On Saturday, March 14, the day after public schools and our twin three years olds’ daycare closed in our Hudson Valley town, I sent the kids to their sitter one final time, frantic for a couple hours to get a few things done before I turned myself over to motherhood, all day, every day, for the foreseeable future.
There were piles of laundry to do, a shopping list that needed tending, urgently. But I found myself drawn out into the garden, still covered with mulch for its wintry slumber. Poking around, I saw early signs of life; the rhubarb had poked its rippling, fuchsia crowns out of the damp earth, and the tiny frills of wild nettles were several centimeters high in the rangy, untended back corner. The chives, too, had suddenly shot up in the preceding days’ warmth. It seemed too early, I thought, running back in my mind over all my years of planting. But then, this was the winter that never was, the deep freeze that never came. The unease has been around us for months now. The geese came home early, turtles are resting on logs already, the peepers out in the beaver pond the first week of March: a full month ahead.
I wasn’t ready, but the earth was ready; the plants were telling me so. So I pulled my box of seeds from the kitchen shelf. Out back in the shed, I wrangled a sharply-tipped hoe from behind a mess of bikes and lawn chairs. In the garden, I knelt over a bed, pulled aside the browned grass clippings from the last mowing of the fall, made two shallow rows, and dropped seeds into the ground — tiny, almond-shaped lettuce seeds and those of kale and collards, like burgundy poppy seeds. It might be too early, I thought as I sprinkled the harbingers of life into place, but it’s worth a shot. Anything hopeful, right now, is worth a shot.
I should know. I’ve been here before, in another time, another life, it seems.
I woke the morning after my mother took her last breath, on March 8, 2008, and I padded down the stairs of my childhood home in the weak late winter light. I was emptied out, exhausted, bewildered and totally unmoored. I was 21 years old. Before coffee, and without thinking, I reached for a packet of seeds; I’d ordered a whole season’s worth when I suddenly moved home to help my mom — who’d finally given up her battle with pancreatic cancer — die, planning to revive the vegetable garden she’d tended when I was a kid.
The garden had sat, abandoned, in recent years, and had become overrun with weeds. I envisioned the cathartic pleasure of ripping all those invasive weeds out, turning old manure into the dirt, pushing all my fury and confusion back into the earth as if to purge myself of it.
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That morning after her death, so many months sooner than we’d anticipated, I went through the broken screen door and onto the back steps where I’d stowed the gardening supplies. I emptied a few handfuls of cool, loamy potting soil into a plastic seed tray, and carried it back indoors. Gently, I pushed a pea seed, wrinkled and gray-green, into each compartment, then nudged a bit of soil over their tops. I took the tray to the kitchen, sprinkled the whole thing with water beside the faucet, and set it on a sunny windowsill.
I wasn’t ready, but the earth was ready; the plants were telling me so. So I pulled my box of seeds from the kitchen shelf.
The impulse had come from somewhere beneath consciousness, a desperate bid to catalyze new life in the immediate wake of death. Time had been frozen those past few weeks, as we spent idle, torturous days by my mom’s bedside, waiting for death to come for her and also desperate to keep it at bay. Pushing seeds into soil, I felt myself calling down the spirits of time, begging them to bring me back into their folds: please, let me rejoin this life. I’m emptied out, but I’m not done.
Now, 12 years later, I can’t seem to leave my garden. Something about the scene is so reminiscent of those days when we were awaiting my mother’s death — immediate family only, no one coming in, no one going out. Time was leaden, then, swimming as if through oil, distorted and heavy. Now, too, all of us, hold our breaths for the next death toll, the latest confirmation of encroaching shutdown and pending isolation.
I scroll aimlessly and endlessly on my phone as the kids stack broken bricks in the yard, or watch too much TV, or whine for my attention. I hardly hear them. I should be present to my children, I want to be, I admonish myself. But I’m hanging on the edge of time, waiting for something definitive to happen. Nothing comes, of course. Only the expansion of fear and regulation, a looming mass of edgy uncertainty that’s taken all of us into its hungry maw.
In the garden, on another unseaonably warm day, I straighten my body momentarily to ease the ache in my back. I’ve been shoving the pitchfork into the cool soil to turn it up over itself for upwards of an hour now. My fingers are caked in dirt, two knuckles broken open and bleeding. I relish the tiny hurt. The garden, now, is the only place I can find a pool of stillness, can channel something of reality. My children run about the yard wielding sticks and plastic construction equipment, suddenly feral with the dissolution of routine and socialization. The dogs are delighted and surprised to have us home all day, and they leap about, pulling a rubber toy back and forth between themselves and growling gustily.
I crouch again, pull at early weeds, stomp a shovel into mulch, and turn earthworms into the compost pile. I need things here, in this garden, to hurry up and show themselves, to tell me we’re still moving forward, somehow, in this sudden suspension of time. I need to believe it’s a pause, not a cessation. Come on, I seem to be saying to it all, come on. We’ve got mettle to prove. We’re not ready to go yet.