And All the Seeds We’ve Sown
By Leah Nielsen
Leah Nielsen holds an MFA from the University of Alabama. Her first collection of poetry, No Magic, was published by Word Press, a division of WordTech Communications. Most recently, her poems have appeared in Fourteen Hills, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, and Rattle. She teaches at Westfield State University, in Westfield, MA, and lives there with her husband and two wild and crazy dogs.
My sister Diane says: No crying. She says: You can do this. She is not cheering me on. She is letting me know how she needs this to go down.
Mama, she says, look who’s here. Diane has told me everything to expect—my mother’s stiff left side, her sagging face, her ability to read and tell time, the fact that there’s no hole they can find in her memory. Mom remembers how she met our father, remembers she hated her own mother, remembers that two days ago she talked to her high school best friend for the first time in decades. Mama, Diane says, do you want your hearing aids? Do you want your dentures? My mother wants a tropical smoothie. My mother cannot eat anything. My mother is scuttled off for tests.
My mother is not my mother. My mother isn’t standing at the back door, staring at the yard where our father isn’t anymore, ignoring the fact that we are hungry, need lunches packed, our hair braided. My mother isn’t commenting on my weight. My mother isn’t baking sweet rolls or cherry pie to prove she loves me. My mother isn’t hiding half-eaten packages of mini-marshmallows in the sofa pillows. My mother isn’t five years behind on her taxes, isn’t going to the food bank when she can afford the grocery store, isn’t cramming her house with thrift store vases and silverware, antique serving platters, sewing patterns, piles of fabric for projects she’ll never complete.
I have been waiting 40 years to write this. I have had 15 years of treatment. I have kept a minimum of 500 miles between us all my adult life.
Three months later, she died: in a nursing home, during lockdown. We doubled the size of our garden. We ordered raised bed frame kits from some guy on Craigslist. A soil and compost blend came in by the truckload. I wanted so much for the driver to be dressed in a superhero cape. But he was just a farm guy in work clothes and a baseball cap, driving his dump truck.
We built the beds, lined them with the delivery cardboard accumulating in the garage. Put in 34 tomato plants for the two of us.
The day after my mother’s stroke, I ask my NP if I can fly down.
I’d prefer you didn’t, she says. Can your back handle the car ride?
Can I have some Vicodin in case?
And you mask everywhere. Every rest area. At the hotel. And especially at the hospital.
Leah, she says, you know, don’t you, that it’s likely she will die?
Sela, if there’s any force of good left in this world, she’ll be dead before we get there.
I come into the room saying Hi, Mama, in a voice I hope isn’t so perky it gives away my terror. My mother says, Hi. Where’s Tim? And Tim is behind me, right with us, and she smiles a half-smile with her dentureless mouth. And my husband leans down to hug her.
From the first time she met him, she liked him better than she liked me. I had always known this, but now I knew. I was okay, but it was him she wanted.
To be fair, my sister notes later, he is the most decent human being she’s ever met. He’s the kind of man who carried our 16-year-old Labrador up the stairs to sleep with us nightly, the kind of man who once spent his vacation painting the interior of my mother’s house two godawful shades of orange without ever complaining. I’m the kind of person who tries hard to be like him, who painted side by side with him, but who swore through gritted teeth the entire time.
Tim asks Mom how she’s doing. I finally got to ride in a helicopter, she says. I’m thirsty. They won’t give me anything to drink.
I ordered a pressure canner, scoured town and the internet for jars and lids and rings, purchased the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, joined a Facebook group for advice. Should the shit go down again over winter, we were going to be prepared. The canning jars arrived, several broken. We salvaged what we could, hosed off the shards, waited for the garden to come in.
I have not cried yet. Not on the 500-mile drive down, when I placed a dozen calls to friends to let them know. Not in the hotel the night before. Not when we picked up Diane and her husband, Paul. Not on the drive from their place to the hospital, an hour in southeastern Virginia traffic. Not when I first see her. Not when I pull the chair up to her good side and hold her hand. She says, Your hands are always so soft and warm. Just like your father’s. Not when I put Jergens on her hands, the good one and the one she doesn’t know she has.
I packed funeral clothes in case, but forgot earrings, and I feel naked. I take the elevator down to a maze of hallways and weave my way to the gift shop, where I buy two-inch silver hoops, some peanut M&M’s, a pack of Skittles, and a journal in case the words come pouring out. Across the front it says: Be Present. What the fuck ever. I grab a pen at the counter, pay, and stuff it all into my purse.
Diane shed her training wheels a week after she got her first bike, a cantaloupe-colored number with a banana seat, when she was three years old. She always had the balance and agility of a cat. Our feral childhood meant we were free to roam as long as Mom or Dad knew who we were with.
When she was four and I was six, we followed the neighbor boys up to our primary school to zoom about the empty parking lot. When they got bored, they turned a bike rack on end, secured it to the canopy with their belts, and used it as a ladder to the school roof. Diane scuttled up after them. I stood frozen on the ground.
I sped home to inform Mom: DIANE IS ON THE ROOF OF THE SCHOOL WITH ROBBIE AND ALAN. Leah, my mother said, don’t be a tattletale.
In the hospital cafeteria, we get falafel plates and salad and diet soda and Twix. I swab the table and chairs down with hand sanitizer. I try to figure out how to remove my mask without needing to throw it away. What do nurses do?
We sit down and the tears come. Big and many and utterly uncontrollable, and with Chris De Burgh’s “The Lady in Red” as my piped-in soundtrack. Passing me a napkin, Diane says, Mascara. I come to think of her as the Joan Jett of nurses. This is in part because of her rocking bod.
I have a picture of her in her nursing whites the day she graduated from nursing school. Standing up against a pale yellow brick wall, she looks like she’s from central casting for some horror film. But it’s also her general badassery. She once tossed a neighbor boy’s bike into the ditch with him on it because he said something to piss her off. I would have gone home crying if he’d said something hurtful to me.
She’s got Mom’s POA, Mom’s decisions to make and affairs to set in order. She’s got two adolescent boys who love their MeMaw and she’s got to figure out how to prepare them for seeing her. She’s got a list of shit to do and she needs me to not cry so she won’t cry.
We planted carrots on schedule, no more than thirty seeds per square foot, in soil we’d turned and composted. Nothing happened. Every Sunday I wrote Mom a card. Every Sunday I noted the carrots had not germinated. We were still waiting. We were watering. We were wondering where we’d gone wrong.
The doctor is Jason Bateman cute. Fit in the way thirty-something doctors are. An ease with patients and their families that makes it seem like he’s excelled at everything he’s tried. He tows a group of four med students. He asks my mom what day it is. Friday, she says. March 6th. He asks who the president is. We don’t like the president, she says. The students try to suppress their giggles. True, but you need to tell him the president’s name, Mama. Trump, she harrumphs. Good, Mama. Good.
The first day at the hospital, we stay eight hours. I go to the gift shop five times. Mom needs a balloon, daisies. Diane and I need a nougat roll.
When I’m alone with my mom, I ask again to hold her hand. My feet are cold, she says. I start reciting what’s in my weary brain: My hat is old. My teeth are gold. She chimes in: I have a bird I like to hold. She can still recite every line of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, a book I forced her to read to me daily until I could read it myself.
There’s a faux leather lounger on the other side of her. I know she won’t sleep if I’m there. And she needs sleep if she’s going to recover. It’s the job of the heart to think recovery, while the brain knows how close the end is.
I imagine a night with the whir and tick of the machines, her snoring, the nurses popping in and out to check vitals, and me just sitting with her, dozing from time to time. Sometimes it’s best to go, even when your heart says otherwise.
When I can no longer bear to be with my mother, I walk down the hall. A wall of windows overlooks the courtyard, Fort Norfolk, part of the Elizabeth River. Bradford pears, blooms gone and now the gold-green Frost wrote about, line the walkway from the parking garage to the hospital entrance. The med students stride in small groups across the courtyard from their school to the hospital. Their lab coats billow out like misplaced wings. A crane waves its arm slowly over a building. Cars weave their way around the complex in search of closer parking. There must be clanking. There must be machines churning. There must be horn honks and hellos from passersby. It’s a busy, busy world.
Come April, I gathered the seed packets from the past few years. They were tucked in a bag in the basement, in the vanity and the sideboard, in a little box in the shed. I made a filing cabinet out of the box, note cards for dividers. I tossed out all seeds older than two years.
Already people down south had done their spring planting. Already there was a seed shortage. I asked Tim if we could buy a grow light stand. And seed starter trays and soil and grow mats, power strips with timers, a watering can, I said, not even mentioning the actual seeds. Also can we order a special raised bed for herbs?
I was all hands on deck, all in, all we will find beauty in this shitshow, so help me God. He could not say no.
We drive back from the hospital with minimal chatting. I need to say what I’ve been afraid to say because I do not want to fight with Diane. We spent our childhood at each other’s throats and found friendship in our twenties, and now, well into middle age, I have realized this bond is what passes for sacred in my life.
I know Mom’s will says to throw her ashes out at Diamond Shoals, but I want to bury her at the church with Daddy, I say.
Me too, Diane says.
It’s always the same with hospitals, nurses flitting in and out, relentless ringing phones left unanswered while patients are tended to, the fluorescent glare off the white walls, off the sheen of her bedside cart, off even the dull, scarred gray floor tiles. In some other context, you might call that light heavenly. But here we are.
I ordered a gardening journal, as if any of the dozen notebooks laying around the house wouldn’t have sufficed. I diagrammed all fourteen raised beds and the large flat plot. I noted the dates, how much seed we’d sown, how far apart the rows, whether we’d used super loam or our own compost, what fertilizers we’d added, how many days until germination, how many to harvest. I used colored pencils and attempted to draw the plants. Of course, I gave up journaling long, long before we harvested one damn tomato.
Several doctors haul their students in. She needs to pass a swallow test, one doctor says. She leans her tiny frame over my mother’s bed, her stethoscope dangling from her neck. She looks at my mom. You have to swallow.
My mother swallows, though she swallows nothing. The doctor asks, If you don’t pass the test, would you want a stomach port?
No, my mother says. And she swallows. And the doctor asks again. And again. And my mother says, No, more and more insistently. She shakes her head like a toddler, furious no adult is listening. No.
Two weeks after Mom’s death, I called Diane, who was cleaning out Mom’s house.
I can come down. I’m not doing any…. No, she said. If you’re worried, I won’t drive through the cities. No. Look, I can mask, and I’ll only stop for…. No. I won’t go inside anywhere. I’ll pack snacks. I’ll pee along the roadside. No. I’ll drive at night so there’ll be fewer people. No. I can stay at Mom’s, quarantine for a couple of weeks before…. No. You can’t come down.
I heard No like No, we are not buying that plastic made-in-China spinning top that will break in a week. No, we are not paying good money for the brand name Cheerios when generic will do. No, you do not need blue suede Nike’s. I’m not paying $40 for a pair of sneakers. No, you cannot swim in the mud puddle, you might drown. Do you hear me, you might drown. You could die. And don’t you dare disobey me. And through gritted teeth, Go pick your switch, young lady.
But she meant No, I can handle it. And please stay there. Don’t risk your life to clear out her knickknacks. Please, I am afraid you’ll die, too. Please. Stay there.
When the garden came in, we made our first tomato sauce, following the exact instructions in the book. Tim read the instructions and took us through the process step by step until the canner sang the song of my childhood—the sputtering valve release announcing the rattle and hiss of the metal regulator. It rocked gently like a train that carried me to my mother’s kitchen, avocado refrigerator, goldenrod cupboards, a round oak table they found in a bar in Wisconsin and hauled home disassembled in our ’64 Chrysler.
Two days after my mother’s death, I took the compost out to the bin well after dark. In the lower part of the backyard, framed with woods, fireflies sparked their fairy lights, gentle and spectacular. I found a stack of 2 x 12’s from the still-unassembled garden bed frames. And sat. I’d been notifying friends and relatives, cleaning out the garage, planting tomatoes, scrubbing the bathroom that didn’t need cleaning, anything to stay in motion, but now, this force, this beauty, this message from my mother or God, was calling me to stillness. And I wept. Full-body heaving. I stayed for a half an hour. I wish the end had been easier, I said. You deserved better. I am so sorry you had to die alone.
When I returned to the house, Tim said, Oh, no. Are you okay? What’s wrong?
I am going to need you to stop asking stupid questions, I said.
From Massachusetts, I call Mom every couple of weeks. To get in touch with her, I have to call the nurses’ station. If someone is there, they can go down the hall to her room and answer her phone when I call it. If someone is not there, I call again later. If someone is not there then, I wait a week.
On the phone Mom says she’s walking to the bathroom on her own, can’t I get cable TV in her room, when will I come visit. I’ll be there as soon as I can, as soon as the pandemic is over. The pandemic is still happening? Yes, Mama, the pandemic is still happening.