Two Letters

Alys the Gardener


Dear Reader,

We create a ‘contract’ of sorts when we publish a regular blog. My unwritten contract with you says that when you log on, you can expect to find a post about gardening, crafting, crafty gardening and cats, delivered with a mostly light heart. So, the following letter, written to my dad who died when I was 9 has a more somber tone and I wanted to let you know that upfront. If this is not your thing, please read no further. Stop by next week for the usual garden antics.

With love and gratitude for your readership and support.


Dear Daddy,

This is one of those letters you never actually send, though I would if I could. You left an unimaginable void in our hearts when you died on a day just like today. It was hot, strangely still and ultimately surreal. How could you have been here one minute, then gone the next?  I walked in on mom the day you died and I knew. She was kneeling on the floor tearing up your letters though I never fully understood why. She had her reasons and in the end it doesn’t really matter.

You would be amazed what can happen to a letter these days. When I hit a button on an electronic box called a computer, this letter will travel through something called the internet.  Once sent, you can’t tear it up, burn it, or control it in any way. Lovers and politicians learned this the hard way. It’s what they called a double-edged sword in your day.

I love you so much, and was really, really, really sad when you died.  As you know, I was only 9 so I didn’t have the resources to understand what was going on. Mom did her best, but she struggled too. We all missed you terribly. I’m crying now as I write this, all these years later, as at times I remain stuck in the painful past.

Please know, that you would be proud of your legacy. Your girls grew up and got college degrees, something that was really important to you.  It was your reason for moving the family to California in the first place.  We all love and nurture animals as you did,  and yours-truly is a gardener!  Can you believe it?

I have special memories of our beautiful London garden.  You hauled rocks in a wheelbarrow to build a small ‘creek’ down the middle of the yard. It gathered run-off from rain and melting snow and filled my imagination with happy moments. Your grew snapdragons near the back door, and tomatoes during the hot days of summer. Sometimes people would meet you at the nursery where you worked and ask to come by to see your garden. I was so proud of you.

When we left Canada for what you hoped would be a better life for your girls, the new homeowners weren’t interested in keeping up your garden. You were hugely disappointed.  I certainly would be.  Of course the plan was a new home and a new garden in sunny California.  We arrived in November of 1966 to less than favorable circumstances. The man who hired you to run his nursery had since filed bankruptcy. You supported our family with your savings, then sold your beloved coin collection to make ends meet. It was a difficult time for all of us. I can’t imagine as a parent how hard that must have been for you.

By the end of 1967 things were finally turning around. Our family moved to Millbrae where you landed a job at a local garden nursery.  We lived in a rental, but at last could put down roots. The following Christmas, what we thought was the flu turned out to be lung cancer.  The holidays were never the same.

I turn 54 this October, the same age you were when a cruel and ravishing cancer stripped you of your life. Your physical suffering was finally at an end on that hot, August day, but my struggles had just begun. Life doesn’t come with guarantees.

I want to thank you for your gifts of life and affection.  Each of your daughters carries you in her own way.  I think you would be proud of us, as we are of you.

My wish today as I hit the ‘send button’ would be for you to know that we all grew up, lived productive lives and that we carry you in our hearts, always.  When I reach toward the earth, to tumble a seed or pull out a weed, I think of you.

Your loving daughter,

Alys Ann

Mom and Dad on their wedding day

Mom and Dad on their wedding day

Losing Daddy

Eric Milner Landscape Design

Eric Milner Landscape Design
My father’s garden drawing

The man who inspired my love of gardening died when I was a little girl. I remember the heat of the day, not unlike this one. When I flip the calendar to August, it may as well be 1969.

I hate August. I hate the smells in the air, the oppressive heat, and that burdening longing that ricochets around in my chest. I’m 52 years old and I miss Daddy.

As a girl, my grief went on forever. I performed a ritual each night before I went to bed: I would kiss his framed picture on the desk in our tiny two-bedroom apartment, and then I would touch his cane and the memory book from the funeral home. Only then could I fall asleep. I’m not sure why the artifacts from the end of his life had special meaning. Perhaps my young mind was trying to reconcile the impossible; that the man in the picture was gone.

Eventually I could tell people he died without falling apart, but then follow-up questions like “how did he die” would trip me up. At some point I crafted the self-contained sentence, “My dad died of lung cancer when I was 9,” incorporating the most oft-asked questions with hopes of putting all of them to an end.

When my at-home ritual and obsession became too much for my Mom, she got angry and threw away the funeral home book. I understand now that she was suffering from her own grief and profound loss, but her anger and frustration stung me. Perhaps it did help me move forward. I only remember the shame when she said, “you have to get over it!”

Grief isn’t linear. It’s impossible to chart its course. Who, more than me, wanted to get over it and move on?

My father’s death and burial were shrouded in mystery. I don’t know why no one took me aside to explain what was happening. One of the most poignant things my therapist asked me was “where were the adults?” One morning I woke to find that our frail father was taken to Peninsula Hospital in the middle of the night. I went with my mother for a “visit” but was not allowed into his room. I sat imagining all sorts of horrible things. Later I learned on the play ground from my older sister’s friend that Dad was in a coma. Finally Mom sat us down and said “your dad isn’t going to make it.” I made her say the words “your dad is going to die,” because I needed to know exactly what was going to happen. I went to sleep each night, telling myself that I wouldn’t cry when I learned he was gone. Ironically, when the news came it was true. A loss like that cuts you to the core. Tears eventually came, but on that early, hot and oppressive August day when I walked in on my mom destroying some of his papers, I simply called out “no.”

We didn’t attend our father’s funeral. I recall that either we were afraid to go, or my mother decided we were too young. She had been traumatized seeing her own father buried and wanted to protect us from the same. Whatever the reason, they are now part of family legend, with no surviving parties to corroborate.

In reality, trauma was piling on all around us. No one explained that he had cancer or what that meant. I didn’t understand that he was dying. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, alive and weak in the hospital or graveside after he died. I thought I saw him walking down the street one day while riding the school bus home. I broke out in a cold sweat. I desperately needed to get home and tell my mother.

Unfinished business is exhausting. It follows you like your own shadow, lurking and ready to pounce when you least expect it. I’ve spent years in a therapist’s chair, on a yoga mat and in creative writing classes sorting this out. In the late eighties, with the help of a friend, I was able to locate my father’s grave. I went alone and wandered in the shade of the trees and took comfort in the tranquility. After that visit, I never felt the need to go back.

Yet here I am all these years later, continuing to write about Daddy.