I’ve been undergoing chemotherapy of some kind since August of last year, shortly after I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During that same period I’ve continued to be an avid, some would say fanatic, gardener, as I have been for about the last five decades of my life. The two things are linked in my mind. Chemotherapy keeps me alive, albeit with side effects. Gardening enriches my experience of life, an enrichment I require now more than ever.
Overall, these days I am doing reasonably well. Certainly better than last fall and winter, during the more intensive phase of the chemotherapy. This involved sessions in the hospital every other week of five hours plus, then going home with a portable pump that I wore for two days.
Currently I am receiving chemotherapy via pills that I take twice a day, with a break every third week.
Many have experienced side effects worse than mine. The main thing is that I tire very easily. There are ongoing digestive issues, though fortunately no nausea. Also, my hands and feet are fairly numb, though this is supposed to wear off in the coming months.
Back in April I officially moved on from long-term disability to early retirement (I’m 62 years old).
When the snow finally melted this year I felt like I had been released from prison. I was so eager to get into the garden that I went out to prune the roses while wearing my chemotherapy pump. This was not a good idea, as I snipped an important tube with my secateurs. Fortunately the bag was almost empty and nothing leaked. Also good that the visiting nurse thought it was kind of funny.
When I planned this garden, to the extent that it was planned at all, I didn’t think much about a future of diminished physical capacity. The garden is full of runners and seeders and leaners. It requires constant weeding, editing, staking, cutting back. Then there are the pots that need planting and watering, etc. And there’s a lot of garden to care for: virtually our whole front lot and about half the back consists of beds and borders.
Even spending hours in the garden every day, it can be a bit overwhelming. Especially as these days I have to stop and rest more frequently, and I’m just not as strong as I used to be.
And so I’ve had to learn ask for and accept help. This was difficult not so much because of pride as because of possessiveness. I just don’t like other people messing with my plants.
Fortunately my sons Daniel and David have been willing to perform heavy lifting (literally) when they visit. My ever-obliging neighbor Matt mows the portion of lawn we still have. When travel was a problem, our neighbor Nancy brought supplies from the garden center. And my friend Jo Ana has visited about once a month to work an entire day of horticultural labors. I met Jo Ana through Lurie Garden. She knows her stuff and gets more work done in a day than I do in an entire week (buckets and buckets of weeds, for starters).
Not related to the garden, but I feel I have to mention our friends Jim and Adrienne who brought me library books and various items from the store. Plus Judy’s book group friends who brought us many dinners when we had to go to the hospital for chemotherapy. And our in-laws bring us home-baked pies and other goodies.
If I had known the future, I would have planted more well-behaved perennials like Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), which is blooming now. More low-growing or consistently upright grasses, maybe more compact shrubs. But we can’t go back in time, and a garden reboot is hard to contemplate at this moment.
In any case, despite or maybe because of the challenges, the garden gives me a reason to get up out of my chair. Working among the plants and getting my hands (even if partly numb) in the soil provides a sense of well-being and a positive focus outside of myself. Something about watching bees going about their floral labors always calms me down. Even my fretting (too dry, too cold, too hot for the plants) has me thinking about something other than my illness.
So while the season lasts I will be out in the garden as much as I can, enjoying every hour of sun and every cloudy day.