“Did the snowdrops survive? Mine are just beginning to flower.”
The text message came from my friend Silvia, my friend who kept us in pasta sauce for the duration of Leukaemia. I had forgotten about the planting of snowdrops. So much of last year is a blur in my memory.
“Where do I go to look?” I wrote back.
Then after following her directions I discovered the foliage all along the fence line. They survived.
‘Planting bulbs sounds like a romantic and fun thing to do, but it never is,’ writes Anne Lamott. ‘The earth is rocky and full of roots; its clay, and it seems doomed and polluted, yet you dig little holes for the ugly shriveled bulbs, throw in a handful of poppy seeds and cover them over again – it’s death and clay and shrivel. Your hands are nicked from the rocks, your nails are black with soil…then…the first bulbs begin to bloom…when this finally happens in late winter every year, I’m astonished.’
I’m like Anne. I’m astonished by anything that grows in my garden. Between my black thumbs and Reid’s passion for clearing the yard, nothing much does make it and Silvia’s fear for the snowdrops was completely justified.
My niece got married yesterday; she’s only 19, the same age that I was 25 years ago when Reid and I exchanged vows on a sunny, winter day in Sydney. There is always talk before weddings, isn’t there? People are discussing whether the young couple will make it, whether the marriage will survive. They consider the lives of the bride and groom dubiously, weighing up all that is stacked against them; they speak in hushed whispers, out of earshot and then parade confidently and politely in front of them, proffering platitudes.
Ever since my niece, Kate was born she has shown that she is a great judge of character. Apart from her mum, I’m her favourite female in the world. Since she was small she has told me, ‘I’m going to grow up just like you Auntie Clare. I’m going to decorate my house all in white, just like you. I’m going to go into ministry, just like you. I’m going to get married young, just like you.’ No amount of warning her could save her from becoming just like me and yesterday she walked down the aisle to marry the youth pastor of her church.
‘Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Like a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning
Running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.’
My father closed the ceremony with a fabulous speech. He and my mum are about to celebrate 50 years of marriage. “Have I any advice for you?” he commenced, “my wife would say I have none.” In his delicious, dry wit, he had us laughing until we all cried and he sat down just before he joined us in a well of tears as well.
It sounds so romantic and fun to be getting married, just like planting bulbs but the truth is that the pain of living with someone and having babies together and trying to live in community with people is going to break your heart. It starts out so innocently and full of hope. At 19 and 21, Reid and I thought we could save the world.
I lay awake at midnight thinking about this. I had fallen asleep early, worn out from all the emotion of a day made up of proud, satisfying moments but woke up again to check that Emma and Jack had returned from friends houses and were tucked safely into bed. There is nothing like family, no matter how dysfunctional or broken they are. When you come together at the same table, it’s all awkward and polite at first but if you push past the surface you remember that there is a life long sense of belonging. You look at the milky skin of your niece’s complexion, you listen as your nephew sings, as she walks down the aisle, you hug your younger niece who is already feeling the loss of her sister and your hold your own sister’s hand, squeezing it because you cannot find the words to tell her that she has done the most magnificent job raising her family against all the odds.
There is a raw beauty in each moment of the day that none of the guests fully understands. It is a secret that only flesh and blood and kin can know. It’s watching Emma helping her cousin into the car, and listening to Sam at the lectern reading the first lesson, its Jack in a suit, tall and handsome. It’s the battles you have faced and won, wrapped up with all that has been lost and the pieces you are still working to salvage. I think back to the day when we said our vows, 25 years ago. I could never have imagined back then all the things that life would present us with. We decided then that we were committed for the long haul no matter what and somehow that commitment has carried us through.
Like a tunnel that you follow
To a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern
Where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving
In a half forgotten dream
Like the ripples of a pebble
Someone tosses in a stream
At midnight I was wishing I had learned to play the piano because I wanted to get up and sing the ‘Windmills in my mind.’ Then I randomly remembered going with my dad to the house of some old people when I was a child. He used to take them communion because they were too frail to get themselves to church. Suddenly I felt like I was 10 years old being propped on a cushion for high tea, being smothered with kisses that smelt like biscuits dipped in tea. I remember observing those old sisters and brothers, some in wheel chairs, others slightly mad, still others fussing over my dad and I making sure we had enough to eat.
I remember choosing a song roll for the pianola and being told that the indentations in the page made the music. I remembered leaning against the piano stool so that my feet could reach the peddles and being shown how to hold on tightly to the underneath part of the keyboard so I could peddle with all my might making the piano play by itself and the keys would dance as if it were my own fingers making the music.
As I lay there remembering I thought about all the rotations of life and all the little holes that get etched into our hearts. It’s these dark, raw moments that the needles of life sweep across creating the melodies. Sometimes the only reason we survive is because people decide to come over and kneel in the soil on our behalf. They pray prayers, they plant snowdrops, they get their hands dirty, and they gently press the soil around our hearts so we don’t feel the frost or the cold or too exposed. They water our lives with their tears and coax us to keep on going. They bring us Holy Communion when we feel too frail and fragile to take ourselves to church. They tell us what the future looks like when it’s gotten so dark in the cave and we fail to see.
On Friday, Reid proudly announced, ‘I’ve done the lawns and I’ve got rid of the onion weed all along the fence.’
‘What onion weed?’ I asked. So he took me and showed me all the healthy bulbs of the snowdrops that he had weeded out and thrown on the compost.
I phoned Silvia and she laughed telling me she would come over later to see what could be salvaged. They are back in the soil now; those snowdrop bulbs that Reid thought were onion weeds and we are hoping that some of them might still survive. We packed them back into the little holes with cow manure. We patted them down, holding our noses from the stench of the manure. The truth is that the dark, smelly holes of life produce the most beautifully resilient flowers. Soon they will be hanging their heads, gracefully adorning our garden, reminding us that we will survive as well.