Heather’s Garden

Heather offered to take care of Mother when I went to Malaysia for a well deserved, two week holiday. That was nine years ago and Mother at eighty-six, still got around well, could take a long trip in a car, navigated around a house easily, was just beginning to use a walker to take her from A to Z.

Independently, she went for walks down to the park six long blocks away, getting her sunshine and exercise in one determined fix, and coming back. She got around on Transit’s Handy Dart service for mobility impaired seniors as long as she planned well enough in advance. She did the arranging herself. She was fiercely independent.

Friends came and took her to bridge games, teas and retirement group luncheons; or to the Seniors’ Centre, to Faculty Women’s, University Women’s and Engineer’s Wives groups or to tea. She was well and independent with her bustling personality going at the speed of her walker. Certainly, she was determined not to be a burden on anyone, especially not Heather who, at times, was struggling with her own health.

Certainly these things are unplanned, but you have to wonder at God’s timing of it all. Just after she arrived at Heather’s in Sechelt, Mother had a recurrence of her troublesome TIAs (mini heart attacks) and in additon, some virus, the doctors thought, that caused her to feel dizzy. With all our careful planning, Heather was now looking after an invalid, driving her to doctor appointments, hospital testing, picking up medicine from the pharmacy and coddling Mother while trying to keep her own equilibrium and health. As it turned out, Mother could not travel until she was well again, and the two week penance for Heather turned into six weeks..

Now, Mother could be demanding whilst feeling ill, and she insisted that Heather keep her company during the long hours of her convalescence. Heather who had learned patience and forbearance under Mother’s guidance and who had been taught to obey her parents at all times, did her best to comply with all her grace, kindness and infinite skill at care taking.

She rubbed Mother’s legs; she helped her in and out of the bathroom; spent a difficult session to bathe her in a makeshift arrangement in the bathtub. Mother was without her bath bench, so a plastic garden chair was set into the tub for her to sit on. Heather read to her, brought her music to listen to, she told tales and encouraged Mom to tell some of hers from the past. She clipped an polished Mother’s nails. She sat in silence just for company, crocheting at her latest project or preparing her lessons in Japanese, while Mother dozed.

Much as she would reason with Mother about how she could not stay with her absolutely constantly and still keep the household running, Mother was insistent that she be kept company and be amused. God help Heather if Mother should fall asleep, have Heather go somewhere in the house where Heather could not hear Mother call, and Heather not arrive instantaneously at her bedside. I can just hear her saying, “What kept you so long!” after a two minute response time.

The possibility of Heather getting out to her beloved garden, the meditative healing source of Heather’s ill health, was proscribed until Mother was well again. Now, you might say, Heather was a grown adult, and so was Mother. You would think they could reason this out and come to a compromise. But Mother was unreasonable with her fears and needed, really needed strongly, the assurance that someone would be there by her side if something happened, or she would mire herself in “what if” worries to the extent of making herself sicker, just from the worry. Mother, if you remember, has a Masters of Worry, as diplomas go. She could write the definitive text on it.

Heather, on the other hand was the eldest child. She had taken the brunt of Mother’s neophyte child rearing experiments, this same Mother who had written her final disertation for her Batchelor’s degree on Discipline in the Classroom. Heather had learned her lessons well and knew that any effort to rebel would not be brooked. And if she did not conform to Mother’s wishes, Mother had very subtle and effective ways of Discipline in the Classroom that made life miserable for a long time thereafter. Mostly, it just wasn’t worth it to go against the grain.

In Heather’s adult years, she had learned assertiveness. It worked well with others. She had learned to reason with Mother and sometimes won. But Mother also had a lifetime of practice and it weighed in the balance in her favour many times.

Heather had to find a solution. It was enough to drive one crazy. Her housekeeper who came in once a week, not knowing of these tensions, agreed to sit with Mother to allow Heather to go grocery shopping. (“Mother, if I don’t go shopping there will be nothing left to eat. It’s been a week“)

In addition, Heather who rose early each day, found that Mother didn’t waken until nine. If she was  efficient with her time, Heather could potentially get a good half hour in her garden before Mother expected her to appear bearing breakfast on a tray. It was early September and there were food crops to bring in and care for; there were weeds to pull; there was early tasks in preparation of winterization. There was work to do. Best of all, the healing power of growing things, of tending and nurturing them, the meditative power of gardening, was a salve to Heather’s soul. She needed her gardening like we all need fresh air and water. It was an essential of her being.

And so it went. I wasn’t there. I just heard about it afterwards. There must have been some other arrangements. I think as Mother was getting better, she was given a bell to ring that Heather was to respond to immediately, to come when needed, because I know Heather got out into the garden a bit more, in the end.
What I found amusing in a black humor kind of way, was this:

After Mother came back to Burnaby, I got to hear all the stories about the doctors and their care; about her visit to Heather. In a nutshell, after all the medical stuff which isn’t interesting, Mother said, “I had a good time, but I barely saw Heather. I was in bed the whole time. And you couldn’t tear her away from her garden. She was out there way after dark and first thing before she even made breakfast. You could barely get her to come in for meals. She spends all her time in the garden. I don’t know what she does out there. What do you have to do, this time of the year? Everything is already growing. It’s not like you have to plant anything. I hardly saw her.”

Mother was settling into a forgetfulness that we hadn’t yet recognized as the beginning of medically defined “Confusion” which is accompanied by short-term memory loss, general forgetfulness and some paranoia. It’s a common effect of dehydration and is not from the eating away of the brain as Alzheimer’s disease is.

I keep in touch with Heather and Lizbet by phone every two or three days. That is one of the miracles of today’s technology – long distance calling is so low cost it might as well be free. It keeps us strong in our network of sisters, supporting and caring for each other as we orchestrate life’s little ups and downs in sequential patterns.

So, a bit sneakily, in a leading way I ask Heather how was her garden coming along. I dared not suggest an answer. If I wanted to know what really happened, I couldn’t tell her of Mother’s comments in advance. It might taint the answer. In fact, I wouldn’t even tell her about Mother’s comments. It would oly upset her and she didn’t deserve that.
“Gardening?” she answered, an air of bewilderment as if I’d asked a puzzling question. “Gardening?” she repeats, as if remembering an old acquaintance she hadn’t seen in a long time and couldn’t quite remember the face or the context.

“I don’t think I got more than twenty minutes in the garden from the time Mother came and the time Mother left. After all the medical appointments and running around for medication, Mother wanted me to be beside her bed all the time. I tended her needs. I read to her, worked on things that I could do beside her as she slept. I was rather worried about getting behind in my work out there. All the vegetables need to be brought in. I need to turn over and get out the potatoes. The deer got all the carrot tops. I’m hoping there will be something left of the roots underneath. ”
“It’s a mess. I haven’t weeded in six weeks. The bind weed is taking over. My housekeeper comes in on Fridays and I was able to get out there for about twenty minutes straight, but she called me back in because Mother was insisting that I look after taking her to the bathroom, not a non-family member, so even that didn’t pan out. By the time I’d gloved up and got my tools out, by the time I put them away and came in, I didn’t spend more that tweny minutes. After that, I didn’t even try. ”

“The only other time I was in the garden was to pick some late raspberries for dinner and to bring in some fresh parsley to cook with. ”
“Garden?!” she almost snorted in derision. As it it was a rejected lover who hadn’t come back beggin, she exclaimed, ” My garden doesn’t even know who I am anymore!”

In these last five years, I have been unable to move Mother to travel, for a change of pace, to either Lizbet’s place, a ten hour gruelling drive, or to Heather’s a three hour drive with a ferry trip as part of the package. I could barely leave her, myself. When I did, I had to make arrangements well in advance to have someone care for her. It was often Heather who was retired and lived the closest, of my two sisters, who came to care for Mother in her own home.

Now here I was, with Mother gone and me freed of that loving obligation, at Heather’s. Lord knows, she’d asked me to come up often enought.

Hardly settled in the front door, I went round to the back balcony overlooking the Georgia Straight, out to Vancouver Island, down the morain made slope of Heather’s garden.

It is May and the garden is at it’s most furious growth. The recent rains and following sun has given spurts of glorious green to the foliage. At the lane end, as I sit on one of terrace, brilliant double-scarlet poppies punctuate the blue sea and the sky beyond it. Buttercups and scilla, the Spanish bluebell of spring, have filled all unplanted areas of the six terrace rows going half the length of property. It provides a joyous speckled tapestry of greens, yellow and clear Dutch blue.

There is a small lilac in bloom sending wafts of fresh perfume through the air. White flowered jasmine borders a string fence that is meant to keep the raspberry plants upright and contained within the top row’s confines. As I weed, I find two baby trees, a May tree, junior to that one on the property border that is showing a mass of white blooms, and an oak, junior to the one by the dining room window where the warblers come to sing. There is a mass of lemon green verbena and two rather big clumps of a darker green winter savory.

Her herbs are tucked between the flowers – sweet cicely, garlic, lovage, rue, borage, bergamotte, silvery posy thyme, oregano, parsley, salad burnet, comfrey, feverfew and chives. There is a sage with beautiful rose coloured flowers. Strawberries with little white flowers promising summer fruit connect by rhizomes from terrace to terrace.

Her flowers are a like a compendium of an English garden. There is jasmine, a blue and white columbine, bearded, Japanese and Siberian irises, calendula in profusion, peonies, Canterbeury bells, London Pride and Hellaborus, the Easter rose variety. She has cranes bill and lavender, and tall yellow tansy. There are shasta daisies and delphiniums that were a favourite of our horticulurist Grandfather on father’s side of the family.

There are thimble berries, black current bushes, and rhubarb. There is a tall, winter ornamental cabbage that has been allowed to go to flower, that should have not flowered this year, being a biennial and it being the third year. It has a frilly white cabbage three feet up in the air with a lacing of a pale green edges, and sprouting out of this tutu of cabbage leaves is a feathery crown of bright yellow flowers like sequins dancing in the wind.

There is more! Peonies, chrysanthemums, alstromeria, camelia, flowering almond, ladies mantle, gladioli, swordfern, montbretia, several kinds of roses and fuschias. There are fruit trees – a green coloured plum, apple and pear.

Heather and I have had wonderful days, rooting out evil weeds from the lovely soil she has built up on this rather desertic and rocky morain, from thirty years of compostings and constant working. We talk as we work, both sharing the belief that we find peace in a garden, that the task is a meditation, that the few things we say are a conversation far deeper and more connecting than the ones we have sitting around a kitchen table, although those are good too.

Heather and I have had wonderful afternoons, looking through this nursery or that for a special plant, a specimen not like the others, a variety of extraordinary delicacy or soothing beauty. I look for plants that are agressively capable of continuing their own lives without me, because I have this wonderful propensity for killing most of the plants that I bring home. Hardy, colourful, flowering weeds are for me – fox glove and lupine. I can lose plants in a garden easier than anyone I know. I like day lilies because you can’t kill them and it’s outrageously flamboyant.

Heather brings home special tender herbs and brings them into becoming big health vigours clumps . She brings home tender rock garden flowering succulents and has them year after year, flourishing on her rock wall and in her window planters by the kitchen sink. She has tiny specialty mosses. She has a true green thumb.

I spent as long as I could stay out in one day of our Victoria day holiday sunshine, helping to root out evil bindweed, so ironically named Morning Glory. It strangles the plants and covers them with their large arrow pointed leaves, robbing the host plant of light. The garden is getting to much for us as we come, ourselves, into the homestretch of our years. Heather has decided to cut back her wonderful garden to half its size, bringing back grass onto the slope. She no longer is trying to augment her family resources with garden vegetables and fruit. The boys are grown and gone, living their own lives “Away”.

She’s promised to save me some of her duplicates as she works on her new garden design meant for decoration, not dining. I’ve just bought my own house to live in, my first house since I sold up everything thirty years ago after my disasterous first marriage. I’m coming home. I’ll have my own garden. It’s a nice established garden to start with. But bet your bottom button, I’m going to have some of the heritage plants from Mother’s garden and some of Heather’s lovely garden as a tradition to maintain.

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5 Responses to “Heather’s Garden”

  1. nouveaufauves Says:

    How unusually absorbing! I used to watch Da Vinci’s Inquest and that is the closest I have been to Vancouover or that area. (I live in North Carolina) I love the description of the garden and the plants in it. I am familiar with about half, maybe. After seeing M Moore’s “Siko”, I am entertaining the thought of moving to Canada. Before they died, I had to nurse both my parents in their dotage. It was very difficult with no assistance from anyone. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks for your comment.
    It’s amazing how many people are having to go through this and how many of them are doing it with little support and little understanding of the aging process.
    There is help out there, but sometimes it’s too little too late.
    I am very empathetic about the care and devotion you must have had to look after both parents in their last years.
    Gardening is one of those meditative activities for me. I can do the most mundane things and feel somehow refreshed and closer to a peaceful reality. If you read on, you will see that I’ve just got a new house with a huge well-established garden to work in.
    I hope your life after primary care-giving has become rewarding – a time for your own flowering and development.
    If you are interested in some of those plants you don’t know, look them up in a Google search. There’s a surprising amount of info on the ‘net.

  3. nouveaufauves Says:

    Thanks for the empathy. It is comforting just to know someone else has been there and done that and cares that you have had a very similar experience. Only when you have been through it can you understand.
    Yes I should look up all the plants I didn’t recognize. I was just pleased that I recognized some of them. As the daughter of a botanist I learned that I will never know all the plants in the world….. not even a significant fraction. I used to garden. I am a little too old to do it like I used to. My home is in the heart of a Southern city….. Charlotte, NC. It gets so hot and dry here in the summer that it takes many hundreds of cubic feet of city water to keep it alive. I had to give it up….couldn’t afford it. But I truly understand the therapy it provides. This type is so tiny, I can’t see it. I am relying on my old skill at touch typing so forgive mistakes.

  4. Judith Morrow Says:

    It was a very fine, and real story. How much you captured about what one can experience in being in the role of caregiver! I found your story because it followed the postings of The Healing of Heather Garden – a documentary about a person called Heather Garden – which I was checking out I find it interesting that, although in the video documentary, the Heather was ill herself, she was the kind of person who guarded against dependency. Also, now that she recovered, this Heather is also the kind of dedicated caregiver as your eldest sister. And the documentary touches on the power of the healing garden.

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