How do we travel through widowhood and grief towards whatever the next phase of our life will be if, as we said last week, “healing” doesn’t work as a model? And let’s look at a couple of other commonly used phrases that also don’t apply; “getting over it,” and “closure.”
How can you “get over” the death of someone you loved and were loved by, with whom you shared years, maybe decades? Even if you could, unless the marriage was unhappy, why would you want to? True, there may have been the horrors of illness or sudden shock at the end, and there is the grief you are enduring now: as I often think, this is the price tag of love, and cannot be minimized.
But still, these are part of love, not its opposite. And do you want to “get over” the memory of his singing to the cat (or the baby, or you), or how, when you were having those shoulder problems, she quietly rearranged both the closet and the pantry so you would not have to reach up?
As for “closure,” I think for most of us, the last thing we want to do is “close” the experience of love we had with the person who has left this world, any more than we are already forced to by his or her death.
So is there a better word, a process that actually works, in which we can take non-sugar-coated hope?
Yes. I think so. The one that has served me best is not one commonly used in grief literature, but in gardening: composting.
Now, as applied to grieving and growth, I do not use the word in the way a gardener would.
The composting I would like to explore with you here is not physical in nature, but psychological and spiritual.
Yet for this to be clear, we have to start with the physical. We have to start in the garden, a place that, like nature itself, like life itself, dances between predictable and surprising, intentional and unanticipated, disaster and abundance.
And to tell my personal story, I have to start with morning glories, trellised on a ladder on the side of the house.
I used to grow them back when David was alive.
The wooden ladder I used for a trellis was one I’d found in the barn when I bought this place from my aunt. I’m pretty sure it must’ve been here when she bought the place, back in 1956.The ladder would have been old even then. It’s hand-made, too uneven to have been machined. Dowels, tightly inserted into hand-drilled holes, are rungs. Paint-splattered in some places, it’s mostly grayed and splintery. You wouldn’t want to actually use this ladder as a ladder. Yet its rough individuality charmed me when I found it. It had a history I would never know, which made me like it even more.
Using it as a trellis meant I could admire it, and add to its history. And in those days David — this was before the return of the depression he’d told me, on our first date, that he’d once suffered but was now “in recovery” from — was all in.
That first year (2006? 2007?), David put a few finishing nails into the ladder and spiderwebbed filament between them. I added compost to the ground where I wanted the base of the ladder to rest, dug in compost, propped the ladder against the house. David, standing on the other ladder, the one that was actually functional, climbed up and secured it high up on the exterior wall of the house, thus stabilizing it against any forceful summer thunderstorms that might blow in.
We put up the ladder, David and I, and I grew morning glories on it with great success. We did this annually, for four or five years. 2010 was the last year we planted them.
Morning glory seeds are notoriously hard, and slow to germinate. Before you plant them, it’s recommended that you soak them overnight, then nick them with a sharp knife (a process that, when I do it, usually results in me being nicked more than the seeds). Only then, according to the package and the Internet, should you plant them.
The growing season in Vermont is short, so rather than grow them from seed as I had in Arkansas, each year I’d go to my favorite nursery and purchase starts. After David had set the ladder, I’d plant the morning glory seedlings at its base. As they grew, I’d coax them onto the filaments, furling their vines up and around the rungs until they could do it for themselves. Tentative at first, by late summer they’d be in full-throttle, until frost.
Then I would pull down the dead vines and put them in the compost pile, and David would remove the ladder and carry it back to the barn.
Each year but the last, I planted Heavenly Blues, its blooms truly an astounding sky-blue. That blue kept me loyal, though the Heavenly’s vines are scrawny at the base, dropping leaves and looking puny until they reach two or three feet off the ground).
But the final year I grew morning glories up the ladder — which, if I’m calculating right, would have been six summers ago — the nursery was out of Heavenly Blues. All that was left was was a variety called Bright-Eyed Girl. The photograph on the plastic tag-stake showed a fuchsia-pink blossom with a white center. Pink is not my favorite color, but a few months later, I had to admit that the Bright-Eyed Girls were very satisfactory, blooming heavily and earlier in the season. Their magenta was eye-popping, striated like a star. Plus, they flowered close to the ground and all the way up, on vigorous, leafy vines.
The reason I think this final morning glory year must have been 2010 is because it was the last year before David’s depression began settling back in on him, relentlessly, pecking at his heart and mind.
From 2011 on, he had little energy for anything, certainly not gardening, though his enthusiasm had once equaled mine. And even that last year, it took pleading to get him to affix the ladder. I didn’t try again, after that.
Some hard years followed; few mornings had much glory to them.
In addition to trying to forestall David’s long slow slide down, I spent increasing amounts of time with my mother. She lived four hours away, and was in the last years of her life. Because I did not have one shred more caretaking energy, nor extra time, I did not put in a garden. As it was, when I was with my mother, I felt I was neglecting my work, and when I worked, I felt I was neglecting her.
My mother died in November of 2013, a “good death” (in her own home, surrounded by people who loved her, no pain, happy, unafraid, a quiet slipping away; too, she was 98, and had had an interesting life of much achievement).
David died the following March, three months later, at 74; not a good death (see “Suicide Widow”).
MESSY & INTERESTING
In a garden, in any given year, some varieties of vegetables and flowers thrive; others scraggle. Some of what grew with vigor last year — the black kale, the zinnias —repeat their fine performance. But perplexingly, this year’s celery root, a champion last year, may now be hesitant and puny. The magnificent gladioli of last summer may not even bother to come up this year. Yet look at the okra: you were ready to give up on it last year (it was chilly and rainy; you got all of three pods). But this year, hot and sunny as it is, the okra is going like gangbusters.
If you look closely at a garden, there’s plenty of mystery. And conditions are sometimes in the gardener’s control and sometimes not.
And, yet there are predictable biological processes. And unexpected guests.
Gardens also have plants that just show up, or “volunteer.” A potato plant here, which must have reemerged from a stray potato you missed when you were digging up last year’s harvest. The borage, a cucumber relative, with its slightly stickery leaves and lovely blue edible flowers, aggressively reseeding all over the place.
You can almost always find volunteers in the compost pile, which is usually off to one side of the garden. The compost pile: that disorderly, smelly place where new soil is being made from garbage and grass clippings and detritus. But if you threw out a spoiled tomato or the scraped-out seeds from a squash, well, you might discover a volunteer tomato or squash plant, shooting up vigorously in the rich compost in midsummer, from amidst the watermelon rinds, onions skins and lemon peels.
COMPOSTING, THE GARDEN VERSION
Composting, in its usual meaning, is the method by which decaying organic materials are transformed into soil. For decades, I’ve kept a bucket in my kitchen and filled it with used tea bags and coffee grounds, avocado pits, banana peels, egg shells — whatever will decompose. I take the bucket out to the pile every day or two. In my actual gardening years, I added manure to the pile, plus got in there once a week to fork it over, getting gloriously smelly and muddy in the process. Turning the compost helped the materials turn into soil more quickly.
How satisfying this was! Taking garbage and making good healthy dirt from it! Participating in a biological process! Making good use of material that would otherwise be discarded!
From this, good, black, rich soil.
And from that, gardens.
I think the process by which we may become whole again after widowhood is something like this.
COMPOSTING, THE WIDOWHOOD VERSION
If you are grieving, you probably keep going over everything about that particular person you loved and were loved by, the person who no longer resides on Earth. eEery shared adventure and difficulty, triumph and co-creation, every detail of the death that carried him or her away. Everything you should have done differently. All you know and cannot know, every variation of the story you have told a million and one times. The long, long quiet nights with their devastating silence. As I’ve said, you cannot “heal” such a chasm of loss. And to forget would be still more loss.
Lovely, private things: the way, each night before you went to sleep, he would say, “Je t’adore,” and you would reply, mock-irritated, “I did shut the door!” Terrible things, also private: the time, just after his death, when the bag of birdseed broke on the floor and you broke down with it, and then, after crying yourself out, got up and started sweeping, because there was nobody else to do it.
But when you compost — not in a physical sense, but an emotional, psychological, and spiritual one, you do something else. You do not hang on, but you do not let go. You place and pile up all that rich, messy material. You lose nothing, but everything is transformed.
This happens incrementally, over time. Slowly it begins to change, even though, in the midst of immediate pain, you may not see this happening. As it changes, you do. The old self, coupled, then amputated from partnership, does not die, exactly, but it — you — slowly becomes a new self that is whole, even though it has known grief and can still locate deep missing.
As I wrestled with this, I came to feel over time the slow start to a new state. This was not an end to grief, but its integration, into my life and identity.
It is this I have come to see as composting.
The idea of composting, unlike that of healing, getting over it, or closure, does not imply deleting, forgetting, or putting behind oneself all that shared life experience, even as one goes on solo. All the love, loss, joy and pain is still there, but slowly, over time, it changes form. Eventually absence and presence blend and merge and in a sense become a transmuted foundational material, a kind of non-physical soil.
The soil from which you grow the new person you become.
Though I don’t have a garden now, I still save egg shells and celery bases and carry them out to the chicken-wire enclosed compost bin Davd constructed long ago. I do this because, as I’ve said, I love making compost, and because one of these years I may garden again.
Meanwhile, I get to observe nature at work in the compost. There’s always something to see.
This year I noticed a vine, a volunteer. At first I thought it was a sweet potato, for its leaves were heart-shaped.
I kept watching it, and then, just two weeks ago I got the answer.
The vine had burst into bloom. It was a morning glory vine, vigorously climbing over the chicken wire, flowering like crazy, dozens of blossoms, profligate with blossoms.
And it was a Bright-Eyed Girl.
Those vivid magenta flowers with their white centers, full of vigor, multiple and persistent, eager. I stood staring at them that first morning they opened, shocked with wonder.
Those hard little seeds must have been left there from the last time I pulled the vines from the trellis-ladder, back when David was still alive. They must have lain there in the compost for years.
Slow-to-germinate seeds, placed inadvertently in a dark buried place, unknown to me, who was in the midst of one of the darkest periods of my own life.
And this year — an exceptionally wet summer — conditions were somehow right for them to germinate, and grow, and bloom.
As, perhaps, dear fellow widow, you may, too.