“Come to the hospital and read my mother one of the stories you’re working on,” my friend Susan said. Her mother was dying in intensive care, as mine had when I was a young woman. I’d sat at my mother’s bedside in the early hours of the morning, dreading the moment when her heart would finally stop.
It didn’t matter that Susan’s mother wasn’t my mother, or that nearly 20 years had passed since my lonely nights in that hospital room. “I’ll be there,” I said, not knowing if that was true. In the meantime, there was one thing I could do for Susan: water her garden.
Every summer, her garden beds sprouted with kale, lettuce, French tarragon, mint for cocktails, and other delights. Twice a day, I watered Susan’s vegetables and my baby tomato plant, a yellow variety called the taxi, a tribute to the 11 years I lived in New York City.
On a humid, rainy afternoon, Susan had demonstrated how to dig a hole for my tomato plant and twiddle it with my fingers so that the roots would crumble. “Am I even doing this right?” I asked, standing back to look at my work.
Susan examined my dirty fingernails. “Congratulations,” she said. “You’re a real gardener now.”
I was thrilled to have inherited an ounce of my mother’s knack for gardening. Daffodils, lilacs, hydrangeas. When one plant died, another bloomed. Her timing was impeccable.
My first summer in New Hampshire didn’t disappoint. I’d never seen more shades of green. Deer bounded through the long grass on springy legs. The air smelled fresh, full of possibility, softening the memory of a long, hard winter.
When the vines on my tomato plant began to spiral toward the sunlight, I attached them to bamboo stakes with clothespins from Susan’s clothesline, anxiously awaiting my first tomato.
Time was running out to see Susan’s mother. I had stopped by the hospital one day with my laptop, planning to read something funny so that I wouldn’t cry, but practically everyone in her family had also showed up that afternoon. With visitors limited, I offered my spot in line. I felt relieved.
Instead, I watered Susan’s garden and my own tomatoes. Even though they weren’t ripe, I imagined how I might accessorize them: with a spinach salad or an egg-and-cheese sandwich, maybe a simple slice of fresh mozzarella and a glass of rosé.
One morning, I woke up to the birds gossiping about the beautiful sunrise. I opened the door and let my dog out into the yard. The grass was wet with dew, and the sunlight was already sneaking through the white pines, the type of morning my mother would’ve loved.
It always seemed cruel to lose her when I did, in October, given that autumn was her favorite season. I remember driving to and from the hospital, marveling at the color of the leaves, my only comfort.
Each year that followed, I dreaded the anniversary of my mother’s death, but over time, the season’s splendor stepped in to comfort me, and I began looking forward to its arrival. Now, I’m so captivated by the swirl of color around me come October that I can’t imagine my mother dying at any other time. When the leaves let go, I do, too.
Susan’s mother died that beautiful July day, the peak of summer, life in full bloom. While I couldn’t be there for her mother in that hospital room, I could keep Susan’s garden alive and plant a seed for the future — a future where the glory of summer will bring the comfort she needs, the way autumn leaves do for me.
I stepped barefoot out into the yard and picked up the garden hose. And that’s when I saw it: a small flash of yellow in my pot. My first ripe tomato.
Betsy Vereckey is a writer living in Vermont. Send comments to email@example.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.