It is my last visit to Mom and Pop’s house before I start my new job. The sun is setting as I stand in the small garden that I planted back in April. Earlier, as I drove here, I was captivated by the colors of the trees on the hills. It had been a crisp, sunny day with a blue sky laced with feathery clouds. I would get lost in my thoughts as I drove, but then be pulled back to the present by a striking bolt of orange, or yellow.
Now it is dusk. The colors are quiet in the lingering light. I have fed the cats and checked the horses. I am outside to pick the last, stubborn butternut squash. With sadness and relief, I see that the robust squash plant that had spread across my tiny plot finally seems to have relented, sagging and brown at its center with just a few perky, green shoots at its periphery. As I dig through its remnants, I hear the clang of metal and a rustle.
Alarmed, I turn around to see one of our cats, the black one, carefully pulling an empty cat food can off the box I had set in the driveway. It is an action containing less dignity than cats like to think they possess, and I cannot help but snicker as I watch. He is focused on his task, undeterred by my laughter, and happily begins to lick the inside of the can, caressing it gently with his paw, proud of his accomplishment.
Our house is empty today. Pop is on a short trip to visit family and pick up some furniture. It is the second time since Mom died that he has left for more than a day. It has been just over a year since I started to care for my mother, and seven months since her death. I have come here out of a sense of necessity. I told him I would check on the place, and also wanted to find some books to read. But it is more than that. I am pulled here.
There is a crash in the trees, and I turn my eyes in its direction, scanning for movement. A deer, perhaps a raccoon, or maybe just one of the cats being rambunctious. It is difficult to make out much in the shallow light, so I try just for a moment before I am distracted by the other sounds around me. The orange and white runt of last year’s kittens is mewing pitifully as he walks down the wheelchair ramp that still leads to our door. There is a clack-clack-clatter-skrick-clack as the dead corn stalks rattle against each other, thin skeletons dueling in the breeze. The wind rustles the trees and dry leaves fall, skittering and whispering as they move across the dirt and stone.
I listen, and again feel the void left by Mom’s death, and our dog’s too. In some ways, Zena’s death is more obvious here. Her presence was so big, so joyful. She rarely left the property, and was intimately connected with this place. She lived five months after Mom died, so she also became a focus of love in the thick of our pain. The house is eerily empty without her. I feel small pangs when I leave food by the edge of the table or forget my shoes on the floor, and realize she will not come to eagerly grab any tidbit she can reach with her mouth, and hold it ransom until given some sweet or savory treat in exchange. When I drop food on the floor, I have to pick it up. Before, at the slightest hint of a crumb on the tile, she would appear, frantically sniffing until she found it, and then sitting politely, again awaiting a treat, because now it was obvious that there was food, and surely it was simply an oversight not to include her in its consumption.
Along with the memories, and feeling close to Mom, I am pulled here by the lives that go on. For the first time in my life, I am building relationships with and love for the horses. Initially it was a way to connect with and understand Mom, but now it is independent of her. They greet me when they see me, and run up to the fence, ears perked, giving a soft or indignant whinny asking what has taken me so long. The herd of cats is also here, intermittently demanding and elusive as ever. There was a new litter of kittens this summer, and though it is unclear how many have survived, I saw two of them tumbling and running when I approached this evening. They are tortoiseshell and white, like their mother.
My garden has also had a rich season, in spite of my limited time tending to it. It has produced more valiantly than I could have imagined, though not always with edible results. The kale was plentiful, but unfortunately was also home to a colony of cabbage moths, and so remains, even now, largely uneaten. The cucumbers grew, but were quickly overtaken by the squash, so that we only had about four cucumbers the entire summer, and three of them were yellow and bitter. My beautiful sugar snap pea plant, who I named Zelda for her delicate, curling beauty, died in the beginning of the summer, a victim of the dry heat, but not before sharing a precious handful of sweet pods (I included a portrait of her at the end of this post in June if you'd like to see). And the corn grew proudly, both the black and the sweet. But it peaked when I was away for ten days, and by the time I had returned, it was mealy and tart. The victory of this season is clearly the squash. It’s large, fuzzy leaves curled and spread across the patch. I have a kitchen full of butternut squash, and gave several more away. Overall, I count this a success for my first garden planted alone.
And as the remaining humans of the place, Pop and I are doing our best to move forward as well. We are finding new connection in our relationship, new comfort. It is good, and sad, because Mom would have loved to see and know this. I told her a few days before she died that he and I were taking care of each other, no small task given the fact that we are about as opposite as two people could be. She knew this, and smiled. At the time, that was one of the few things she could still do. And though her speech was difficult to understand in those last days, her voice was clear and strong when she replied, “Good.”
As the sun drops behind the trees, I realize this chapter of my life is ending, and I am about to start the next. I am struck by the weight of it— my first big step without Mom. The first time I am making a life choice without the reassurance of her smiling and saying it is good. I am forced to validate my own choices. It’s hard. And it sucks. No pretty words can change this. But I suspect that it is also what Mom wanted all along. I have learned that life is fleeting and unpredictable, and we only get one chance to make of it what we will. I have started down new paths, and am now excited to return to doctoring, curious to see how this year has changed me in this role.
Standing in my garden as its season comes to an end, I let out a breath. I realize the emptiness is not as massive as it used to be. In its place, I feel something tentative but strong, a tiny sprout uncurling its top and opening up to the sun. I smile, carrying the last squash in my arms, and walk into the house.