I woke up Sunday to a voicemail from my dad, asking if I could get to Saltillo a little earlier than planned. “Your mom’s having a bad time,” he said. “She needs her spirits lifted.”
Lately the quality of my mother’s days has varied wildly, usually depending on how well she’s been able to pace herself and not overdo it during the previous few days. Overdoing it for my mother is staying up all night, maybe not going to bed at all, playing word games on her smartphone. Overdoing it for my mother is letting her mind go to the dark place it likes to visit every now and again. Overdoing it for my mother is experiencing a break from the constant pain and then spending all day and into the night in her beloved flower beds, trying to plant and shape and craft and prune and weed and move and split and perfect.
The good days are wonderful but I’m not around much for the bad days. It’s a blessing and a curse to live these two hours from her. I don’t get to see her, monitor how she’s doing, listen to her when she just needs to rattle, make her laugh, do the heavy lifting. But I don’t have to see her when she is in so much pain that she cannot leave the bed. For days.
I hear about the bad days sometimes, in my dad’s tone of voice on the phone or in his eyes when I get to come home. He’s grown weary of certain patterns of behavior and the domino effect they have. He knows my gardener mother feels rushed by the natural current of the seasons and how certain things have to be done at certain times and with certain amounts of repetition. He knows that when she pushes her limits too much she will pay the price, and he can see it happening in real time. I don’t know how to tell him that I’m sorry it’s not easy, but that he has always told me that life isn’t easy. That seems like a callous thing to say, or even think. But I don’t know how to make it better for him, and the solutions I have offered (“You need to talk to someone, Dad, a professional”) seem impractical to him. When I’m there he seems so short with her, annoyed at her quirks. She usually takes it in good stride, and even jokes about it with him. I know his attitude comes from a place of fear for her well-being. He confesses his massive love for her almost as often as he raises her voice at her. There is no question in my mind that they are stuck together, two vines that have grown into each other, tightly twisted and inseparable. Unravel and remove one and the other will die. And yet, I have never really been able to evaluate tension between my parents accurately. When I was a kid, I would fall apart every time they argued. I am not a kid anymore, and still when there is tension between my parents, I feel physically ill.
Mom showed me her hands Sunday evening. Swollen and dirt-stained, they were nicked and callused from her ungloved battles with plants. “I have an obsession,” she told me, referring to her habit of weeding at all hours. If she is standing outside long enough, she will go to pulling. Even if she’s standing in someone else’s yard, like the time she came to visit me in my new little house and went outside to smoke a cigarette. She was out there for forty-five minutes in the wee hours of the morning, pulling at the crabgrass that had overtaken the stone pathway in the back yard. When I woke up the next morning, I saw it out my back window, picked clean of weeds. I told her she had to take it easy. She knew I was right, but admitted she wasn’t sure she knew how.
When I first moved into my very own house, she and my grandmother loaded up the back of a Ford Explorer with a box of dry bulbs and clippings whose roots were sandwiched between moist paper towels and cardboard, secured in a plastic bag. They descended upon my flower beds like reasonably paced middle-aged wood nymphs, and in the span of a single afternoon they planted coneflowers, tulips, peonies, lilies, forsythia, irises, cannas, hostas, coral bells, and a baby rain tree, all divided or seeded from existing plants that had been growing on my family’s land for decades. My mother was so happy and proud of the work they had done that she talked constantly about coming back and doing even more. That spring I doted on those plants like they were my own children.
Each time mom would come visit, she’d come with an armful of something: potted plants, woody clippings, jars of greenery just sprouting roots in water, plastic baggies of seeds she’d stored from previous seasons of deadheaded flowers. There was always more dirt to be parted and filled in my yard, it seemed.
That Sunday, the day my dad had summoned me, my mother led me through their yard, which had once been a pasture for cows, asking me if I had any of this, any of that, and uprooting what I said I’d like to take with me. We went to the basement, where she had potted and wintered over much of her finest greenery and had yet to get it back outside. The top of the driveway next to the garage was filled with enormous pots of elephant ears and tall, skinny plants that pushed six feet tall. There were dozens of pots, if not a hundred, inside and out, overflowing with leaves turned toward the light. She said to me, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this next year.”
As I watched my mom look over the orchestra of plants she had been conducting for years, choosing which ones to hand off to me, I realized that she was passing a torch. Not using hers to light mine, but handing it to me entirely. Holding court over her flowers brought her a joy unmatched by anything else in life. She filled every nook and cranny of my childhood house and yard with shape and texture and color. Trees she planted when I was a child are now taller than the roof. She made it part of my chores growing up to water her plants when she had to pull long shifts at work, so that I would understand what it took to keep them alive. Some of their pots were adorned with sticky notes denoting extra information for anyone who cared to look closer. She named some of the plants, and addressed them by name, and explained that they can be fickle like humans.
My mom would say her children are her life’s work, and that her plants were simply a natural way for her to help showcase the beauty of the world God created for us to tend. But those plants are a visible representation of her life, the time she has spent in her earthly body. And now she confronted the reality that the tending was officially too much for her.
She needed to know all those little pieces of her hard work wouldn’t wither and die from neglect. She needed to know someone could take care of things and keep the place going once she was gone. She needed to know that she would still live on somehow here on the hill once she left us, and that someone would be around to water her and talk to her and coax her to bloom each spring.
So I told her: It’s my turn now. And I’ll tend as long as I’m able.
Lindsey Turner is an art director, writer, and photographer in Nashville. She lives with her husband, son, and dog. She still hasn’t figured out what she wants to be when she grows up, but she’s having fun anyway. She blogs every now and again at theogeo.com and wastes more time than is wise on Twitter: @tindseylurner.