Today is my birthday. I started it off by getting on an early flight back to Seattle after spending the last twelve days in National City, CA, where I grew up and where my mother began her dying on June 8. I arrived the next day when she was released from the hospital for home hospice care. I stayed in the house with my older sister. My two other sisters came by often from their homes several miles away. My brother drove down nearly every day from Orange County.
Over the next four and a half days, we fed her pudding when she wanted it, gave her juice and water first from a straw and later from a sippy cup, repositioned her in her bed every so often, and administered morphine as necessary. She was often talkative during the first few days – by turns nostalgic, scolding, and self-examining – but on the fourth evening, we knew she was nearing the end. All five of us were there to say goodbye. She lasted until the next afternoon. Three of us were at her side. We buried her yesterday next to our father.
During my week and a half stay, I often sat in the front yard, which had undergone multiple transformations over the years. When we first moved in, the house was new and the yard was bare. My father planted a lawn where we played catch and badminton. After my father died, my mother had the lawn dug up and replaced with a pattern of decorative rocks. She dotted the new landscape with containers of plants, a low-maintenance garden that needed no mowing. Soon a gazebo was added. Later, when the rocks threatened to topple my increasingly fragile mother as she watered her plants, the rocks were removed and the perimeter of the yard was bricked over. A polyhedron slab of cement was laid in the center and the gazebo reinstalled on top of it.
Over the years my mother had collected yard art, which she placed in every available space until ducks bumped up against squirrels, a puppy regarded the Virgin Mary, and gnomes intruded upon cherubs on a swing or one of the several St. Francis figures. Tropical birds hung from the gazebo, deer rested in the foliage, and a nearly life-size ceramic boy knelt with a frog in his hand. Not long ago, the boy was accidentally knocked to the ground by someone, breaking his arm in two pieces which still lie at his side. Maybe my mother found it too hard to part with the damaged boy, or maybe she didn’t have the energy to remove him. Or maybe his continued presence was an unconscious aesthetic choice.
As my mother was dying and in the days after, I often sat in the gazebo watching the life in the old neighborhood – the ice cream truck that played “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” in the middle of June, the animal control officer trying to wrangle two strays, the picnickers in the park across the street whose boom boxes blasted for blocks.
I sat there in the company of my mother’s garden statues, dusty and faded, chipped or broken, and her plants – the geraniums, hibiscus, and bougainvillea blooming with fierce disregard for the hot sun and recent mild neglect. I confess I had not been an admirer of her garden accessories, thinking them a bit tacky and rather graceless.
Then I started taking pictures and what I saw made my heart twinge for my mother and this garden that was her creation and sanctuary. While my pictures don’t come anywhere near the photographs of William Eggleston, I understand what Eudora Welty said about his images of apparently ordinary and banal things of everyday life:
The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree… They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!
Whatever my mother’s taste in yard art, it reflected her faith and compassion, her fondness for the whimsical, her reverence for the holy, her love of animals – all of these things and more, side by side, creating seemingly incongruous tableaux that upon closer inspection made all the sense in the world.
Today on my birthday, I traveled back to Seattle knowing that the next time I go to National City, my mother will not be there. But those garden statues she assembled like so many friends in her yard, now my sister’s yard, will still be there to welcome me.