“Daddy’s in the ground.”
My four-year-old son has taken to randomly telling family, friends and even strangers this conversation stopper.
I cringe every time I hear his little voice saying those four words.
I never quite know how to respond.
Technically, it’s not even true. My husband Mike (Will’s father) is actually in an urn on a book shelf in our kitchen.
Mike had metastatic synovial sarcoma. We caught it too late. When he was diagnosed in June 2011 it had already spread to his lungs. Doctors gently but plainly told us, “It’s treatable, not curable.”
Will was 10 months old. Our son has grown up with doctors and nurses, in hospitals and waiting rooms. After he learned to speak, he told us that the doctors were giving Daddy medicine to help his cough. The cough subsided at times, but never really went away.
When Will first asked me what dying was, I told him it was like a flower that blooms in spring; grows leaves in summer; and then slowly as each leaf browns and falls off, the plant withers up in autumn. His toddler brain accepted my definition.
I am sure there are much clearer and age-appropriate explanations out there.
The day after Mike died, I sat Will down after play school on our front lawn and told him Daddy’s body stopped working. Daddy died. I explained it a second time. I didn’t get into specifics and tried to remember what phrases not to use. (Helpful tip: Don’t tell kids the dead have ‘gone to sleep.’ Ask any parent: putting kids to sleep is hard enough without the terrifying spectre of never waking again.)
It was a short conversation on our lawn. Will didn’t cry. Was that a look of confusion crossing his face? Who could tell? I certainly couldn’t. I don’t think he asked any questions. Grief brain, that fog, memory loss, and state of confusion, had already taken hold of me.
Will toddled off inside with my mother in search of a snack and his cartoons as I sat on the grass wondering, ‘what next?’
Was I in denial? No, I knew this day was always coming. But why wasn’t I crying more often; and why, after calling all the people on our ‘he’s dead’ list, was I so compelled to mow the front and back lawns earlier that morning. It was 14 hours since I whispered in my sweetheart’s ear to ‘let go,’ ‘take your rest,’ and ‘you are surrounded by love, my darling.’ His breathing slowed and he slipped away peacefully.
Tending the grass just hours later seemed like a natural thing to do. What else was there? My husband was dead, the grass was long. I could change only one of them.
Since his death in late May, our yard gives me joy.
Planting flowers, weeding, cutting the grass, daily monitoring of the growth of our carrots and peas and coaxing wildflowers to bloom lightens me.
Gardening has become a salve for my grief.
It’s tactile, dirty, sweaty and so, so satisfying. Every snip of the clippers and weed pulled from the earth delivers instant gratification.
I may be over thinking this but after four years of fighting and failing to keep my love alive, it’s rewarding to help something survive and thrive.
Mike, Will and I had a great life together. We flourished in each other’s company. But cancer was our weed. Despite all efforts to kill it, cancer always grew back. And as it grew, Mike withered, bit by bit.
So now I tend to my sunrise roses (Mike’s favourite), faithfully fertilizing my precious buds every two weeks. Sunflowers (also his favourite) have started to sprout. By autumn, they will touch the eavestrough at the back of our house. My peas are going gangbusters and my carrots are coming along nicely. Pots of mixed flowers have mysteriously appeared on my front deck.
My friend delivered a cranberry bush recently, in honour of Mike. It seems a fitting tribute. So sometime soon, armed with a spade, I will dig a new home for our new greenery. I will use the special root feed to make it feel at home. And I will sprinkle a few of Mike’s ashes into the mix.
Will and I will watch it grow, year after year. Life will go on. Seasons will change.
And maybe, just maybe it’s OK that Daddy’s in the ground.