It’s strange that I find myself thinking about gardens when I’m on a boat crossing the Atlantic surrounded by a great expanse of water on every side, without a green growing thing in sight. It’s strange that I find myself suddenly able to think clearly about the trauma of losing my father before he had reached old age as I get further and further away from the place where it all happened.
Or, perhaps it’s not so very strange; I have heard that you need distance from people, places, and experiences before you can start to process them properly. I suppose I just didn’t want to believe it, because distance is the one thing that completely terrifies me. I want to fight the distance. My father will always be far away, separated from me now, against my will. Inevitably, my memories of him can’t become clearer, but rather are destined to fade slowly, crowded out by new memories. New memories that don’t include him. This idea fills me with a choking panic, and makes me grasp at the familiar like a homesick child.
“My father’s body is a garden, and something evil is growing there. It clings to his bones and digs its fingers deep into the marrow. It has spread through the whole plot of land and emerged in unlikely places, choking everything in its path. It grows with an unnatural speed and blocks out the sunlight so that he gets paler and thinner every day.” I wrote this back in early 2012 shortly after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Gardens have always been incredibly important to my family. Whenever I think about my childhood, it seems to me that it was filled with picnics and meals outdoors, building dens on lawns, reading in the tree house that my parents had built for us as a surprise at the end of a summer holiday one year, long afternoons spent barefoot and deep in play-imaginings in our garden or a friend’s.
I often think about the beautiful Easter Day lunch we had in 2011. I don’t know what was actually in bloom that day, but in my memory the lavender is out and the air smells lovely. We set the table and chairs out on the sunny patio and heaped it with spring flowers and brightly painted eggs, and food—so much good food. My whole family was there, my sisters and my parents, and the man whom I loved, who would later become my husband; all was right with the world.
Of course you always know somewhere in the back of your mind in some intellectual sense that we are all mortal and life is never perfect, but that Easter meal felt pretty damn near to perfection. I can’t remember this day, or so many others, without the whole process ending up feeling like some kind of self-harm because it hurts so badly that I can’t ever get back to that place when we were all together, strong and healthy and loving each other in the spring sunshine.
I worry that I can’t remember clearly enough one moment, that he’s slipping away, and the next moment when I do remember, I find myself fantasising about time travel, as if willing myself back to those moments could do anything other than give me an almighty head and heart ache.
“I know why we try to keep the dead alive” Joan Didion wrote in her brilliant book on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, “we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” For a while, all I could remember during the panic attacks that came at night was my father’s strange far away dying eyes, his body lying curled in the bed like a dead sparrow. During these episodes, my husband would rock me gently in his arms until my breathing slowed and became regular. Whenever I saw him in dreams at first, it was after the cancer had taken hold, not the strong and healthy man he was until the year before the diagnosis. When you focus too hard on remembering something, it slips away from you like a dream. What happened to 24 years-worth of memories, all those memories of one of the most important people in my life?
We are golden, we are stardust, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
In the few years between my father’s diagnosis and his death, whenever there was the remotest scrap of sunshine or warm weather we would wipe down the table on the patio and eat outside in the garden. Long lunches, candle lit dinners spent together as the moon rose overhead. Sometimes he couldn’t eat much, and often he wouldn’t speak much either, but he would sit with his eyes closed, soaking up our company and the peace of the garden around him.
And then my little sister started painting gardens. A group of deer, heads poised, a crumbling folly emerging from the fog, a yew tree raising its branches into a golden fractal mist. Order and chaos finding balance with each other. They were lonely, hopeful paintings, and they expressed what I kept trying—and failing—to express with my words over and over again. There’s a terrible beauty, a pattern that refuses definition. It’s like dying and being born, it hurts with the white-hot pain of labour. It feels like being split open and washed up on the shore of a strange new land—disoriented, lonely, grateful, angry, full of awe and wonder.
I spent a lot of time in the hospice garden pushing the pram back and forth, trying to get my eight month-old daughter to go to sleep so her griping wouldn’t add yet another stress and misery to the already tense atmosphere. It was a beautiful garden, filled with different types of roses, hollyhocks, herbs, honeysuckle, and purple clematis.
Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear.
I felt disconnected, numb, separate from the emotions and sensations of my body. The day I tore the petals off a rose in anger and frustration I felt as if I was watching myself as an outsider, surprised by the violent outburst. As we sat in his room on the last wedding anniversary my parents would spend together, we could see white and blue Canterbury Bells—the flowers that my mother had in her wedding bouquet—outside the window.
The day that he turned a corner for the worse the daily reading happened to be from Amos: “I mean to restore the fortunes of my people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them, plant vineyards and drink their wine, dig gardens and eat their produce. I will plant them in their own country, never to be rooted up again out of the land I have given them, says the Lord, your God.”
At another time in my life perhaps I would have found comfort in this small thematic coincidence, and seen it as a sign, but as it was it felt flimsy and if anything, I resented it. All I really wanted was for my father to look me in the eyes and tell me he loved me, that he wasn’t scared, and that everything would be alright. On the one hand, how natural for a scared and traumatised child to look to their parent for comfort—a lifelong instinct, hard to fight. On the other hand, how unreasonable—selfish, even—of me, a grown woman, to need this reassurance from a dying man, when he was the one facing the unknown, his bones filled with screaming pain and his body failing him minute by minute, too slowly, too soon.
Memories come back in tiny scraps when I’m not looking for them; pressing my palm against his and marvelling at how big his hands were, feeling the rough, square tips of his fingers with my own. Balancing on the arm of a sofa, flinging my arms wide in mock drama as we mimed singing the Queen of the Night song from the Magic Flute and then collapsing into his chest in fits of laughter. The way he bounded down the stairs and jumped down the last few with a huge thump. Leaning against him, sleepily, as he put me on the toilet before bed when I was five or six. The time he slept on the floor next to my bed when I had growing pains in my legs so badly that I couldn’t sleep as a young teenager, and woke up crying from the pain. The way he pulled up my tights and swung me in mid air when he was helping me get dressed in the morning. The time I realised I was too big to do this anymore, and wanted to turn back the clock to stop myself from growing up. Listening to Van Morrison in the car on a trip to Ireland we took together when I was 16, marvelling together at the way the Irish sky can melt from pure sunshine to raging thunderstorm in what seems like just a few moments.
All Souls Day was misty and grey this year. After mass in the small chapel in the cemetery we walked slowly and carefully over to stand sentinel by the graves of our loved ones, holding flickering candles and waiting for the priest to come by with his holy water and blessing. We didn’t talk to each other, but there was a strange comfort in seeing the other mourners huddled around in the mist, each one of us carrying the burden of our grief in companionable silence together.
As the fractal waves carry me away from my homeland to a new phase of my life (I can’t stop the thought from coming, even as it delivers its quick punch to the gut—a phase without dad), I feel deeply and oddly resistant to finding meaning in it all. I resist the well-meaning phrases that come to mind in a situation like this—he lives on in your memory, he is still with you, he is at peace now.
For now, I want to leave this all open, a mystery that I don’t have to understand. Perhaps, as Rilke said, I can learn to love—or at least live with—the mystery, like a series of locked doors or languages I haven’t learned to speak yet. I have a feeling that we never get over a great loss, we just learn to live with it like an old war wound that never quite heals. I’ll never stop longing for that Easter garden, searching for a way to get back there.