Creative NonFiction

On Gardening by Stacy Boe Miller

I’m ripping out my garden, pulling dried tomatoes and zucchini plants from the hard, gray ground. I’m not doing this because summer is over, because the frosty nights warn us that one season is pushing on the back of another. It’s only July.

I’m ripping out these plants nestled in the center of a community garden because this ten by ten space has loomed over my summer as a source of shame and guilt. Weeks without watering have left the plants stunted and dry. A few stiff tomatoes hang on despite my neglect, and a small zucchini plant holds out one short, fat zucchini. These vegetables that refused abandonment and stubbornly grew into the world only add to my embarrassment.

Next to my plot, the leaves on a basil plant lounge in the sun like happy, sunbathing women. This plot belongs to a man named Greg who recently instructed me on the “correct” way to hang the hose when he saw me recoiling it “too tightly.” I can’t stand Greg’s gorgeous basil and the fruit-filled strawberry plants he has carefully sheltered beneath chicken wire. I loathe his plump tomatoes and long slender zucchini exposing themselves from between plate-sized leaves.

Last spring, I envisioned myself here reading a book while the sprinkler made its way back and forth over lush vegetables I would feed to my family long into fall. I pictured my children’s chins dripping tomato juice, our arms and legs tan from days of weeding, watering, and harvesting. What I didn’t imagine were days and nights lost in a fog of hospital visits, time standing still under fluorescent lights and beeping machines, so that no matter how hard we try, we can’t figure if it’s been one or two weeks.

It’s the summer my father is dying. We don’t know this yet for sure, but his body is collapsing in on itself, wasting from cancer and so many other illnesses we can’t tell where the symptoms of one ailment end and the others begin. I worry people are tired of hearing me talk about it or afraid to ask how he’s doing. When they do ask, I fumble for just how honest I should be. I mention the cancer painfully eating into his ribs and spine, the new addition of an oxygen tank, and the curious, occasional dementia. I leave out details that especially haunt me: the terrible open blisters of shingles, the diaper he has to wear, the stares he receives in his blue bathrobe, accessorized with oxygen tank, and catheter.

I’m ashamed of being caught up in a grief I know is universal—losing a parent. But I am caught up, all my attention on this man holding my hand and asking me again, “Where are we?” It hits me that soon I will be the sole keeper of our shared memories of fishing on weekends in a yellow canoe, singing off-key country songs in his old green truck, and eating split pea soup at the Western Cafe in our tiny Wyoming community. Memories of a rocking chair companion in the evenings, calloused fingers I played with when the church sermon dragged on, and a penny for every nail I picked up around his shop—sometimes adding up to several dollars at the end of the day. Later in life, memories of building an island for my kitchen, working in my yard, travels abroad, and him rocking my little babies. I’m overwhelmed watching a body shut down, overwhelmed at saying goodbye, and how did I ever think I could keep a bunch of needy tomatoes alive?

I knew our summer would be different. We would forgo many of the weekend excursions or camping trips. I wouldn’t work much. We wouldn’t go on the usual raft trip down the Salmon River with our best friends. I explained all this to my children, that this is probably our last summer with their Pops, that everything else is on hold. But somehow I allowed a growing expectation for this ten by ten piece of dirt.

I came in May and turned the soil wearing shorts in anticipation of a tan. I planted zucchini, beets, radishes, tomatoes, cucumber, and basil. Imagined pesto, BLTs, and refrigerator pickles. For a while I watered. And then my father’s situation was suddenly complicated by sepsis, sending him half-dead to the hospital for days. Occasionally at night I would walk to my withering plot and water it enough to rekindle some hope in me that by August we would be slicing tomatoes and grilling zucchini on the back porch, but as the days passed, the gardens surrounding mine flourished while my plants held out just a few small vegetables. My hope and the browning leaves of my pitiful cucumber plants curled back from where they came like my father’s hands curled in toward his wrists. In hope’s place grew a bitterness as hard and ugly as the one short zucchini growing here now. I began to resent this garden and then to despise it, to associate it with the last expectations of my father getting better, with the shame of always being sad, with the inability to give my kids a normal summer. I pictured my garden-mates staring at the pitiful plot in judgment and considered putting up a sign next to the tiny tomatoes reading, “My father is dying.”

I  had imagined a kind of ritual in the digging, planting, watering with my children at my side. But now with bitterness and sadness blooming inside me, I’m ready for a different kind of ritual, one in full honesty and light of the hopelessness of our situation. So, after leaving the hospital where I have eaten ice cream and watched soccer with my father, where I have given him a massage and answered his ridiculous questions born of an infection-induced dementia, I have marched up the hill on this Idaho evening. Quails on the fence cry over and over “Chicago! Chicago!” Barn swallows dip and rise above me catching insects in the still air. I am ripping out zucchini plants, throwing down tomato cages, yanking up weed-tangled cucumber vines, and with each sharp tug I begin what feels like a holy litany:

Fuck Zucchini. Fuck Tomatoes. Fuck Greg and his delicious strawberries and the loving fence he built for them. Fuck this dried-up basil and the man who has come here to watch the sunset and play his guitar on a bench. Fuck summer and its unrealistic expectations and these seasons that just keep rolling us all in the same direction.

Without ceremony I haul to the compost bin every bit of vegetation. I restack the tomato cages into a pile by a shed. Another gardener wanders in, approaches me and asks, “What are you doing to your garden?” “Ripping it out,” I answer and feel some power in not giving an explanation. I stand back from the plot of wasted soil, dry and pock-marked where plants used to be. Set among the glory of other plots that have been tended and cared for, plots bursting with life, my garden looks like the worn-out face of grief, and somehow, for now, that is a comfort.

Visual art by Jerome Berglund