I can remember only one glorious summer when my father decided to become a gardener. To fully appreciate this wondrous event you need to know something of my father. He is a Portuguese immigrant, who came to Canada claiming on his immigration forms that he was skilled to work on a dairy farm when really he had never touched a cow. My father lived in his mind and not in his body. Every physical job for which he was hired quickly turned into an office job. Partially because his bosses didn’t want him to get hurt – he had a slim build and a tumultuous constitution – but primarily because they quickly noticed that his brilliance in accounting and management far outshone his physical prowess. Needless to say, one wouldn’t have expected him to become a gardener, nor to thrive as one. However, my father is a Portuguese immigrant for whom the romantic notion of owning and cultivating your own land in this glorious country expressed the culmination of true success.
So, he bought a property with a huge garden and for one summer he had dirt under his nails and a lovely crooked grin on his face. He was most proud of two of his growing efforts. The first was a tiny watermelon. My father loved watermelon, melancia as it is called in Portuguese. It reminded him of all that was good in a troubled childhood. That he could grow it here, in this northern land, on his property, gave him such joy.
The other thing he grew was tomatoes; so many tomatoes. I don’t know if I have ever seen such a harvest of tomatoes. But I don’t remember eating them on late summer nights; they must have been planted late. Instead, what I do remember is a huge box in the basement filled with green tomatoes and newspaper, and me sitting beside it in October wondering at how it was possible for these tomatoes to redden in the dark. Redden they did, however, and we slowly ate through the box; only a few were lost. My father never really gardened again. He was a man who lived in his mind for good and for ill, and he only occasionally came down into the joy of working the earth: tasting food and other forms of embodied living. But when he did, I remember that he was happy, alive in a way he never was otherwise.
This year was my first year of vegetable gardening. My family will attest that enthusiasm and ecstacy over beautiful things grown by one’s own hands are genetic. I feel my father’s happy, loud voice ring in my bones as I go on and on about what has come to be. And on my dining room table sits a box of green tomatoes. I come every morning in the dark and look at them, amazed that that which was so green yesterday is tinged with vermilion today. I pick the reddest for our family dinner and leave the rest. I am gardening because my life has gone quiet and I feel called to a sustained stability. I want to understand how to live grounded in place, in God who is my source, in family, and in the tiny bits of land to which I am responsible.
It is my father who precipitated my “going quiet” and rooting down. A few years ago, it became evident that my father had dementia. Slowly, his precious mind unravelled. Remarkably, it was his capacity for numbers that left him first. I found myself arguing with him about a simple calculation, and I knew I had to stop resisting denial and support my mother on this long, frightening walk. We had all thought that my fiery father would blaze up in some quick and tragic death due to his temperament and ill health. We never imagined a long slow diminishment and dying away, a walk into the dark.
Somehow this unmade me and at the same time realigned my sense of self. My father was Portuguese, and the Portuguese know how to care for their elderly. Since childhood, my father had planted in me a call to respect and care for the old and vulnerable. When I was 4 years old, he took me along to his weekly visit to his mentor’s sister in a care home. It was special time for all three of us. I remember the day she died; he woke me from sleep to tell me, he took me to the funeral, and later he took me often to the graveyard. He was actively showing me what he believed was good and true and valuable. The seed of his teaching rooted deep and there was no dislodging it. When he became ill, I knew my place was to be a support to my mother and to him, and I knew in an overstretched life this place would require me to leave many others I occupied.
So here we are. This walk is long, and this place is sometimes barren. The summer of my father’s mind has long vanished, and he lives now mostly in his body. If he had died earlier, I would have remembered everything vibrant and fiery about him. Now, after these years of slow diminishment, these memories feel lost. They are replaced by a gentle abiding sense of his love, which somehow remains so clear and true, a great respect for his vulnerability, and a wonder at that which remains of his personhood. My father is still fiery, which isn’t always fun, but he is also always thankful, as he always was. He still calls out to God for help in distress, as he always did, and he still tears up in response to beauty.
There are other winter fruits on this walk into the dark. We as a family have gentled too. We are together more often, and his presence makes all of us more careful and caring to one another. Personally, the fact that God has allowed the slowness of this diminishment has helped me to understand the value of slowness. It has helped me to see that life doesn’t have to be fast and full to be good. There are riches in sitting nightly with an old man and a dog in a care home just as there are riches in taking so much time planting vegetables that sometimes don’t even come up. My father in his dementia is still giving gifts, and I am learning the ground of being.
If God gives us this slow, latent time at the end of our lives, and if it has fruit to bear in our lives and in the lives of others, then maybe I can trust this long slow process, this box in the basement full of tomatoes and newspaper. For sometimes we redden in the dark into a fullness that is more than we can ask or imagine.
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is a counsellor and writer. She is part of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, where she served for a long time as a pastor. To learn more about her work visit the Anchorhold.