What Gardening Offered After a Son’s Death, by Yiyun Li

“It’s rather vexing, isn’t it, not to know what flowers will come up next year?” I said to my friend Brigid, in a voice that sounded more like a character’s in a novel than my own. It was November, 2017, and my family had just moved into our house in Princeton. The trees were shedding their leaves, in a theatrical manner that was new to us—we had relocated from California to the East Coast four months earlier.

“There are some roses,” Brigid said. “Those look like lilies.”

“And those are hostas.”

There were six or seven rose bushes, with residual flowers, fuchsia-colored, shivering on top of the near-leafless branches. Lilies and hostas, their leaves already paled and half rotted by the cold autumn rain, remained recognizable. The rest of the garden was a wilted mystery, buried under fallen leaves.

I was not a character, but I was speaking like one for a reason: I was pondering a set of characters. I went on and told Brigid about a moment in “The Saga of the Century Trilogy,” by Rebecca West, about a British family living in London in the first half of the twentieth century. The eldest daughter in the family, Cordelia, newly wed, has moved into a pretty house in Kensington; when she has her two younger sisters over for a visit, she frets, with the leisure of a young woman married into respectability and stability, about not knowing whether the hawthorn tree in her garden will bear white, pink, or red flowers in the spring.

A few chapters later, the hawthorn tree blooms. By then, the little brother of the family, Richard Quin, still a teen-ager, has been killed in the Great War, ten days after arriving in France. “Killed, not missing?” Cordelia cries out in agony when she’s told the news. The hawthorn tree outside reveals the answer to the riddle from the winter before: the flowers are red.

It is a quick stroke in a trilogy. The first time I read it, I did not fully register the weight of the detail. But, moving into a house in the fall, studying a garden that would remain unknowable for the moment, I went back and reread the few paragraphs about the tree.

Richard Quin, in West’s trilogy, is killed in the same manner that one imagines Andrew Ramsay is killed in “To the Lighthouse”: “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]”

For all we know, Richard Quin might have died next to Andrew Ramsay, in a pair of Virginia Woolf brackets.

Some days, that pair of brackets of Woolf’s continue to baffle me. Other days, they feel just right. The predicament when writing about a sudden, untimely death: the more you remember, the more elusive that death becomes. A sudden, untimely death is a black hole, absorbing all that you can give, not really clamoring for more. Though is a black hole ever to be fully filled so that it can cease to be one? Has anyone been able to define, capture, or even get close to a black hole?

[In September, 2017, our older son, Vincent, died by suicide, at sixteen.]

[On that day, we put down the deposit for the house. Deposit, death, in that order, four hours apart.]

In a novel, I would never have put the two happenings on the same day. In writing fiction, one avoids coincidences like that, which offer unearned drama, shoddy poignancy, convenient metaphor, predictable spectacle. Life, however, does not follow a novelist’s discipline. Fiction, one suspects, is often tamer than life.

Some fiction is tamer than some life, I should amend. And I confess that this is only a variation of a statement made by another character in “The Saga of the Century Trilogy,” who, upon discovering her husband’s extramarital affair, reads “Madame Bovary” and exclaims, “But art is so much more real than life. Some art is much more real than some life, I mean.”

A couple of months after Vincent died, a colleague asked me where I was “in the process of grieving,” assuming, I supposed, that there would be, and should be, a conclusion of mourning at some point. That phrase struck me as inaccurate; she might as well have asked me where I was “in the process of living.”

There is, alas, not a normal course of life, against which deviations can be measured and, hopefully, corrected. Only changed courses, altered lives. One can look longingly at the alternatives: Vincent graduating from high school (as our younger son did this summer) or graduating from college (as Vincent’s old school friends will next year), but alternatives belong to the realm of fiction. To paraphrase Elizabeth Bowen, the great Anglo-Irish writer, good fiction is good because it offers “the palpable presence of the alternatives.” In life, that presence can be palpably felt, but too much preoccupation with the alternatives may lead to a dilemma of either/or; even, neither here nor there. “Dilemma,” from its Greek etymology, means two lemmas: double assumptions, double propositions. But death is definitive; death does not lead to a dilemma.

I think about the alternative lives of my characters all the time. But, as I did not live in fiction, I decided, soon after Vincent’s death, to stop pondering the alternatives. What if belongs to fiction; what now, to this real life.

What now, in the last months of 2017: I could not read fiction. It was not a problem of mental focus. I spent hours every day reading Shakespeare’s plays and Wallace Stevens’s poems—all of a sudden, those words were the only ones that made sense to me. But if I stopped reading fiction would I ever be able to write fiction again? I was in the middle of a long novel. Forging ahead or scrapping the project felt equally impossible. Anguished, I looked up “anguish” in the O.E.D., to make sure that I was using the right word to describe my situation, and, indeed, it was an apt word choice. Etymologically, “anguish” comes to us from the Latin angustia—narrowness, lack of space, narrow space, narrow passage, strait, limitations, restrictions, confinement, imprisonment, restrictedness, shortage, scantiness, critical situation, narrow-mindedness, pettiness.

A black hole takes all and gives back naught. The anguish from a sudden, untimely death has a narrowing effect: alternatives are lost; space in the mind, too.

On her next visit, Brigid brought me two books. The first was “Onward and Upward in the Garden,” a collection of fourteen essays by the former New Yorker fiction editor Katharine S. White. The essays were originally published, in a span of twelve years, in the magazine, ostensibly as reviews of nursery catalogues. The other book was “Two Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters,” a collection of correspondence between White and Elizabeth Lawrence. Lawrence was a gardener and a gardening writer in North Carolina, and the friendship began when Lawrence wrote a fan letter to White after reading her first essay, “A Romp in the Catalogues,” in the March 1, 1958, issue of The New Yorker. For a year, they were “Mrs. White” and “Miss Lawrence” to each other, and then they became “Katharine” and “Elizabeth.” They would write to each other for the next nineteen years, until White’s death, in 1977.

Through the winter, I read the two books, very slowly. There was no reason to hurry, as that first winter was a long one; cold, snowy—cold and snowy for recent transplants from California, in any case. Day after day, I looked at the bare limbs of the trees, brownish gray, and the stale snow covering the garden, grayish white. I thought one afternoon, What if spring never returns? Right away I recognized the illogic and the melodrama of that thought. I had at my hand the words of two gardeners of yesteryear, books that had taken years to be written. Were these words not enough evidence that spring always comes, if not now, later?

[That winter, I often returned to Marianne Moore’s words: “If nothing charms or sustains us (and we are getting food and fresh air) it is for us to say, ‘If not now, later,’ and not mope.” Incidentally, it was Moore who may have first suggested that White should collect her reviews of garden catalogues into a book.]

Not to mope, I thought, was a proper goal: it would take all my energy and all my vigilance, and it was attainable. White’s essays and the letters between White and Lawrence were just right for that aspiration. The two women (and likely some of the gardens and many of the plants that they had written about) were no more, and yet their words remained and sustained, offering facts and opinions, gardening tales and personal woes, seasons and years, illnesses and deaths—all there, ready to distract me.

For instance, there were the names of plants to learn. In both books, I encountered many names, some familiar, others unfamiliar, and every one of them—even the most common, like “peony” or “lotus” or “fuchsia”—required investigation. Unlike Lawrence, I’m not a purist when it comes to botany, and I don’t always look up the Latin names for the plants. But I do like to know the etymology of their English names. And what one can learn just by going to the dictionary! “Peony” goes all the way back to ancient Greek: Paieon, or Paeon, was the physician of the gods. (What afflicts the gods? Possibly what afflicts us mortals.) “Lotus” comes from the Greek lōtos, a mythical plant bringing forgetfulness to those who eat its fruits. (I have eaten my share of lotus seeds, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, without achieving oblivion.) “Fuchsia,” a word I often misspelled as “fuschia”—what mythical story accompanies thee? It turns out that fuchsia was named for the sixteenth-century German physician and botanist Leonhard Fuchs, whose name gave birth not only to that of the flower and that of the color but also to the nickname, Fuchsienstadt, for his home town of Wemding, where there is a pyramid made of as many as seven hundred fuchsia plants. And yet Fuchs never saw the flower fuchsia in his lifetime: it was discovered in the Caribbean and named by the French botanist and monk Charles Plumier, who was born a hundred and forty-five years after Fuchs. What led Plumier to name the flower for Fuchs? One can ask the question, but any speculation would be closer to fiction, just as peony was once the physician of the gods and lotus would bring forgetfulness.

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