I wander through my new backyard, taking stock of the variety of flowers, plants and herbs that were left by the previous owner. I know that the woman who lived here before was quite the gardener-- the evidence is all around me. And yet, there is also evidence of things left undone, overgrown plants spilling over their borders, spindly shoots stretching in wild directions. Even an untrained eye can see that this garden needs tending, pruning, shaping, loving. The gardener, it seems, abandoned her duties long ago. And so I come to assess the damage, to make the repairs, to tend this garden.
I am unprepared and uneducated. A novice gardener at best.
Months go by. I am busy, overwhelmed, tired. The garden is still not tended, but fall has let me off the hook, assuaging my guilt as the fallen leaves cover the disarray. I wander out to the garden aimlessly, unsure of my purpose in this place. The light of day is fading as I stoop to pluck the rosemary that is still, amazingly, thriving. I inhale deeply of its woody, pungent scent and dream of roasted potatoes and chicken and focaccia bread eaten in a warm kitchen on a cold night. I am thinking of how I need to harvest this rosemary to freeze for winter dinners when I look up and see her further down the row, bent over the plants, mumbling to herself.
She has returned to tend her garden, an apparition in crocs and a floppy gardening hat.
"Hello," I call to her, but she does not acknowledge me. I walk closer and she turns to look at me, confused.
"Who are you?" she asks.
"This," I say, guiltily gesturing to the house, the yard, the garden, "Is mine." For a moment she looks flustered, even angry-- then a flash of recognition, then sadness, crosses her face. She looks away, down at the plants she once tended, the soil she once turned, the new life she once coaxed from the ground.
"Oh," is all she says.
I crouch down beside her, talking in what I hope is a low and comforting voice. "I know you needed to come back here, to make sure your plants are okay, that this place is being loved. I know this was once your home and I know you thought that you would have years and years to live here, to watch your children grow, to tend this garden." I pause, gauging her reaction. Have I gone too far? "I am sorry," I say, "That your time here got cut too short."
She nods, still looking down. I stand and turn to go, to leave her with some time alone in the garden, but her voice stops me. "Will you take care of my garden?" she asks shyly. "It's gotten into such a state. I never meant to leave it like this." She looks up at me hopefully and I see the woman she once was, not what she became after cancer ravaged her body and stole her from her husband and children.
Now it is my turn to nod, my turn to look away. "Promise me," she says, pleading. I look at the house she once loved, the place she used to call home, the place she brought her babies home to, the place that she ran to after she got a death sentence handed to her by a doctor in a cold impersonal office. It used to be hers, and now it is mine. Somehow that doesn't seem fair.
"I will care for it well," I promise her. "I will appreciate what I have. I will treasure every moment I get here because it is time you didn't have. I am sorry for your loss," I say. It is what people said to her husband and children as they stood helplessly in a funeral receiving line. It is what I must say to her now.
"Me too," she says. And when I look back at the garden, she is gone.
*This post was written for Scribbit's Write Away contest for this month. The theme this month is "ghosts." While this didn't actually happen to me (of course), I do live in a new house and the previous owner did die of cancer and was a gardener. I often wonder if she knows we are taking good care of the house-- and the garden-- she left behind.