Coming back to life after suicide loss

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We take the window boxes down, and we put them up again. Out: summer’s petunias, impatiens, and some trailing vine. In: fall’s ornamental peppers, lots of them, in dark orange and purple.

I don’t own this house and its white clapboard, black shutters, and long narrow front lawn. The window boxes nestle in brackets we’ve hung from the railings on the farmer’s porch that runs along the front. This old and renovated worker’s cottage near a boarding school outside Boston is our third address in three years. I rent it from a family who moved away to Michigan and couldn’t bear to part with the house, imagining some day they would be back.

About three years ago I sold my own family home, a few months after my husband died by suicide. Three almost-adult children, the dog, and I were ready to leave behind rooms and doorways filled with the ghosts of Jimmy and our own once happiness.

With the house went the gardener in me. In leaving our home behind, I knew I would be putting aside the self that digs, plants, weeds, waters, monitors, and tends. In fact, in my estate sale I sold (among other things) the lawnmower, soil treatments, shovels, rakes, a spade, and a hoe. Our first move was to a large third-floor rental in our town’s bustling center. There we had a balcony, chairs and a table, no trees, and no dirt to speak of beyond a few gallon-sized pots of sunflowers and daisies.

I missed digging. I longed for the way a shovel edge cut through the packed grains of dirt, its mineral smell, and the dust on the skin of my hands and arms as it dried. I missed trips to local nurseries, and feeling the way that other people feel about bakeries: so many good things, what to eat? I missed the back of the car filled with 50-pound bags of mulch and smaller bags of dried manure and lime.

As city dwellers, I walked Winston three times a day around the same block, examining the pocket gardens of our unfamiliar neighbors. Winston used his nose, and I my eyes. Winter faded, and slowly the leaves of plants and trees unfurled. In May, the green exploded.

Flowers arrived, and so did the porch chairs, pots, garden ornaments, and hoses. Occasionally I’d see a gardener squatting in the yard, her hand gripping a gardener’s claw. Here, another woman instructing two little girls in how to weed. There, a man, pivoting in place, with his hand clenched around the trigger of a sprayer hose. Meanwhile birds chittered, and squirrels dug and darted everywhere.

I was a tourist in my new neighborhood, an observer, a wallflower, maybe a sidewalk flower, because that’s what I did for that entire growing season — stand on the sidewalk with Winston, my excuse for loitering, keeping my eye on the progress of the landscape as it came to life, bloomed, and then withered in the front yards of neighbors I never met.

When someone dies, especially when it is sudden and unexpected, there can be this equal and opposite reaction. Your life changes, and you create more change in trying to set it right. Some of it is survival, like penny pinching; some is escape, like eating or splurging; and some is renewal, like selling a house and moving away. About a year after Jimmy died, my daughter Lydia told me that eight out of nine families of students at her college who had lost a parent or sibling had moved within a year of their loss. “Mom, it’s good that we moved,” she said, like a benediction. “It helped us get better.”

Change kept coming at us. The term of our “city” lease approached the end. While I mulled over whether to stay, the landlords notified me they were not renewing. One of their grown children would take over our apartment.

I searched, networked with realtors, and reached out to friends who had friends who owned rentals. Just as time was running out, I found the house and yard that we live in now, near Boston and near my sister. Only 10 days before my youngest child, Grace, embarked for college, we moved in. Something about the overgrown lilacs, trampled lawn, and back shed whetted my appetite even more than the bedrooms and kitchen did.

Honestly, though, I hadn’t been looking for a garden or even a patch of ground. I had become accustomed to living lighter, with only enough possessions for the rooms and closets in our apartment. I had started to imagine that this could be a way to go through life, supplied only with what one needs for daily usage. No seasonal equipment, no outdoor furniture or ornaments, no grubby labor.

In The Secret Garden, the 1910 children’s classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett, when the children Mary and Dickon finally make their way into the locked, overgrown garden, the first thing they have to do is clear away the “lovely gray tangle.” Dickon takes out his knife, cuts through the “tangled sprays and branches” of an “old, old” tree, and finds new life.

Like Mary and Dickon, in my borrowed garden I too started with cleanup. I pruned shrubs, picked up broken branches and twigs, and hired a local teenager to deal with a carpet of leaves. The rejuvenation of a garden begins with clearing out the traces of neglect to make space for re-growth and new plantings. The dog kept me company, trotting along the perimeter to mark his territory and coming back to me when I called, “Winston. Winston!” My oldest child, Eli, who moved to Queens after college graduation, came home for a visit and said, “I was worried about this move, but it’s good we have a yard again.” I sighed, relieved.

The gardener inside me rose again. In April, I cleared a bed and planted annuals before a week of April showers. On weekends, I tramped around the yard, studying the shade parts and the sunny parts, fantasizing what to plant where. During a long stretch of summer rain, I scratched my head over the puddles where the sump pump drains and wondered if there’s enough water to call the area “wet shade.” My boyfriend, Chris, a divorced man who has an apartment of his own, has joined in on the gardening conversation, jaunts to native plant sales, and filling of brown-paper leaf bags. In late summer, blooms fading, together we at last pruned back, hard, the rhodendron and forsythia.

Sometimes I have been full of doubt, recognizing that I am caring for and beautifying a piece of property I do not own. And yet I plant, water, dig up, fertilize, and rearrange. What am I doing, I wonder, and for whom?

This is how I settle in, I realize. Whether I own the plot of land that the trees and grass and flowers grow in, or temporarily take up residence in someone else’s house, I make my home like any creature: clear a space, work the earth, follow the seasons, and cultivate the living.

Winter comes. In the days before first snow, we rake, fill bags, and toss branches onto the big pile in the woods at the edge of the yard. Patio furniture goes into the shed. Pine needles get mounded in handfuls around transplants. The sun slants, golden. I recognize it all now. Mine, for a time.

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Photographs by Grace Guterman (November 2019)

Writer and educator, I help knowledge makers communicate their research and ideas. I read and write in equal measure.

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