The Reluctant Gardener

This year I’m really going to do it. I’m going to get my garden in shape and enjoy it instead of feeling guilty every time I look out the window or walk through the neglected yard. This will require some rethinking of what I expect from my little plot of land. It’s glory days as a prime stop on our historic neighborhood’s garden walk (under a previous owner, of course) are long gone. But that’s okay. I’m going to embrace it for what it is. 

It seems cliché to say so, but there’s a metaphor here for my life. I didn’t sign up to be a mom to special needs kids. In my life as in my yard, I’m a reluctant gardener. When Margot was born, well-meaning people said things like “God gives special kids to special people.” I can tell you though, it didn’t feel so “special” to sit in numb shock across from one specialist after another as they obligatorily rehearsed their worse-case scenarios for my little girl’s life. It took awhile for me to embrace my new life for what it is because it falls so short of my otherwise pretty typical expectations.

Most people, even if they haven’t had an experience like mine, intuit that clinging to expectations as if they were entitlements somehow isn’t right. I know this because I could wallpaper my entire house in the copies of Welcome to Holland I’ve received over the years. It’s a very brief reflection by Emily Perl Kingsley which likens special needs parenting to taking a trip to Italy that mysteriously ends in Holland instead. At first it’s keenly disappointing. You feel entitled to see Italy. Everyone you know made it there. But soon you learn that Holland has tulips and Rembrandt's, and you realize you wouldn’t want to have missed their distinctive beauty.  The poem is really beautifully honest and poignant. You will always dream of Italy, but you need not mourn.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.
-- Emily Perl Kingsley - Welcome to Holland

Our house is on a city corner lot shaded by about a dozen trees. My garden is more Rembrandt than Raphael, more Holland than Italy. It’s understated, shady, and shall we say, natural. I had always dreamed of growing herbs and vegetables, but it’s not going to happen. I’ve tried. I get stringy vines where pumpkins should be, and tiny tasteless tomatoes and peppers that show up in late August, already spent with the effort. So much for my hipster urban homesteader affectations. I’ll just have to love my garden for what it is.
And just what it is I could never have guessed that winter long ago when we bought our house. I barely noticed that it had a garden. Even when the sellers took their leave from the closing with “Good luck identifying all that stuff in the garden!” I had no idea what personal transformation was in store. I’d never had a garden before. But each day that Spring brought new surprise as new plants sprouted, bloomed, and then ran wild. And so I became a reluctant gardener. 

And so I became a mother. I had no idea what was in store when I gave birth to each of my kids. I only reluctantly took to parenting these special little people. Those early days were filled with reading, research, support groups, therapy, and not a few tears. There was definitely more crying than rejoicing at first. Where were the happy-go-lucky baby days I thought I had every right to expect. Further into the journey, I wouldn’t trade Holland for Italy.  

There was a lot more going on in our garden than I first realized. Alongside the disappointment that it wouldn’t yield the edibles I wanted, came a growing realization that under its seeming haphazard wildness, there was a pattern and design more elegant and understatedly beautiful than I could have made myself. It turns out that a previous owner was a professional gardner at the Morton Arboretum. Although the garden hadn’t been cultivated in some years, evidence of underlying beauty and order were everywhere. 

I eventually made contact with this previous owner, who told me what plants where what, what to coddle, what to pull, and what her intentions had been in the original plantings. Her inspiration and love of the garden were contagious, but mostly she encouraged me to “just enjoy it.”

I found the same inspiration from fellow travelers in parenting, whether with special needs kids or without. People lovingly reminded me that my life wasn’t over and that my children were going to be okay. That I needed to just enjoy them.

Our parental hopes and dreams are ever in the shade of an uncertain future. But my leaf-shadowed plot of weediness and neediness speaks of a rough-hewn beauty like that of wooden shoes or windmills, of a curious grace that takes hold when we let go of what we expect and embrace what we’ve been so generously given.


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