My friend Leila has been fighting stage four cancer for several years now. Thanks to her extraordinary response to experimental drugs, she has battled the tiny tumors that remained after surgery to a virtual standstill.
After she recovered from her initial surgery, I persuaded her that she needed gardens on the sunny flatter side of her new house perched on the top of a rocky North Carolina Piedmont ridge dominated by a canopy of white oaks and a ground cover of wild grape vines. Leila had never gardened. She was always too busy traveling to remote corners of the planet, first working for the Peace Corps, then the World Bank. Her speciality was helping disenfranchised groups (often women) start small businesses that would generate income used to support families.
I thought the gardens would be an excellent form of horticultural therapy for Leila, providing her with beautiful flowers that would draw wildlife to her door and light work that would get her moving in fresh air as she planted, weeded, and watered. Leila loved the idea, and over the years, the two beds created with help from strong friends and occasional hired helpers have become filled with a diverse array of spring bulbs, native wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs both native and non-native — all chosen by Leila for the emotional response they created in her. Some were old friends from childhood, and many were chosen for her aesthetic response to them. Probably because of the location of the beds on a hilltop in the middle of a forest, during the growing season her gardens are alive with fluttering butterflies, stalking praying mantises, and busy native bees and wasps. In short, the gardens have worked exactly as I had hoped they would for Leila — until this summer, when Leila’s health declined.
It seems to me that fighting cancer can become a frustrating game of whack-a-mole, wherein the steps taken to quell the cancer create new challenges that can become as debilitating as the original disease. About two months ago, Leila developed headaches that have become increasingly severe. One eye no longer tracks correctly, which creates such severe double vision and vertigo that she has trouble walking. She hopes to have some definitive answers — and treatments — for these new issues very soon, but for the last several months, her normal activities have been significantly curtailed. Her gardens were understandably neglected.
Leila has not been up to socializing, but a few weeks ago I came to her house to drive her to a doctor’s appointment. It was then that I saw her overgrown gardens. The person Leila had hired to help her maintain the beds had quit on her unexpectedly earlier in the season, and Leila had not felt up to finding someone else. She expressed her dismay at the state of her once-beautiful gardens.
The beds are too large and were too overgrown for me to tackle by myself. I am woefully behind on tending my own gardens these days, and abundant rains have amplified the weeds a thousand-fold. That’s when an angel whispered in my ear, “What about Leila’s neighbors?”
Leila had told me about the neighborhood community in which she lives. They all know each other, and even have community seasonal celebrations from time to time. And as it happens, I know one of Leila’s neighbors fairly well, because she only recently retired from working at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. I took a chance and wrote to her about Leila’s illness and neglected gardens. That was all it took. She and her husband sent out a note to the neighborhood and nearly instantly, volunteers for a workday materialized.
We settled on yesterday. The weather was phenomenal, with skies hinting of fall — with low humidity and lower-than-normal morning temperatures. There were so many volunteers yesterday that I didn’t get a final head count. I think it was somewhere between 12 and 15. Some neighbors even brought their children, who pulled weeds as enthusiastically as their parents. It was, frankly, amazing. In addition to all of Leila’s neighbors, whose names I didn’t always catch (sorry), three of my Facebook friends appeared to help. Leslie and Beth are both serious gardeners and were thus able to help folks discern weed from desired plant. And the third Facebook pal, Sally, also recently retired from the North Carolina Botanical Garden, where she was known far and wide for her expertise in identifying weed and native plants. I was thrilled to have her there to guide Leila’s neighbors as we all worked to restore order to Leila’s beds.
It was Sally who immediately noticed a pernicious annual weed recently introduced through the nursery trade that is so aggressive it must be collected and thrown away in trash bags when found. If you simply add Hairy Crabweed to a compost pile, it will go to seed and spread everywhere. Volunteers filled a half dozen trash bags with the weed, so we hope we have at least slowed down its reappearance in Leila’s gardens.
One neighbor arrived early with his mower and weed-eater. He quickly cut back the grass growing in Leila’s driveway and along the rocks bordering the garden beds, making it much easier to access the beds and less likely that the driveway grass will invade the beds. At Leila’s request, we cut back overgrown shrubs and pruned back spent wildflowers. When all the weeds were pulled and plants pruned, it was easy to maneuver between plants to spread the fresh mulch that had been delivered the day before. Many hands made for light work. I don’t think anyone was more than pleasantly tired at the end of the two-and-a-half hours it took to complete our tasks.
While all that work was going on, Leila’s neighbor, Stephanie, and her husband (whose name I have forgotten — sorry), worked on rearranging the planters on Leila’s deck so they could set up the new grow bag Leila had acquired. Due to heavy deer predation, Leila gave up this year on growing summer vegetables in her garden beds and instead grew them in a large grow bag on her deck. The plants are thriving, so she decided she wanted to try some fall veggies in a new grow bag. Stephanie and her husband set up the grow bag and added the three kinds of soil amendments Leila uses. The filled bag is ready for planting when Leila feels up to it and the weather has cooled a bit more.
When the volunteers had finished their work, we were left with the remaining mulch piled in the middle of Leila’s driveway, where the delivery person had dumped it. Leila’s neighbors grabbed their shovels and wheelbarrows and relocated every speck of leftover mulch to an out-of-the-way spot nearby.
Leila’s neighbors arrived at 9:00 a.m. yesterday morning. By 11:30, they were strolling back down Leila’s driveway, pushing the wheelbarrows and carrying the tools they had used to transform Leila’s gardens. Quiet descended on the top of the hill so quickly that it all felt a bit like a dream to me. I was glad I had taken photos to prove it was not a dream.
Lately, the news has upset me so much that I only listen to the local TV newscasts long enough to hear the weather. Then I turn it off. To keep up with larger events, I scan newspaper reports online. Somehow, reading horrifying news is easier than hearing about it, probably because it is easier to skim it briefly. Frankly, the news has shaken my faith in humanity — so much perversion of truth for selfish ends, so much inhumane treatment of fellow humans. But yesterday, my faith was restored.
I think most folks are basically good souls who long to make better worlds for themselves and their children. That instinct can become dulled by TV and internet broadcasts designed to manipulate minds and separate us, denying the power of community. Yesterday, I was privileged to witness that power firsthand.
Thank you to Nancy and Chuck, Alan and Julie, Stephanie and spouse, Jennie, Raj, and all the other neighbors who came out yesterday to help Leila. Special thanks to my Facebook pals, Leslie, Beth, and Sally, who also generously gave their time to this effort. And a big shout-out to Cosi, Leila’s dearest friend, who provided volunteers with cool water, lemonade, and an array of fruits and other snacks.
I know Leila has been deeply touched by your act of love, as I have been. May this love spread to communities everywhere.