My husband Paul and I took a body blow at the end of one September. We’d had a baby boy in adoptive placement in our home for two months, thinking he would be ours forever, and then one day we knew he wouldn’t. We surrendered him back to the arms of the young woman who had borne him on a Saturday night, along with the hopes and dreams of what our lives would be like, the three of us together. It was my worst day.
The next weeks and months were bleak and shot through with pain, and the suffering was not contained to our household. Our extended family grieved. So did our friends. People at our church hurt for us, along with the people in the church where both of us had grown up, even though we no longer attended there. It’s awkward, the suffering you feel for someone else. You can’t take on the pain yourself, even if you would, and it’s hard to know what to do. Casseroles are good, but if the freezer is full, what else is there?
My brother called from Toronto. It was up to us, he said, but a change in location might do us some good. Just to stare at different walls, and to sit in different chairs that held no memories. We were welcome to come for a weekend, or as long as we liked. I talked it over with Paul. I wasn’t sure. I’m not a great traveler at my best, and I was so far from my best I couldn’t even remember what that looked like. Paul thought we should go. Everyone in that house knew what was happening. We wouldn’t have to explain anything. We wouldn’t have to pretend, and he’d do all the driving. I agreed, mostly because I was too weary to argue. It was mid-October, and the next weekend worked for everyone, so I packed some bags.
The day before we left, Wendy called. She was first my friend in high school band, and then she’d married my cousin Marty. After Paul and I got engaged, she and Marty invited us to their church, and it had become our church too. Wendy could call me when other people were afraid to. Jana from that congregation had been in touch and asked what her family could do for us. “What do you need?” Wendy said. “I know you don’t really need food, but is there something else they could do?”
I was sitting at the low counter in the farmhouse kitchen staring at the window opposite, over the double stainless sink. The window was filthy, and the dishes in the sink were stacked like a Jenga game. The next time someone walked by the whole thing was probably going to topple, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything. “I don’t know,” I said, and what I meant was who gives a crap.
“Well,” Wendy said, regrouping. “Let me think what they do. I think their kids are really into sports, but that doesn’t help.” She paused again. I was quiet, wondering how soon I could decently hang up and go lie down again to cry.
“Oh!” Wendy said. “Jana likes to do outdoor stuff, and her mom is a big gardener. How’s your yard doing?”
My yard was terrible. In a good year, we manage to keep the lawn mowed most of the time and not kill off the perennials that someone else had planted. It wasn’t a good year. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Could they at least mow for you?” Wendy persisted. “When you go away this weekend?” The dense cloud of depression in my head shifted a little and I recognized that having someone else mow the lawn meant that Paul wouldn’t have to. I certainly wasn’t going to.
“Yeah,” I said. “Actually that would be good, if they mowed the lawn.”
“Great!” Wendy was delighted. “I’ll let them know.” She disconnected before I could change my mind. I told Paul about it when he got home that day and didn’t think about it again.
We went to Toronto. We stared at different walls for a few days. We talked to our delightful niece. I tried to be subtle about not holding our eighteen-month-old nephew much. He wasn’t a newborn, but still. We stayed with my brother and our sister-in-law, and we had dinner with their relatives that lived close by. Everyone was kind, and no one made us talk about anything. They pretended it was normal to come around a blind corner in the house and find a woman crying on the piano bench. They patted my shoulder and walked away. Sometimes they came back with hot tea.
As we looped homeward around the east end of Lake Erie, I felt dread creeping back. Time away from our house was not a cure. But it had been a respite. I wasn’t ready for it to be over. My shoulders tightened up in increments as we crossed the border to New York, then Pennsylvania, and finally back into Ohio. I let out a massive sigh, and Paul reached over to take my hand. It didn’t matter if I was ready. The days marched on, work was calling, and the neighbors couldn’t take care of the dog forever. At the end of the journey, we stopped at the road to get the mail we’d missed. I put the envelopes and flyers in my lap and turned my eyes down as Paul eased off the brake and drove back the lane.
When we turned and pulled toward the garage, though, I noticed that things looked … different. It took me a beat to remember that someone had been coming by to mow the lawn. They’d mowed the lawn, for sure, but they’d done more than that. The whole yard was cleaned up; the twigs that had blown out of the old maples in a windstorm had been picked up, and the hostas and shrubs up by the house were somehow less wild. The tiny front porch had been carefully swept. At the edge, by the railing, there were a few pumpkins and a pot of mums.
I cried. Again. I couldn’t help it. I knew they were going to mow the grass, and the yard cleanup was an extension of that, really. I was grateful for both, even through the fog of my depression and grief. But the pumpkins and the mums weren’t about lifting the burden of chores. Pumpkins on the porch were about tender care, and belief in the power of beauty. If the yard could go from a scruffy mess to a pretty place in just a couple of days like that, maybe there was hope for the house, if I washed some of the dishes. Maybe there was even hope for me.
I was not healed that day, as if by magic. I was still a wreck, and it was still a long road back to being mostly okay. But I was open, a little, to the possibility that things might not always be so bad. I could see the ways that people around me were reaching out, even if I wasn’t able to reach back. And so we pulled into the garage and I got out of the car. I was ready to be home. I was ready to take a small step forward, made humble and made hopeful by the unexpected grace of pumpkins.