In My Grandmother's Garden
by Anna Maria Korathu

My grandmother's garden was not manicured or fussy.
As a little girl I thought it was a magical dance of colors:
purple iris joined daffodils, pink and white carnations nodded to daylilies, red geraniums hugged orange and yellow nasturtiums. And the warm summer sun on lavender, lemon verbena, sage and freesia made it a feast of aromas too.

        One day, while weeding, I asked my grandmother where God lived. She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye. "Close your eyes. Sit very still, and you will hear God." After a while, I opened my eyes, feeling sad. "God didn't come." "Did you feel the breeze on your cheek?" Grandmother asked. I nodded. "How lucky you are! God has just kissed you!" And I knew I had been kissed by God in Grandmother's garden.

        Often Grandmother and I walked around her neighborhood to see how other gardens - and the friends who worked them - were doing. One day, as we strolled down the sidewalk, I spotted her favorite flowers: gladiolas. I hurried towards them, but stopped short because the Grouchy Man was there, weeding and frowning. I moved closer to Grandmother and held her skirt. As my grandmother approached, the Grouchy Man smiled, greeting her in Spanish. Then I noticed a mark on his arm. Interrupting the conversation, I pointed to his arm. "What's that?" He looked at his arm and then back at me. Without any expression, he said, "That's who I am." I moved in for a closer look and asked, "Did it hurt?" Still without expression he said "Yes, very much." I did what came naturally to a child: I walked up to the Grouchy Man and kissed the hurt place. When I looked up again, the Grouchy Man was crying. I was very upset, thinking I had hurt him. But Grandmother took my hand, and as we walked home, she explained that the mark on the Grouchy Man's arm was a tattoo; the numbers were like his name. She told me that I had done something very nice. I was helping the hurt get better. I was too little to understand, but I trusted her.

        For eight years I saw the garden's cycle. Then when I was twelve and Grandmother was planning her garden as usual, she talked to me about the necessity of things sleeping. While we cleared away the last remnants of wilted flower stalks, she explained that every flower had its own inner clock of when to bloom and when to fade. Some flowers, she said, bloomed only briefly and then were gone. Before dying they dropped seeds to grow and bloom in spring. They left a part of themselves as a gift to the garden. This promise pleased me, and I did not think about it any more.

        As we continued to work in the garden, Grandmother had good days and tired days. After we'd cleaned up, we would have tea under the cherry tree, and she would rest and ask me to sing to her. She was getting old and tired easily, she told me, adding how helpful it was for me to carry the tea tray out for her. I asked her if she was taking her vitamins so she would not be so tired. She smiled and told me that she had gotten some medicine from the doctor, but that we would have to wait and see how things went.

        After a while, she could no longer work in the garden, but I would weed and she would supervise me. I began to notice that my aunts and father were whispering about "grown-up stuff" that had to do with Grandmother. I was not sure what the whispering was about, but I began to worry. During one of our afternoon teas, I asked Grandmother about all the whispering. She became very quiet and asked me to pull my chair next to hers so we could talk. She told me she was beginning to feel very tired and that she was taking her medicine, but it was not making her better. I told her I would pray, and that she would be better in no time. She smiled and said, "It's good to pray, but what if God doesn't make me better?" I could not imagine God failing to make her better, and said so firmly. She smiled, but for the first time I noticed that her eyes did not smile; instead, they held tears that did not fall.

        So I asked, "What will happen if you don't get better?" Grandmother pulled me very close and said, "I'll go to sleep like the flowers in our garden." I began to cry, and asked her not to leave me, because I could not do without her. That night I slept in bed with her, and in my prayers I asked God to make her well. Grandmother listened to my prayers and held me very close as I cried and finally fell asleep.

        Every prayer I said that summer was for her, but she got weaker and weaker. When fall came, Grandmother had to stay in bed all the time. Her bed was moved downstairs, and the family had to take care of her. I was told not to talk too much because it would make Grandmother tired. I really tried, but I couldn't keep completely quiet. I was too afraid of Grandmother "falling asleep."

        One day she asked me to pick a bouquet of flowers for her bedside table. It had been a while since I had been in the garden; the weather was colder and the flowers were fading. But somehow I managed to gather what flowers were left: white and gold mums, one gladiola and an orange Chinese Lantern. When I brought in the flowers, she asked about our garden. I told her it was time for the flowers to go to sleep for the winter. She said gently, "It's time for me to do the same."

        I felt numb and helpless, and told her that she could not go to sleep because I was still praying, and God would make her well. She asked me to come lie next to her so we could talk. As I started to get into the bed, my aunt came in and told me to go play because I was tiring my grandmother. Grandmother raised her voice and said, "Anna Maria will stay right here. We have to talk." As I looked at her, I noticed how thin she was, and remembered how slowly she moved, and how she had to be carried from room to room. Why had I not seen this before? Why was God not listening to me and making my grandmother better?

        Then she said, "You know when people sleep like flowers it means they die." It was the first time we had said the word "die," and I sat up carefully and told her in a quiet voice that she could not die because I loved her and I would need her forever. For the first time she told me that she was not only very tired, but that she was also in pain, and that her pain was beginning to stay with her all the time, and it was very hard on her. I did not want her to be in pain, but I could not bear the thought of her dying. That night she told me she would stay alive with me as long as she could, but that I would have to tell her when she could go to sleep - when she could die. And she made me a promise, "I'll never leave you. Whenever you need me, I'll be there for you."

        I could not understand what she meant, but she held me and we finally slept. Later that night her little moaning sounds broke my sleep, and I ran frightened to find my aunt who gave her medicine. In the morning I was wakened by Grandmother stroking my hair. When she asked how I was, I said I was fine, which was true because she was awake. She said we had a special job that morning; we would tie lavender in sprays and decorate them with lavender- colored ribbon for Christmas gifts. I remember thinking it was a little early for Christmas, but it did not matter: we were doing something together. It was such a good day I wondered if God was starting to make her better.

        But a few days later, Grandmother had a very bad night, and the doctor was called. For the first time when I prayed, I asked God to make her not hurt anymore. And during that night, I made an important decision: I wanted Grandmother to be able to sleep and be with God. When she woke up that morning, she was very tired but free of pain. As I sat with her, I must have been very quiet, because she asked me what I was thinking. I told her how much I loved her and that I told God I wanted her to be where she would have no more pain and would not be tired. I wanted God to take good care of her. "Thank you, my angel," she said.

        I asked if she was afraid, and whether she would be lonely in heaven. She told me that she would miss me and everyone here very much, but in heaven her mother and father and her sister were waiting for her and she would be just fine. I was sad, but we enjoyed every minute together, and I sang and told her what was happening outside in the garden.

        One morning the telephone rang before I got over to grandmother's house, and my aunt told my father that grandmother had just died. As my father told my mother, they both cried. I went and looked out the window at the frost on the ground and cried too and thought about Grandmother being with her family, and being healthy again.

        There have been a few times as an adult when I have come to a crossroads in my life, when even after praying I felt I had nowhere to turn. Once, sitting alone in the dining room in tears, I had bowed my head to the table, inconsolable. I thought of my grandmother, and out loud I said, "Grandmother, I need you!" Suddenly, all I could smell was lavender. It was thirty degrees outside and nothing was growing in the November garden. There was no lavender to be seen, yet its fragrance was everywhere--in the dining room, in the living room, in the kitchen. At that moment, I sensed that everything would be all right, and that Grandmother was looking after me, just as she had promised. Some hours later when my daughters came home from school, they commented that the flower spray was too strong. I told them I hadn't sprayed anything, it must be something in the air. The smell of lavender stayed in the house until morning, and then was gone.

Anna Maria Korathu is a social worker in Seattle, Washington, preparing for ordination in the Diocese of Olympia. She became a Friend of St. Gregory's while she was a student of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. Anna Maria is a lifelong gardener and a gourmet cook who once ran her own catering company. She and her husband George (from Kerala, India), have two daughters, Prithy and Neethy, and two grandchildren.


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