Be Kind, Show Love

Some of the prettiest roses I’ve seen in my neck of the woods aren’t in my backyard. The Carson-Tahoe Cancer Center in nearby Carson City has dozens of bushes.

Many circling the hillside complex are polyantha roses – compact puffs of landscaping fillers that faithfully produce small blooms all summer. Because all of them are red, I like to imagine that the designer thoughtfully chose a particular variety named after the character Happy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Other bushes placed in a special garden and in beds near the main entrance comprise a pleasant mix of low-growing floribunda and taller hybrid tea and grandiflora roses. There are no name plaques but, in my walks around the complex, I’ve pondered how the different colors represent a range of warm emotions – love, sympathy, friendship, appreciation, joy.

You may think this is a surprising place to find comfort and peace – in this landscape surrounding an institution where very sick people come to receive sometimes very unpleasant treatments – but I’m not surprised at all. Every square inch of the property was intentionally designed to nurture hurting souls.

The building itself was designed that way as well. Patients receiving infusions sit by a semi-circle of picture windows looking out over the city or woodlands. Strategically hung birdfeeders provide hours of entertainment – because that’s how long some treatments take. Huge stone fireplaces in comfortable waiting rooms generate the best kind of warmth on chilly days.

And, most important of all, kindness circulates in the hallways, offices, and waiting rooms like the soothing smell of your grandmother’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon.

I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly enamored of the place the first time I had to visit after receiving a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer. In the two years since, I’ve come to appreciate my visits and have willingly spent extra hours inside the building and wandering the grounds while supporting others on their arduous paths through cancer.

The lesson I’ve learned there is that, no matter how fundamentally dreadful the purpose of a place might be, it can still be surrounded by and filled with the best humankind has to offer. The question I’ve come to contemplate is why can’t the best of humankind be replicated in every home, every community, and every place of business on earth?

For a shining period in my 50s, I worked for an organization that was led by the most empowering leader I’ve ever known. He set an example of cooperation, teamwork, mutual support, and simply being kind to one another that was unmatched in my 37-year career. His primary rules for the office were “no mean, no loud, no negative.” His parting words (when the Governor wisely asked him to come and run his office) were “be kind, show love.” The fact that his approach worked was evident in the volume and the quality of our outcomes. Hands down, I did my best work there. I ended up transferring and then taking early retirement when his successor took the polar opposite approach to management.

Circling back to the question that sometimes keeps me awake at night, why does an inspiring environment have to be as rare as the mythical Brigadoon? What stops us from regularly bringing our best selves to our marriages, our parenting, our interactions with neighbors, and our careers? Why is it ever OK to be mean, loud, and negative? I honestly don’t know. But here’s what I do know.

If a fundamentally dreadful place like a cancer center can create an inviting atmosphere – one that exudes peace and compassion – then it can’t be that difficult anywhere else. I have the power. You have the power. We all have the power to fill our homes, communities, and businesses with the very best humankind has to offer. It’s not up to anyone else, and it’s as simple as my former leader’s parting words.

“Be kind, show love.”

Heart and Soul

Every rosebush in my garden has my heart. If one begins to struggle, it also has my soul.

From deep within, I draw upon my natural instincts to tend to the afflicted and distressed. It doesn’t matter what they need. If it’s in my power to provide it, then I provide it.

More water? I drag the heavy hose across the yard to supplement the daily ration from the drip system. Special fertilizer? I drop to my knees to sift healing granules into the soil. Strategic pruning? I gladly reach inside the thorny web to clip a sickly cane or invasive sucker.

And always, I speak of their beauty in warm tones, gently brush my hand across leaves and petals, and let them know they have a caretaker who loves them.

The whole experience of caretaking in the garden is so similar to caregiving in the human world that it’s like a vast reflection in a cosmic mirror.

My mother was 77 when she came to live with me in 2001 and was 80 when her health took a serious turn for the worse. She came back from what looked like the brink and lived nine more years.

Not without considerable care.

Check-ups, medical tests, procedures? I escorted her and stayed with her every moment the doctors would allow. Prescriptions? I sorted a rainbow of pills into multi-compartment trays and ensured she took them all. Embarrassing accidents, wound care? I slipped on latex gloves and did what I had to do.

Wisely, we hugged often and spared no words when it came to expressing our love. When she passed away in 2013, there truly was nothing left unsaid.

This past week, all of the ailing bushes I’ve tended in the garden, along with all those precious years of caring for my mother, washed over me in quantum waves while I’ve tended my husband. He had cancer surgery last week. Details are his to share if he chooses. Suffice to say “thumbs up” so far.

Caring for him is another story, though, and it’s mine.

The basic tenets of the task are familiar – food, drink, reassuring words, doing what you have to do. Something new is a stubborn independence that my roses lack and my mother quietly suppressed.

“No” is the word of the day.

As soon as we knew he needed surgery, I promised my husband I would do anything in the world to help with his recovery. Anything. By the day of the surgery, I had instinctively resurrected my caregiver’s don’t-worry-I’ll-take-care-of-everything posture. The day after we came home, I had to let that go.

As it turns out, he mostly needs me to let him lead this dance.

It was a surprising, new lesson for a seasoned caretaker who usually thinks she knows best. But I got it almost right away. When you’ve known each other since American Pie conjured up images of driving your Chevy to the levee with Don McLean, words aren’t as important as heart. Or soul.

Heart and Soul

Something to Count On

Every year about this time, I start to feel an itch.

It first flickers in the back of my mind and slowly makes its way down my shoulders and arms. Pretty soon my hands and fingers ache for the feel of garden gloves and the weight of pruning shears. Even my knees seem to want to touch the soft earth, though almost as soon as I kneel they’ll undoubtedly begin to curse me.

Always, I’m chomping at the proverbial bit before the garden. It pays me no mind. It’s still fast asleep, and its alarm clock won’t go off for another few weeks. There are no buds on the trees. Canes on the rosebushes are still wintry shades of ginger. Not even a weed has popped its head through the chilly ground.

So I wait. I wait while the calendar counts down. I wait while Mother Nature sends the last of her wet and windy storms. I wait by the windows and look for clues of spring.

Sometimes I do more than wait. I worry. Was there enough moisture this season? Did the temperature drop too far below freezing too often? Will everything wake up strong and healthy?

That’s about the time I take a deep breath and resurrect pictures of the garden from prior years. It’s reassuring to see the vibrant colors and the thick foliage. It reminds me that I can count on spring.

Being able to count on something is such a blessing, don’t you think?

It seems serendipitous that, in the days and weeks since I shared news about three loved ones who have cancer, I’ve been able to count on something besides spring. You. The one with your eyes on this page right now.

This stormy day, while I wait for the latest winter advisory to pass, seems like a good time to thank you all for your prayers and messages. They’re priceless. As are you.

Most especially …

Thank you, John, for generously paying for Saturday brunch even though you were at a table full of women who have a habit of talking about things you’d sometimes rather not hear.

Thank you, Mary and Diane, for the cheerful cards and notes. And to Mary again for volunteering to sit with our family at the surgery center on Wednesday while we wait for news about the leader of our band.

Cathy, you’ve done more than this, but I’m compelled to call out your text message that began, “Now that I’ve stopped crying….” It meant so much to have someone care enough to weep at the fretful news I’d just shared.

Leslie, Jesse, Lori, Paul, Joan, Barb and Jan – I’d be lost without your unconditional love and ready support even when some of you are in the midst of your own challenges.

By this time next month, when the first flowers are getting ready to grace the garden, I’ll be remembering you all. It’s a gift to know I can always count on spring. And on you.

Rose Garden in Spring 2018

Earth Up

Today in the rose garden my bushes are resting in a blanket of white. It’s been snowing off and on for the past couple of weeks and more is expected. In Northern Nevada and the Sierra, we’re on track to set snowfall records.

Yet as I write this, the clouds are coming apart like old seams on a gray dress, revealing a shiny blue underskirt. The sun is taking advantage of the moment, throwing delightful shadows across the yard and igniting tiny points of light on the crispy snow. It’s as though someone tossed handfuls of diamonds on the back patio, and they’re out there just waiting to be collected.

Admiring the utopic but chilly scene, I’m grateful that I mounded plenty of organic mulch around the crowns of my rosebushes in the waning days of autumn to protect them from winter elements. You may have heard a gardener call this “earthing up.”

And now, as is my habit, my thoughts about gardening turn to life outside the rocks and roses in our yard. I find myself comparing the fall mulching to the way our immediate family quickly “earthed up” around three that were diagnosed with cancer in the last six weeks – prostate, breast, bladder.

Two will go under the knife in about nine days. The third will have chemotherapy first, then surgery. There’s little need to describe the anguish and worry for the family or the grueling treatment for the patients. Even if you haven’t had cancer yourself, then it’s highly likely you know someone who has.

What is more heartening to describe is the almost mystical way a family draws closer in moments like these. The roots are already intertwined, but somehow they manage to stretch out further and become more interdependent. You can’t tug at one without tugging at the rest. Everything that happens to one happens to all.

Case in point, the rear neighbor at my last home grew prolific flowering bushes that sometimes poked their pretty heads through the slats of the fence. For a fledging gardener like me, that was pleasant enough. But whatever he used to enrich his soil filtered into my soil and the plants on my side of the property line flourished as well. His efforts were like a prayer said for one but showered on many.

In this trying time, I like to think of our family as a collection of trees and flowers and bushes that appear to stand alone but, if you look beneath the surface, are eternally and inalienably connected. Turn off the drip system and you withhold water from every living thing on the line. Fertilize a single bush and the ones around it also absorb the boost.

The clouds are merging again now. A few snowflakes are drifting on a light breeze. Shadows have drawn up, and the sparkling diamonds have been collected by the elusive fairies that inhabit our garden.

I am left with a prayer. Said for three but showered on many.

Winter Scene - Earth Up