N.J.’s eyes are dark and deep as he kneels in the garden, hands wrapped gently around the kale seedling.
We line peas on either side of the fencing I’ve brought, and I show him how to press each one down to the first knuckle on his index finger and then pat the soft dirt over the hole. The tomato plant doesn’t want to come out of the container. It’s root-bound, clinging to the pot; I tap the edges to loosen it and pull slowly on the stem.
“Plants are tough,“ I say, as I slice the roots with the edge of the trowel and then let him do the same thing to the other side. We wiggle the tangly, knotted white roots loose, and then he sets it in the hole we dug, snuggling it in and combing the soil with his fingers. Finally, we dot the front of the box with onion starts and poke them in, some of them already sprouting little green shoots from their tops.
It’s May. We are working together in a garden box his parents built in their backyard the previous summer. All the seeds they planted had washed away in a hard rain. They hadn’t had time to do any more with it, because Mary, N.J.’s mother, was undergoing chemotherapy after a diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer.
Now, a year later, treatment has ended, and Mary is in her last days.
She won’t get to see her son in his garden, though she is only steps away. Breathing slowly and steadily, nodding and smiling softly — these are the things she is doing with the energy she has left. She looks at pictures on my phone, though, of N.J. with his hands on his plants, proudly shepherding his garden along, smiling her same soft smile. His eyes are her eyes.
Before Mary was diagnosed, we were friends, but not close friends. We lived down the road, attended the same church, chatted here and there in passing. I have two girls; she had two boys. She would bring N.J. and his older brother to play as soon as he could walk on his own.
N.J. would toddle through the rows of my garden, stuffing cherry tomatoes into his cheeks, tugging on fat pea pods, and eating cucumbers like you eat an ear of corn. He seemed to delight in the magic of growing things the way I do. We are born gardeners, part of that secret society of people for whom weeding is not a chore, but a pleasure.
After Mary was diagnosed, I never really knew what to say. But I did learn, over time, to just be there, with vegetables, with bread, with myself.
I saw the washed-out garden box in the backyard that summer, but I didn’t yet feel confident enough to suggest planting it again or to just go ahead and do it.
Over the winter, though, Mary let me be one of the people who took her to chemo and other appointments. We grew close, closer than we had ever been. We both had strong opinions, we both swore a lot, we both liked Thai food. I would get a spread of things to nibble on together while the medicine dripped into her port, while she got hot and then chilled and then dried out and thirsty.
And then, when it was over and she was exhausted, I’d bring the car around, and we’d drive, the winter sun setting behind us as we headed home from the cancer center.
A parent’s first worst nightmare is something happening to their child; the second worst nightmare is something happening to themselves, because the loss of a parent leaves children vulnerable to danger, to pain.
Mary said to me once, on one of our many slow walks up and down our road, “At least it’s not one of the boys. I couldn’t handle that.”
But they, of course — and Mary’s husband — have to handle that it was her.
When it became clear that treatment was no longer working and that it would be days or weeks rather than months, the new growing season was just beginning.
On one of my last visits to the house while Mary was still alive, before I knocked on the door in the garage, I walked around back to see the garden box.
Mary had covered it with a tarp the previous summer, and I pulled back a corner. Just a few weeds here and there. The soil needed turning, but it was soft and loose and rich, I could tell, full of good lobster and blueberry compost from the coast of Maine.
I had some extra pea fencing and plenty of seed, and a grower at the local farmers market had donated kale, tomato, and cucumber seedlings. I brought N.J. out to the patch of land and, together, we started to work.
When I whispered to Mary how good the box looked and how pleased N.J. was with his garden, she smiled, eyes closed. “Take a picture for me,” she said.
Someone brought a sunflower in a pot; N.J. planted it in a corner of his box. He carefully tended his vegetables all summer after his mother died, pulling every other onion plant for scallions so the remaining onions would bulb up nicely, weeding around the kale, training the peas as they climbed.
His eyes are dark and deep and full of pain, but kids, like plants, are tough.
This story originally appeared on Rodale’s Organic Life and is reprinted here with permission.