The last summer of your illness—I mean: your last summer—you did the chores you’d always done, another summer in a long line of summers, but also this: you put things in order, carefully. Carefully you navigated the yard: the acres you’d walked for years, but now with a cane—seeded the garden, plotted the previous winter—filling the feeders for birds and squirrels, cleaning the bath for the cardinals and sparrows alike: you never drew distinctions / that was for others. On the first warm May day, you hung the bistro lights across the patio, climbing the ladder with such an unsteady hand I was sure you’d fall; I tried to talk you down. (Was this your last ascent on a ladder? Who keeps these records for the dead?). * This was the summer we stayed inside. * When you died in August, the garden was grown over, inedible. My mother tore it out that autumn, never planted it again. She sold the house, left the patio lights, left the shadow-shape of the garden seeded over with grass like a gravesite. I’d grown seedlings that spring in your windowsill, hoping to rear tomatoes and cucumbers on my balcony across town; you’d told me they wouldn’t grow there— not enough light—and you were right but I never told you. That September I pulled the fruitless plants out of their pots, tossed the stems in the flower beds at the side of my house, under the cracked stare of a statue of St. Francis, holding a bird in his hand as if to say: what you care for comes back in one way or another. On the branch of one leggy plant was a singular green tomato, wide as a quarter. I put it on the windowledge above the sink to ripen, but green it stayed, counting the days until I left. Oh—to cut that tomato, grown under your sight, grown with no notion of misery or death. Wonder fruit of the time before loss, of another summer—any summer— of growth, not decay. Oh praise the gardener, his hands in the dirt, his knuckles cracked and exposed—oh praise the fruit of his hands and the work of his week, the promises we keep when spring comes again. Praise the builder of the garden gate, the one who watches for deer and hares, whose feet know the curves of this land and the tread of one from another. The work is always left unfinished but praise it anyway.
Sarah Nance’s creative and critical work has appeared in venues such as The Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literature and Medicine, Muse/A, Faultline, and Belletrist. She teaches writing and literature at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.