Both my parents died at the end of 1998, each of them on a Monday, a little less than three months apart. Although they had been divorced for forty years, they flared out together like two long-tailed meteors burning a nasty parallel gash in the cold dome of the winter sky.
Even though I have been practicing Zen meditation for twenty-eight years and working as a front-line hospice volunteer for ten, nothing helps. Nothing. The back of my head has been ripped off and I’m immune to that unctuous snake oil salve of “no coming, no going; no birth, no death” that well-intentioned Zen friends dab on my raw scalp. Give me good old Rujing from twelfth-century China any day, who, when setting fire to Elder Yi’s funeral bier, cried out, “Ah, the swift flames in the wind flare up—all atoms in all worlds do not interchange.”
I’m keeping to myself these days. Evaded by even the slightest desire to be civil, I am steadied by the unseasonable cold of the California winter, by rare snow, black ice and saber-fanged wind. I take strange delight in the burned-to-a-crisp parts of tender plants frozen by the cold. I want all green shoots to die a long, slow death. At the same time, I spend my Mondays planting dormant, bare-root plants for my parents.
My mother died in our family home in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. My sisters and I, our mates and our children, planted a Prairie Fire crabapple for Mom just outside her bedroom window a week after her death. It was a strong tree with burnished mahogany bark and laden with tiny, blood-red crabapples. In the spring I know that this tree will flare forth into thick bloom right around Mom’s birthday at the end of April. Digging out the old Adirondack soil from the tree hole, I thought of Mom and the black, bottomless lakes of the North Country gouged out by the same glaciers that made the dirt. “Death is a glacier,” I mumbled to myself as I excavated the old ground.
At home in California I kept planting for Mom, every Monday for seven weeks, this time, around my house in a patch of abandoned, shady ground. It’s OK, I reasoned to myself, my mother is a shade, so I cleared the neglected land and wove a tapestry of grief out of deep-shade plants: Corsican Hellebores, perfumed Daphnes, and wild ginger interlaced with dark violets from Labrador. “Newfoundland,” I said under my breath, and kept on digging.
It’s harder to plant for my Dad. His death is fresh, ragged, vicious. I am planting seedling redwoods for my father, trees started from seed we collected a few years ago when he was still strong and coming to Green Gulch every winter to plant forest trees with us in February. Cultivated gardens made my father bolt; he longed for the clean sweep of the Fire Island barrier dunes or the mangy, unkempt silhouette of ancient forests jutting up through winter fog. So I’m planting redwoods for Dad, far beyond the garden gate. Out here it is premature to think of grace, even heavy grace. The ground has just begun to thaw. Give me my spade and let me dig.
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