He was deteriorating and the deterioration was speeding up. By May, I feared he would not make it to the end of the year, but I’d been surprised over the past three years by just how tough he was. Still, I was happy when two of his sons planned to visit over Memorial Day weekend. I wanted Howard to spend as much time as he could with his family and his days of traveling to Utah to see them were over. Even if I drove, the trip would be too difficult. His gate was a shuffling one at this point and he needed long naps throughout the day.
I’d often said, “May waits for no one,” as a way of explaining why I spent so much time in my yard and flower gardens in May. Winter ends abruptly in May on the Front Range of Colorado and spring is a fantasy that materializes and disappears into summer quickly. Some years I managed to get cleanup done and perennials in the ground in April, in between late snowstorms, and some years I found myself up to my ankles in grass and weeds and early blooms in May, wondering why the weather gods couldn’t show a little mercy in March and April.
Not only were the boys coming late in May, but early in June, I was hosting a Boulder Media Women potluck. I’d been a member of the organization for several years and had been to many a potluck, but this was the first time I had volunteered to host one. And I planned to have the potluck outdoors. May waits for no one and neither did I that May. I spent every moment I could pry from work, household duties, and the increasing attention Howard needed to get the yard in shape. That included the yearly ritual of bringing out the geraniums, which I over-wintered indoors. And in 2010, I had forty or more I’d been caring for all winter. The geraniums would spend the summer hobnobbing with bacopa, diascia, annual and perennial grasses, tomato plants, and other potted plants on the deck. And the potted plants on the deck lived amongst numerous flower beds.
Memorial Day weekend came and the boys arrived. While I hadn’t felt they understood just how sick their father was, I believed they would have a better idea of it after a couple of days with him. We went to a movie that weekend, Howard doing his best imitation of a mobile person and pulling it off because I could drop him off close to the ticket area before parking the car.
The hail came and went while we were at the movie. I think my brain registered the pounding on the theater roof, but it didn’t register any thought more than heavy rain. And, in fact, that was all we saw upon leaving the theater. The drive home was another matter. Within a mile or two of the theater, we began to see little heaps of hail along the side of the road. The closer we got to home, the more hail we saw. I knew what hail meant to my yard but remained eerily calm on the drive home. None of the men were alarmed by the hail, but then, none of them had been racking up enough hours to constitute multiple work weeks in the yard.
Back at the house, I peeked into the backyard before going inside and saw that it was going to be bad. Once inside, I went to the kitchen door that opened onto the upper deck and ventured out, nearly falling on my butt because it was slick with hail. A few plants on the upper deck had been sheltered enough by the eaves that they did not appear to be too badly damaged. I allowed for a second or two of unfounded hope as I carefully made my way down into the yard. I caught sight of the Annabelle hydrangeas and hostas first. Shredded. Nothing left of them. In what can only be described as gardener shock, I made my way around the rest of the yard. The roses had fared the best. Maybe having thorns is a good idea. The geraniums, some of them plants I’d tended for several years, were mostly gone.
I began to cry. It wasn’t just the loss. In fact, it wasn’t primarily the loss. It was all the work, all the hours I’d spent getting the gardens and yard in shape in an otherwise packed life. And the fact that there would be many more hours ahead of me cleaning up the mess. And the fact that the potluck was only nine or ten days away. And, more than anything else, it was the weariness from the more than three years of walking Howard’s path with him, of watching him struggle with the cancer. The hail had been a trigger—not unlike the “triggers” once made at Rocky Flats for nuclear devices—innocent sounding enough, but deadly. The hail just triggered everything there was to cry about. So I began to cry.
Back inside, Howard took one look at me and said, “What’s wrong with you!” His voice was terse and stressed. He was not happy that I was crying. In part, it was because he had never been comfortable with tears. He was a stoic and expected me to be one too. But it was also embarrassment. He didn’t like the show of emotions in front of his sons. It’s hard to keep the smoke machine going and the mirrors in place when one member of the supposedly united front is falling apart.
It probably wasn’t even just the emotion. It was more specific than that. It was the tears. If I had displayed anger over what the hail had done to the yard, he could have probably handled that. He understood anger. But tears he could not understand. And he certainly couldn’t understand that the tears were about more than the loss of some plants.
In his inimitable style, he stalked off, visibly angry with me. His oldest son, Jim, a bear of a man, came to me and wrapped me in his arms. He had the good sense that was lacking in his father at that moment. I’d never viewed Jim as particularly sensitive and was a bit taken aback by his tenderness, but I just let him hold me for a couple of minutes while I cried.
Howard didn’t reappear for dinner. He was that annoyed with me. And the longer he was annoyed, the more righteous indignation rose up in me. His behavior seemed to me to be a very bad example for his sons. It was an interesting thing upon which to rest my indignation. They were both men—both in their forties, for heaven’s sake. In fact, Jim was only twelve years younger than me. They had, no doubt, long since formed their own ways of walking through the world with whatever example Howard had set for them years earlier and with the accumulated wisdom gained from life experience. Still, I thought it a very bad example to set. To their credit, the boys seemed unshaken by either his or my behavior. I made dinner and we had a nice chat during it . . . without Howard in attendance.
But something shifted in me that day. I had spent years of fighting my own tears because Howard disapproved of them. And I had particularly avoided them during the long battle with cancer. I wanted to be honest about what we were going through, but I wanted to do that with as much loft as possible. That is, I wanted to remain positive and uplifted. And I never wanted to forget that he refused to be defined by the cancer. I had only cried a few times, and then only when he’d been gone for several hours. And I’d made sure I didn’t look like I’d been crying by the time he returned.
But all of that was swept away—or more accurately, hailed to hell—by the hailstorm. I realized that to stay shoulder to shoulder with him on the march towards his death, I was going to need the freedom to cry, regardless of his reaction. My tears would be a part of my own salvation, even though I knew I couldn’t save him.
And there would be things to come to weep about.
Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall