The thing about almost dying is that it makes you very, very aware of living. Not necessarily the Big Things, like how will your family fare in your absence or the state of your soul, although those thoughts are likely present as well, but the little thing…things that are often of no consequence to anyone but yourself, perhaps something that never seemed particularly noteworthy before. The little things are the things that haunt.
My husband told me that he realized just how serious things were when the emergency personnel started cutting off his clothing. His first flash of thought…before the fear of life and death and pain and That Which Comes Afterwards…was just this: What if I never get to smell her hair again? Weeks later, when finally he shared this, my own raw emotions broke free (although I admit that I did ask him what my hair smells like…apparently it is smells like sunshine and rosemary and “kind of perfumey”). Other fears came later: job and bills and money and The Future. But for a moment, all that mattered was the familiar warmth of comfort of a beloved.
In the weeks after That Day, spring awakened and the view of the ridge behind our house took on new life. Something seemed to stir in my husband, too. He watched the bulbs I had planted break through the earth, and he asked eagerly when we could plant our garden. Per doctors’ orders, the digging and planting would have to fall to me this year. Despite my exhaustion, each day ended with a few more seeds tucked into the earth like an offering.
The daffodils and hyacinth bloomed and faded. The grape vines leafed out. The lavender seemed to resurrect itself from the gray dormancy of winter. The tomatoes and peppers sought the warmth of sun, as did the peas and black bean bush. The berry bushes flowered and the herbs trailed and twined and stretched skyward. My spirits also grew as my husband walked the gardens each night to point out the minute changes that had never before caught his notice.
He became engrossed with living and what comes from a life well-lived. These things we grew, they had purpose, they offered something back…he worried that his life did no such thing. This man, long since sworn to protect and serve, worried that his life was not Enough. My heart broke. When I tried to console him, he told me that I couldn’t understand, that I already knew that I was leaving something behind, that my words were my legacy. But, even as he said it, these words that he spoke of, these words that I love, that I try to shape and craft–they seemed so inadequate. How could I not find the words to give him to ease his mind and settle his soul? What kind of writer was I? What kind of wife was I?
Our walks around the garden have been hampered by the seemingly unceasing rain. The pattering of rain from the gutters and the sloshing of passing cars has replaced the low drone of tree frogs. The rain crows mock us in the still between the storms. The fog’s embrace soon becomes stifling as our growing restlessness cuts short our goodwill.
This morning, desperate, I took to the garden in the early morning hours and rain be damned. Breathing came easier in the rain cooled air, but the words did not. I sat on the damp rocking chair and lulled myself into thoughtlessness. Closing my eyes, the baptism of rain continued. The rain has a purpose, I reminded myself before I finally rose to start the day.
Then the words finally came. They are not my own, but I am unspeakably grateful for them:
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.
–Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)
Tonight, I will take him to the garden—rain or shine—and I will remind him of this truth too often forgotten. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. And I write it here, in case you need a reminder.