My dad passed on 10/25/2023 at the age of 85. My husband Dave and I had just gotten back from Costa Rica where we had been celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. Dad had gone into the hospital while we were away. We immediately headed up to Pennsylvania. When we arrived, he was on forced air and subsequently deteriorated very quickly over the next 24 hour period. I was with him when he left, along with mom, both brothers, nephew and his wife.
I helped my mom with the arrangements over the next two days and then came home. That Sunday, which would’ve been Day 4 after he died, I decided that I had to make a garden for him. Like right then, there was barely any thought to it at all. I decided right away where it should be, and covered the space with cardboard. On Wednesday, Dave helped me load wood chips from the neighbor’s place and put them on the cardboard.
Friday, Day 10 after he died, I gave a presentation at the Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. It was hard to gear myself up for that; public speaking has always given me some anxiety and now I was grieving on top of it. But Dave drove me and encouraged me and it went fine. Some friends there gave me the strength to get through it. I try to remember, though it is difficult, that you never know what someone may be going through when you talk to them, are listening to them speak or interacting with them. I am trying to remember this more. After my presentation, Dave and I went straight to Pennsylvania for the funeral that was to be held on Saturday.
My Dad would’ve loved his funeral. The Knights of Columbus held watch over his urn, my brother Mark said all the things that he wanted the world to know about him during the eulogy (Dad made sure to tell my Mom what he wanted said), and two representatives from the Air Force came to present my mom with a flag, and then they played taps.
After the service, I collected some old pavers from Dad’s yard and dug up some of his ostrich fern - our mutual favorite plant. My Dad had so much ostrich fern growing in the backyard, it reminded me of Jurassic Park. When I was getting my Bachelor's degree from Rutgers, he asked me over and over again “how to split fern.” Eventually he figured it out because the ferns were abundant and huge in his yard! I also collected a little bit of his ash from the urn and stored it in a vial that contained a print out of his electrocardiograph (EKG). The nurse at the hospital had created three of these while he was there in intensive care.
The Sunday after his service, which would’ve been Day 11 after he died, I covered the cardboard with a mixture of compost and biochar that I already had (biochar is an organic-based charcoal; I made some from invasive species on our property). I mixed a little bit of his ashes into the soil and then planted the ostrich fern. I laid some of the flowers that friends had sent to me on top of the planting bed - some of the more beautiful ones, I stuck straight into the soil. I topped the soil with leaves.
The next week I had two more presentations to give, including a lunch keynote address to the Maryland Association of Stormwater and Floodplain Managers, which I dedicated to my dad. That Saturday, which would be Day 17 after he died, we met my mom and brothers plus a bunch of my mom’s cousins in Cresson, PA for the internment. My Dad’s final resting spot is next to my sister Michele, just as he wanted.
I really wanted to get some rocks for the memorial garden from around where my Dad grew up. The ideal place would’ve been in the woods behind his old house as I knew he spent a lot of time back there hunting squirrels and other animals. When I imagine this in my mind, he’s a boy of 9 or 10, rifle over his back, no shoes, a ratty shirt and his jeans rolled up, running around in the woods. I have no basis for this image other than knowing that his family was very poor, hence the no shoes part.
So his childhood home looks like this now…the roof is caved in and it is unlivable. Whoever owns the place now lives in the small house next to my Dad’s old house. Lots of No Trespassing signs. So we went above his house into the hills and found a place close enough to collect rocks - I’m sure he rambled around up there and it was a fine enough representation of the Ridge and Valley province where he grew up.
(Captions Left to Right: Beginnings of the memorial garden for my Dad - cardboard on bottom topped with wood chips and a couple pavers from Dad's backyard. He was big into landscaping from creating water wheels to ponds, and even a tree house!
Layer of biochar & compost blend added.
Ostrich fern from Dad's yard plus flowers that were sent to me after his passing. The garden was topped with a final layer of leaves.)
The Sunday after the internment, Day 18 after he died, I put the rocks around the garden along with more flowers and a wreath that was part of one of the arrangements that I had bought for his funeral.
I was so amazed that some of the cut flowers that I had put into the garden on Day 11 were actually thriving; we had even had a freeze. I don’t think that it was a sign from my dad or anything (after all, this was some incredibly rich compost / biochar mix!), but it gave me a little bit of peace and hope. The whole garden making process was very organic, and therapeutic during this time when I have been very emotional. I’m looking forward to the summer when I can put a very non-traditional tomato plant in the middle of the garden - my dad loved growing tomatoes, he had a tomato plant out on his deck on the day he died.
When I've visited the garden lately, I think about the last email that he wrote to me on 10/11, "Hi Lori, We are very proud of you and your accomplishments. Love, Dad" He didn't say that very often, and so I cherish that email that much more.