Gardens And Grief

The path paved with smooth, white pebbles meandered past fragrant purple lavender that brushed playfully against my leg. Yellow bearded irises with their sharp pointed leaves danced in the mild breeze. The peony bush was the colour of rich wine, its perfect sphere shaped bulbs had yet to produce the showy fushia flamenco dancing ladies that would dominate the space in a few days. Peonies held a special significance, although I’m not sure Justine’s friends knew that, when they chose this plant to represent them. The Turtle bush, chosen for a favourite colour, was growing very dense, its mauve flowers would be the stars in August. Yellow and chartreuse hostas, appropriately named, “Remember Me”, were sprouting up among the blanket of mulch. Miniature yellow roses sat delicately. Bleeding Heart had been added for it’s gorgeous hanging stems covered with exquisite flowers, although it might have represented my feelings. Up ahead, at the end of the path, a wooden rocking bench beckoned me. 

“Come sit awhile”, it seemed to say. 

“Not yet” my mind replied. First, I must visit my angel. 

The garden was scattered with angels of all shapes and sizes. It was a memorial garden and aside from all the beautiful flowers and shrubs friends and family had contributed so generously, many had chosen meaningful statues of angels. One stood above the rest wearing flowing white robes, her wings proudly arched, her hands folded in prayer. Another smaller fairy sat with her legs swung sideways, her short jagged skirt flounced around her and a wreath of flowers adorned her flowing locks. A nymph stood looking down at a crystal globe that would shine from the dark space as I gazed out my bedroom window one last time before going to sleep each night. None of these angels were the one I was looking for.

There it was.  It’s pale yellow ruffles surrounded a ring of burgundy that almost seemed to be hand painted. In the interior lay a shocking yellow trillium shaped centre. This daylily’s name is “Angel on my Shoulder”. When I saw it at the designer lily farm I knew immediately, that it was the one, out of thousands and thousands of stunning beauties, that was meant for this garden. The garden was a memorial garden for my daughter. Justine is an angel now but that’s not the only reason I chose this lovely specimen to be the showstopper.

Justine had two tattoos. One on each shoulder. They were very meaningful because one was a devil and one was an angel. They  respresented her bipolar disorder and the challenges she faced every day. Should she follow the devil or the angel? Most days she chose the angel, but not every day. This was the flower that spoke to me.

My love of gardening is genetic it seems. My grandfather grew the most deliciously plump, sweet, juicy tomatoes I have ever eaten. His tender, succulent cucumbers were always marinating in a bowl of vinegar on the kitchen table at mealtimes. My father tried his hand at vegetable gardening for a short while but really flourished after retirement when he planted dozens of rose bushes alongside the big Victorian homestead. Showing me his pride and joy, laced with much sweat and grit, was the last thing he did, before he slumped in the back porch and died, while we all waited for him to appear with the steak knife for his barbecued dinner. 

I was very late to realize my familial talent. In fact the first house my new husband and I bought had a glorious backyard garden surrounding a grassy path. Roses of all sizes and colours grew alongside forsythia and lilacs. The rainbow of tulips was breathtaking. The first thing we did after moving in was tear it all out and cover the soil with blankets of rolled grass. I didn’t know a flower from a weed and had no interest in learning. We even dug out the beautiful yellow forsythia and left a maple seedling a bird had haphazardly planted. Our horrified neighbour quickly salvaged it after explaining we chose the wrong tree to sacrifice. The next house we bought had lovely blooming trees that shed rotten, wormy crabapples every summer. I did manage to plant a few pink petunias in some wooden planters. I’m not really sure when I became enlightened, but one day I announced to my husband that we should build an interlocking brick walkway and surround it with flowing shrubs and flowers. 

I fell in love with gardening after toiling as we dug and dug and dug the hard soil only to shovel yards of gravel and concrete back into the deep cavity. Breaking our backs laying the bricks was entirely overwhelming but when it was all done the joy began. I poured over gardening flyers and magazines, choosing the right combination of colours and textures. The shrubs were tiny so I filled in the empty spaces with trays and trays of red impatiens, only to realize midsummer that they are meant for shade. The flowering weigela and spirea were far too young to provide the cool they needed. This would certainly not be the first mistake I would make on the road to being a full-fledged horticulturist. 

Our third home was situated on a half acre property that was first used as a children’s playground. It had a huge slide that the previous owners had rescued from a park demolition. Tall chains held swings and bars perfect for kids to spend lazy afternoons playing on. The best part was the clubhouse perched beside a gigantic tree. It was flanked with a balcony and housed bunk beds and electricity. The property was surrounded by huge weeping willow trees that swept the ground. It was a children’s paradise. 

After our two girls got older, the trees blew down from old age and strong wind and we added a family room addition onto the back of the house, I began my decades long marathon of digging, wheelbarrowing, planting, watering, weeding, and moving plants from one place to another. I had a vision of a  “secret garden” so I chose a central spot at the back of the yard and surrounded it with a circular ring of boxwood. The decorative, metal ivy gates were added after I took a night school welding class. For years it housed an old wheelbarrow filled with petunias. It was never quite right, however but I could never pinpoint why.

Slightly to the left of the secret garden was a flat spot that we decided would be perfect for a patio. We got the bricks free but we were not the slightest bit interested in repeating our previous attempt at building it ourselves. Justine came to the rescue. Her friend, Glenn was a landscape architect and one summer as a gift to us, he came and built us a square patio which now features a huge wooden slab table, saved from our gigantic tree after we decided it was too dangerous, and four Muskoka chairs. Something was just not right about the ring of boxwood surrounding the wheelbarrow behind it for some reason.

When Justine moved into Glenn’s three story home, he gave her a dream bedroom. The house had soaring twelve foot ceilings that housed huge antique beds and dressers. He even built her a gigantic shoe shelf for her extensive shoe collection. She was treated like a princess. It was there that I would head to after work to meet her for our walks. 

We had made each other a promise that summer to get into shape but it turned into one of my favourite memories. We walked to a park where the city hosts a big peony festival. What a glorious spectacle of colour and fragrance that is to behold. Justine and I would wander though at our leisure several times before and after the actual, crowded weekend event all by ourselves. I’m sure it wasn’t really of interest to her but she did it for me. We would cross the concrete and metal bridge and walk along the walking path. Parts of it are urban but most of it wanders through shady, emerald parks and alongside the cool rushing creek. As we marched, we’d share thoughts and feelings. It’s a time I will always cherish.

My daughter was killed in a car accident March 25, 2014. A double transport truck crossed into her lane of the highway at approximately 4:30 am as she was coming home after working her night shift. She always wore her seatbelt but that day she didn’t. Her car flipped over and she was killed instantly. 

The little circular garden that sat so centrally among my many gardens finally has a purpose and I immediately could see in my mind how it should look. Glenn came over and he and Justine’s dad built a winding path leading to a wooden rocking chair at the back. We explained our vision and soon people came over bearing gifts of plants and garden art. It became a real community effort. 

Justine and her roomate, Layce had been sharing a house her final few years. They decided they wanted a pet. They got a rabbit. One of Justine’s last posts on Facebook was a picture of the “new love of her life”. Layce was left as the sole owner of their shared pet in a house meant for two. 

A few weeks after Justine’s accident was Easter. Justine’s Aunt Pat was looking out her back window thinking about Justine when she spotted a rabbit hopping by. Justine’s dad had his birthday a few weeks later and while retrieving the newspaper from the end of the driveway and feeling sad a little bunny greeted him. Suddenly we saw rabbits everywhere and so did many of our friends and family. Now when we see a rabbit we smile and think of Justine. A small rabbit statue sits proudly in the garden too.

Last year for my birthday my husband, Greg bought me a new garden ornament. It stands near the metal gates at the opening of the path. It’s an industrial looking spout with a metal bucket hanging from it. At the bottom of the faucet hangs a single crystal in the shape of a droplet of water. The crystal catches the sunlight and it twinkles. Water has always had a cleansing purpose and this little droplet reminds me that I can dwell in sorrow or wash it off. I can wash my hands and choose to be joyful instead of miserable. It’s a choice I make every day. 

Memories are an infinite mystery. We try to preserve all the good times and precious moments. We hope they will comfort us and make us happy. Often they do but sometimes they remind us of what we’ve lost. Filling that secret garden with real secrets is what it deserved. Secret thoughts and vivid treasures of the mind and spirit spread throughout me when I tend to Justine’s garden. It’s never a chore to pull out a few stray weeds or grass there, as it sometimes seems in my other gardens. Seeing Justines favourite coloured flowers all summer fills me with gratitude. Smelling the peonies jolts me back to that magical summer when we’d walk. Seeing the angel in the garden makes me smile. The bunny is a sweet memory. The little reminders there are happy ones.

This little garden has taught me to bloom again after my devastating heartbreak. It was meant to be her final resting place. Our plans were to have a small gathering at the house after the garden was finished and spread her ashes there. Three summers have passed since then. Maybe this summer we will find the courage to follow through. It’s time for her to live in the beautiful garden everyone so lovingly built for her. 

Life is full of surprises, some good and some sad. Every single person in this world has heartbreak. It’s what makes us human. No one leaves this earth unscathed. We sometimes think some people are luckier than others. I often hear people describe their lives as blessed. Maybe at that particular moment they do feel that way. That doesn’t mean that they lead perfect lives. No one is that fortunate. I’m thinking of doing something surprising this year for my sixtieth birthday. I’ve never wanted a tattoo but I think this year I’d like an angel on my shoulder.

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13 thoughts on “Gardens And Grief

  1. So beautiful and moving. You already have an angel on your shoulder. The tattoo would allow the world to see the angel you carry in your heart. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Cathy…… what can I say…… you have brought tears to my eyes. Justine would be so proud of you and Greg! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ Beautiful words!!! I. Think of Justine often !
    Meribeth

    Liked by 2 people

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