Make sure, first of all, that your blades are sharp. Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful morning. And clean. Your blades have to be clean or you could do more harm than good. Clorox works fine. Or a cheaper brand, if you like. Just be sure to keep from flicking it on your clothes or you’ll have little white spots all over your favorite digging pants, like I do. Good morning, Solitude, Peace, Sutter’s Gold. Oh my beauties, grow. Double Delight! I could inhale you all day long. You know you are my favorite, but please don’t tell the others. Marilyn Monroe, you surprise me with your strength. I’ve never seen thorns like yours before.
Lord, this morning is gracious. Calm and cool. You’ve outdone yourself.
I thank you for this day, and for my arms and for my legs, and for my fingers, still working. Don’t forget, as I too often do, to put your gloves on before you start in. Even if you have in your mind that you’ll be deadheading only, you know – or you should know by now – that there will be weeds begging to be pulled and you will dig right in, gloves or no, and then your fingernails, like mine, will carry that mud for days. Ingrid Bergman, now don’t you go catching at my arms again. Darn you. Look at that. Blood the color of your blossoms. Where did I put my gloves? The long ones Matthew brought me for my birthday last year. Or was it the year before? It might have been Olivia who brought them. Or Jimmy. Jimmy started walking so early, I remember. And Olivia was very proud of that at first. Until he stepped right off the pier that time. I have to sit down. Where is my bench? It was here yesterday, just yesterday, right here beside my new Sea Foam roses. Billowing all around me. Jimmy? He was all right though, miraculously. They caught him in time. A surfer saw him fall and paddled right over and snatched him up. A surfer boy, no older than my grandson is now. What is his name? Jimmy. Yes, Jimmy. A surfer boy, just that old, snatched him up the minute he hit the water and surfed him right into shore. Olivia was beside herself, of course. Crying and crying and blaming herself, I think, forever. Even now. But Jimmy’s fine. He really is. Just a little too curious for his own good. Resilient, though. A regular Marco Polo. Disease resistant. Vigorous.
“Mama, look at your arms! I’m getting the hydrogen peroxide. Here, hold still. You’ll get all infected.”
And roses aren’t the only flowers that respond well to deadheading. It took me a while to understand this, but almost everything that grows appreciates a little help when it comes to cutting off the old. Getting ready for the new. Plants need that extra energy to really thrive. That energy – magical as it is – thank you Lord, for the mystery of Life – is wasted when it has to keep shooting up through old, spent stems. Old growth is a burden, pure and simple.
Lavender is a wonder. You have to admire it. Lavender can charge the sky like lightning. Lavender can survive in even the saddest soil. On just the stingiest sip of water. And the more I take from it – the more silver I snip off – the more purple wands it gives back. Like all good things – use it or lose it. Love. Energy. Nursing babies.
“Have you been out there all day? In that sun? Come sit down, Mama. Please. Here. Drink this.”
Feeding your plants is also important. But it has to be the right kind of food. And at the right time. And not too much, either. This is where know-how comes in. Or at least some good books on the subject. And some common sense.
No, I haven’t been out all day. Just stepped out for a minute this morning. And I’ll eat when I get hungry. Stop your fussing. Who are you, anyway?
“Don’t look at me like that. Please, Mama. It’s Olivia. You know me. And I brought Jimmy. Remember Jimmy? Look how tall he is now. And he brought his girlfriend. Her name is Tiffany.”
“That’s Tiphanie,” the girl says. “With a ‘PH’.”
Zinnias will keep you honest. And marigolds. Nothing pretentious about either one. Nothing hidden. Oh, Olivia is here! Olivia is a wonderful daughter. Kind and compassionate. Buttery smooth skin, the color of gingersnaps. She got that from her father. I wish she’d come over more often. I miss her.
“I’m here, Mama. Right here.”
I’ve hurt her. I can see that. “I’m sorry.” But why is that, again?
“Joe and I got divorced. A long time ago. You remember.”
I didn’t. This scares me. But I believe her. This is Olivia. I remember how she used to collect dead bug parts when she was little. She kept them, labeled, in separate envelopes. Tried to glue them back together once. It didn’t work. Olivia always made me smile. She liked to categorize things. Analyze them. She could have been a scientist like her father; she was that smart. But instead she married Joe. I never liked him. He never looked where he was going, was always stepping on plants – seedlings or not. So I can’t say I’m sorry that they pulled apart. But I am sorry I forgot. And I’m sorry I upset her. “Where’s Matthew?”
Jimmy is standing at the sink. He’s taken a milk carton from my refrigerator and is smelling it, laughing. He shoves it under the nose of this Tiphanie creature and they both laugh together. “Whew, this is bad, Gramma. Real bad.” But Olivia is looking sad again and Jimmy goes to her, puts his hand on her shoulder. Is this the surfer boy who saved our Jimmy? “Grampa had a heart attack, Gramma. You remember.”
Matthew? No. He is mistaken. How would he know anyway? And why did my daughter let a surfer into her life? Really, this is too much. Where is that Joe, anyway? I raised her better than that. I raised her tender as an orchid. And here she is fully grown, blooming. A little top heavy, but that part she got from me.
“Mama, we need to talk.”
That’s the thing about gardens. They help you see things more clearly. There’s always something blooming and something dying at the same time. Even on the same bush. It’s never 100% beauty at the same time. But it’s never 100% ugly either. There’s always the waxing and waning, the growing and shriveling. The coming. The going.
“Mama, put your blouse back on. Here, let’s go in the bedroom if you want to change.”
The boy and the girl are staring. My God. It’s Jimmy. I’m in a room with tangerine walls. I love that color. Matthew painted them for me. When was that? And my daughter is here. And my grandson. And I’m… oh, my skin. My God. What is happening to me?
“It’s all right, Mama. I’m here. Don’t cry.”
My bedroom is blue as a morning glory. “Where am I going, Olivia?”
“Nowhere. You’re not going anywhere.”
I am. I’m disappearing. My hands are shriveling up. Grapes on a vine. Raisins.
“Shh,” my daughter says. “Shh.” She wraps her arms around me, rocks me, like I’m the baby and she’s the mother.
I’m frightened. I am. It’s really happening now. “I can’t leave my garden.”
“Shhh. We’ll talk about it later.”
Olivia is suffering. I can see that. The tendrils of the passionflowers wrap themselves around everything they touch. They reach out and grow, sometimes, before your very eyes. Sometimes you have to cut them down, hack them back, in fact, or else they weave themselves into every other plant and choke out all their lives. I don’t want her to suffer.
“I’m here, Mama. I’ll stay with you. Don’t worry.”
But she can’t stay here with me. She has to go to work. She’s a single woman now. With a son to raise and a life to live. “Plant me wherever you need to, darling. I’ll be all right.”
“We can talk about it later.”
“Later?” I show her my hands but she doesn’t see them.
“I worry, Mama. I can’t…”
“I know.” I do. Just don’t let me be a joke, I want to say.
Jimmy and his girlfriend burst in then. “We’re going to the movies.”
“I need you to help me first,” my daughter says. “I need you to go get some things from the store for Gramma.”
Jimmy puts his face right up to mine and stares into my eyes as if he’s looking for something that got lost. “Does she see us now?”
I stick out my tongue. The girlfriend laughs.
Olivia jumps up and pushes him out the door. “Hush up,” she says. I hear her unzipping her pocketbook in the hallway. “Here’s my credit card. Don’t lose it. Get milk and eggs and fruit – something – whatever’s in season. And meat. Something. Hamburger? Did I already say fruit?”
“Uh oh,” Jimmy says. “Another one bites the…”
“Hush up,” says Olivia. “And hurry back.”
“Okay, but you’re wasting your money. She won’t remember to eat it anyway.” The girlfriend giggles and I hear the door slam.
“He’s right, you know,” I tell my daughter, hoping she’ll laugh.
Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air. That’s why they’re a natural match for humans. I love to breathe. Thank you Lord, for the breath in my lungs. I have everything, Lord, and I know it. Almost everything. And if you see fit to take my mind as payment for these many years of blessings, well then. That’s what I need to explain to Olivia, next time she comes over. I’ll try to remember. It might be a comfort. While I can still make the words come out straight. I just wish, Lord, sometimes, that if it has to be taken, that you’d take it more quickly. It hurts to watch it go like this. It hurts Olivia too. And what did she ever do to deserve this kind of hurt? Nothing. That’s what. Nothing at all.
Watering is even more important than feeding, I’ve found. But you don’t want to just turn on a sprinkler jet and walk away. Not for anything. Lawns maybe can take that kind of abuse. Lawns are like the big dumb hunky boys in high school who don’t even care if you step on them. Except that I fell in love with one of those hunky boys and found out, very quickly, that he wasn’t dumb at all. Was brilliant, in fact. And he was a scientist. He discovered a way to kill molds. Just the bad kinds. I helped him, he told me. Inspired him. He didn’t have a favorite flower, he said when I asked him. He said that I was his favorite flower. Prettier than all the others, he said. And you are my fertilizer, he told me too. Can you imagine? And he was mine. We were lucky together. Fertile. We built this house together and we grew lots of children.
The hinges are rusty on the front door. Not like Matthew to let things go like that. No matter. He’ll get to it later. The house is his job; the garden, mine. You’ll want to turn the hose on real low, and let it just trickle gently, for hours if possible, down to the roots. Most leaves and blossoms don’t like to be splashed. And it’s a common misconception that it “refreshes” plants to be splattered with drops. It annoys them no end. Trust me on this.
Fertilizer comes in many forms. Bullshit is the least desirable.
“You’ll be okay, Mama.”
I’d like to believe that, but I know it isn’t true. Olivia will come again on Friday, she told me, soon as she gets off work. I told her not to rush. I had things to do. Weeding, watering, fertilizing, thinning, harvesting. The stakes in my days that keep me upright. Don’t rush, Olivia. Don’t worry. But most of all, don’t bullshit me. Please. Some kinds of fertilizer can burn your plants to death.
Lord, thank you for this shady spot. Thank you for mud. And for sunflowers. And for nectarine trees. And for these weeds of wheels, long and lovely and lush. I used to read Hopkins, until the little letters grew together like creeping jenny and I had to stop. I used to read Yeats too. I imagine sometimes that his Irish fairies are dancing with me in my gardens. And sometimes they really are. Those bougainvillea are looking pale. They need some help.
“Oh no, Mama. What happened? Here. Come with me. I’ll clean you up.”
Is it Friday already? What happened to Olivia? A woman with a large chest points to a mounded pile of fresh fertilizer under the bougainvillea. Shit. I don’t know how it got there and I tell her so. It’s a mystery to me. The woman takes me into the bathroom then. The water runs and runs. It feels like heaven.
The woman sits at the table in the tangerine room and I sit down beside her. Olivia helped her father refinish this table, I tell her. She couldn’t have been more than twelve but she hammered away at that table like a real carpenter.
The woman at the table doesn’t pay attention to what I say about Olivia. She talks to the boy instead. The boy looks a lot like my grandson, Jimmy. “She’s gone again,” the woman says.
Gone? Who’s gone? I don’t know what she means by that. I’m right here, in the dahlia, if only she’d look. Magenta and magnificent.
“It might be time to call them,” the surfer says. He has a kind face. He’s just the type of boy who would catch a baby if it fell from a pier.
“She loves her garden,” says the woman.
“She’ll hurt herself.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
Just make sure, first of all, that your blades are sharp. Deadheading is an art. Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful morning. And don’t forget the Clorox.
“I’ll do it,” says the surfer. And then he paddles and paddles, with that baby on his board, all the way into shore. Olivia runs into the ocean then, shoes and skirt and all, and takes her baby into her arms. She thanks the surfer. Thanks him again. But she cries and cries. She can’t stop crying. Understandable, given the circumstances. You really can’t blame her at all.
Author's Comment When my former mother-in-law began her slow slide into Alzheimer’s, we all hoped it might be an easy descent – from knowing to not knowing and then (ideally) into sweet oblivion. The heartbreaking reality, however, was that her moments of “sweet oblivion” were few and far between and that, more often, she was teetering between panicked bewilderment and the terrifying realization that everything she knew and loved was slipping away. Because I could not be with her as much as I would have liked, I did the only thing I could to alleviate that awful feeling of powerlessness as well as to honor her memory: I wrote. “Fertilizer” is purely fictional; it is not factually true on any level. But my hope is that it might resonate with moments of emotional truth for anyone who has accompanied a loved one on that difficult journey. This story is for you.