Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Gardener

My friend Carolyn died last week and I have wanted to write about her and have found it so hard.  I  wanted to write her something before she died but I didn't, almost couldn't, as it seemed as if it would acknowledge how near the end was.   I tried to be a good friend through the 16 months when she was first diagnosed too late with breast cancer that had already spread until she died.  I hope I was a good friend before then as well.

As I write this I try to think of what was the essence of Carolyn.  I first met her, 14 years ago, training for the Sun Run, an annual event in Vancouver.  I had done it the previous year training on my own using the little handbook they provide and I did complete the 10 K run although I am sure I walked part of it.  A friend had done the formal training program the year before and wanted to do so again so I decided to do it with her.  And that is how I met Carolyn as she and Connie had done the program together that previous year.

From January to April three of us, sometimes four of us, would train two nights a week plus join the big group training on Sundays.  It gave lots of talking opportunities and that is how I got to know Carolyn. We only lived a few blocks apart and seemed to have lots in common.  I love flowers, she loved growing things and was an avid gardener.  My gardening is far more haphazard.  We loved taking pictures, she still using her SLR camera that took real film, me generally more lazily using a digital camera.  And we both had lived in Montreal at the same time although we hadn't known each other then.  We liked to travel etc etc.

I admired Carolyn in many ways.  Her garden amazed me.  She grew flowers and vegetables.  Her garden was a thing of beauty.  Gardening was her passion.  She was also an excellent cook, making everything from scratch and often using her garden produce.  She didn't even have a microwave and only ate what was organic. She was a regular at the Trout Lake Farmers' market.  When Carolyn had a tea party or a dinner party not only was the food delicious, the presentation was also a work of art.

She had beautiful china and silver, some inherited, some carefully chosen.  Carolyn was a careful chooser.  Her house was a heritage home, an old house by Vancouver standards, and had been lovingly  restored.  I think I could say Carolyn was a perfectionist but she didn't like things to be too perfect.  For instance her garden was a bit jumbled and thus beautiful.

I always remember her saying how the only time she really sat down during the day was when she had lunch.  She was always busy.  In addition to running a perfect home and taking care of that garden, she volunteered at the UBC Botanical Gardens.  For many years she was the stationery buyer for the gift shop where she also worked one day a week.  She also worked in the vegetable garden there in the summer harvesting etc. etc.  If I needed to know anything about gardening she was the person I asked.

She loved to walk and exercise.  She also loved early music and classical concerts and the art gallery.  Every year she and her husband, Christopher, would travel to Europe once or twice a year to visit his parents and to explore many areas although Paris was always a favourite.  Of course those trips had to be in fall after the garden was basically put to bed and in the winter before her planting took place.

Carolyn grew up in Seattle but lived in  Montreal, Vancouver,  London, and then back in Vancouver.

And she was a mother of two daughters and always wishing the very best for them and appreciative of their accomplishments and talents.

Those are a few of the facts.

As a person, she was kind and thoughtful and self disciplined.    And funny…Those qualities got her through the last 16 months I think.  I have now followed several friends' journeys through cancer, and I am struck by how incredibly brave they are and how well they each handle an unbelievably difficult time.

For Carolyn, I think, the initial diagnosis and then the first round of chemo was very hard but she adjusted.  She adjusted to not being able to do so much of what she used to do but was cheered when she was able to do some of her favourite things.  She loved tea and lunch out with friends.  She was able to go to some concerts.  She even made it back to the gym encouraged by her daughter, Be.  She was able to keep up the garden with help from her daughter, Anna.  Other things she had to let go but she did.  Amazingly she put together a beautiful Christmas dinner.  It was lovely.

But from June on you could see it was getting harder.  We went out for lunch with Connie ( our running training partner)  and she was definitely in pain.  After that she was back on chemo.  It seemed to take more and more out of her.  I took her to a chemo treatment on her birthday near the end of July and by then walking two blocks was a lot for her.  She was still positive and upbeat and not feeling the least bit sorry for herself.  But she was becoming more and more tired.  She was excited that Be was in Porto in Portugal and would be visiting again at the end of August.  And when Be came they managed to go to the Picasso exhibit and have lunch at a favourite of ours, the Reflections Lounge at the Georgia Hotel.

She was getting weaker and weaker.  It is hard to know what to do but I tried to put together little care packages every week and I emailed every day and she would email back.  If I didn't hear from her for a couple of days I would get alarmed and check in with Anna.  Once she had an email password problem, another time she was just too week to email but did enjoy the photos I sent Anna had shown her.

Almost two weeks ago she emailed me that she was very tired but enjoying the sun.  I sent her a photo of the watercolour I had been working on in my art class that morning and she wrote, "That water colour is wonderful.  It looks like an official botanical drawing and it's lovely".

The next morning I dropped off a little care package and I think I enclosed a card that said how she inspired me in so many ways.

I didn't hear from her again and I knew this was not a good sign.  I have a feeling I almost didn't want to know.  Connie and I had lunch on Monday and we talked about her apparently worsening condition.  Tuesday morning a friend and I went off to Ucluelet for a couple of nights on Vancouver Island.  Wednesday I was actually at Wickaninnish Beach when I read Anna's email that she had died on Sunday having been in hospice two and a half days.  Carolyn had wanted to email her friends but was too weak.  She didn't want any memorial service.

I simply sat down on a log on the beach and cried.  It seemed ironic to receive such sad news in such a beautiful place but also fitting in that Pacific Rim National Park was an area that Carolyn had loved.

A good friendship is a true gift and I am so glad that I got to know Carolyn.  I know that when someone dies they do live on in your memory.  My house is filled with thoughtful gifts from Carolyn.  I think I have kept all of her beautiful photo cards.  I can pour tea from a teapot she gave me.  A lovely plaque she gave me is in my kitchen.  The foldable bag in my purse is one from her.   And certainly yesterday working in my garden I thought of her as I have plants she gave me, and she was always so encouraging in my efforts.  In Steveston yesterday, I would see something and think how she would like it.  Saturday I had lunch at Tacofino's in Gastown, another favourite of hers, and I thought of walks we had taken in that area.

Carolyn had a gift for friendship as she was always kind and a careful listener with a fine sense of humour.  She had the ability to truly be happy for her friends.  She had a smile that lit up a room as well as a personal elegance.  I really believe that we really benefit from friendships with people that are different than we are and although in many ways we were kindred spirits i was in awe of Carolyn as she was the kind of perfectionist I could never be.  She was a hard worker and she worked hard to make the world a truly more beautiful place.

A few years ago I went to a conference and went to a session with a wonderful writer and her talented husband, an artist, and I gave her a book she had written and he had illustrated, The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and David Small.  it is about a little girl who lives on a farm and loves to garden but is sent to live with her uncle in the city in the depression and creates a garden there as well.  I just found a video of this book that I am going to share.

She loved it and said that that was her, someone who always wanted to be a gardener.  She gave  the book back to me to share with children, which I certainly have, and now I will always tell them about my friend.

Above all else, Carolyn was a gardener, someone who planted carefully, nurtured and created beauty wherever she went.