The Unexpected Present

Getting Back to the Garden

Mama's birthday

On a beautiful summer’s day twenty-five years ago, my mother left her beloved garden and euphemistically passed on, transitioning from her physical state into the ethereal. She was surrounded by her family in the living room turned hospice suite. The white linen curtains billowed in the summer breeze diffusing the early morning light filtered from the East. The cicadas called out their love songs. Flowers from her garden graced the connecting rooms with their fragrances, spreading a comfort blanket over what was happening imminently– her death. It was her birthday.

My mother was named Ivanka, after the St. John the Baptist calendar day. Ivanka turned into Johanna, her translation name on papers for her exodus from the German DP camp and the war-torn world. Joann became her Americanized name after arriving in the U.S. and meeting her father, Metody Shepski, whom she had never seen before. All her siblings were born in the U.S. Still when my grandmother Pelahia got pregnant with my mother, she took her brood and returned to the farm in Brunary, Lemkivschyna, southern Poland, near the Slovakian border. Ivanka was born on a summer day in the fields under a blazing noon sun.

She was the youngest of six. While life was hard in an economically depressed corner of the world, it was full of songs for every task, every day, every week at church liturgies, and holy days of obligation. Family loyalty and commitment became Ivanka’s mantra. During the second world war years, she was taken as slave labor to work on a German farm. It was hard work, but cultivating the land sprouted as her second nature, a gift she maintained in every corner of her hearth and home.

Fifty years later, in 1998, a brain tumor diagnosis, Glioblastoma multiforma. It was a shock and a scramble for a cure. The only consolation was that she did not suffer very long, the tumor pressed on her short-term memory, so while she understood very well when we answered her questions about what was happening to her, she soon forgot and hummed a tune from childhood. There were no paths other than surgery and radiation with no remission. Sharks fin powder was on the market as a possible remedy. Fortunately for the sharks, a keystone species, it didn’t seriously impact health food markets. It took her life in eight weeks. Twenty-five years later, this aggressive brain tumor remains incurable.

Yuri’s third autoimmune attack put him in a dire situation. Especially harrowing for me because I knew it could have been averted. We knew a sinus infection had been triggered before; it took six to eight weeks, a slow burn. This fire-breathing dragon could have been brought into submission had we the health care we maintained before our move to another state, but I couldn’t get him the medical help he needed.

As alarm bells and images of intubations were seared into my brain, every day that passed turned into a worsening scenario. All aspects were gathering into a perfect storm– the unfinished renovation for crucial environmental controls, unseasonable heat, and Canadian wildfires permeating the deteriorating air quality with particulates and irritants that become inflammation. Alternative, non-invasive treatments were unavailable. I couldn’t get an appointment to see a primary care physician for six weeks. This is where “it is what it is” should never be.

This is where the American healthcare system failed us. Again. The current team we have in place after two months concur with our assessment. It took too long to get an appointment because there are not enough doctors, specialists or medical professionals, and nurses in this rural part of Maryland. Many retired after the Covid pandemic. Fortunately, there is compassion, and a concerted effort was made to provide the time and place for Yuri’s medical care and treatments. We got the dragon, a fiery beast, in time before it turned into another plummet off the precipice to the ICU.

Pharmaceuticals took over the healthcare industry. The electronic system of charts and medical histories is not always correct, and the doctors we have are setting up second and third ways to keep patient information current and accessible. They had never seen this reaction so severe, so quickly injuring Yuri’s kidney before, and were taken by his constitution to get out and come home.

The week stay in a hospital during the Fourth of July holiday weekend wreaked more trauma on Yuri’s weakened physicality. They were understaffed, his semi-private room offered no rest or healing, and there was a case of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (ESBL) on the floor at the end of the hall, where we walked and sat for a spell. I roamed and rummaged for extra supplies and whatever could make him more comfortable. He complied with every aspect so that he could be let out. Yesterday was the end of his first week home after institutional custody. He finally got the care he needed to begin another recovery from Drug-Induced Vasculitis.

My mother and Yuri would have gotten along had he met her when she was full of voice and melody. He knows a bit about her through me as I find my love for Nature, animals, and cultivating a garden run a similar thread from my matriarchal side. I sing the second soprano voice but change keys at a moment’s turn, and my gardening gene is peeking out from under the extra elements that cannot fit in a space that offers no storage. Yuri knows these stories and listens to the music as I recite family histories through the elements I have as reminders of my ancestral heritage. It will take time, but I am on my way to my mind’s garden.

The time right now is for Yuri to get better in a spa-like suite that connotes safety from hospital policies and procedures and gentle healing of the stresses that create additional anxieties. July 1 opened the doors to cannabis dispensaries without a medical marijuana card. I love the ambiance that this retail facility exudes– a peaceful calmness. We’re also able to find a better sleep inducer – gummies with a touch of THC at the Natural Foods market. He’s also coming back to himself, planning for another collection of music he has from back in the day.

With my mother on my mind, I’m getting ready to go to the Farmer’s Market. I take one of the baskets she liked to use. I feel like getting back to the garden is my way home. And it’s a beautiful summer day.

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