Showing up

A friend is the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” — Grace Pulpit

The grieving process has so much to teach us, aside from revealing how resilient we can be.  When someone close to us dies, we learn a lot about ourselves, our family, and our friendships. Some people will surprise us — and a few relationships will be tested. We might mend a few proverbial fences in need of serious repair, or strengthen family ties that threatened to unravel from benign neglect. Or we might discover that we can’t always depend on someone we counted among our closest friends.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since Doug’s father died last Friday.

After my father-in-law’s memorial service — and after we waved good-bye to the last of the out-of-town visitors — I thought about my own beloved dad and uncle, whose deaths shook my very foundation several years ago. I recalled how the smallest show of support from dear friends and family kept me on my feet, and how something as simple as a heartfelt note or phone message helped soothe the long, hollow ache of loss.

Grand gestures helped too. When my father died in 1992, my longtime college roomie, Margaret, flew from Chicago to Detroit to attend the funeral. Another college buddy, Donna, drove by herself from Alabama to hold my hand. The sight of those two women walking into the funeral home still shines in my memory, and I still struggle to contain my tears of gratitude and love. An only child like me, Donna understood that close friends are just as essential as blood relatives during a crisis. Margaret, who was maid of honor in my wedding, said she was simply making good on an old promise to “always be there” for me. (Without pause, I flew to Pittsburgh five months later to attend her father’s funeral.)

Here for you

Knowing how to help a grieving friend isn’t always easy — and grand gestures aren’t always appropriate or necessary. But through their example, Donna and Margaret taught me how important it is to be there for someone whose heart has been blown apart; how crucial it is to attend funeral visitations — or at least acknowledge a grieving person’s loss.

And I’ve appreciated every single person who has been there for my husband over the past few difficult days.

Earlier this week, we got a phone call from Pam, a former neighbor and longtime friend. We didn’t expect to hear from her, since Pam had just returned from her own father’s funeral in Cincinnati. Still, she wanted to know what arrangements had been made for Doug’s father. “I know what you’re going through, Doug,” she said in her phone message. We certainly didn’t expect it, but Pam needed to tell us, in so many words, that she wanted to “show up” for us.

Shortly after hearing the sad news, our neighbor Matilda delivered a banquet of food to my mother-in-law’s home, knowing that Mom was hosting out-of-town family at her place. The whole family was touched.  That same day, our friends John and Deb left a plant and a fruit salad on the porch while we were out. But it was the attached note that really spoke to us: “We love you guys.”

And that’s what it boils down to, really. Showing up.

You can “show up” for grieving loved ones even if you live miles away. You can make a heartfelt phone call to express your sympathy. Or you can mail your love and support in a card or letter. Sending flowers might be a cliche, but flowers work too. Or, like my friend Shirley, you can bake a kick-ass batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies and leave them on your friend’s doorstep.

And don’t think twice about finding “the right thing to say.” There is no such thing. Say what you feel, say what you mean. Life is short and sometimes it hurts. It’s all about finding your own way to show up. — Cindy La Ferle

— Garden photo by Cindy La Ferle —

Father’s Day

Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes.”  ~Gloria Naylor

This short essay first appeared in the Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI) on Father’s Day, 1994, and is included in my story collection, Writing Home. If you’re lucky enough to have your dad around this Father’s Day, please give him a big hug from me. –CL

Dad’s last photograph

It’s my favorite photograph of Dad and me — one of those priceless family icons I’d rescue if the house caught fire. Taken on Father’s Day in 1992, it reveals the totally uncomplicated relationship we’d enjoyed right up to the moment the shutter clicked.

I use the word uncomplicated because I can’t think of a more lyrical way to describe my father or the way he lived. Even when pop psychologists urged us to scrutinize our parents and find them suspect, I saw my dad as a patient man whose agenda was rarely hidden. He was the kind of guy who appreciated most people just as they were, and I think that’s what we all loved best about him.

But let me explain the photograph.

Dad and I were standing on my back porch, having just finished the surprise Father’s Day dinner I’d hosted for him and my father-in-law.

Dad wore a pale blue windbreaker and an outdated pair of glasses that somehow looked right on him. My hair was orange, thanks to a failed experiment with a drugstore highlighting kit. The late afternoon sun shimmered through the maples in our yard, and my mother was anxious to finish the film left in her camera.

Dad and I hugged tightly for the shot.

He was sixty-five and grinning — despite the grim diagnosis of degenerative heart disease he’d been given a few months earlier. At thirty-seven, I was newly unemployed and unsure of my career path. The travel magazine I edited for nearly six years had folded abruptly, dropping me off at midlife without a new map. Still, summer had arrived and we were optimistic. Dad’s diabetes was under control, or as he put it, he’d been “feeling pretty darned good lately.”

Better yet, the ball games were in full swing. It wasn’t shaping up to be a stellar season for the Tigers, but Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker were giving it their best. (While I never shared my dad’s religious devotion to baseball, I still can’t hear the crack of a bat against a ball without remembering the old transistor radio he kept tuned to his games.)

But there’s something else about the photo. Looking at it today, you’d never imagine the two of us had a major-league concern beyond what we’d be eating for dessert that evening. Nor would you guess that this 35mm print chronicled one of our last days together.

The inevitable phone call came two weeks later on a Monday morning: “Your dad collapsed in the driveway. The ambulance is coming.”

So this week I’m very grateful for that luminous Father’s Day afternoon ten years ago — grateful I hadn’t waited another day to throw my dad a surprise party. I usually postpone my good intentions, adding them to a long list of things I plan to do later.  Later, when there’s more time…

“Today is the only time we can possibly live,” wrote Dale Carnegie, whose work my father read often and admired. I see now that Carnegie’s philosophy is gleefully captured in my father’s grin, which my mother wisely captured on film. — Cindy La Ferle

Zen garden

All my hurts my garden spade can heal.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Titled “The Art of Midlife Gardening,” this essay was originally published in Victoria magazine, March/April issue this year. With the editor’s permission, I’m sharing the piece with you while I’m off this week…

Last spring, members of our local Master Gardener Society invited me to speak at one of their meetings. I was honored, at first, but as soon as the date of the talk rolled around, I started getting nervous.

And with good reason.

Master Gardeners aren’t just fooling around with bulbs and blossoms. These folks earn a minimum of 40 hours of instruction in horticulture science. Meeting for at least 11 weeks, they take classes in caring for indoor and outdoor plants, establishing lawns, growing vegetables and fruit trees, designing gardens, and more. I bow to their expertise.

Barely getting my hands dirty, I’ve written a few magazine pieces and newspaper columns on my romance with plants and flowers. I’ve shared back-yard memories of sweet peas and apple trees and my grandfather’s ferns. But set me loose with a shovel, and I’m just an eager amateur who’s murdered rose bushes and planted azaleas in the wrong spot.

Regardless, the kindly president of our Master Gardener Society assured me that his group of green thumbs would be open to anything I had to say about writing and gardening. They would humor me — and even offer some tips on deadheading my tulips. Somewhat relieved as I prepared for the talk, it occurred to me that gardens have taught me many valuable lessons. At this stage of my life, especially, gardening is rich with metaphor.

Five years ago, when my husband and I turned 50, our only child left home for college. That same year, we also lost several stately maple trees to disease. The removal of those trees wreaked havoc on our back yard: The lawn was totally destroyed and the surrounding beds were trampled. Not a single root or shoot was left of the delicate woodland shade perennials – trillium, Solomon’s seal, or bleeding heart – that I’d collected over the years.

As every gardener knows, the natural world serves to remind us that change and upheaval are part of the master plan. Likewise, our bulldozed back yard reflected my emotional state as I adjusted to the changes in my menopausal body and my newly emptied nest. For a while there, I felt uprooted in my own household. Yet it also occurred to me that when a new space opens up – by choice or by accident – you have an opportunity to try something else; something you couldn’t do before.

A Japanese garden had been at the top of my wish list for several years, but until all those dead trees were removed, I’d never had the right spot for my dream garden. And so, with the help of a landscaping team, I created a path and some raised beds for my meditation garden, which now includes a small wooden bridge and a dry river of beach stones my husband and I collected from Lake Michigan. The garden has become an outdoor sanctuary, a peaceful escape from my writing deadlines and the clutter inside our home. It’s also living proof to me that middle age can be a signpost to a new life — not just the end of our greener years.

At the end of my talk, I reminded the Master Gardeners that I often struggle with acute writer’s block, or fallow time. I would guess that anyone who’s been doing the same work for so many years does too. Fallow time is the desert where ideas shrivel and evaporate, if they sprout at all. Fallow time is the waiting season, the creative slump, when blue moods hover like pending thunderstorms.  During fallow time, we can turn to the garden for another lesson.

Michigan winters are incredibly long and dull. For those of us who battle the blues, it’s easy to believe that spring might forget us on its way north. But just when things can’t get any gloomier, usually in early April, along comes a balmy 60-degree day — a day drenched in the scent of moist earth, tulip bulbs, and new grass waking up. Suddenly, a glimmer of hope breaks through, melting all those months of doubt and dejection. The frozen river thaws. Possibility stirs.  And that when I know it’s time to grab my tools, dig in, and begin again. — Cindy La Ferle

–Reprinted with permission from Victoria magazine. All garden photos copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on each photo for a larger view. —