Two years ago, on the day I learned my father was going to die, my doctor told me I was sterile. Both my past and my future collapsed. I was not brave and entered a despair so profound and seemingly permanent that my friends and family doubted they would see me emerge.
I did, more by accident than self-reliance. I was as bleary, blinky, and unsteady as a newborn. Their trust betrayed, those around me were cautious. It wasn’t entirely clear where my allegiances lay. People waited to see if my commitment to the everyday covenant of i'll-take-my-licks-and-try-my-damnedest-come-what-may was serious. I didn’t know if it was serious either.
I decided to wait and see. I did my laundry. I paid my bills. I buried my father.
For many weeks in the late afternoon I took careful walks from my home to the beach. I stood and watched the sun sink into the sea because I thought that was what a hopeful person at peace with the world would do. Although I did not believe there was a reason to get up in the morning, I felt that if I behaved as though there were, a reason would eventually present itself. I floated in patient passivity.
Such a person — floating, tentative, a passenger in perpetual standby — isn’t of much use to himself or others. People, it turns out, have little tolerance for young men who somehow assume the world owes them a reason for putting one foot in front of the other.
I might have floated indefinitely — a melancholy pest to friends, a numb worry to family — if an anonymous someone hadn’t sent me a no-return-address envelope, postmarked in a Northwestern city where I knew no one. The envelope contained no explanation, only two packets of Burpee seeds, one of sunflowers the other of moon-flowers— Ipomoea alba, which I’d never heard of before. Flower seeds seemed such a sissy, tea-and-sympathy response to my predicament. They were a gift, I guessed, from a friend’s well-intentioned grandmother or dotty maiden aunt, who’d heard of my loss. I snorted and set them aside. I continued to wait for a resolution, a reason, to appear. I waited as a character in a fairy tale waits for the magical device—the glass slipper, the elf in the woods— that carries the story forward.
During this long waiting period, I often took comfort in the library a few blocks from my house. I loved paging through reference books — encyclopedias unabridged dictionaries—because they buoyed my faith in the existence of comprehensive answers. While I was deep in the reference section one day, squatting on a footstool, I saw the Sunset New Western Carden Book and remembered the seeds I’d been sent. I looked under “moonflowers” and read, “Perennial vine grown as summer annual.... Luxuriant leaves 3-8 in. long, heart-shaped, closely spaced on stems. Flowers fragrant, white, 6 in. long and across Theoretically flowers open only after sundown but will stay open on dark, dull days…”
The idea of a huge, night-blooming flower intrigued me. I’d never heard of such a thing. When I got home I looked at the weedy flower beds around my apartment. No one had taken much care of them. The soil was hard, ugly Southern Californian clay. I kicked at it with the toe of my shoe. I found an old hoe that a former tenant had abandoned in the weeds and with it I hacked halfheartedly at the red ground. The handle splintered in my hands. I went inside and sat down, sweaty and stinky with frustration. It was going to take a lot of hard work to transform stubborn clay into soil healthy enough for flowers. My apartment was dark and quiet. Outside, a mockingbird squealed and whistled. My days stretched in front of me. I could see them: an endless chain of hollow squares. I went outside and unspooled the ancient garden hose from its rusty holder near the spigot. Until very late at night I soaked the clay, moved the slow-running hose from one place to another. When I was finished, well after midnight, the air around my apartment had changed. I lay on my bed, and the smell of damp earth wafted through the windows.
The following afternoon I drove to Nurseryland and cornered an older, haughty worker and confronted him with my problem. He did not, I could tell, consider me a serious gardener. He had my number. He’d seen countless others like me — feckless amateurs intent on “beautifying” their pathetic rentals, the sort who overfed and overwatered, the irresponsible never-weeders who’d never heard of mulch or compost, who planned to march away from Nurseryland with 50 bucks’ worth of seedlings and a box of Mirade-Gro all-purpose fertilizer and end up, in a week or so, with an English-style garden complete with topiary, reflecting pools, and shrub-maze worthy of Martha Stewart’s Living.
I didn’t like his attitude.
“Buy a fork and a rake. Buy soil amendment,” he said in a robot’s voice. “Buy the most expensive. Follow instructions. Work it into your soil. You’re going to have to go down at least a foot. Rake it smooth. Keep it moist, not soggy. When weeds come up, pull ’em out. Be vigilant. When you think you’ve gotten rid of most of the weeds, plant things. Read and follow instructions. Good luck.”
He turned his back and walked away. “Go to hell,” I thought. But I did what he said. And although I didn’t know it, as I wheeled around Nurseryland, hefting grimy plastic sacks of compost and soil amendment onto my squeaky cart, I was starting a long, unconscious education in rage.
I read and followed all instructions. I studied gardening books at the library. When I’d finished pulling what I hoped were the last baby weeds from my fragrant, newly improved soil, I planted seeds. I planted moonflowers and sunflowers in the flower beds around my apartment. In one comer of the yard, I dug out a plot for radishes, arugula, and beets. I had no plan. I wanted only to make things grow. They did. Seedlings shot out of the ground. Every morning, before I’d showered or had coffee, I ran outside to see how things had progressed while I slept Before I went to bed I made meticulous inspections by flashlight, searching for slugs and snails, snipping them in half with scissors when I found them.
The moonflowers were the most precious to me. They were mysterious. I doted over them. They sent up a seedling bearing two olive-green leaves laced with deep-purple veins. In time, a pale, minuscule tendril grew from the stem where the twin leaves intersected. I was slow to realize that this slim tendril, so different in color and texture from its stem, was the moonflower’s expression of intent. I was even slower to realize the seriousness of this intent.
For weeks I’d noticed what I thought was a white butterfly flitting in a drunken, haphazard way around my garden. I took its presence as a point of pride: despite slugs and snails, I used no pesticides. I’d read that butterflies and hummingbirds were “nature’s beautiful rewards” for chemical-free gardening. I was so ignorant of biology I thought my white butterfly friend was “pollinating” my plants, a thank-you for my organic, butterfly-friendly playland. I had already bought and erected trellises for the moonflower vines, had painstakingty thinned out the arugula and radishes, when, overnight, the devastation began. It was as though my garden had been cursed.
My butterfly friend was a cabbage moth. Each time it paused on a leaf, it laid an egg. These hundreds of pauses resulted in a hungry plague of inch-long, pale green worms. When a young woman I’d invited to my house for dinner went out to see my garden, she screamed. I ran outside and saw her clawing at her head with both hands. “Eeeeew! I’m going to be sick!” she hollered. She’d gotten too close to the moonflower vines and worms had fallen in her hair.
During the next several days, the worms ate their way through my radishes, arugula, and beets. They munched happily — I watched them — on my sunflowers and on my moonflower vines. They ate the leaves in a clean, irregular fashion. It looked as though some fiend had attacked my plants with nail clippers and a pair of scissors. But the moonflowers persevered I don’t know how.
Then mildew came and mottled and withered the few leaves left on my sunflowers. They had grown tall, but now they looked blighted and spindly. With practically bare stalks, they looked silly. They looked like pathetic pinwheels. Still, their heads turned throughout the day to follow the sun.
After work one overcast afternoon, after I’d avoided looking at my garden for several days because it now presented more problems and realizations than I cared to confront, I went out to see what remained of my grand experiment. Despite the worms, the moonflower vines had continued to climb. Their lower leaves were tattered and yellow, but this seemed to have urged the vines to climb higher. Two or three feet above my head, the leaves were a rich, healthy green, and I could see the buds that would eventually blossom into moonflowers.
My plants reminded me of saints and monsters. In horror movies, monsters don’t easily die. The hero hacks off or shoots off one of their lethal limbs, then another, then another, and the monster, eyes bright with determination, crawls inexorably toward its obvious future. The nation of saints sets similar examples: the rabbi wrapped by Nazis in a Torah scroll and set afire, who praised God while flames consumed him; the concentration camp inmates who, although starving, fasted on Yom Kippur. I could think of no other explanation for this than rage. Love and hope were not enough. Love and hope were romantic newcomers to the world and didn’t seem to have much to do with the primitive naked will in my garden. I was watching eons of spite at work.
“Go to hell” was what my plants were saying to the worms.
“Go to hell” was what my father said the day before he died.
He asked me to wheel him outside so he could enjoy the sun. I told him he was too sick to move.
“Go to hell,” he said. “Either you take me outside or I’ll take myself.”
I wheeled him outside with his oxygen tank. He sat in the sun, petted a neighbor’s dog. He died the following evening.
Push, push, push. Up and out and toward the sun. Looking at my moonflowers, I wondered how and why I had forgotten to get angry.
Gardens don’t foster innocence, but you and I already knew that. Think of what happened in the Garden of Eden. Remember God’s rage. The Garden of Gethsemane’s despair. Those were not happy places. Malcolm Lowry’s bleak novel Under the Volcano features the malevolent character the “Chief of Gardens” and ends with the ominous phrase, “Do You Like This Garden that Belongs to You? Don’t Let Your Children Destroy It!”
A lesson in rage is a lesson with limited applications. After my father died, and long after my moonflowers had grown and bloomed and gone to seed, a close friend entered into a difficult marriage with a beautiful woman whom he loved more than anyone he’d ever loved. He and she tried very hard to love each other — and who knows, ultimately, why even obstinate love succeeds or fails? I know that when he was angry and uncertain of his marriage’s future, I told him to start a garden. He did.
In the late summer, after all the hard work — the weeding the slugs, the worms — was behind him, his wife told him to leave. Her decision, she said, was inflexibleand permanent. There was no turning back.
My friend later reported to me that when she said this, his mouth went dry and coppery. His heart pounded in his chest. He grabbed his wife by the hand and dragged her out to the garden. He said he wished they could just stand there forever, side by side. He said he had never wished so hard for something so impossible.
He was desperate. He showed her that everything he’d planted had grown: the cosmos, the tomatoes, the chamomile, the mint, the marigolds, the nasturtiums, the baby’s breath, the basil, the oregano, the anise, the dill, the larkspur, sunflowers, moonflowers. Even a weary purple trumpet vine he’d bought on sale and transplanted to an old clay pot was sending out tendrils and latching onto the fence. It seemed he could grow anything He pointed out all of this to her, tried using the garden as a living example of determination, of how obstacles can be overcome.
“I had to plant those sunflowers three times” he reminded her, “because the snails ate them.” She was too angry to listen. “Let me go,” she said, and pulled away from him and ran back into the house.
I planted them because I love you,” he yelled after her.
Even today, he doesn’t know if she heard him.