Debbie LaChusa

Why I Planted a Garden for Dad After He Died

Maybe it would help me hang on to a little piece of him.

Despite the sun playing peek-a-boo with the clouds all afternoon, it was hot for early June in the mountains. With the thermometer pushing eighty degrees, and the humidity not far behind, it wasn’t ideal gardening weather. But I felt called to plant—well, re-plant.

As I pushed aside the mulch, cut through the weed cloth I’d put down last year, and dug each hole, I was also digging up memories. I’d first planted this garden last fall, after returning home from Dad’s funeral.

Thirty hummingbird mint plants, lovingly placed in the ground on the embankment overlooking our driveway. Fragrant pink and coral colored flowers shooting up from the ground, planted to attract hummingbirds in memory of Dad. 

Dad died last June, four days after Father’s Day.

I was with him the day he passed, but I was out of the room when he took his last breath. I’d stepped outside for a few moments and was sitting in the courtyard of the assisted living facility in California where he and mom lived. As I sat in the warm summer sun, a hummingbird flew into the courtyard and landed on a feeder across the lawn from where I was seated. For a few moments I got lost watching the tiny frenetic bird drink the sweet red nectar.

I’d flown in myself the day before, after being alerted that Dad was close to the end. While I was grateful to be there, watching him die was hard. It felt good to be outside in the fresh air, away from the stuffy room where death loomed. I hadn’t been outside long when I looked up and saw my sister-in-law running toward me.

“He’s gone.” she said.

As I looked back toward the feeder, the hummingbird flitted away, darting up and over the roofline encircling my temporary oasis. I’d flown two thousand miles to be with Dad and I wasn’t there when he left. 

After Dad retired from his teaching career, he went back to school and studied to become a Master Gardener.

In addition to volunteering in the community, he applied his newfound knowledge to his own garden. With his children grown and gone, he replaced the backyard lawn with flowers—lilies, orchids, blooming cactus, Matilija poppies, and others I don’t know the names of. He filled the yard with fruit trees and the patio with potted plants. He spent hours tending to them all, trimming, pruning, and hand watering each and every plant.

When he wasn’t working in his garden, he often sat on the patio, under the shade of a latticed roof, enjoying and admiring his handiwork. At one point a hummingbird built a nest in the eaves of the patio roof and Mom and Dad watched her and her babies for weeks. Every time I called I’d get an update on the babies—Mom nicknamed them hummits.

A hummingbird wind chime now hangs in the spot where the nest used to be. 

My husband and I left California five years ago.

We retired and relocated to North Carolina. While there are hummingbirds here we’ve never seen many around our house. After burying Dad and returning home, I longed to see hummingbirds. It helped ease the pain of his loss. Each time I saw one I imagined it was Dad, stopping by to let me know he was okay. I planted the hummingbird mint in Dad’s memory. I even ordered a little metal sign that read Dad’s Hummit Garden.

Dad was buried in California, where he lived. This was his memorial garden where I lived—a garden I could visit everyday. A place I could remember him, his love of gardening, and the little hummingbird that graced me with its presence at the exact moment Dad passed.

I learned after Dad died that a hummingbird can be a sign that a loved one is near.

The hummingbird mint went dormant over the winter, and when spring arrived I anxiously awaited its re-emergence.

But the plants never returned. Dad was gone, and now so was his garden. It was almost like losing him all over again. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to re-plant.

What if they just kept dying?

I bought a metal hummingbird sculpture, figuring I’d plant him in the garden instead. He’d never die and at least I’d have a hummingbird to remind me of Dad.

But every morning, as I walked up the driveway to take my dogs for a walk, I saw the empty garden sitting there. The garden that was so full of life last fall, the garden I’d planted to inspire happy memories of Dad, now a daily reminder that he was gone.

So last week my husband and I went to the garden center and bought some new plants.

After consulting with the garden center staff, we selected a variety of flowering perennials that are hardier and will hopefully last more than one season. We were assured that the catmint, wild bergamot, cardinal flowers, and bee balm we selected would fill our garden with a display of lavender, pink, and brilliant red blooms certain to attract hummingbirds.

As I carefully hand watered my newly planted flowers, I realized that Father’s Day is coming up.

I’d figured it would pretty much be a non-event this year. There’s no one to call. No one to send a card to. That’s when it dawned on me that this garden is the perfect Father’s Day gift.

Dad was never able to visit my home in North Carolina. He was too old and feeble to travel after we moved away. But with this garden I feel like he’s here. Each hummingbird visit is like a visit from Dad. I imagine he’s stopping by to check on me and the garden and make sure we’re both doing okay.

This story was originally written and published in Age of Empathy on Medium, in response to a Fatherhood writing prompt. If you’d like to read and applaud this story on Medium, you can do so here.

1 thought on “Why I Planted a Garden for Dad After He Died”

  1. I am now doing the similar thing as you do, just keep working in my farther’s garden, the place that he stayed for long.
    All the best!

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