Today guest blogger Heather Johnson relates how she and a terminally ill friend celebrated joy through the simple act of gardening.
How I Planted a Garden of Joy
I planted a garden last week. Not just any garden. Not a garden for me. But it ended up being for me in a way. Maybe for you too?
I have this friend around my age. Except for an uncooperative gall bladder demanding removal right before Christmas, she’d been healthy and vibrant. Once the scalpel opened her, the shock began. Her surgeon discovered a very aggressive stage-four cancer.
I’ve prayed. But I’ve wanted to do something more, something tangible to bless her. Because the “D” word has taken up residence in my mind—that five-letter word we don’t even want to whisper lest it extinguish the last flicker of hope we have left.
The question nagged me.
How do you show someone you care, that you really care, when such devastating news is delivered and they’re so sick that survival becomes the greatest goal of every day?
My answer came quickly.
So that’s what I did.
Last week, we met at her front door. We hugged for the first time since her diagnosis. Chemo has reduced her body to a bag of bones. Her hair is gone, her eyebrows drawn on.
“How can I help you right now?” I asked as we walked past the dining room, clean laundry beckoning hands to fold. She needed to eat, she said. So as I tended to intimate clothes like underwear and pajamas, we talked about her illness—her chemo, her physical pain, her fear, her faith, her unknown, and her known.
We both know God, and we both know God is good no matter what. Still, there’s anxiety and sadness standing right beside determination and hope. Because God doesn’t always heal. Not in the ways or in the time we always want. A peace settled upon us, I believe, as we talked openly, honestly, without fear of what the other might think or feel.
After finishing the folding, she asked for something surprising.
“Would you clean out my garden? You’re so good at gardening, and I’d really like to look out and see some flowers.”
Of all I thought I could do, would do, wanted to do, cleaning out and planting a garden hadn’t even crossed my mind. Why, I don’t know.
Gardening is a special gift I’ve given to people for years, sharing of fresh cut flowers in clean canning jars with a ribbon. I had only thought of cooking or cleaning or just sitting and listening to my friend. But to do something so easy and enjoyable? To just be my best me? How in the world could that bless?
“Of course! I’d love to help you with your garden!”
She took me to the garage, showed me the tools, and led me to her garden—one of the most overgrown I’d ever seen. She asked me to save the perennials if possible and went inside to rest.
I went to work.
The moment I plunged the spade into the earth and examined more closely, the diagnosis became grim. The bed had become completely overrun with quack grass—that invasive, intrusive, aggressive killer of all things good that spreads by underground runners. After two hours of digging and excavating, I delivered the bad news. Her bed was too far gone. I couldn’t save her perennials.
But there was good news! I could bring her garden back to life!
I explained the three phases, already underway:
- excavate the invasive grass & roots
- bring in topsoil, peat moss, and composted horse manure from our farm
- plant all new perennials
I told her I would share some of my Autumn Joy sedum, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, yellow daylilies. She liked the idea. But I had a grander plan—a plan I didn’t want to tell her about because I wanted her to wake up one day, look out, and see a garden beyond her wildest dreams.
My mom always told me, “Flowers should be given to the living, not to the dead.”
I took Mom’s motto as enthusiastic support for a garden center shopping spree. I picked out perennials and annuals that would give the most color quickly. One never knows how many tomorrows we have.
My husband, son, and I brought in the soil, the composted manure, the peat moss. We planted the whole garden while she was gone to an afternoon wedding and evening reception with her husband. I finished off her new garden with a towering obelisk and a brilliant red climbing mandevilla right in the center. (Oh, and I couldn’t pass up the shepherd’s hook with a new wren house! Because even the birds need love.)
Next morning a grateful, joyous text came early. She thought a fairy gardener had visited during the night.
The garden is now full of vibrant life, blessing one who may soon lose hers, overrun as she is with her own inner spread. Will she see the Autumn Joy bloom in September?
God only knows.
But whether she sees the blooms from here or from heaven, there will be joy. Always, there is joy! So catch it while we can! And like every flower with life-giving seed, we must scatter joy generously and watch it grow.
There’s an awful lot of loss in this life. Still, there’s always the hope of gain.
I’m thankful my friend asked for what I had never imagined giving. All because I showed up and stepped into her invitation to be my best self in a garden that needed tending.
You can do the same. You can start a new “garden” of life today. Plant yourself right where you’ll thrive and bloom best and spread your seeds of joy to another. This is enough. More than enough.
Heather MacLaren Johnson lives near Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shore with her husband of 25 years, 3 horses, 2 dogs, 2 barn cats, and a fish. She earned her B.S. in Education and her doctorate in Clinical Psychology before adopting 3 amazing kids from Russia, all now in their 20’s, all with life-long challenges stemming from prenatal exposure to alcohol (FASD). She is completing a memoir about her mother/daughter journey through hidden disabilities and mental illness.
Heather’s essay about learning to ride horses at age 44 is included in Leslie Leyland Field’s The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength(Kregel Publications). She has published devotional pieces for The Seed Company (Wycliffe Bible Translators Affiliate) You can learn more about Heather at her website www.truelifewithgod.com.
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