This short story (originally written in 1990 and revisited in 2002) is dedicated to all the Beautiful Souls who are connected to the Pilgrim Hospice in Margate where Jesus walks, and to thank each one for The Real Work they do. I offer my profound thanks to God and those who serve him in this place and I dedicate these words to Gill and Andy, my Mum and Dad.
I read this story to the Baptist Women’s Fellowship in October 2006.
IN THE GARDEN…….a place of hope and consolation.
It was the hot summer of 1990, somewhere north of London and this is a true story. It was written by a man who sought God in his grief and was found by Him a dozen years later.
I returned to discover Mum, The Gardener. She was a new incarnation to me, an unlikely sight.
So small there in that green patch of land. I watched her every move from my position inside our little and dilapidating home. I saw how she chuntered; how she pleaded, how she talked to the man she loved and went about the business of ridding the soil of its destructive and greedy weeds, leaving them in small piles, waiting to bin them with force and purpose. She thought of her “Auld Andy” resting just three rooms away. I saw, I am convinced, a small-framed woman saying her prayers in the garden. An unlikely sight indeed!
“Nandy” was Mum’s pet name for Dad – one of the more reportable names! He despised the garden: that was his claim at least. The business of the garden was for him to undertake, a man’s job. Dad had recently employed a man for the job; his name escapes me but I remember he was jovial, if incompetent, and with a colourful turn of phrase! Mum had complained about the nameless gardener’s choice language and the frequent “botch jobs”. Dad then “kicked him into touch” – but very nicely.
This patch of green was like a scourge or threat to my Dad; in much the same way as Mum’s office in the High Street had been, when she conspired to spend most of her life in that place too. The office and now, it would seem the back yard, were other enemies to put to his sword. This was his time and his affection at stake - especially now…
But the garden was really a gift for my mother and for the ancient man, by then a soul leaving with a strange kind of strength. Dignity is the word. His moans belied a deep gratitude and pleasure at the results he saw there; everything was coming up roses. He saw his tiny woman, a Mallen-streaked fire-brand, taking care of his business; grudgingly he seemed pleased.
I caught sight of smiling eyes, which accompanied his ranting. The big Scot would bellow:
“Get your backside in the hoose; you canny cope wi’ that *******’ jungle!!”
Love with a curse!
So I too started gardening - an even more unlikely sight, but without a woman’s touch. Mum and I had shouted and screamed at one another, over the years, it must be said; but not then, not there. In our own ways we became aware of the garden and how it spoke to us in its metaphors and symbols. I would play there, active and creative in my mind – and in deeper places too. The language of the garden. A time to think, a place to smile – and a safe place for tears, concealed in sweat. The garden contained nothing of the language of anger or fear.
My mother and I concluded, in the silence between us, that the garden spoke, not only of an elemental wisdom but of a far greater truth. Feathered friends would become familiar to us. Did we really imagine that they were tarrying just a little longer?
People, too, were just like the plants and flowers we had learned to tend to so closely. They both required nourishment and cherishing – it seemed so clear then. Both would reward us with their beauty.
More beautiful still was Dad’s feeding of his family and his rewarding of us with his Life. He was somehow at his most resplendent at this point in his journey, “The bastard sun….!.” Amongst other un-repeatables!
A touch of the brogue, a touch of London-town. Always an enigma.
Andy Robertson had strength enough to cope with cancer! It was his own battle. He had been a wounded soldier, shrapnel still buried deep (and inoperable) in his head. And there he was, standing in the final moments of another campaign – he would face his foe head-on, never seen to flinch. Tolerant, at the zero hours’ approach.
Like “Grandpa Dixon” –Auld Andy’s favourite yellow rose – my Dad would fade and pass. But they would come to flower again, of this I was becoming sure.
I can picture the cancer now as a marauding force, like weeds. Entering slowly, like a sneak at first, then consuming. Dad’s physical fullness was but a childhood memory. I remember the size and the sleek power of his form; how I had longed, child-like, to grow to his proportion. I never did. More lasting and powerful than this was the essence and the big heart that made this man a very special friend to me – and a spectacularly flawed father. I grew to share this particular characteristic with him.
Dad had finally defeated his obsessions. While temporarily “on hold”, my own battles with pills and potions would continue.
I thought about Dr. Carl Rogers and the lovely simplicity of his thoughts about the way the best people grow through their lives. They were like decaying potatoes in a cellar, thrown and forgotten in a bucket. Rogers thought the potatoes so brave and actualising, pushing out their tubers like curious fingers to the Light of Life. Eventually they shrivelled and died. But in that process, that “tatty” lived such a Life!
My Father might well go down, I thought. But the idea that he might desert his post was impossible. He had plans and purpose. Time had become his companion, not his master, nor his enemy. Dad told us how fantastic all the colours looked in our garden: his wife had done almost as good a job as he’d have done! (A wry smile!) There were flowers by the guv’nor’s chair, fresh without fail. If he couldn’t so easily get to the garden, the garden could be brought to him.
Everything in the garden was rosy. Mum watered the beds, in spite of the hose-pipe ban, and Dad gave a wee nod of approval. His smile was impossibly wide and his eyes the deepest brown. How we miss such things for looking elsewhere!
We received a visit from a number of angels that hot summer. Perhaps the sweetest of those visitors were two little girls, one a “wee bairn”, the other very pretty lassie too and maybe five years old. They were the grandchildren of our delightful neighbours, Eric and Pat who were real gardeners!
How strange this emaciated man might have appeared to the children. More being... than bone. Pairs of the biggest eyes beheld my Dad, resulting in the biggest smiles from all who were present during those precious few minutes. The children can see; and they will never lie to you; they see beyond the broken, they see the beauty un-obscured.
I used to like sitting connected to, and shaded by a little pear tree at the top of the garden, sometimes (I confess) having a little of “what took my fancy”. But that was my special time and place, to repair with my pain and passion, to lessen the pace and the volume of Life a little….and listen, and wait. I remember picking up small pebbles, holding them awhile and then tossing them back, each little orb sounding its own “chink” at the foot of the wall. I needed strength after hours of sometimes frenzied, penitent cleaning and disorganizing!
I drew excitement and strength from the approach of another night, grateful that our work had been done well. At the time I judged my work less than impressive. But the shifting colours and moods at the days’ end were miraculous to me; as was my “skill” in balancing perfectly a huge red sun over a chimney somewhere in North London. It was probably half way through September of that hot year. This skill I had perfected in childhood. I was seeing like a child. And trying to be a man!
I was a child amid these surroundings: small, fragile, and in wonder. Sometimes Mahler or Morrison through the headphones, often simply unaccompanied, soaking in the sounds and smells.
The sun set glorious and slow in the western skies as if with the colours of blood. And a feeling maybe that a Higher Power had seen it all before, and felt pleased; a sense that there might be worse things to fear in Life than death. Like a flower slowly opening, Love might bloom here. And often an ancient and tingling call, I like to think from some Celtic source perhaps, from somewhere far and yet near. Like melancholy music – a call I would answer another year.
Dad had a Celt’s heart, strong and proud and filled with acceptance – and fight (!), I hear him boom. Andy was an enigma – the way I had always known the man. It was still difficult to accept, for my part. But I would walk the short distance across the lawn, pass the Glory Hole (utility cum conservatory) into the living room where my Mum sat, exhausted, legs tucked up beneath her – and relieved that her husband had been called to rest. My mother and I could rest together awhile without words. We all took our quiet times back then…
The chimney had swallowed the sun and the garden felt still. Some evenings brought with them new warmth and colour and quiet conversation between Mum and I. Coffee and consolation in the garden…
We often took turns at our sadness. How unfair this all was, my mother would say in a multitude of ways. Talk of the injustices and ironies that had marked his remarkable journey. How could it be possible that he had found true happiness at this time, built for himself a first true home?
Why Now? When he was “looking doon the barrel of a gun” – one of Dad’s typical ways of describing his particular conflict with cancer.
Sixty-some years, many spent in the kind silent suffering that only a veteran can comprehend; his final four years – ones of peace and happiness (and booze-free) with his “wee Gillie.”
For that I am truly thankful…
Mum would remark that this “new home” was a “dump”. She would apologise. The apologies were rarely necessary, the state of the house hardly relevant. But the garden at least was the best room in the house. We too were being tidied in all the most important ways.
Andy grew sick and cross. He simply would not have the “wee one scrubbin’ an’ cleanin’ a’ day long!” She rarely wielded a hoover in anger but when she used the noisiest machine ever she did so to mask her tears and her supplications. You weren’t going to catch the Yorkshire terrier with her guard down either! We would all talk and cry together soon enough.
I watched, constantly, over my mother, and I felt close to “this gardener”. Most of my hurt was for her, for the woman waiting to be left behind. Andy slept more those later days and it was pleasing to us, strangely.
Somehow the Real Work was being done, in this our rather unreal little family, our own strange world of closed curtains, gently whirring fans and opening hearts. A little family being healed before its very eyes; healed because it had suffered so much since its adoptive beginnings twenty-five years earlier. Regrets, mistakes and suffering meant so little at that time. There was no desire to pretend.
In spite of her great insecurities – and mine, for that matter – my Mother did not complain or voice regret. Her big concern was me, her son. In truth it amused and delighted me to see the unlikely attendant abandon herself to a new and alien task, trowels and forks replacing dusty files tied with red ribbon.
Mine was the same thrill. In quiet times I felt we were living through something like a miracle. We felt inexplicably privileged, and perplexed, pleasantly, by the gentle joy there was in getting to know one another. I would tell my mother that her powers of loving far outweighed those she was accustomed to using to bring home the bacon. Being a solicitor seemed less important now. I was good at advising others!
These were true moments; concern outside of ourselves and a first for me certainly.
Andy could be a cantankerous man and did not always make it easy for us. He rarely showed his feelings but we knew of his lonely hours – we rarely gained access to his inner world. Such was the way of his Life. My mother would inevitably make the odd mistake with Dad’s daily medication; occasionally a pill was taken out of sequence and, of course, nothing got by the old soldier – he required and would demand the strictest routine: after all, he was fighting this thing, and wars were rarely won without the help of your allies. Enough bluster, I suppose, to upset Mum for a while. It was the enemy with whom he was angry, not a little woman doing her very best.
They were Beautiful times. Difficult times and these we had all learned to accept. Dad seemed to accept the surrender in his body; but, like every body it was only really an outer shell covering something far more compelling and meaningful.
Love…sometimes with a bark!
When the sun did set, it was never on an argument between us; we were the allied forces. In another laboured breath before sleep it would be: “My wee Gillie is the best woman in the whole wide world!!”
Dad was never alone, and he knew this. We watched. But he was the lone-soldier at his post, watchful over us, living always on his wits. Friend or foe! He was a protector.
His bedspread (a McMillan special) was a lambent reminder of another guide, a Shepherd I had seen as a child, a Shepherd whose eyes had probed my heart from a picture on a wall way back when.
We felt alive and whole, curiously. There came laughter and smiles and the best of memories between us; their holidays East and West which they described with the pleasure of Pilgrims. Dad loved to look out upon his little patch of Paradise in suburban London. The past, too, had come to keep us company like the best of friends.
Looking back, I am there once more, giving thanks that my parents had found their way, ultimately loyal and strong, bonded by their curious kind of loving. Their love was peculiar and, strangely, perfect. Like a red, red rose – of which my dad used to sing.
In this odd couple I could see two flowers blooming profusely after drought and frost. There was joining where there had once been separation, light now filling the darkest place you can imagine…and consolation in our garden after the desolate times. An end to the bitter campaigns and earthly worries. I watched and I must have learned; how it was that Mum and Dad were to share their burdens, their joys and hopes during every moment, each one a blessing. A beautiful smile. And no hint of Caledonian curses to be heard. Blessings where once there had been blasphemies.
Our accounts were clearing, and there was the beginning of truth. And I would get to hear some of my Dad’s stories, just by being there, with him and listening. None of us really needed words, only an ear, a smile, the gentlest touch. All our major wounds were healing then, those little cracks that made us who we were; they were accepted, and receded to who-knows where. The war in the world was over for a while, though it had shaped the content and form of our lives. It had damaged my father, most certainly. But his spirit was really that of a dove and not a hawk.
“With the heart of a Lion!” I hear the old man ball.
I would always wear the reddest and proudest of poppies when: We All Remembered Together, in November that year of 1990.
A giant red sun had bobbed that farewell morning along the horizon and it settled awhile behind our favourite wispy poplar trees. A frost had kissed the ground.
I allowed myself the thought that Dad might feel cold wherever he had gone – a thought quickly dispelled with a smile. No, he was warm, most definitely! Whatever burdens he had carried through his Life (that I had so come to love), they were lifted away. There are no burdens where he is…in The Garden of The Lord.
The wee squirrel hurried and scurried, only a baby, leaping over the greenest grass, missing those markers on his way. We watched him disappear into the undergrowth and race, full-pelt up the side of a silver birch. Life had shown itself triumphant...
Autumn leaves chased us, like footsteps. A tall Scottish Pine, the Helix Heavenward cried.
I can see that shepherd now, a dozen years on…in our garden. He is our hope. If not for hope my heart would break.
In memory of my parents, Andy and Gill.