“It looks like we have to make another delivery to the doctors.”
My father said this with a kind of amused annoyance, as he and I checked out the two small garden plots he cultivated at his retirement community. The 5-foot-by-9-foot areas were rampant with tomatoes, peppers, string beans, basil, and zucchini, and only the week before, we had stopped by the hospital to deliver a first harvest to the physicians who saved his life three years earlier and continued to maintain his health.
“I mean, what are we gonna do with all these vegetables?”
Beneath his pseudo-frustration I could hear the pride in his voice, of an octogenarian’s accomplishment in maintaining high-yield patches of growth in a city to which he’d suddenly been transplanted four years before.
His life was a series of uprooted experiences. At first, he was used to the rocky struggles of a small town in Italy, then the gritty life of New York City, finally the sandy comfort of retirement in Florida. But two years after my mother died and his own health took a tenuous turn, I brought him to Charlotte, N.C., and the possibility of closer monitoring and higher-tech health care.
In response to his summertime dilemma, I resisted the urge to remind him for the umpteenth time that it was his idea to ask for that extra plot of garden no one else in the retirement community had claimed. That he was the one who insisted we buy more plants after I had brought home what I thought was a reasonable amount to care for. That during the previous year he had similarly complained about the abundance and the dilemma of how to share it.
No doubt about it, he’d grafted well to his new environment: starting a new life, making friends who spoke with accents hard for his native Italian ears to understand, digging in and meeting challenges of all kinds as he put new roots in a strange land of hard, red clay.
For all his setbacks, he was determined to remain productive as long as he’d draw breath. I marveled at his tenacity, courage, and stamina, even as I did the heavier groundwork while he watered the soil and reaped the blessings of his harvest. So what if what resulted was a bunch of stuff he couldn’t possibly consume all by himself? He reminded me that it was the gardening, preparing, and allowing for growth that mattered.
Whether we know it or not, all of us cultivate gardens. The things we choose to grow and the ways in which we care for them define our lives and who we are. Ironically, as we age, the urge to cultivate and produce doesn’t wane; it intensifies. Yet social pressures, misperceptions, and restrictions trim and prune us of opportunities until the struggle to grow with dignity can be more daunting than a seed’s attempt to push its first tender shoot through dry, packed soil.
It takes more than a green thumb to survive. It takes the will and wisdom of a master gardener. My dad was a natural.
What to do with all the fruits of his labors? It was obvious from his wink that he had a plan. We’d just make more trips to the hospital, this time to the nurses in the intensive care units, the chaplains, the volunteers –– anyone who had nurtured, watched, and tended him as carefully as he did his plants.
As for me, I, too, was spending some quality time cultivating: one living thing, 84 years old. And thriving.