This is Romy’s bench; the bench lovingly created by our friends and neighbours in the small village she was born in. It has weathered a little over the past three years but the beauty of the oak is still very evident. At first, it sat outside the front of our house and I would occasionally sit there during the day while the children were at school, lost in my grief and wondering what our future might hold.
The bench moved with us to Brighton in June 2015 and sat in the wilderness of our inherited garden. At first, I found the disarray and wildness enchanting, but after a while I began to feel consumed by it; dragged down into its depths. The bench was lost in its midst and I longed to be able to sit on it peacefully, to feel clear and free in my mind. Somewhere at the back of our home there was a beautiful garden but I could not see it or get to it. This is not a dramatic overexaggeration. Our home is a four storey Edwardian villa and the only access to the garden at that time was through the uninhabitable basement or down some rotten wooden steps leading from our living room. It was treacherous and pretty much inaccessible.
Later that year our youngest son was born and it became well nigh impossible to visit Romy’s resting place every week as I had done for the entire year she’d been gone. This upset me, and my thoughts returned to the garden but we had other more pressing financial needs: the building work to be done on the house and a new baby, coupled with my inability to work. I sat uncomfortably with the prospect of another summer with no garden.
It has struck me over and over again how closely the fate of our garden has mirrored my grief and my mental state. In the early days, it – my grief – was right out front and centre, rather like Romy’s bench. After some months it was consumed by the tangled mess of my mind, with no clear direction and a sense of real hopelessness. After our youngest arrived my mind was certainly distracted but the issues clouding it were ever present in the background.
As we turned our attention to resolving the problem of our garden, I also found myself looking for ways to climb out of my mental black hole and ‘weed out’ the negative thoughts and memories blighting my life. I tried altering my diet, taking supplements, returning to the scene of Romy’s admission to hospital to face my demons and face down my PTSD symptoms. Rather than reading of others’ grief and loss I turned to writing; not just this blog – which originally focussed on my grief – but an expression of the spiritual beliefs and elements of my life that served to move me forwards rather than allowing me to stay rooted in the agony of the past. Without wishing to overdo it on the garden analogy front, I guess you could say I indulged in a lot of digging.
As I did this, some remarkable things happened. Having had a sudden epiphany during which I announced to Darius that I had always wanted to be a writer, I decided to put my energy and attention firmly on the pursuit of this creativity. And so I attended a writers’ workshop in November 2016. This spurred me on to complete a book proposal and several chapters. The book I had in my mind was the one I had promised Romy I would write but for many months I couldn’t move it past an account of her brief life and her passing. This didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to write a book about my child dying, and I couldn’t imagine who would want to read one either. As the deadline for the competition – 26th March, Romy’s birthday – approached, I put my trust in all that I hold dear and plunged in to writing about my spiritual beliefs. The book began to take on a life of its own and before I knew it, I had completed over 30,000 words. I entered the competition.
Simultaneously, Darius and I won a silent auction lot at our children’s school summer fayre for a garden design consultation. Darius went all out to win it, knowing that it was still a source of deep upset to me that I couldn’t get to Romy’s resting place every week. It was my dearest wish to make a space in our garden where I could place her bench, plant her roses and sit quietly with her whenever I felt the need.
I didn’t win the competition. Something went wrong with the consultation process and ultimately, we did not receive the garden design plans.
I was forced to take both situations into my own hands and for the first time in three years I found myself back in cahoots with my old familiar self: driven, inspired, determined to make things happen and to blaze my own path through.
We found a fantastic landscaper and with his advice and input we decided to design the garden ourselves. Weeds and brambles were hacked down. Space was created, plants dug up and repotted, roses freed from choking creepers. When we ran out of budget, Darius hired a pneumatic drill and a skip, roped in the two oldest kids to push wheelbarrows and spent two blisteringly hot weekends smashing up and removing a solid concrete pathway. Without this, our garden would have lost a huge amount of space and impact. In the centre of it all we placed a huge solid oak table belonging to Darius’s much loved aunt who passed nine days before Romy. Over it, a pergola. My dream of a Mediterranean garden where we could sit and eat al fresco all summer long and entertain friends slowly took shape. It was, quite literally, a real labour of love.
Alongside this I spent evenings writing more book chapters and tweaking my original proposal to send out to publishers. The symmetry between these two processes – the creation of a garden and a book – was incredible. As each tangled thicket came out, I felt a little freer. I began to imagine inviting friends to visit, which was a huge step for me. I used to be a social animal but after Romy passed I eschewed all contact with all but the most persistent friends. The freer I felt, the more the words flowed.
And then, something amazing happened. The school summer holidays began, we headed off down to the West Country for our annual holiday with my sister in law and her family. The garden was half complete and we gave access to our landscaper to stay on for the week of our absence. I had sent my completed proposal off to a publisher with a flourish and assumed that it would be a while before I received any feedback.
On the third day of our trip, I received two messages. The first, a text, was from our landscaper showing images of our completed garden, with Romy’s bench placed lovingly in its own spot. The second, an email, was from the publisher informing me that they loved my book and its proposal and that, despite the fact I am an unknown, first time writer and despite the fact that my book is partly memoir (so 2008!), they want to take a chance on me and offer me a contract.
As the summer draws to a close and the crisp chillness of autumn begins I can only marvel at how events have unfolded. I have sat and enjoyed our garden for many hours. I have listened to our children shrieking with excitement as they race around it. We have taken great pleasure in eating together at our table and on our new deck. On very rare occasions when children have not required attention, I have even sat and written a few words while looking out at Romy’s rose arbour.
For the first time in a very long time, the future is starting to feel exciting. I cannot wait to see the fruits of my labour; both from the plants I have lovingly installed in our garden and from the words that I have brought forth onto the page.
Many of the ancient peoples recognised and celebrated a link between the soul and a beautiful garden. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the tiled splendour of the Alhambra in Granada, gardens as a thing of beauty are as old as civilisation itself. Aside from displaying the creator’s wealth and power through the inclusion of exotic plants from around the globe, to some civilisations – notably the Greeks – gardens were sacred spaces believed to be inhabited by gods and spirits. They provided space for calm reflection and sometimes for philosophising. They lent themselves to thoughts of loves lost and found. The Persian poet and mystic Rumi – who very often intertwines gardens and grief in his writing – has, as always, the perfect words:
Cease looking for flowers!
There blooms a garden in your own home.
While you look for trinkets
The treasure house awaits you in your own being.
As terrible as things may seem; as inexplicable, cruel and unbearable, here’s the thing: we can seek help externally and this may well give us some relief but the answers are always within us. True beauty and grace are within our souls and they will help us to overcome any obstacles. This is so true for me. I went within and I pulled out words, which have become my daughter’s legacy and the seeds of my first steps forward into a new life. The power of creating and witnessing new life in a garden, however large or small, cannot be ignored. The garden and the soul are one. The epitome of grace in our lifetime, Audrey Hepburn, said it best: