Death-defying Acts

Last week in a light drizzle, but in a climate enough temperature, I planted 50 “Gladiator” allium bulbs. In early spring, they will greet passers-by on Hawthorne Lane with their great pink/purple mopheads. Everything in that west side bed grows and blooms late, so this will be a lovely nod to life-coming-back again.

The bulb planting began in October. Jeremy, our son, was always kind about walking me around my own garden, “Let’s go see what’s blooming today, Mom,” he would say. And we would take the garden walk together.

I kept thinking as I bought bulbs, If Jeremy lives, these will gladden him come spring . . . if Jeremy has to undergo a long rehabilitation, these radiant colors rising out of a just-thawed earth will satisfy his eye.

So on the day our friend, Cirilo Leon (who lives with us during the growing season and returns to Oaxaca, Mexico every October) flew home, he found time to plant the 200 mixed bulbs. “I planted bulbs,” he reported as David drove him to O’Hare.

Wheaton College students from our small group buried another 100 yellow jonquil bulbs in the street- side patch of woods in front of the house. I planted 50 orange red tulips by the brick path that leads to the front door. Another 100 bulbs, purple black and wine, were dug into a driveway garden.

After Jeremy died, I kept planting; the 50 alliums in still-soft soil, all surrounded by gray drizzle, then yesterday in the watery fall sunshine and almost warm 47 degree temperature white tulips with green veins and green cups in the back garden where my eye will see them when I look out on the yard from David’s study window.

Planting tulips is my death-defying act. There are others which I am planning when my strength returns.

Mourning is such an appropriate word. I’ve been through death of loved ones before. We’ve experienced loss and betrayal. Never have I had such a visceral reaction to grief. People have said that losing a child, burying an offspring before your own death, is the most terrible grief that can be experienced. In my experience it seems to be so; I do not know where this will go nor how long it will endure.

But I am planting bulbs. I wake each morning with a headache (and I can count the headaches I’ve had in a lifetime on two hands). I don’t have the mental energy to talk much with anyone—there is a pain and grief fog behind my eyes in the center of my brain. For the last two weeks, since the funeral, I’ve been good for about 2-3 hours of activity each day, then I weaken, aching and wobbly. I have slept 8-9 hours every night, and I still wake up tired. I was so often woozy and wobbly that I checked my temperature (normal) and blood pressure (a little high but then, I didn’t really take it following the manufacturer’s cautions).

When I compare, however, how I feel with the rest of my family members, we’re all pretty much in the same boat. “I got the sheets changed on the bed—I think they were last changed sometime in October—and the bed is made.” Now that is progress. Yesterday I kept going to about 3 P.M. then collapsed. So I think I am coming out of the debilitating freshest grief. Every morning I’ve waken with what has felt like a 50-lb curling stone on my chest. I know that the toxicity of stress, the yo-yo effect of months of hopes raised and hopes dashed, the horror of watching a child die and the adrenalin fight and flight effect are all draining out of the cells of my being. I can’t remember what I was doing or what I was or why I have opened this book or why I have climbed these stairs three times.

My sister-in-law, Mary Burton, who lost a child tells me that it gets worse. I appreciate her honesty and the fact that she understands. Yet the worst thing of all, the very worst, is this ridiculous incongruity: I can’t talk with Jeremy about his own death and dying. If only I could talk with Jer . . .
So I am planting bulbs.

At last count, we have planted 550 bulbs, and if we live through all this being broken in the center of ourselves, it will be a beautiful spring. Spring always comes, doesn’t it?—always.

Last night I drove for the first time in the rain and the dark past Jeremy’s grave. I’m not much of a grave-visitor. I truly believe my son is no longer in that destroyed shell. I would much, much rather remember him alive and vital and funny and outrageous. But the grave looked so raw, so alone, so desolate that I came home planning more death-defying acts.

Spring always comes, doesn’t it?—always.

Karen Mains

3 thoughts on “Death-defying Acts

  1. Ellen Horyn

    My heart goes out to the Mains family–we lost our wonderful son, Dan Horyn, on Sept. 9
    from esophageal cancer and he put up the same courageous fight as your dear son Jeremy.
    I know exactly how you are feeling as a mom because I am going through the very same
    things that you are. There is an empty hole in your body and it will never go away.
    Planting those bulbs in your yard was a wonderful thing to do. You will always think
    of your son when they bloom. My prayers are with you during your time of grieving.

  2. Lori Pritchard

    Until the tulips bloom, let’s take the winter stars to pray for strength for death-defying acts … and rest while we wait.
    “Lift up your eyes on high
    And see Who has created these stars,
    The One who leads forth their host by number,
    He calls them all by name;
    Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power
    Not one of them is missing … Is 40:26-31.


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