A Place of Healing

March 23, 2018
Meadow Rue Merrill, for the New York Times

By Giselle Potter for The New York Times
                                                                                                                          Giselle Potter

“This is it?” My 8-year-old daughter, Lydia, pressed her face against the van window. “This is the farm?”

“I think so.” I steered my van past the weathered barn, dodging pond-size puddles. As far as I could see, the earth looked dead. Dead grass humped beneath mounds of lingering snow. Dead leaves clinging to withered apple trees. Dead fields stretching to the distant pines. In springtime in Maine, nothing seemed alive except the mud.

“Pigs!” my 2-year-old son, Asher, squealed.

Inside an electric fence, a litter of pup-size piglets scampered around a fat black sow, miniature hooves flinging muck over their darkly mottled coats. And here I was, children in tow, to survey the trampled ground and invisible boundary of grief that encircled me.

One year before, my 7-year-old daughter, Ruth, had died in her sleep. My husband, Dana, and I and our three children had adopted Ruth from a Ugandan orphanage, welcoming her into our home when she was 18 months old.

She had cerebral palsy that curled her fingers and stiffened her limbs, and the simple act of feeding her a bottle took nearly an hour. Unable to speak, Ruth communicated by picking out letters on an eye-gaze board, or poking out her tongue to signal “yes.” Ruth was also deaf, learning to hear with the aid of a cochlear implant. In the six years we’d shared, Ruth filled our home with laughter and our hearts with joy. Then, one brutal February night, she’d stopped breathing.

She’d had a fever. Our pediatrician told us to give Ruth Tylenol, which we did. The next morning she seemed fine. Her favorite support worker dropped by to read and help her color a birthday card for Asher, who was turning 1 the next day. But when Dana went downstairs to check on Ruth in the morning, her sheets were soaked with sweat and she wasn’t breathing.

In the horror that followed, we called 911, but it was too late. Ruth was gone. Her neurologist believed that she had kernicterus, a condition that could have been what caused both her cerebral palsy and her deafness. It may have also damaged her hypothalamus, limiting Ruth’s ability to fight the fever.

In the next aching weeks and months, my thoughts often turned to the safe soil of my childhood. I’d grown up on a farm — running barefoot through the sheep pasture, riding my fat brown pony around the pond. I longed to plant a garden, something to nurture that would nurture me. But, living in Bath, one of Maine’s most densely populated neighborhoods, our house was pinched between a busy road and a forested backyard.

Why not volunteer at a local farm, a friend suggested. On a slip of paper, she wrote the name of one where she bought vegetables, and I’d set up this time to stop by.

The farmer spotted us across a frozen field and tromped over, springy brown hair twisting around her face. “I’m Lucretia,” she said. “You’re interested in working?”

I nodded, telling her of my childhood farm. I didn’t talk about Ruth, or how desperately I was hurting. Chasing a piglet that had escaped under the fence, Lydia and Asher were laughing. But I knew they were hurting too. Especially Lydia, who had been just three weeks older than Ruth. Lucretia invited me to come back in April. For two hours of work each week — plus a contribution to help with planting — I’d receive a weekly box of organic vegetables from June through October.

I promised to think about it but wasn’t sure I had the energy. Of all the friends who’d shared advice after Ruth died, not one had warned how exhausting grief could be. Some days, leaving the house was too much. But two weeks later, there I was, standing with Lucretia inside a plastic-covered hoop house at Milkweed Farm.

Wind snapped the flimsy walls and blew frozen mist across the fields outside, but inside was warm. Concrete-block-and-wire tables held trays of soil cubes — each indented with a small dimple. Lucretia cut an envelope to form a spout and sprinkled round, pebble-like eggplant seeds into them. Using the tip of a pencil, she nudged each seed into a hole and covered it with a pinch of soil.

“Want to try?” She handed me the envelope.

For the rest of the morning, all I had to think about was placing one seed into each hole. Two hours later, I felt more at peace than I had in months. The following week I planted meager dots of tomato seeds. Then, even tinier specks of onions. Soon, a miniature forest sprouted from the eggplant trays, tender leaves uncurling toward the light.

As the temperature rose, the earth came alive, and I worked in the fields while Lydia and Asher raced up the rows, searching for eggs from the few chickens who’d escaped their enclosure to scamper about the garden. By midsummer, the farm had blossomed into a profusion of stalky pink echinacea flowers, sunshiny-yellow calendula buds, beds of ripening strawberries, fragrant mounds of chamomile and an intoxicating blanket of holy basil.

Each week I carried home boxes of sun-ripened tomatoes, Swiss chard, turnips, cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini and flowers. But more than that, I carried home a renewed sense that even when the all the world appears bleak and lifeless, a flourishing future was still possible. I simply had to plant the seeds I’d been given, to feed and water and shelter them, while waiting to discover what new life emerged.

At first, I’d been fragile, wanting only to curl up and protect myself from any more pain or loss. But as I looked at the rows of vegetables and vines bursting with life around me, I knew the answer to grief was not in locking myself away but in opening myself to whatever came next. If a tiny seed could grow strong by reaching toward the light, maybe I could too.

One hot morning, Lucretia and I knelt in the garden together. Bees and butterflies flitted between the sunflowers. A stray chicken bobbed down the row as we pulled tough stalks of lamb’s quarters, and I talked about Ruth — not just the loss of her but the joy of her too. How clever she was. And funny. And how incredibly much we loved her. Lucretia nodded, telling me about a friend who also had a child with disabilities. As she talked, I realized that the boy had gone to preschool with Ruth. Warmth at the memory softened my heart like the sun-warmed soil falling through my fingers.

A burst of laughter made me turn. Lydia raced down a garden path, hand extended. In her outstretched fingers, she cupped the fragile brown shell of an egg. Asher tottered after her, golden light warming his cheeks. And I knew that although I would always carry the grief of losing Ruth, a life full of goodness lay ahead if only I would embrace it. The healing had begun.