Seven years ago last week, I signed the papers turning over my Raleigh home and restored gardens to new owners. I wasn’t thinking about the anniversary, but a couple days before the date, I dreamed I drove by the house. The gateway my son and I built had been removed (which is fact, I did a drive-by last autumn on a Raleigh visit; I will never go back), but in my dream the view past the house through where it had been was a vast garbage dump wasteland.
Nicholas (and his family) helped me start my current garden in the meadow too. Building the first three raised bed boxes and setting the first fence posts. A couple years later, my daughter Emma and her family helped me moved the back fence to expand the space.
My father’s garden here returned to natural vegetation years ago, after he returned to dust. This garden is vulnerable too, sitting in the meadow occupied by deer, rabbits, and a bear, along with opossums, raccoons, and coyotes. And moles, the only critters the fence doesn’t stop. Nothing can stop the weeds either. When our horse lived here, it was grass and daisies, but those days are long gone.
Over two or three springs, I laid a brick sidewalk. Last summer moles destroyed a section of it, and over the winter weeds obliterated the entirety of it. After my dream, I got up early and headed out to start restoring it. Reluctantly, I might add. It’s hard work. I’m still not doing what I should do: line it with black plastic. I just want the path back.
I don’t know why I’m doing it. No one sees it but me. Though Airbnb guests are welcome to visit it, I don’t think more than a couple have. I know the moles will push the bricks up again. I know the weeds will come back. It’s wild land; perhaps not meant to be tended or tamed. Maybe it’s my bid to let my work be vulnerable: vulnerable to failure, vulnerable to someday letting the weeds win, even as today I’m going for this happiness.
As I scrape the half inch of dirt off the tops of the bricks, pry them out and dig out the buttercups and other tenacious weeds, I remember finding the flagstones buried deep in the dirt of my Raleigh garden. It was like an archaeological dig. I thought, back then, of the young couple who made something of that side yard. I wonder when they gave up trying to keep their creation visible over the nearly six decades they lived there. And now, I expect, my reclamation has been reclaimed by grass once again.
The night of my dream, I had gone to bed feeling bad about myself. In early March, I sent off my memoir manuscript about caring for my mother for an “assessment.” I wanted to know if it was worthy of my time, energy, money to hire an editor and pursue possible publication. I got the assessment back recently. It was, satisfyingly, very complimentary of my writing and about hitting all the benchmarks that make a good memoir. About the story, however, she had concerns. She didn’t much like the characters; she said that neither my mother nor I bring our best selves to the page.
Neither of us brought our best selves to the life we spent together either, but I do think we were doing the best we could. Or were we? Was I? I spent a sleepless night thinking I failed horribly as a caregiver, and as a daughter. And there are no do-overs. It is what it was, for all time. I want the memoir to authentically reflect how hard it is to be a family caregiver, because otherwise why write it? It would be like all the others, and I figure those authors were sugarcoating the experience: at best letting what came after death inform what to bring to the page and at worst, flat out lying, perhaps to assuage guilt. Why couldn’t I feel about my mother then the way I feel about her now? Because I couldn’t, it’s just that simple. And that complex.
I watched Brené Brown’s Netflix special, A Call to Courage, a few days ago. She speaks of having the courage to be vulnerable, because vulnerability is the only path to courage. Moving across the country and back into my childhood home with my mother is not the only courageous thing I’ve ever done—or continue to do—but it’s right there vying for top place.
I think I can fix the manuscript without compromising the story I want to tell. I bucked up and started scraping away the dirt and the weeds. I have reread the entire thing—at nearly 400 pages, officially too long—seeing on the page the redeeming moments. Reminding myself of why it was so difficult. Forgiving myself for not being a saint. Brené Brown’s specialty, by education and career, is shame and guilt. I refuse to go there. I’m sleeping okay now.
Do we get just one chance to get a thing right? Can one season wipe out the previous one? Is our work on this planet for naught? It certainly seems that way politically right now. What happened to building blocks of progress? Should my memoir be about what I wish had happened? Do I have the courage to be vulnerable on the page and in the garden?
I was back in the garden yesterday, restoring another section of the path. I’ve spent three mornings on it, sticking to my mantra that I don’t have to do it all at once, and I don’t have to do it all day. I have one small section left. I can’t bring my Raleigh garden back to its best self, but I can keep this one with me for now.
Yesterday I received my copy of my beautiful friend Joanna Powell Colbert’s new tarot deck, The Herbcrafter’s Tarot. Her art is stunning, and the words of co-author Latisha Guthrie, inspiring. I drew a card this morning, as guidance for wisdom to carry into the day. It was one of the “curandera” cards, the healers: “plants that have medicine particularly valuable for elder women.” Latisha writes that they represent faith in the mysterious, calling us to a time of trust. The Curandera of Earth (Sweetgrass), the card I drew, knows that when we share the sweetness of life with another, all may thrive.
My mother has returned to the earth. Life was not always sweet those last six years, but we shared it the best we could. I have no regrets about that; I trust that it was enough. Someday I will leave this place, and another owner will either keep up my garden or let it return from whence it came…buttercup, dandelions, maybe even trees or a daisy-filled horse pasture. Neither the meadow nor the house will be mine then, and I will move on with only occasional glances in the rear view mirror to all I have to leave behind, beyond my control. We can’t go back, only forward. I hope I have the courage to continue to be vulnerable until I return to the earth myself.