My father was always an avid gardener. I think his Irish blood called to the earth in much
the same way his own grandfather’s had. One of my earliest memories is standing barefoot in the
freshly tilled soil, my hands blackened from digging in the ground, still a bit cold from the
turning. As a small child, the garden was an amazing fairyland, full of possibility. As a teenager,
though, it was often a source of contention between the old man and me.
As a child, I loved following Dad around in the garden. I remember Daddy pushing the
tiller ahead in perfectly straight lines. His gardening gloves, banana yellow, would grip the
handles of the old tiller; the roar of the machine was pleasantly deafening. After a while, he
would stop and pull the gloves off to wipe his brow. Daddy loved growing all sorts of things:
yellow and green onions, watermelons almost as big as me, rows and rows of yellow corn, and
our favorite — ruby red tomatoes.
As I grew into a cantankerous teenager, I didn’t get so excited about gardening with
Daddy. Instead of the magical land of possibility, it had turned into some kind of medieval
prison. It was one extra chore, one more thing to keep me busy and out of trouble. One more
thing on a list of demands that I imagined no one else in the world had to deal with.
Dad would say, “Tina, come help me plant the garden today. It’s a beautiful morning to
“Aww, Dad, I was going to the movies with my friends,” I would whine.
“Tina, I could sure use a hand weeding the garden today,” he would remark.
“Today? Sorry, Dad, I already made plans,” I would stubbornly say, digging in my heels.
“Why do we have to have a garden, anyway? It’s stupid. “Dad, you can just buy them at the grocery store,”
I would point out. After all, I had better things to do with my time.
As Dad grew older, his passion for gardening never waned. After all the kids were grown
and had started families of their own, Dad turned to gardening like never before. His garden took
up most of his backyard, which was quite a stretch.
Even when he was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer, he still put out his garden. Still, he planted the yellow and zucchini squash, the juicy cucumbers, the spicy jalapenos, and of course, the tender tomato plants. Sometimes, I would come over to visit, and we would enjoy a glass of iced tea or a cold soda on the patio while he lovingly watered his garden in the evenings. The sunlight reflected off the spraying water and created shimmering rainbows that played hide and seek on the grass. He would share the bounty of his garden with me, as we would walk together through the carefully weeded rows.
But then, something changed. Like the weeds he so carefully kept from his little patch of
heaven, the cancer, bit by bit, invaded his body. Like the weeds, it stole his livelihood, his
independence, his humor. Like the weeds that took over his garden, the cancer grew rampant in
Dad, and the oncologist had run out of treatments.
Hospice is a whole other ballgame. Somebody has to be with the family member twenty-
four hours a day. I found myself in all kinds of uncomfortable situations with Dad, and more
than once I felt the brunt of his anger at his helplessness. Little by little, I had to do the things he
used to do. Soon I was cutting his grass, paying his bills, putting his pills in a cup, and adjusting his oxygen.
These things he resisted, but I knew things were definitely changing when I began
caring for the garden.
Though I had heard the words of the oncologist as well, what really convinced me that
Dad was dying was the state of his garden that year. That year, the rows and rows of
multicolored vegetables were gone. That year, he only planted tomatoes. Too tired to weed them,
he simply tied them with twine to the fence and let them be. It made me sad to see them
neglected, so I would come over and water them occasionally, and pluck out the weeds. I still
remember the day I picked the last tomato from the vine. That day was one of the saddest I had
Five years ago, Dad planted his last little patch of tomatoes. For the first few years after
he died, I couldn’t even bear to look at anyone’s garden without having strong memories pour
over me like cold water from a bucket. Last year, though, something changed, and I decided to
plant my own garden. I decided I would start out with just a few tomatoes.
That morning, I got out the old tiller and it roared to life, almost as if it had been waiting.
After breaking up a fair amount of soil, something caught the corner of my eye and I had to
smile. It was my eight-year-old son Nathan, standing barefoot in the freshly tilled soil, his hands
blackened from digging in the earth. He was happily playing in the freshly tilled soil, still a bit
cold from the turning.
Check out her blog at http://www.tinabausinger.com.
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