I’m currently sitting at a coffee shop in crunch mode. A few weeks ago I wrapped up the first draft of a book more than 25-years in the making. As I typed the closing words of the final chapter, I felt something was missing. That perhaps my book was an illusion or misrepresentation of grief. Despite being brutally honest about my lack of credentials or knowledge base around this topic, I felt like a fraud. Somehow my story didn’t seem strong enough or capped with enough wisdom and answers to really provide a sense of purpose to the reader.
As I contemplated what to do next, I began reading Susan Cain’s latest book Bittersweet. When I hit chapter 3, Cain made the comment, whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make it your creative offering. I realized in that moment, the purpose of my book, is to share with even one person, my journey with loss. For me, it has no end, because for me to never experience loss again would mean to quit living. Despite believing that in my soul, I seriously questioned if anyone else would understand. After all, one of the most common pieces of encouragement after losing someone or something you love is this too shall pass. It will get easier, once you get through it.
The problem is that never happened for me. I kept waiting and waiting, believing that if I just tried hard enough, I’d reach the other side. But the truth is, I feel loss and I hold onto it. I don’t dwell in it or quit living. I’m not clinically depressed or emotionally unavailable. Instead, I find myself acknowledging this is the price of admission and often times elevating my blessings by recognizing that anything worth anything I will in fact lose someday.
This is where divine intervention, fate, or a more logical explanation of Frequency Illusion of Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon comes into play. Because as I contemplated my shortcomings, Bittersweet provided the framework needed for me to finalize understand my inner workings.
Cain’s explanation of how certain people hold space for love and sorrow finally answered a decade old question. I am not broken. I am what Cain describes as a true connoisseur of the place where light and dark meet.
How did I come to that conclusion? A simple 15 question quiz that had me scoring 8.1 on the Bittersweet scale. Interestingly enough, my husband landed solidly in the category of sanguine or eternal optimist. It makes sense – I’ve been called Eeyore on more than one occasion, especially by my husband. I never minded, at one point going as far as to have a blog called It’s ok to be Eeyore, because I felt the world has enough Tiggers in it. That, I’d rather be loyal to one and contemplative, then someone I’m not.
Cain spends a lot of time contemplating the complexities of living in the place where light and dark meet, including one extremely important factoid that our culture has decided to overlook – it’s not human to simplify move on.
Trust me when I say this book is packed with wisdom. I earmarked so many pages and passages. But this, well it sums up my conflict with grief. It finally provides me the research to back my experience with loss – and the reality that while I keep living after loss, it does not mean that I’ve moved on, but rather that I’m continuing to move forward. The truth is, acknowledging my loss and being willing to talk about it, does not mean I’m dwelling or depressed, but rather I’m resilient. I am resilient and strong enough to embrace both love and loss, or as Cain explains, bitter and sweet, in the same moment.
How lucky we are to live in a world so beautiful where that’s possible? We are literally programmed to experience emotional multi-tasking. Yet, somehow that message continuously gets lost. Grieve and be sad. Then move on and be happy. I’m here to tell you, there’s an alternative. If you don’t believe me, then you MUST READ HER BOOK and take her word for it. Years ago Susan’s book Quiet gave me language around being an introvert. Now, she’s providing me peace for my experiences with loss. For that, I am forever grateful.
I have months of editing to go on this book and a proposal due in less than 3-weeks. The past few weeks have been packed with self-doubt. Yet, as I sought a sign, this book dropped in my lap. The proof I needed to know that I am not alone. Call it divine intervention or frequency illusion, it is a fine a line. Just know, that often times, the answers are there if you just ask the right question.
I somehow did it. My very first and very rough draft is complete. When I think about loss, losing my mom ranks high. Becoming a mom triggered a whole slew of loss, lessons and love for the woman who made me. I’ve spent years writing about it. This Mother’s Day is no exception. For those who have been kind enough to send me feedback, please keep sending it my way. In the meantime, an Ode to Motherhood.
Chapter 13: WTF? I’m pregnant.
About 4-months after the adoption failed, I started training for a half-marathon. It was just after the holidays in which in typical fashion I had overindulged in food and put exercise aside.
By this point in life, I had been running for a few years. A funny thing happened this time, though. My boobs hurt. As in, really hurt. At first, I thought that I’d jumped into training too hard. But, as the days progressed and the spasms in my boobs grew more frequent, I knew something was up. I was broken.
It wasn’t just my boobs. I was exhausted. I was exhausted when I ran and when I didn’t run. I was tired all day long and had no desire to get up in the morning. Granted, it was January in northern Wisconsin. It’s hard to be motivated about anything during this dark, sub-zero stretch of hell we call winter. But this was different.
After several weeks of enduring this excruciating pain, I decided to take a break from running for a few days. I thought maybe if I reset myself and started over it’d get better. Only it didn’t. It kept getting worse. I didn’t know what to do anymore. I shared my discomfort with my husband. He looked at me perplexed and then asked a very simple but loaded question, “You aren’t pregnant, are you?”
Time stopped. He knew I was not pregnant. I would know if I was pregnant. After all, I’d gone through years of trying to get pregnant. I’d undergone countless fertility tests, prayed to higher powers and visited multiple doctors. While my diagnosis wasn’t dire, I clearly didn’t get pregnant. We had just gone through a year of paperwork and tests to get approved to adopt in the state of Wisconsin, only to have it fail. This was in fact an extremely loaded question. Of course I wasn’t pregnant. Or… was I?
My mind began racing. I had a stash of pregnancy test strips under the sink. It’d be quite simple to do a quick test and put this rumor to rest. But a big part of me didn’t want to get my hopes up. I started to do the math in my head. Yes, my period was late. If I were a gambler, I’d be broke if I bet on the dates my period would hit. Sometimes it’d be weeks, other times months. Plus, with the stress of the holidays, it’d make sense I was late, right?
After several rounds of inner conversation that was slowly making me crazy, I decide to take a test. I’ve got nothing to lose. At least then I can rule out this particular crazy notion. I take the test. After a few minutes I glance at the test strip. I see a couple of lines and dismiss the notion. I knew I wasn’t pregnant.
Later that night, while nursing my sore boobs, I suddenly found my heart racing. I return to the bathroom and dig the test strip out of the garbage. Two lines. Is it possible that meant I was pregnant? I dig under the sink for the directions. They’re missing. I start to panic. How can I not remember if two or three lines mean I’m pregnant?!?!?!
Before you consider me a very dumb blond, remember the circumstances. Factor in that I had purchased these test strips three years ago in bulk on Amazon. They didn’t come in a pretty box. These strips didn’t have smiley faces or pink lines. They were test strips with multiple faint lines.
I immediately turn to Google looking for answers. After finding the directions online, my life changes in an instant.
“I think I might be pregnant.”
Silence. I can hear my husband carefully formulating a sentence in his brain before speaking, knowing the next words he speaks count.
“What do you mean you think you might be pregnant?”
“Well, this test says I’m pregnant, I think.”
“You think? Isn’t it a yes or a no?”
“Well sort of. But I’m guessing this test is expired.”
Chaos ensues. My husband runs to our local grocery store, the only spot in town with tests, and asks the clerk for a pregnancy test. Meantime, I Google what can cause a false positive. It’d appear that a rare form of cancer and a lot of urban myths are the only options. The sparkling optimist in me becomes convinced that I have cancer.
My husband returns home. “Well, either everyone in town tomorrow will know you’re pregnant, or a rumor will be floating around that I’m having an affair.” The joys of small-town living.
I begin guzzling water. Lots and lots of water. Three tests later, I’m starting to come to terms with the idea that I may, in fact, be pregnant. My husband is beaming and totally convinced this is the only possibility. I’d like to believe this miracle is real, but the pessimist in me refuses. I need scientific proof. Luckily, I have an awesome doctor and work at a rural hospital that can do same-day appointments.
Less than 24 hours later, I find myself lying on an ultrasound table at work, hearing a rapid pitter-patter, for the first time. It turns out that there actually was a logical explanation besides cancer for the nagging pain in my chest. His name is Jacob William Probst. At the time, I was six weeks pregnant.
In an instant, life changes but everything stays the same. I look down at my paunch and realize there’s an alien-looking create growing inside of me. That every decision I make in the coming months impacts the creation of another human being.
I’m humbled and overwhelmed and scared. Let’s face it. This didn’t happen overnight. I had come to terms with the idea of never having a baby. I’m old… in childbearing age. Did you know that if you are 35 and pregnant, that’s considered a geriatric pregnancy?
I’ve never quite understood why the marketing of that. Adult pregnancy, mature pregnancy, but geriatric? It is very similar to wedding dresses being about 2-sizes SMALLER than your normal size. Because seriously, what girl doesn’t want to feel old when she’s pregnant (as if you don’t feel old already) or fat on her wedding day.
I face the facts. I’m a plus-size, geriatric pregnant gal who was not planning to get pregnant this year. I had abandoned the prenatal vitamins and hadn’t exactly been alcohol free over the holidays. Plus, the sugar cookies. So many sugar cookies. I had just booked a trip to Washington D.C. for March and now this?
I confide with a few co-workers. Those closest know what a toll the adoption took on me. They get it. As I’m telling them the news, it finally hits me. I am actually pregnant. This is exactly what I wanted.
Or, was it? My pregnancy would be plagued with complications. An achy back and an uncontrollable bladder eventually led to a more serious diagnosis of pre-eclampsia. In rural Wisconsin, this diagnosis played out in a 75-minute ambulance ride with three strange men, no shoes, and a heightened hormonal state. Our destination – the nearest trauma center equipped with a NICU.
It resulted in one of the most undramatic, dramatic results in my life. I never went into labor. I stabilized. After two nights of monitoring and Steve eating delicious looking take-out in front of me I was allowed to return home with strict orders of bedrest. I’d spend the next two weeks anxiously awaiting Jake’s arrival while also questioning if I was capable of becoming a mother.
Motherhood is a pivotal moment that plays out over the course of years. I’ll be frank, when Jake made his overly dramatic entrance into the world during an emergency c-section that involved him not only wrapping his umbilical cord around his neck but also somehow knotting it, I didn’t feel an immediate sense of joy. I was in utter shock.
Moments later he was placed on me to nurse. Splayed out on the table, I felt like a unique combo of a milking cow and Humpty Dumpty being stitched back together. I just wanted a full fat vanilla latte with extra whip cream.
Staring down at the little alien creature, I knew I was witness to a miracle. I was torn between sheer excitement of this incredible creature I just brought into the world and scared shitless of everything I could do wrong. In that moment, I needed my mom. Not my best friend or my sister or even the man who helped make Jake.
I knew giving birth would trigger the loss of my mother. I just didn’t know how lost I’d feel those first few weeks. Hormones and sleepless nights didn’t help. Unlike some incredible women I know, motherhood did not come natural to me. It was awkward and uncomfortable and extremely complicated. I quickly learn, motherhood is messy.
Messy and memorable. Somewhere in those sleepless nights, something clicked. I suddenly understood what it meant to love someone so selflessly that you’d sacrifice everything for them.
There’s something to be said about a love that fierce. I grew up in a house full of grace. I now understand why. My mother’s love was built around the notion that I was exactly who I needed to be – not perfect – but enough. My mother never tried to change me and constantly gave me freedom to make mistakes. To learn and grow and evolve into a young woman.
When Jake was born, I felt an unbelievable pressure to not mess it up. To make sure I raise him to be an incredible man. I now understand that I am not raising a child, but rather guiding a human being through life. Jake is his own person and to think I can change that is hilarious. I can guide and steer and pray and love, but at the end of the day Jake will become who he is destined to be. That’s humbling and scary and awesome all wrapped into one. To love someone enough to let them become who they are meant to be – that’s the greatest gift I can give as a mother. One I learned from the best.
If I could tell myself just one thing, it’d be motherhood is the ultimate test in vulnerability. Lots of it. The thing with motherhood is loving someone unconditionally comes at a cost. It is an emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows. The more vulnerable and deep your love, the larger the tidal waves. I never understood mamas who cried on the first day of school or became insomniacs in a quest to make sure their child was safe until I became one.
I went into parenthood believing I’d be the best mother ever. As a perfectionist, I wanted to be a perfect mom, because I wanted Jake to have the best. What mother doesn’t? Here’s the thing, by day 1 I had failed on many fronts.
This seems obvious now but I didn’t know it then. I am raising a human. Humans are messy and complicated and contradictory. They make mistakes. They are frustrating and difficult and stubborn and that’s what makes them beautiful. Now, I just do my best every day to lead by example, love him, and set him free to be his own person. It is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Is it perfect? Absolutely not. His teacher recently told us, Jake’s an incredible leader. He just sometimes leads in the wrong direction. I’ll admit, I was a bit embarrassed but bursting with pride and love.
Raising Jake has taught me, I’ll never be ready to parent a person but I was born to be a mom.
Things are getting real. This week, a podcast I recorded last month with Coach Kiah came out. I first discovered Kiah by accident on Instagram. Since then, I’ve been a huge fan not only of watching her incredible weight loss journey but also her zest for life and all things farming. Yep. She comes from a cattle ranch and often features ag and farming stories that remind me how much I want to own a tractor someday. She mixes cute cow pics and great personal development advice together, resulting in me becoming a huge fan. If personal growth or farms interest you, be sure to follow her.
She was kind enough to invite me to be a guest on her podcast. It was a ton of fun to record. I went in thinking I’d spent a lot of time talking about my running journey and my one and only self-published book. But, towards the end we got talking about my new book. It was my first time diving a bit deeper into the purpose of my book and definitely had me sweating since it is a hard topic to talk about and even harder when you’re already nervous AF. If you’re interested in hearing more about the book and what I’ve been up to, check out the podcast here.
Since I’m writing, I thought I’d share another excerpt from my book. I am so appreciative to all of the messages I got from my last post with feedback about my writing. So, if you have a few minutes, please consider reading the chapter below and shooting me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. It really does mean the world to me. My first ever book proposal is due June 5 so the clock is ticking and every bit of advice and encouragement helps!
Chapter 8 Therapy
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” David said.
Time stopped. How is that even possible. A few months prior I had started therapy in hopes to fix myself. Mom had been dead for over a decade. Despite graduating from college and landing my dream job, I had wasted my 20s away in a semi-destructive fashion. Perhaps I was just living my single days to their fullest. It is a fine line after all. Needless to say, something in my soul said I needed a change.
I quit my life in television news. I sold my soul to the dark side and took a job at an environmental liberal arts college as a PR hack. It was a straight day job, 8 – 4:30 pm, with weekend and holidays off. The pace more predictable and at times mundane. Come summer, the nearly empty campus and a generous vacation schedule allowed me to finally slow down and process the past decade.
Brutal is the only way I can describe it. At times emotional. One night, out of boredom, I watched boring reruns of The Real World and drank an entire bottle of wine. Somewhere towards the bottom, I suddenly felt I was spiraling out of control. I feared becoming her. Looking at the cheap zinfandel, I wondered at what point my mom transitioned from social drinker to alcoholic. I’d never get to ask her. But in this moment, I felt uncomfortably close. I threw the bottle out.
I chatted with my primary medical doc. She suggested therapy. I had run out of excuses and my insurance covered it. There was immediate availability at a clinic just 10-minutes from my apartment. I didn’t know many folks in this new town I was now trying to make home so I figured I had nothing to lose. YOLO, right?
There was also Steve. He was different than the other guys I’d dated. A keeper some might say. Our conversations ran deep. I laughed a lot. He seemed emotionally available. The attraction ran deep. Nearly a year into dating, a part of me wanted to run. To destroy things before he could break my heart. The other side of me, convinced I’d somehow mess this up because I was in fact a mess, wanted to do the work to ensure I’d get my happily ever after.
The perfectionist in me won out. I signed up for therapy convinced that a few deep conversations with a stranger would solve my grief, open my heart up and allow me to finally move past my mother’s death. In my mind, it was time to accept my mother’s death for what it was, close that chapter and start my life. Unfortunately, that’s now how therapy works.
Each week I’d find myself in a comfortable office sharing snippets of my past with a complete stranger. Conversations jumped from what life was like growing up to my career path to losing mom and falling in love. It felt very disjointed. Not at all like the movies. David rapidly scribbled notes down while I babbled on and on about all of the things I was trying to process. Occasionally he’d prompt me down another rabbit hole in which I’d bare another piece of my soul. Things I never shared with anyone suddenly came spilling out – I was comforted by the knowledge that this man had taken an oath to never share my deep, inner secrets with anyone.
The more I talked, the more broken I felt. What a mess I am, I thought to myself. But at least I’m doing something about it. At least I’m taking action to put myself back together again. At the time, therapy seemed magical, like the unsung hero who if given the chance, could have magically put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Finally, David said our time was coming to an end and that he felt he had enough information to diagnose me. Finally, a definition to this mess. A definition meant a solution. A pill. A treatment. A book to read. A way to move forward.
Then he said the words that shook my world.
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Other words followed. A lot of them. An explanation about how grief is hard but that I was in fact processing it and it was complicated. How it was totally normal to be nervous about my relationship because I was ready to transition from living solo to inheriting a roommate. Moving in with the boy was a big deal for me because I had spent a decade alone. I had successfully changed careers, but a lot of my identity was tied to that career I just walked away from. Something about the 20s being a major transition in my life.
He also talked about how my mother dying may have dimmed me ever so slightly. That pre-mom, I was perhaps a bit more outgoing and probably felt like an extrovert. It was impossible for him to know if I truly was an extrovert or just used that as a façade to not address my mother’s illness. Now I seemed to look inward more. To be a bit more reserved and at peace with that. Was that a result of my mother dying? Perhaps. My mom died at a very pivotal time in my life where I was figuring out who I was as a person. And, this would likely be one of the most defining moments of my life. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just meant I had evolved as a human – something we all do throughout our lives.
“But, what does this mean,” I asked.
In my head I was convinced he was wrong. He had to be because if he wasn’t wrong, that meant I was sentenced to this unsettling feeling for the rest of my life. That the random tsunami waves would continue to knock me off my feet at the most random of moments. I would never be the carefree teenager who took chances and felt invincible. Instead, I’d always be on edge waiting for the next big ball of doom to drop.
“It means that without me finding a diagnosis, your insurance likely won’t continue to pay for these sessions,” he explained. “I want to be upfront about that. I still think there are things we could talk through but you really are fine. If I had to prescribe you anything, it’d be to go live your life. To move in with Steve, enjoy this new life you’ve built. You’re ready.”
I couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket costs for these weekly talks. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the money but I questioned the value of paying someone to tell me I was fine, when I knew I wasn’t. I thought about getting a second opinion. Of finding another therapist who’d maybe understand that I wasn’t ok with just being ok. I wanted more.
I left therapy and something happened that hadn’t happened in a long time. I cried. I cried a lot. I cried tears of rage for mom breaking me and then abandoning me. Tears of rage for a therapist who couldn’t fix me. Tears of loss for discovering that the person I was pre-mom was gone. Tears of unmet dreams for leaving a career I loved and knowing I’d never return to it.
When the tears finally stopped my soul felt lighter. I started to understand that losing and letting go of those things meant space for new things. It meant exploring a new career that provided a more equalized balance between work and life. It meant time to start a side hustle writing. It meant giving my heart the space it needed to heal and eventually open up to falling in love. It meant exploring the Northwoods of Wisconsin and rediscovering myself on the south shores of Lake Superior. It’d mean starting to understand the connection and triggers that caused those tsunami sized waves of grief but also making space to remember the good times with mom.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d return to therapy many times in future years. Each time, I’d still ask the question, “am I broken?” Sometimes I wasn’t as whole as I’d like. Other times, I just needed a neutral stranger to ask me the tough questions and give me the space to process the answers out loud. To remind me that life is hard. That even on the easiest days, life can kick us on our ass. But we get to choose how we react. That we decide what comes next in those moments.
At one point, I found myself at a pretty momentous crossroads in life. I was having what I can only describe as yet another existential mid-life crisis, but I was only in my 30s. My career had stalled. I had grown tired of the Northwoods. Dad was sick. My relationship with my sisters was strained. I was a new mom. The honeymoon phase of my happily ever after had long since worn off. I was tired. So tired of going through the motions.
I wanted to run. I don’t know where to. But anywhere seemed better than the sticks of northern Wisconsin in the heart of winter. I just wanted to start over. I found myself once again in therapy, this time with an incredible lady who seemed to read my mind.
“If you could start over, what would you do?”
“I don’t know.” But it doesn’t matter, I thought to myself because I cannot.
She used that moment to give me some tough love. She reminded me that no choice is a choice. I was choosing to stay stuck by not doing anything. That inaction was in fact the action of nothing. I hated her in that moment.
“If you want to leave, leave. You have the knowledge and resources to do so. But, I wonder if that’s really the heart of what’s bothering you.”
Steve would eventually join me in therapy and I’d share my frustrations. I’d share that I was living a life that felt unfulfilled because somewhere along the time, life had started happening to me instead of for me. I no longer felt in the driver seat of my own destiny.
A conversation ensued about choices. I was reminded that I chose to marry a forester. I had chosen a career that provided a work-life balance that allowed me to be an incredible mother. I had fought long and hard to become a mother, it didn’t happen by accident. We had sought out our dream home on a small recreational lake, but that meant living in a very small place away from friends and family, but within driving distance of dad. These are choices I had made that lead me to this life I was living.
My therapist reminded me that this new life I dreamed of was void of making any choices. That if I wanted to start over, it’d mean making a choice about giving this all up. That’s the thing about choices. Choices rarely come without change. Change rarely comes without losing something to gain something else.
The truth is, I couldn’t imagine my life without Steve or Jake. I couldn’t imagine working a 60-hour work week or not being home to say goodnight to my miniature me. I couldn’t imagine a view without Moon Lake or the ability to be at my dad’s bedside when he’s sick. I couldn’t imagine not having time to write, or garden, or read a good book on my deck. I couldn’t imagine Christmas without snow and a massive live pine tree in my living room. I couldn’t imagine not living next to endless green space or leasing chickens in the summer.
The what if game is a dangerous game if you allow it to consume your life. It is one thing to wonder what if, if that is followed by a big dream that you go pursue. It is entirely another telling yourself how wonderful life would be if you could live someone else’s. I realize that now. Sometimes life hands me unexpected surprises completely out of my control. They knock me off my feet and make me angry at the world. But, for the most part, my life is the result of a series of choices I made, consciously and unconsciously, that I should embrace. If I don’t, I should change them.
If I could tell myself one thing, it’d be that a therapist can’t fix me because to fix me, I’d have to be broken. I now understand if mental health is Home Depot, your therapist is that friendly worker in an orange cape who can give you the tools needed to build, renovate or destroy whatever you want. I can google how to plumb a toilet or find happiness. It is just a lot easier to ask the man in orange to provide me the right tools to plumb that toilet, just like it is a lot easier to have my therapist help me understand the choices I’ve made and how that’s lead to the life I’ve created for myself and that maybe if I focused on what I have, I’d discover I am happy.
A therapist is great at arming you with tools and resources. The part that’s often missed, or at least was for me, is that you ultimately do the work. I ultimately decided to move in with Steve. To acknowledge that the life I chose is actually the life I want. To realize that if I don’t call my own shot, someone will call it for me. That’s on me. No therapy session, pill or self-help book will change that.
The great reward that comes with doing the work is you only have yourself to thank when things go as planned. It doesn’t happen often and sometimes it is a long and bumpy road, but there comes a moment when you can make peace with the decisions you’ve made. The other great thing, you get to decide when to do the work. Looking back, I genuinely believe things worked out the way they needed to for me. Delaying the full feelings of my mom’s death until I was in a place to process them, helped me get to a place where I could start to understand the grieving process. To understand that even trivial moments could trigger memories of mom, and that was in fact ok.
Megan Devine penned an incredible book entitled “It’s ok that you’re not ok. Meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand.” In it, Devine spends a lot of time talking about our society’s inability to process grief and acknowledge that grief is not in fact something you get over but rather live with. There is no other side to grief. As a therapist and someone who has experienced great loss, Divine’s stories and advice are based in science and experience. I wish her book had existed in 1996 when mom died. But am so grateful it is available now. I understand now, the piece of me felt broken, is in fact a broken heart over losing someone I loved. But, as cliché as it sounds, it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all. Knowing that and understanding that means I wouldn’t wish this pain away, because for that to happen would mean never feeling the love either.
This month, an essay I wrote about dad and gardening was published in Northern Gardener magazine. You can catch a glimpse of it here. It was shortened a bit since in typical Probst fashion, I was a bit wordy – so the full version continues on below. I learned a lot from my garden this past summer, including a bit about faith. There are so many things I never told my dad, but topping the list is just how much of him lives on in me.
Grieving in the Garden
Father daughter bonds take many shapes and sizes. For me, gardening offers me a rare moment to reconnect with dad. At just 42, I became an orphan. The story is complicated but the void in my heart is easy for any daughter to understand. Sure, I knew my parents wouldn’t live forever. But, my dad had 1,000 lives and for a while seemed invincible. Despite defeating the odds over and over again, it was a minor case of pneumonia that blindsided me Christmas Eve and left me alone.
Now, a few months later I find myself looking to the soil for answers. My dad and I shared a common love for making things grow. Growing up, gardening season started at the local feed mill in early spring. It was there, I’d watch my dad slowly count out the exact number of seeds he’d need and place them gently in a brown paper sack. We’d then move on to the potato starters picking the ones with the funniest eyes. Back home, I’d watch him turn the soil over with fresh manure, prepping it for planting, but not placing a single seed in the soil.
“Is it time,” I’d ask almost daily. “Nope. You must be patient.” This was one virtue I didn’t inherit from dad. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, my dad would determine it was time to plant.
One by one we’d place the seeds in rows marked by twine. We’d round out our plantings with small tomato and cucumber plants from the local greenhouse. And then we’d wait. As the weeks dragged on, I’d watch my dad lovingly water and weed those tiny buds.
“Is it time,” I’d ask in earnest every day. “Nope. You must be patient.” I’d see those initial white blossoms morph into tiny pea pods knowing that someday we’d finally pick our first super sugar snap pea of the season. I can still taste it. Green beans soon followed with juicy cherry tomatoes, bi-colored sweet corn and bright red raspberries. Endless rows of cucumbers were soon ready to be canned in mom’s secret pickle recipe. Each day, I’d wander the garden in awe of what transpired over the summer. Dad made it seem so simple.
Years later, I’d try to replicate the magic in a makeshift garden in my first home. The veil was pulled back. Without the loving eyes (and watering) of dad, the plants died. I discovered that cheap soil, no fertilizer and an unfenced area in a heavily populated deer area spelled disaster. Weeks later, I glanced at my shriveled up decaying plants and decided I was too busy to tend to the garden. By summer’s end, the once plotted space was nothing more than grassy weeds.
I’d move several times over the next few years. Each move marked a new opportunity to plant. But, something always got in the way. And when it did, dad would share his bounty with me. As time went on, dad’s declining health limited that bounty. I didn’t realize it then, but I wanted to make up for lost time. So I returned to gardening.
I began plotting my vision of the perfect garden. Every year involved bigger and better. My husband tried to keep up with my growing demands of more raised beds, additional fencing, more hoses, more fruit trees, and perennials. We trucked in fresh manure. We fenced and fended some more. Despite being on a small lake lot with acreage under 2.0, the project quickly became unmanageable. To overcompensate, I planted what was easy and could grow no matter what.
It started with the beans. There were so many beans. Purple beans. Green beans. Beans on top of beans. And then there were the zucchinis. I don’t even like zucchini. But it grew fast and furious in my garden, somehow compensating for my missed years.
I proudly shared my bounty with dad. “I don’t even like zucchini,” he’d quietly hint as I brought him baskets of them. “But I grew them, dad.”
“So, why don’t you eat them,” he’d say. (He knew I disliked them as well).
Back and forth we’d banter. He’d hint, in a not so subtle way, what he wanted from my garden. And, I’d try to navigate around the fact that we liked the same things and I didn’t want to give him my cherished sweet peas because I wanted them all for myself. I even attempted to pass off sweet peas from the Farmer’s Market as mine. He instantly knew they weren’t. This push pull relationship continued for years, yet for some reason I kept planting the zucchinis.
After my son was born, my priorities shifted yet again. The balancing act of being mom, daughter, wife, professional caught up to me. Areas of the garden were quickly taken over with mint. My raspberry bushes left untrimmed spreading like wildfire. Asparagus quickly became trimmed to the nub by north woods creatures and my unfertilized lingonberries succumbed to their demise. Areas of fencing now aged, were nothing but a minor inconvenience for the resident deer in the neighborhood. But yet the zucchinis kept growing.
Last summer I finally stopped. The garden scaled back to a mere four, 4×4 beds and a small plot of raspberries, sweet peas, sunflowers and mint. A few fruit trees remain and deer friendly perennials surround a newly made (and easily maintained) rock garden. I fertilized and doubled down on water. My dad, now an amputee, gladly accepted my single, simple offering of sweet cherry tomatoes and a few sugar snaps that I snatched from my son’s hands.
“You might get this gardening thing down, yet,” he’d say before giving a friendly suggestion on how to improve my outcomes. “You just need to be patient.”
In hospice, dad declined quickly. I suddenly understood we were out of summers. There would be no more garden banter about how to make things better. His parting words of “I’m proud of you girls and I love you” captured a lifetime of love in a single moment. And then he was gone.
Due to COVID-19, there was no funeral and I’m left wondering how to live out my dad’s legacy. There are so many things I could do. Do I plant a tree or an entire apple orchard? A garden statue? Planters? My dad loved blueberries. I thumb through countless mail order catalogs looking for the perfect tribute. I turn to Pinterest. But, each time I’m overwhelmed with grief.
Like clockwork, spring finally arrives in the north woods. I find myself longing to solve this legacy question so I can check grief off my to-do list. If only it were that easy. Instead, bare ground looks back at me. I return to the basics. Prep the soil. Fertilize it. Plant it with what you love. Water it. Nurture it. Each movement is a living legacy to dad. Each time, it gets a little easier. Turns out, grief like gardening, needs patience and grace.