Monday, October 19, 2009


A week ago today was my dad's birthday.

We celebrated it in the hospital with a balloon, wall decorations, and cake for the nurses. I was nervous about recognizing his birthday. I was worried it would make him sad and I wanted to protect him from potentially painful nostalgia. But my mom, brave and bold, went to the car, got the supplies, and decorated my dad's hospital room while he slept. It was time to celebrate my daddy's birthday, dammit, and no amount of misfortune or trauma could prevent that. I was inspired by my mom's ability to persevere with one of life's beloved rituals despite the chaotic suffering that has hijacked my dad's life and smothered my little family.

One of the most uncomfortable lessons I am learning from this chronically devastating life experience is the terrifying fact that

No matter how much you hurt, life still goes on.

Seasons change and birthdays pass. The lawn grows long and the dead leaves pile up. The roof leaks and the cars need maintenance. The business trips come and go while my panic attacks ebb and flow. And all along, no matter what happens, my dad's vegetable garden continues to grow.

My dad. He loves to grow things. He is a patient and empathetic grower and tender of outdoor life. He has this quirky yet dignified grace about it. Like the time he duct taped spikes (Was it golf tees? Or maybe it was nails on boards?) onto the soles of his Docksider shoes in an effort to aerate our lawn. He walked around for a long time, stomping these little holes. I am not certain how effective the result, but this project demonstrated my dad's patience, grace, and quirky inventive spirit.

My dad buys little paper packets of seeds at Kraemer's True Value Hardware, and then he plants them in mismatched pots that (to my mother's obliging delight) decorate the side of our garage. I was so excited to see the vegetable pots this year. He labeled them with dates and contents and lined them up on the driveway on the side of the house. The last time I had seen this kind of vegetable growing enthusiasm was one summer when I was a kid and the two of us were such giddy green thumbs that we planted 37 pots and let them grow on the deck all summer long. My mom really liked that project.

For the past three months, we have fostered my dad's peas, radishes, carrots, flowers, and corn - yes, my dad grew corn in a pot - and it became a sort of honored ritual while he is away. Each night, we put the heavy pot of corn in the garage. We put the pot of corn on a dolly so that it could be rolled in and out day and night to be protected from the raccoons.

Now that it's fall, we have "harvested" the corn and picked the veggies.

This past weekend, my mom, brother, and I went through the task of attacking the outdoor projects that normally belong to my dad. My mom pulled up the plants, my brother checked the gutters, and I gathered leaves. I vacuumed my car, which has always been a task that my dad has taken care of - a gift for me just for being his kid. Doing my dad's tasks required a stiff upper lip. I felt teary when I saw his tools, his twine, and his pile of firewood for s'mores.

As my mom went around the house mechanically pulling out plants with the speed and precision that only moms possess, she came across a surprising discovery. In one of my dad's veggie pots, the carrots had grown to an actual edible size. This was surprising for us as we had not expected the "harvest" to yield much vegetable bulk. But there were 35 carrots that had grown in that pot. They had grown up to be real carrots in the three months since my dad has been in the hospital.

Ouch. There was something that stung about this carrot discovery. It was like coming across an unfinished game of chess on the deck of the Titanic. These carrots were my dad's. This was his project. And now, my God, what a grave responsibility to do the right thing with them. Do we cook them? Do we freeze them? Do we put them on display? Oh, the agony of discovering those unexpected carrots.

The only thing I could do to swallow my grief was to swallow some bites of carrot. I washed the dirt off one with the ice cold autumn hose water, and then I crunched into it with sniffling resignation. I felt I should be eating these carrots with my dad. For a moment I was distracted by the delightful flavor. The crunch of the carrot was extremely delicious - sweet and almost spicy in its natural goodness. We brought the largest carrot to the hospital to show my dad. He nodded in somber acknowledgment. When I told him that I discovered the half used packets of seeds on the garage shelf, we both teared up in a shared sense of homesickness and longing.

See, this is what I want to tell you. You won't know this until it might be too late, so perhaps you should consider it now.

My advice is to notice the everyday things about the people you love.

Notice the details, like the way they fold their clothes or the kind of toothpaste they use. Observe the people you love while they are doing the utmost banal of tasks, like washing the dishes, watering the plants, or cleaning out the gutters. While you watch your people, just allow yourself to overflow with gratitude. Feel yourself bursting at the seams with love. Go look at the messy bathroom sink of the person you love. Look at the items in use and celebrate this living display of everyday life. Savor the everyday artifacts of the people you love and just appreciate them as hard as you can.

I go in my dad's closet, and I run my fingers over his perfectly folded sweaters. I file through his handsome suit coats that he wore to church. I operate his electric tie and belt rack. I try on his Croc sandals and... I just miss him... so much. See, it's the little things. It's the normal things. It's the minutiae that make people uniquely lovable. In the end, it is so simple.

If I could take my dad home and have him whole and healthy for just one night from the hospital, I would simply go with him on a walk. We would walk in our favorite neighborhood park. Simple. I would just be with him. Simple. If I could have one more wish, after our walk, my dad and I would stand by the bread board in the kitchen and eat the carrots from his vegetable garden. Simple. We would stand there and chit chat and comment on the surprising success of this crop of carrots. Simple. I would give him a hug, tell him how I am so proud of him for being so brave and strong (I do this everyday anyway), and then I would just appreciate the idea that we were together in the same space, under the same roof, enjoying a simple night.


  1. Sus, that was one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, pieces I've ever read. I'm sitting here at work and can't help but let tears come out. ~Yaz

  2. Beautiful Susan... wonderfully written.

  3. Wow, Susan! This is a wonderful piece! Such good, strong, meaningful advice... makes me want to hug everyone I know and care about!

  4. The power of intention. We usually get what we intend to get or make of our lives. If your intensions are on appreciation, love, observation, encouragement, and patience: then those will become apparent in your life.

    This has been an eye opener for me and a great reminder of what we should all share with the ones we love all the time.

    Thank you for giving this to us..

  5. This is beautiful, Susan. Great writing! JoAnna

  6. I miss your blog and check it every day...I'd love an update and a dose of your beautiful writing...hope all is well. xo