Breath & Shadow

A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature


Blood From A Stone

By Madeleine Parish

On a recent October Sunday that felt more summer than fall, more dense than crisp, I visited a meditation garden at the home of a physician who emigrated from Japan to Connecticut in the sixties. The friend who invited me didn't provide much background, except that the garden had been over thirty years in the making and that it was rarely open for public viewing.

I'm not much of a gardener myself. I've done a reasonably good job of bolstering my little gray Cape's "curb appeal" with a few andromeda and arborvitae. But my backyard (which I know aches with potential) swings between manic overgrowth and depressive neglect. I'm sure I'd get pleasure from making more of the little patch outside my sunroom, but lacking both confidence and cash, I'm paralyzed in perennial planning. Plus, the thought of tending a garden for three decades? Unfathomable. I stayed in my first house for over fifteen years, but since then it's been three years here, three years there, all in pursuit of better investment return. At least that's what I told myself.

So I balked at my friend's invitation at first. But he cajoled, even if the Japanese garden turned out to be, "a few dried out shrubs around a couple miniature pagodas," the drive would take us far enough north for some cursory leaf peeping, compulsory autumnal activity for any upstanding New Englander. So we wedged our Poland Spring bottles into our cup holders, turned up Artie Shaw on the stereo, and away we went.

Even thirty miles north, though, the leaves clung stubborn and green to the maples along the Parkway. And as the temperature inched toward ninety, our conversation took decidedly left turns, first toward global warming, then to the supposition, no the certainty, that the leaves surely would be crazy-quilt red and orange and gold by now if only the 2000 election hadn't been weaseled away from Al Gore. Then, having taken on an unhappy life of its own, our discussion spiraled downward to Iraq and Iran until, eventually, we sulked in silence.

We pulled up in front of the doctor's house, unremarkably at home among the street's other Colonials and raised ranches. There was no garden in sight. And the brown and pale green lawn, thirsty from recent drought, didn't bode well. So my friend and I armed ourselves against further despair by agreeing to spend an hour or so in polite, complimentary conversation with our host. Then we'd beat a speedy retreat to the nearest Starbuck's for a caffeine fix to perk up our flagging spirits.

But when we were greeted graciously at the door, handed maps illustrating the site's nine individually designed venues, and asked inside to view a slide show about the garden's three-decade history, my interest started to fire up.

I may not be much of a gardener, but I'm a passionate and dogged researcher, the type who Googles and compares reviews before deeming an exhibit or movie or novel worthy of my time. This particular outing was a last-minute affair though, so I hadn't studied Japanese garden history and design. I didn't understand how and why dry elements (ie., rocks) and surrounding geographical features are incorporated. The slide show primer alluded to these technicalities. More importantly, it showed the garden's owner and his family at work over the last thirty years, proudly tending, pruning, working.

But even that background didn't prepare me for the garden's intricacy and impact, and when I stepped into it, I was awestruck. There were, indeed, nine separate venues on the acre-sized lot, including one fashioned around a pond; another around vertical "standing" stones; another around more substantial, squarish rocks; another around a wall with steps up one side and down the other from which the full vista could be observed.

Following the posted signs and arrows, I started along the stone path to the pond, across the bridge to the standing stones, and on and on. At first I wished that the azaleas, weeping cherries and rhododendrons that had months earlier released their pink and fuchsia blooms were still in blossom. After all, it's color and size that drive most of the perennial gardens in my neighborhood. The bigger and blowsier we are, the purple Russian sage and pink and blue hydrangeas seem to announce, the better!

But no matter how much it felt like summer, it was October after all. And the garden's tableau seemed to rely mostly on an autumnal palette: dark green, from the pines that represented eternity; brick red, from the cedar chips beneath the leafless, umbrella-shaped maple tree and surrounding the low-growing junipers; gray and brown lantern and pagoda-shaped statuary. With a little work, though, by paying attention, more color revealed itself: goldfish flashing orange among the pond's lily pads, rose quartz and amethyst-studded rocks. In spite of myself and the hour-long limit I'd placed on my visit, I was forced to slow down, to focus, to observe and allow the garden to pull me along at its own pace.

While I was standing at the last venue, tracing the map to figure out which rock was supposed to represent an elephant and which a lion, the owner approached. "You saw my dog?" When he asked, he beamed, extended his short arm with a grand, proud sweep. I smiled politely, nodded self-consciously. He was, after all, the host. But while I had seen the rock that was supposed to look like a dog, but hadn't really seen the dog.

Still my host pointed and nodded and smiled; and when I looked back to the rock, when I paid attention, I could see a love-laden puppy. His head cocked, a quizzical look on his face, he seemed to say, "Don't just stand there, come pat my head, toss me a treat."

"Yes," I said tentatively. Then "yes," more confidently as the canine took shape. "Now I see."

Encouraged, my host directed me to the lion rock. I could see that this lion would never beg for attention, not like that puppy. His head erect, his stance noble, he commanded homage, obeisance. Then, in the next rock, a man's profile came to life, in the next a baby seal began to frolic.

The rocks were revealing themselves to me, each with its own character, but only because my host had brought them alive first in his own imagination.

As he explained how he had dug each rock from the ground, dusted it off, turned it this way and that, I saw how this doctor's imagination, this healer's tender attention had encouraged the spirit in each to speak to him.

At times my host's accent was too thick for me to understand each word. But his pride, his talent, his intention and his love for his garden came through in every syllable, smile and sweep of his arm.

It wasn't until the sun started to fade that my friend and I reluctantly left the garden. When we set out for home, we no longer needed the caffeine fix we craved en route. As we worked out way along the country roads toward the Merritt, we talked a little about the garden, how glad we were we made the trip. But once we hit the parkway, we just leaned back into our seats and enjoyed the ride.

For days afterward, I thought about that garden and its magical rocks, while that old expression about how you can't get blood from a stone nagged at me.

Thinking about the thirty years my new gardener friend had invested in his garden, I thought about my own inability to set down roots of similar depth. For years, I had the habit of staying too long, especially in relationships that bore sour fruit. But then I swung in the opposite direction, packing up and moving in search of better investment returns, not only from real estate, but relationships too. I became remarkably facile at labeling a person a dry well because he didn't give me what I thought I needed, because I didn't want to, or didn't think I had the time or energy to invest in someone else's despondency, or loneliness, or illness, whether physical, mental or spiritual.

At the same time this awareness clarified, that bluesy Van Morrison song kept thumping in my head. It's called "Till We Get the Healin' Done," and it burrows way, way down into me every time. "Till we get, till we get, till we get the healin' done," it repeats over and over and over, drilled in as much by Van's unrelenting delivery as the lyrics themselves.

Healing takes work, and time. That's the song's clear, simple message. And while there is a time to move on from relationships that stagnate or hurt too much, that garden planted in me the seed of sadness that can sprout from not sticking with or of not going back when warranted.

I'm thinking most about my mother. When I moved away—first for college, then to advance my career—I thought I'd buried my childhood fears of what I perceived as her cutting sarcasm and, worse, her stony silence. The problem was, as my gardener friend helped me see, burying subsumes the whole rock, sharp angles and smooth surfaces alike, precluding possibility for examination, interpretation and, yes, healing.

Only since visiting that garden have I been able to dig up and examine my last memory of my mother, the day I last saw her alive. Around the same time I had begun to fade from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she had begun to shrink and rock and shake from Parkinson's disease. While these immune assaults can be debilitating, neither is life-threatening. So when I flew Upstate to see her, and she was thinking and talking as incisively as ever (even if she struggled to sip her tea without dribbling, to eat her eggs without spilling), I saw and felt her vitality, not her mortality, her power, not her diminution.

Still, when it was time for me to catch my return flight and she sat looking small yet intent in her living room Barca lounger, guilt and regret wanted to have their way with me. Why couldn't things have been different? Why was I still afraid? Why couldn't I do something to make her better? But it was time to get to the airport. I didn't have time to mend those broken shoelaces. So when I leaned to kiss her goodbye and I saw her tears, I turned from her anyway, my heart stone cold.

But, I imagine now, did she know somehow it would be our last time together? Is that why she cried? If I had turned around just that once more, told her I loved her just that once more, would I, or we, have broken new ground? Would that rock of fear have been excavated right then, not years later, after my visit to that Japanese garden?

I don't know. But in these last weeks, as courage out-muscled fear, I've been able to dig up that last image of my mother. And by holding it up for others—father, sister, cousins—to view, other long-buried images have come into view too: her sewing dresses for me on her portable Singer, baking birthday cakes, tightening her fist on the family's finances as my father's losing streaks lengthened and deepened. And I've also been able to imagine the sacrifices she made, the things and experiences she did without, so that I might have a jumpstart to the kind of life she never had. I've been able to round out and soften the stoniness I have felt toward my mother, to see her as gifted, generous, intelligent, and complex.

I can't go back to that last day I saw my mother. I can't turn around to tell her I love her, or that I was afraid of her, even when physical deterioration trumped her former fire. But like my gardener friend with the rocks in his yard, I've dug up memories of my mother, turned them over and around and upside down until, with time and imagination, I've come to see her from new angles--to understand more than I could in the past. There was life in our rocky relationship. It is possible to get blood from what may seem stony, immutable experiences and perceptions. It can time, but, like Van, we press on. …till we get, till we get, till we get the healin' done.

Madeleine Parish is an award-winning novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer. Her novel, The Geography Lesson, was recognized by the PEN Women of San Francisco in their First Novel Competition. A 2008 Pushcart Prize nominee, her work appears regularly in publications including The Phoenix, Breath and Shadow and, Common Ties. She lives, writes and conducts writing workshops in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

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