, comes clean and is easy to cast away. At times my grief has felt like that, easy to pluck the pain out of my heart, but it always grows back. I yank out what I think are weeds — deep sadness, painful realizations of my loss — but they have blossoms too: of strength, healing, there to teach me patience, and appreciation. I yank out what I think are weeds, but are they tiny new growths of my Oriental poppies, or are they stinging nettles?
My poppies I planted for my mom. She loved all poppies, named one of our cats Poppy. My poppies and their riotous, alive pink color, their grand stature in my garden, make me happy. I feel like my garden is reaching a new level of growth and established success and it is mostly because these poppies are so very much alive. But poppies are the symbol of peace, and eternal sleep. I think I am planting life, but to anyone who knows the meaning, my garden is full of death.
I take my gardening gloves off and use my shovel to rip up the top layer of soil. Dense, fecund with moss, ferns, grass, I rip and pull hard to clear space for my two new hollyhocks.
They are small, without blossoms, but I want to put them in a place where their height, their bobbing, full faces I will be able to see from across my yard, someday.
I dig hard, get the space perfect. I take my time, do it right, put the work in. I plunge my shovel into the dirt to make a deep hole for these two.
But my shovel hits hard, solid rock. Everything is so hard and I just want it to be soft. The scrape of metal on stone, the hit reverberates through my body. I feel it in my hands. The scrape of grief when I realize my normalcy after 10 years is that Mom is gone, she is now in my life only through how I choose to remember her and when.
What can I do? Where can I put down the sadness of my losses? Where can I put my hollyhocks?
They have tipped and are falling half out of their pots, so ready for a place of permanence. I want the hollyhocks here, in this spot, on Holly’s birthday. I want to plant these two lovelies here and now because hollyhocks are the symbol of the cycle of life, fertility and death.
My life of loss, my losses are my new, richer life. And round it has gone for the past decade and will forever continue to go until I too leave this life. Grief cycles and grows into something new, healing, shifting as time passes, the edges dull, my mom is still gone, but I am still here and we cycle through together as we lose and become our mothers, our daughters, each other and ourselves.
I put the hollyhocks, put this cycle of love and loss, right where I want it to go, which is in the dirt, to grow and change and most of all, continue on. I take dirt from other parts of my perfect square that I just so lovingly labored over, making it now lumpy and filled with holes.
I plant my two plants, my mom and me, my son and me, Holly and me, Holly and her mom, Ruth, Ruth and my mom, Delinda, my two lost babies, my son and the second child I will hopefully have some day. I plant them all, most importantly, together and I am here and alive, alone, but not.
My hands with my mother’s ring, my grandmother’s diamond caked with the soft, fresh earth, the sun of a perfect summer day in our peaceable kingdom shining down on my poppies, my hollyhocks and me.
It is when I am all done that I remember hollyhocks bloom every other year, that some need more time than others to open fully. All those years of my mom and her unrealized sweet peas, which symbolize gratitude, I see now she was really planting those seeds of gratitude in me. And now, a decade after her death, they still bloom big blossoms of love and appreciation for my mom. My grief is still growing, but it is growing into something beautiful.
My grief and my garden bend and grow in similar ways. Wild and abundant, artificially tamed by my own hard work. Always ready for a cloudburst of rain, or remembrance, to spark wild new growth, unpredictable paths of crawling, thorny vines creeping up over what I thought I had just plucked out and tossed away.
But I would not change the cycle of life I am in, would never turn my garden all to grass. Because in this garden, as my grief grows perpetually into something new, I am growing too.
C.S. Hammond lives in Hartland with her family.