I’ve always been an indifferent gardener. While I can spend hours nurturing my family, my dog, the patients I mentor, I somehow expect that the plants in my yard should take care of themselves.
Each spring, in a show of optimism that belies my ability to learn from past mistakes, I browse the nursery looking for new specimens for my garden, which seems stuck in fifty shades of green. Moss green, dead leaf green, weed green, swamp green, camo green. After weeding and trimming back the winter overgrowth, I position some ornamental color and surround each flower with mulch and woodchips and so much hope.
The hellebores are the first to shine forth in April with their lime green and burnt crimson flowers. The bugloss and pulmonaria come next with their blues and pinks. And then the blanket of lily of the valley that I can’t seem to kill no matter how hard I try. But when it’s time for the salvia and nepeta to share their purple spikes, or the cardinal flower to give us a blaze of red, the foxglove to raise its multicolored stalks, suddenly, my garden looks like a jungle of overgrown greens. As the season wears on, and the shade consumes everything the deer have left behind, the vividness wanes and so does my enthusiasm. The ajuga and creeping Jenny provide a blanket of ground cover, and the ferns love the growing shade, but nothing else seems to thrive beneath the dense overstory of century old oaks and ash.
Clearing away the debris from the recent storms, I found one Japanese anemone blooming among the sea of green. And trying to set things right for the fall, I am reminded of the tenacity of life, the many tricks that plants play to survive. Some weeds, such as white wood asters (which I am tempted to reclassify as an intentional flower—at least they grow in my garden and provide a contrast to the ever-present green!) have developed so that as you pull them, the stalks snap, leaving three-inch stems that will grow again and again. Others, such a pachysandra, which invades every bed, seems to send underground roots several inches in all directions, grabbing onto the soil and making it impossible to pull.
And, as a walk in the woods with the dog showed, at this time of year, still other plants, love to attack passing creatures and use sticky substances and spikey seeds to help themselves travel and reseed. We recently spent over an hour pulling Virginia stickweed and tick-trefoils from the fur of my very patient pup.
Holding on to Hope
But as I swatted mosquitos and dug deeper in the soil, I was reminded of the patients I nurture through cancer and the many different ways that they hold on in the hopes of blooming again. Some, like the peonies in the back yard, bloom early, but wither without attention and sun as the months go by. Linda* certainly did. She was determined to rise above her cancer. But as treatment wore on, her tolerance for the uncertainty wore thin, her anxiety increased, and she needed a shoulder to cry on more often than she would have imagined. It wasn’t until several months after treatment had ended that she regained confidence in herself and her recovery. Only then could she stabilize her emotions and feel that she was once again ready to bloom.
Others, like Debbie, flower late, seeming to struggle in the early days before taking root and thriving, like the lobelia in my garden. She had so many questions, so many fears, so many anxieties and so much doubt. We spoke daily for several months. But once she settled into a routine and grew accustomed to the realities of her recurrent cancer, she found her resilience and a way to smile. Now when I speak with her, she talks about her desire to give back and help others, to share her experience with despair and adaptation.
The Purple Thistle
And still others, like the phlox I recently planted, are as variable as the weather, needing first sun then shade, more water, then a chance to dry, a little weeding and some feeding to offer blooms throughout the summer. Hillary’s emotions seem to vary by the minute, from tears to giggles, from helplessness to hopefulness, from fear to bravado, from anger to gratitude. Two years later, they are still difficult to anticipate, yet always understandable. She has cancer, so every emotion is legit. I encourage her to feel what she feels, to express her needs and to know that she doesn’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations of what a cancer patient should be like.
Regardless of what support we need and how well we blossom, cancer patients remind me more of the native plants in my yard than the hothouse flowers I try to grow. We are determined to hang on, clinging tenaciously to life, finding a way to survive and unaware of how strong we are until “being strong” is the only option. We can’t all bloom at the same time, and every one of us, like every plant in the yard, needs a period of rest and recovery before we can flash our colors again. But like the purple thistle that flowers along the edge of the road or in the swampy marshes around the lake, we find a way to come back, strong in our own rough ways. Even bristles can be beautiful.
* Patient names changed to protect privacy.