22 Jul My True Garden
I moved back to Texas in the early 1980s and during the next twelve years, I had seven boyfriends. I dreamed that I might create a life with each guy, move to a new home and maybe even start a family. For a few years, I had been ready for a different house with a bigger garden, but I kept putting off buying a new place, and instead I said yes to one new boyfriend after another.
After Fred and I split up in 1993, I decided to get a new house before I got a new boyfriend. When I elected to take a break from new boyfriends, I also gave up on the idea of having a baby. At 41, I was utterly ambivalent about having a child and heartbroken about letting go of the dream. And then I found The One.
I fell in love with the 1950’s green tile in the master bathroom, the unfinished oak floors beneath the green shag carpet, and the half-acre lot, with the beautiful old trees in the front yard and the neglected back yard. I could already imagine the Oriental and brightly colored Moroccan carpets I had collected for years providing the perfect covering for the hardwood floors. In the living room, there was space for a piano, and in the back yard, there was space for a big, covered back porch – the perfect place for enjoying fiery North Texas rainstorms. I could already see the garden filled with rosemary and lavender and antique roses, and ponds with a waterfall where the frogs could hang out in the summer. The sounds of falling water and the croaking frogs would serenade me and lull me to sleep.
On Halloween 1994, I said “I do.” I bought the 1955 vintage ranch style house. The property was located in an older neighborhood I had known and loved since my childhood, with sidewalks and wide, tree-lined streets. The house and garden were full of potential, but when I purchased the property, it was decidedly ugly, as in UG-LEE. Essentially, nothing had been done to it since it was built. The windows were those aluminum ones so popular in the mid-1950’s. The air and heating systems were kaput. The so-called living and dining areas were really dead rooms, cut off from the rest of the house. The kitchen/dining/den area was a wonderful 43 feet long, but only 13 feet wide. It was like a bowling alley, way too narrow for the home of someone like me, who wanted flow in my living space and room enough for parties. There was almost nothing worth keeping in the back yard – twenty six volunteer trees, a magnolia tree in an awful location, dead grass, and a falling-down greenhouse. It all had to go.
I spent the next year designing the home I wanted to inhabit, both indoors and out. I poured through home magazines, searching for ideas and accumulating stacks of clippings of things I liked. My dream was of a beautiful place with warmth. I love to cook, and I envisioned a kitchen big enough for more than one person to work, with barstools for friends to sit on and visit while I cooked, views of the gardens from every room, a place of comfort and elegance. The plan was big and bold and included things like moving interior doors, and expanding the kitchen/den area to the back of the house, with a new fireplace inside and a big back porch outside.
Demolition began on a snowy day in January of 1996. As the house was being dismantled, I barely noticed that I had gained forty pounds in the two years since starting the project. I had put all my energy into creating my home while ignoring myself.
Once the work on the house was underway and spring was beckoning, I shifted my attention to designing the garden. In July, the house was far enough along to start work in the backyard. Step one was to terrace the property and improve the fertility of the soil. The subsoil at my home is called caliche, a calcium carbonate material that forms a sort of natural cement. As part of the terracing, we took out truckloads of caliche and replaced it with fertile soil.
By mid- August, as the new kitchen cabinets were being installed, and walls were being painted, I went for my annual wellness exam. As I told her about my renovation project, the doctor urged me to slow down and reduce my stress. And then she found a lump in my right breast. A mammogram the next day showed that the tumor was growing out in one direction. Within three days, the diagnosis of malignant breast cancer was confirmed.
It was incomprehensible to me that I should have cancer. Not me. Not now. After I left the doctor’s office, my mind was topsy-turvy with a host of uncertainties and fears. All I could see was the possibility of death. I tried calling a couple of close friends, but there was no answer. Trying to figure out what to do with myself, I chanced upon an estate sale and went in. Now I had something else to focus on, and I did find one thing that I needed that day – a fireplace grate, still in use in my den.
What followed were tests and retests, and a trip to the Dr. Susan Love Breast Clinic at UCLA for a second opinion. In mid-September, I painted the smallest room in the house in brilliant teal and turquoise colors that remind me of the Mediterranean. I took this time of creating something beautiful in my home to make decisions about my treatment. After two surgeries, I began a clinical trial to test a new chemotherapy regimen. Within two weeks of starting the chemo, I was bald, and my hormonal system was shot. I wore a blond wig or a brightly colored scarf and kept my anti-nausea pills in my pocket. Since I had opted for a lumpectomy to remove the tumor and spare the breast, radiation treatments were planned for the spring. Maybe by then there would be something blooming in the garden.
It was clear to me that I had to find a better way to live.
I joined a cancer support group. An Australian couple, Dr. Sam Ford (a theologian) and his wife, Jane, led my group. The focus was on doing what we could to help our bodies heal, based on findings from the relatively new field called psychoneuroimmunology. Sam absolutely loved saying this word. His face would light up and he would draw out the saying of it, as if it were the magical elixir that would cure everything. Cancer does not discriminate – by gender, age or race – and out of cancer, a community of loving support came into being, bringing together a group of people I would have never met otherwise. Each week, we would talk about our experiences, sharing our struggles and meditating to clear our minds. One week, at the end of our meeting, six women who had had breast cancer surgeries of various sorts went into a private room and bared our chests to share our scars. The six of us covered the range of surgical options, from my relatively minor lumpectomy to women who had double mastectomies, one with and one without reconstruction. My scars, which loomed large in my mind, were relatively minor. I found a deep level of gratitude for the choice I made to keep my breast. Over time, I could see for myself that those who kept sight of their joy lived best, even if they did not survive their cancer.
When a long-time friend told me I would have to wait to move into my new home until I was finished with chemo, I put my hand on my hip and said, “I don’t think so.” The house was finished enough to be habitable, and the garden reconstruction could carry on with me living in the house. So, in November of 1996, three days before my third chemo treatment, I moved in.
Family and friends came to help. My realtor (the mother of my new sister-in-law) and my mother’s housekeeper packed the kitchen, my mother’s best friend cleaned out the pantry, and my brother took a day off to do whatever needed to be done – pack/organize/supervise. Together, we made it happen. The evening of the move, my close family and I made a toast in my new home, drinking red wine out of my grandmother’s crystal wine glasses.
My life was moving along, yet one of my first thoughts every morning was that I had cancer. I felt betrayed by my body, and I struggled to find joy. Anger and sadness do not provide fertile ground for hope and joy.
Prior to the cancer diagnosis, my plan had been to resume dating in the fall of 1996. Now, when I considered the possibility of a new relationship, I could not imagine telling a new man that I had been diagnosed with cancer, that I did not know if it was going to return, and that there was no way to test for it. So I did not let any new men into my life. Men from my past would call, and I just ignored them. There was only so much talk or even awareness of cancer that I wanted to share.
This included Hank. He had been my lover on and off for about eight years. Between my boyfriends and his girlfriends, we were together. Our friendship was an easy one. Every now and again, we would spend an evening together, cooking dinner, laughing and talking of life and art. And we played, with no expectations other than that we would have fun together and be friends.
In December, Hank asked me to spend an evening with him, and it was clear to me that that my thoughts and feelings about our sweet friendship had changed, and my sensual responsiveness had disappeared. My body had been so faithful to me through my life – from my early explorations as a girl who was fascinated with her body, to the curiosity of exploration I had experienced with my lovers – and now I felt nothing. As I was making choices for life, my ongoing fears and worries left me feeling that I had little to share. Instead of welcoming Hank, I sent him away, ending our close connection. In the aftermath of this, my juice for living dried up even further. I was withering on the proverbial vine, physically, emotionally, spiritually, instigated by my deep despair, which only magnified the impact of the hormonal changes in my body.
Over time, my home – and especially my garden – became my life raft. Outside of work, I put almost all my energy first into creating them and then into maintaining them. In the midst of radiation treatments in the spring of 1997, my doctor asked me a loaded question: “How are you, Susan?” I burst out sobbing, reciting the litany of what was wrong in my life. She suggested we put me on an anti-depressant for a year.
That spring my hair started coming back. It had been almost straight before chemo, and now was growing in kinky, curly and baby-fine. My garden was rich with the smell of humus from the compost I’d added. I was overseeing the construction of new ponds on the south end and a new garden shed on the north. I picked a sunny, out-of-the-way place on the newly terraced upper level of the backyard and planted yellow pear and sweet 100 tomatoes, and spinach. When the ponds were complete, and the waterfall was flowing, I added goldfish purchased at a bait shop and soon the first frogs showed up, calling for mates to join them in the pond and serenading me with their songs of summer.
That summer, I spent a week at Ting-Sha Institute, a cancer camp, in beautiful Point Reyes, California with other cancer survivors, where we did things like paint and dance and play, beginning to see that we could live beyond our worries and sadness about cancer. I was surprised when a painting flowed out of me. I carefully rolled it up to take home. It represented hope.
A month later when I returned to Dr. T for my well-woman check-up, she found a mass on my right ovary. The surgery was scheduled on the same day I’d had my lumpectomy the year before. Now I had three surgeons and additional disruption to my hormonal system.
I continued to work in my garden and to beautify my home, and, for a long time, I veered in and out of a spiritual and physical wasteland. My garden was blossoming as my own skin was drying out. Within two years, I was diagnosed with vaginal atrophy. I finally realized my spirit and my body – all of me – demanded the same reclamation and nurturing that I had been giving my home and garden.
It did not happen quickly, but I was persistent. I kept exploring, just as I had when renovating my house and garden, except this time my project was me, and the research was centered on what would bring me back to life. I remembered what it felt like to feel good in my body, so I started researching my orgasm, something I had turned away from for ten years. When I felt myself beginning to truly relax so that orgasmic energy could flow within me, it felt like the opening of a door in me that had been nailed, bolted and barricaded shut. I was not sure this door could or would ever open again. This opening paved the way for an expanded sense of joy in my life that shows itself most clearly by the fact that I look younger and more radiant in photos than I did ten years ago.
I began to see that my body is a temple, that it is sacred, that it is not separate from ‘me’ and that all of me deserves respect and kindness and love (as does every other being on the planet). I also saw that I flourish when I am bathed in these sweet blessings. And I began to understand that my body is the vessel through which the love in me comes through into the world, and that my life force is resilient. I discovered that just like my garden, my body blooms when it is well tended.
Now it is eighteen years after my diagnosis. I no longer think of myself as a cancer “survivor”. I am alive, and once upon a time, I was diagnosed with cancer. For about sixteen of these years, I have spoken with the occasional cancer patient who finds me. Ironically, while I was writing this, one of my colleagues was diagnosed with locally advanced kidney cancer. My conversation with him reminded me how much I love to talk to people diagnosed with cancer, especially soon after their diagnosis when they are often a bit baffled, see death looming (whether it is true or not), and have lots of decisions to make. I know that some live and some don’t, and that what I know now can help others bypass some of the stuff that was so very challenging for me. Along the way over these eighteen years, I had a teacher, Martin, who was told at 35 that he would die in a few months; he did die, but it was 37 years later.
Who knows why some live and some don’t? Martin believed that it had to do with consciousness and the chakras. I am not sure. What I do know is this: In a mind that is settled down, the love that is the essence of who we are shines through, and that love is the ground of ultimate healing. It is always in you and me just waiting for us to glimpse it, and sometimes we can’t see even a tiny sliver of it. It may or may not keep us alive in the presence of cancer. Nonetheless, there is grace in seeing that a sliver of light can open the universe to a person, as if just the taste of it is enough for this life.
When I painted my painting at Ting-Sha in Point Reyes the year I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no idea of the depth to which it would speak to me. I framed it and now it hangs in my home. What I see in the composition is something like seaweed that keeps its integrity and expresses its resilience as it responds to the ebb and flow of currents of life. The predominant colors are green and violet. This green is the color of the heart chakra, which represents compassion and the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, while the violet of the crown chakra represents my connection to God, the infinite consciousness of all that is. The painting I created seventeen years ago laid out the parameters of the path for me to find a better way to live, and stands as the perfect expression of the resilience of my human heart with its expanding access to compassion and the blossoming of my connection to spirit.
My home and garden have become my sanctuary, rather than my life raft. I love living in the beauty of what I have created. Others seem to enjoy sharing it with me. It is both elegant and comfortable.
The garden has its own cycles. It goes dormant for a couple of months in the middle of winter, and the flowers start blooming in February, typically beginning with fragrant white narcissus. Next come yellow forsythia and daffodils and thrift, a hot pink spring phlox. The white flowers of the Mexican Plum tree and the pink flowers of a Saucer Magnolia follow. Then, by mid-April, the garden erupts with roses. The waterfall flows all year, even in the ice and snow.
The goldfish have mated in the ponds over the years, so the current fish are descendants of those purchased at a bait store so many years ago. Over the years in the garden, I have seen so many critters wandering about my yard – lizards and snakes, raccoons, possums, armadillos, red and grey foxes, and even an occasional great heron, stopping by to check out the fish in the pond. In the late spring, several species of dragonflies come in for the warm months and by June, they are joined by frogs and toads, who create a serenade all summer as they call each other to mate in the pond. There are butterflies all summer long, and in late September, the monarchs stop by for a few weeks on their way to Mexico for the winter. Many of the roses bloom again in the fall. Occasionally, my favorite rose, Souvenir de la Malmaison, is blooming still at Christmas.
My true garden is a place of remarkable fertility and it is right here, right now. The life force is vibrant and resilient in me and in my garden. Almost twenty years after deciding to take a break from dating, I have started dating again. I wrote this story because I want every person on the planet to know that just because you can’t feel your own life force right now does not mean that it is lost and gone forever. It is hiding out, waiting for you, too, to let your mind settle so that you wake up and smell the roses.