Many of us fall into the role of family caregiver, without truly understanding all the hills and valleys we will encounter in this job.
Then, when our loved one passes, that job comes to a screeching halt. Or so it seems.
Because with each moment that passes, the time between when we lost our loved one and the present grows larger.
What I am coming to recognize, is that the emotional space between 'then' and 'now' can sometimes do just the opposite. It shrinks, and memories pull us closer to a person who is no more.
That is exactly what happened to me as I marked this year’s Earth Day.
Keeping it REAL Caregiving is going personal for a moment. I want all of you who are just beginning to accept that your parents (or others) are getting older and they won’t live forever, to consider this: long after our person is gone we are left with a treasure trove of memories and moments which connect us to them.
Surprisingly, I am discovering that the farther the hands of time move me from the day I said goodbye to my mother, Miss Nellie, the closer I find myself to snapshots of my life and hers. Or so I like to believe.
Oddly enough, the recognition of Earth Day caused me to reflect on one moment in particular and I had to ask myself, ‘Were me and my mother celebrating Earth Day long before it was a thing?’
When I hear the phrase ‘digging in the dirt,’ I also see a vivid memory in my minds eye.
I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a military household. My father served in the United States Air Force. Several of those years our family found ourselves stationed overseas in Japan.
I was very young - about age six or seven. Our school class went on a field trip which gave us a small glimpse into one aspect of Japanese culture. Parents were invited to join as well. Most of the adults were the moms, including mine.
If you asked me where we were in relation to our Air Force Base, I couldn’t tell you. But what I do remember is our excursion was to visit a working farm and dig out our own sweet potatoes.
Our harvest would be used as part of our tempura lunch later in the day. It was our version of ‘digging in the dirt.’
There were rows upon rows of mounds of dirt. The organizers provided us with little shovels, a pail and a pad to kneel on.
So there we were. Little Julia (probably scared to be doing something so different) next to my mother; a much younger and more vibrant Nellie - the two of us stabbing away at the dirt to unearth our vegetables.
I don’t recall how long we hunted for what would ultimately be part of our meal, but I do remember the bounty was lackluster. Most of the potatoes we uncovered were thin and scrawny. None was plump, round and robust.
Somehow though, the quality of the potatoes didn’t really matter. What did matter was the moment. We experienced something so unique which truly was a ‘once in a lifetime moment.’
Reflecting on that trip sent me not just down memory lane, but down an emotional rabbit hole.
Over the years, I recalled that in each home we lived there were plants and flowers. Lots of them! It never occurred to me until now, how large a role all those plants may have played in my mother's life. It was a connection I had not really thought about - until now. And then I thought - how could I have missed that??
My mother always had houseplants: African violets in pots scattered around the interior. Geraniums outside. Philodendron of various sizes and shapes inside. Some sat on the countertops, others hung from macrame planters. Still others dotted the front and back porches.
My mother would sometimes say she didn’t have a green thumb. But I remember her tossing citrus and various melon seeds into the back yard and then leaving it alone.
Weeks later, sure enough - cantaloupe and watermelon sprouted. I recall a small plot of corn and peppers growing out back as well. There was a bit of suburban farming taking place right under our noses!
And it stands to reason. My mother didn’t talk much about her childhood but she would say she grew up on her grandfather’s farm in Mississippi.
So now I wonder - were all those plants a way for my mother to feel connected to her own memories of green and earth and dirt?
Did helping to put in and then pick her own tomatoes, peaches and plums from the gardens at our Northern California home (during my mother's last chapter) allow her to connect to something greater than any of us? Was it nourishing to her soul to pluck fresh lavender from the oversize plant growing in the yard?
Perhaps Earth Day is something to be celebrated EVERY day - to honor the planet and the people closest to us?
But, if we do choose just one day - then maybe we should use that 24-hours to 'dig in the dirt' and strive to connect more deeply to those we love while they are still with us.
Just something to think about...
Until next time~