Growing Season

October 31, 2012 at 12:31 pm (Uncategorized)

My plants all died last week after an early cold snap. A carapace of snow covered the long line of tomato and pepper plants in pots on my back deck. The sub-freezing temperatures also killed my first-ever attempt at flowers. My two big planters of dianthus and marigold hung on bravely for a day, before they too surrendered their green and succumbed to winter.

I feel slightly traumatized. Long-time readers of this blog will find this surprising. I used to think of myself as a sort of anti-gardener. (Check out “When Juniper Attacks,” “Gardening?” and “Feed Me,Seymour!” if you’re interested.) Before sarcoidosis slowed me down, I was a woman in motion. Who would want to sit in the dirt, fussing over dull plants when you could be hiking, skiing, cycling, or traveling? Gardening felt like a more work-intensive version of making your bed. No matter how much effort you put into it, no matter how precise your sheet corners are, you’re still going to mess up the sheets when you sleep it. And the bed, like plants, won’t ever have a conversation with you. I claimed to have a black thumb.

But then last year, Jay brought home a carton of spindly tomato seedlings. One of his co-workers cultivates dozens of tomato varietals, and brings in hundreds of them each spring to share with folks at the office. I left them on the porch for a couple of days. Since I’m not always on the go anymore, I couldn’t get away from the plants. They sat in their box like a question I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer. Their quiet presence out there, on the other side of the door, drew me out to them.

The seedlings had whimsical names that were half-poem, half-pun: Anna Banana Russian, Burning Spear, Garden Peach, Tiny Tim, Sungold. I rolled their names around my mouth, but it was from their smell that I got my first access to their essence. A growing tomato plant does not produce a beautiful scent. It brings a whiff of damp soil, of salt, of bitter lemons. The smell of Dylan Thomas’ “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” is of a tomato plant.

I knew I wasn’t well enough to dig up my back yard, so I researched growing the tomato plants in pots on my deck. I didn’t know how often to water them, that you are supposed to fertilize them, or that pruning them is essential. I ended up with a dozen twining and surging plants that would have been right at home in The Little Shop of Horrors.

This year, I did a little better. Jay’s generous co-worker brought in pepper plants along with the tomato plants. I got them potted and watered right away. Since I wasn’t wholly clueless, I was less anxious about the plants on my second attempt. I stretched out the time it took to water them. I spent time with them. I caught myself doing nothing more than sitting next to them, inhaling their scent. I felt a little bit like Toad in the Frog and Toad story about Toad’s first garden. He was so excited for his seeds to blossom that he stayed up at night, reading and singing to them. Then he got impatient. While I might not have screamed at my plants, “Now seeds start growing!” I confess to perhaps thinking, “Now plants start producing!”

And they did. It felt like the vines were bare for an eternity, and then suddenly, on a hot July day, tiny tomatoes were popping everywhere. I dragged Jay and Andrew out with me, and they “oohed and aahed” appropriately. They became more excited after my first harvest, when we feasted on handfuls of sweet tomatoes that tasted better than any we’d ever bought. The peppers arrived a couple of weeks later. For most of the summer, the nightshades kept us in vegetables. We had my tomatoes nearly every night with dinner.

I kept my babies alive for the first cold nights of autumn by covering them with every spare blanket and towel we own. I’d race out in the morning to let them be warmed by the diminishing sun. But one morning, I found the blankets frozen to the plants, and the leaves beneath them shriveled and shocked.

I felt like crying. I know that gardening is a reminder of universal life seasons. Everything grows up, thrives, and then wanes. I know that my tomatoes and peppers had a good run. Still, when I look out at the withered remains if my once-mighty friends, melancholy catches in my throat.

I loved my tomatoes for growing, even through my sick days when I was too dizzy to make it out to water them. I loved them for being strong and beautiful. I loved them for giving their fruit to us, and for teaching Andrew their miracle of converting soil, sunshine, and water into tangible sustenance. And I especially love them for teaching me how to sit down and watch them grow.

Do you have a green thumb or a black thumb? What has helped you learned to sit still?

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Why Me?

October 26, 2012 at 12:27 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

I got into a pretty bad car accident Wednesday morning. I was driving home from dropping off Andrew’s backpack at school (we forgot it on the first trip). The roads were icy in patches, so I was driving slowly. I was being careful, puttering along on in second gear, but my mind was racing with thoughts of how to structure my day ahead. I was in a very good mood. The day before I had returned from an amazing four days at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. I was buzzing with energy and ideas.

Out of seemingly nowhere, a maroon car barreled down a side street and blew through her stop sign. I locked the brakes, laid on the horn, and tugged the wheel away from her car. But I couldn’t stop in time, or turn in time. She plowed into the side of my trusty Subaru. My glasses flew off my face. My chest hit the steering wheel, directly where my defibrillator is implanted. My car sailed across two lanes and came to a crunching stop in a yard.

“Why me?” I thought, as I dialed 911 with shaking fingers. I thought it again, when the paramedics were initially concerned that the impact had jolted loose the defibrillator’s leads buried deep into my chest. I thought it again as I watched a bruise blossom on my chest, and my neck locked up and my knees and ankle swelled. “I never get a break. I don’t even get a week without some health catastrophe.”

That morning, after my dear friend Martha picked me up at the accident and sat with me until Jay dropped out of a major meeting on a work trip and came home, I settled down to watch season two of the breathtaking show Breaking Bad with Jay. In one particularly gripping episode, Walt (a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and begins manufacturing crystal meth to provide for his family), learns at his doctor’s appointment that his brutal chemo regimen did its job and put his cancer into remission. He is nearly as shocked at this positive development as he was upon learning the dire news. “When I got the diagnosis I asked, ‘Why me?'” he said. “When I learned about the remission, I again thought, ‘Why me?’”

I chewed this over for the rest of the day. Why would he say that? It made total sense that he would question his fate when he got bad news, but why doesn’t he take the good news and run? Then it finally hit me—right in the solar plexus of my self-pity. It’s all too easy to see the bullets that hit us, but not the ones that miss us. We fixate on the awful amalgam of events and fates that bring us into danger (for me, the forgotten backpack that put me on the road at that particular moment, the ice on the roads, and the speed of the other driver), but not the equally mysterious forces that save us from something worse (my car sacrificing itself to protect me, the low speed I was keeping). Let me put it another way. When the ambulance drivers were monitoring my defibrillator’s suddenly odd behavior, they told me that two 911 calls came it at the same time. One was mine. The other was about a 27-year old woman who was walking to work, and then slipped and fell on the same icy roads I was driving. She is not getting to blog about her mishap, though. By the time the ambulance arrived, she was dead. She had hit the ground at exactly the wrong angle, at the wrong force. Why her? Why not me?

It’s funny, when you’re able to stop the chain of morose, self-aggrandizing thoughts that start with a self-pitying “Why me?” everything changes. I was able to appreciate the wonderful friends I have. Martha left work to come take me home from the cold accident scene. Jay put me ahead of an important work project and came home to care for me. We have excellent car insurance. I was alive. The other driver was alive. Andrew was not in the car—where he would have been sitting directly where the other car hit me. The police were kind and caring. I did not need immediate surgery on the defibrillator.

I’ve asked “Why me?” countless times in my years in Chronic Town. “Why me?” when I got diagnosed with a chronic and potentially fatal disease when my baby was only three months old. “Why me?” at every chemo infusion over the last four years. “Why me?” at all the weight I’ve gained. “Why us?” when I see my husband or my son struggling with my illness.

Asking “Why me?” is a good starting point, but, like Walt, we’ve got to keep asking it. “Why me?” that my doctors quickly diagnosed my disease, before I had a fatal heart attack or stroke. “Why me?” that I have good health insurance in this crazy country that leaves so many uninsured. “Why me?” that tough treatments like regular chemo actually swatted back the sarcoidosis and let me return to a somewhat normal life. “Why us?” that my husband and son are healthy and happy, that we love each other, and are weathering these years in Chronic Town together.

Have you ever got stuck on the first part of “Why me?” How did you learn to see your many blessings, regardless of an obstacle? How do you get beyond self-pity?

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