I woke, lungs prickly with a cough and head thick with phlegm. I’ve gotten clogged, and I need to speak to Jenny. As usual, I send a quick text to see if she has a window to chat while her kids are quiet. Then I wonder: what’s the protocol now? Can I call and ask for help dislodging a weed of doubt, when she has recently been decimated with her brother Jeffrey’s death, younger than us by 12 years?
What right do I have to call her with my garden-variety bad mood?
Ordinarily, we trade texts, messages, and calls while commuting. Walking our dogs and driving to and fro seem to be the only time we have that is uninterrupted. Communication can be multi-week text conversations or phone calls with duration meted out by travel distance. “Just wanted to pick up the phone, but I only have a couple minutes before I get to work…” It’s rare we last more than a few days without connecting. When we do, it is always slightly unsettling for us both. After 39 years, it’s second nature.
Nowadays, parents would never let two five-year old girls, she with long blonde, me with short brown hair, walk unaccompanied to a school next door, much less three blocks away. Brave and a little scared, we held hands across Woodland Avenue’s traffic and later past the dark bush where the local bully would hide, through secret cut-throughs and people’s private property, past the boys that teased us when at 10 years old we moved to the girls school just two blocks down the street.
At 11, when I slid the kitchen’s sliding glass door open to pick her up for school, Jen’s mom told us it was a boy she was expecting. She made a show of family solidarity by whispering the baby’s sex in Jenny’s ear before she told me. But she needn’t have bothered turning to me; Jenny’s wail of disappointment said it all (What 11 year old girl DIDN’T want a little sister instead of ANOTHER little brother?).
The answer to my question, “When did you decide to have another baby?” came quick and flat: “We didn’t.” At 11, I was wise. I felt sure I knew all the implications of that statement, but all I really knew were the basics. Jenny and I had “Human Growth” last year, so I knew how babies were made. I nodded, one woman to another. What I didn’t know was how a surprise baby could be such a gift and nestle his way into a special relationship with everyone in the family. What I did know for certain was that her soon to be born baby brother was the most exciting thing that had happened to either of our families in a long time.
A year later, we moved across town, and six months later, Jenny’s family bought the house right behind us. Our parents put a gate between the back fence and we proceeded to wear a path between our back doors. As the years passed, Jeff became the only other person who used the gate with regularity, cutting through our back yard to get to his friend’s house two blocks away. Loping through the backyard as he stretched from a young boy into a teenager, his round, freckled face broke into an easy, impish, slightly apologetic smile whenever he saw one of our family.
For 11 years and thousands of miles, Jenny and I walked and biked to schools, tennis lessons, and swim team together until an abrupt enrollment in boarding school at 16. Walkie-talkies out our bedroom windows, first kiss stories, first drinks, smoking cigarettes, family vacations, high school expulsion, crushes, break-ups, addictions, holidays, relatives’ deaths, divorce, marriage, relief when her fiancé said, “sure, Sara’s welcome any time”, births, international travel: our root systems are so entwined, we draw nourishment from the other.
Vacation with Jenny’s family, out west, c. 1986
Any fairly serious garden has paths designed to be an arms length away from the middle of each vegetable or flower patch for easy weeding, tending, and harvesting. Many a gardener does their best to protect growth by staying on the dirt paths. But Jenny is the rare sort who also avoids squashing any rogue seedlings that occasionally take root in the middle of the path. Dislodging each weed, she takes the time to get comfortable before grasping it at the root to wiggle it loose from the soil with time and love. The person who pulls weeds too quickly from the soil risks the frustration of severing the above-ground portion from the unwanted roots, leaving it to proliferate and re-appear, often even stronger.
Ahhhh… THE Marathon, 2000
The greatest beauty can be found in unexpected places, so it’s worth stepping lightly. New and out of place growths might be weeds; they might not be. They have definitely jumped ship with a rat’s sense of impending doom. Perhaps it was fear of being trapped in a crowded root system of expectations. Or perhaps it was a seed that managed to break out from its tightly bound, multi-generational system to cross-fertilize with a neighboring species and offer a different viewpoint, sense, taste, or beauty.
This day’s weed shouldn’t matter; it’s just regular old self-doubt. My garden looks basically the same as it did a few weeks ago, while hers has undergone complete devastation.
But is it completely devastated?
Squinting to blur out details and step back from my projections, I look her way. Three weeks ago, the ground shook and earth’s fault lines lay exposed. In a split second, the earth’s tremors made decisions ruthless in their finality.
I shy away from the raw changes; the devastation is too painful.
At first glance, her garden looks ruined.
It’s definitely different.
The right order of life has been upset; things that should be living, are not.
Much of the garden’s growth died in that moment and still more will die. Plants have fallen into the abyss and are decaying and transforming into ash and seed. With that seismic shift, each root bundle separated to some degree from the others; the dirt loosened and space shifted, allowing sun and rain access to the deep. Rocks and chunks of moist, naked brown earth lie exposed. Green life and bits of vibrant and intimate colored petals have been plowed into the dirt. In Darwinian fashion, the vegetation that survives this violent tilling can only do so if it is able to drive down and anchor into the strength and resilience of the firm earth beneath the loosened soil.
Relaxing my squinting, I see the family’s root lines. For the last 10 years, the below-ground system that nurtured and wove the family together had been severed by hurt and anger. As divorced parents raggedly reconnect with relief, their primary roots are again linked, even as secondary roots grow in different directions. The two remaining siblings reach toward each other and gently weave together in ways they haven’t been able to through the previously thick and entrenched growth patterns. Jeffrey’s roots are slowly releasing and his 31-year place in the system is shifting, leaving an empty space filled with pain and deafening silence.
A dandelion’s golden yellow yolk transforms into a seed head and offers its globe of new life to the wind. The heavier bits fall close, settling into the recently loosened earth to fertilize and protect the shuddering root system. Particles lift and spread wider still, and the lightest of spores blow in all directions: East for new beginnings, South for love and inspiration, West for wisdom and abundance, North for presence, communication, and conviction.
Tears water our souls as we stand with faces upturned to the sun and misty downfall of ash. Like schoolgirls, our fingers instinctively reach for each other and she says quietly but clearly, “I will need your help tending the memories”.
Top photo: 2009, Preparing to stand by Jenny’s side at her wedding.
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