My border collie Gracie picks her way delicately through the flowers in Nicole’s garden. For a dog known to hurdle headlong into tree trunks in manic pursuit of balls, she is showing considerable restraint as she weaves among the ornamental grasses and tiger lillies. She stops for a moment to sniff a gnarled log, barely visible beneath a blanket of moss and swaying pansies. Then she all but disappears under the low-hanging branches of a Nanking cherry bush.
Gracie is banned from the other gardens in my yard, but she and I have reached an undersanding on this one. As long as she doesn’t dig out the flowers or drag the log from its resting place under the bird bath, she is free to wind her way among the plants or lie in the Nanking’s cool shade.
Nicole wouldn’t mind. I remember long-ago summers when my teenage niece planted and pruned her way through the gardens at her parents’ home in Ottawa. She stopped only long enough to eat a sandwich and gulp down water before beginning her next project. Often her big, lop-eared rabbit, Brownie, kept her company, stretching out in the soft earth, nibbling occasionally on a petal or some particularly enticing bit of foliage.
I have rabbits in Nicole’s garden in Edmonton, too. They’re not real of course. Gracie couldn’t handle the excitement of having her very own bunny to herd around the yard. One is a little clay critter, peeking out of a flower pot. Another stands on its hind legs amid the daylilies and ferns. It reminds me of Peter Rabbit surveying Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch. They’re no Brownie, with his smooth, tan coat and soft ears. But they remind me of him just as the flowers remind me of Nicole.
My niece never outgrew her passion for gardening, even when life was full to bursting with family and work. She graduated as a registered nurse and fell in love with Ed, a fellow nurse. They married and had Rebecca and Lindsay, two blond-haired, blue-eyed girls who take my breath away and wrap me around their little fingers just as their mother did when she was a child.
The family settled near Toronto, in a townhome with a front yard not much larger than an area mat. Before long, under Nicole’s nurturing, the little patch came alive with lilies and irises, pansies and forget-me-nots, all nodding their heads in the sleepy breezes of southern Ontario.
On a bleak winter’s day when the gardens slept under snow and ice, Nicole was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Doctors performed a hysterectomy and sent her home to recuperate. Rebecca was three and Lindsay approaching one.
Months later, the cancer returned. As the trees grew heavy with leaves, and plants burst forth in riotous colour, Nicole underwent seven weeks of chemo and radiation. She would leave the hospital after her daily sessions and take the girls swimming or to the park. She repainted her bedroom and she worked in the garden.
Autumn brought joyous news. Nicole was cancer free. At Christmas she mailed pictures of Rebecca and Lindsay in their holiday dresses. We sent silly emails back and forth. She promised when Lindsay was old enough to sit still on a plane, she’d bring the girls to Edmonton.
Then, February arrived and the cancer was back, this time in her lymph nodes and her lungs. My family was frozen in fear and gripped by an anguish so black it was as if the sun had died.
Through the following months we rode a rollercoaster of soaring hope and crashing despair. She was only 31, we said. She could beat this. New treatments were being developed every day.
But the cancer was unstoppable. It was a terrorist, rampaging through her body, occupying it with a frightening ferocity. As one tumour was discovered another was growing. They clenched her organs in a strangle-hold and tortured her nerve endings.
In April, I travelled to see Nicole in hospital. She’d had a stroke and was paralyzed on one side. Her long blond hair was gone and she drifted in and out of consciousness on a current of opioids. I rubbed her back and held her hand. On the morning I was leaving, I kissed her forehead and skimmed my hand over the bristles on her head. “I love you,” I said. She opened her eyes, still so startlingly blue. “I love you too,” she said.
Nicole died on a glorious day in May as all of nature was celebrating its re-birth with merry abandon. Under a cloudless Alberta sky, the trees showed off their lacy green finery and perennials erupted from my gardens, pushing their faces upwards towards the brilliance of the sun.
Within days, Nicole’s garden began to take shape. My husband and I dug out the sod along our western fenceline in gentle curving arcs that remind me of the ebb and flow of the sea. I sank a birdbath into the earth and positioned an old log at its base. Soon pansies and lilies were jostling for space with hens and chicks and poppies. The Nanking cherry keeps the hostas cool within its dark recesses.
Nicole’s garden is a happy place. Bumblebees roll around in the blooms, coating themselves in nectar. Waxwings and robins take turns at the bird bath.
It didn’t take long for Gracie to fall into temptation, drawn by all that cool dark earth and the promise of the Nanking’s shade. She placed a tentative paw in the soil and looked at me. “Go on,” I said. “Nicole wouldn’t mind.”
That summer I journeyed East to see Ed and the girls. Nicole’s presence was everywhere. Birthday reminders in her handwriting filled the kitchen calendar. Her makeup and hair straightener occupied a cupboard in the bathroom. Photographs of her wedding day and with Rebecca and Lindsay covered the walls.
And outside the front door, that little garden was awash in colour, a dazzling patchwork quilt of reds and whites, violets and ambers, a heart-stopping, celebratory yield from the bulbs Nicole had planted the previous fall.
Rebecca grabbed my hand and tugged me forward. “Look, look, Aunty,” she cried. “Look at mommy’s pretty garden!”