When Metaphor Fails

This year, my wife and I made a token attempt to start a garden. We managed to pull ourselves away from the home renovation long enough to carve a perennial border out of a piece of our side yard.

Right now, it looks like a tattered tapestry. Some perennials have established with athletic vigor, while others lie low, perhaps waiting till next year. I’ve seeded the holes in the border with summer annuals, which have quickly taken advantage of their slower to establish neighbors.  The riotous color and size of the annuals have eroded what bit of compositional clarity that initially existed. Weeds run rampant throughout.  Crabgrass, Bermuda grass, and Bindweed dominate the area where we plan to add a stone path and terrace. They control territory like a Mexican drug cartel.  With so little time for the garden, the weeds and I maintain an uneasy détente—they have their territory, and I have mine.

Already I’m making notes about what needs to be changed. Too many filler plants, not enough structural ones. Needs more upright spires. Dot in a few architectural shrubs. Add low, dark-leafed annuals along the edges for contrast. Too many thin, linear masses: re-mass perennials in block-ier, thicker masses. The list grows by the day.

August crushes my idealism. All winter and spring I made pretty pictures of the garden in the soft light of my mind. In May, these images felt almost attainable. But August is the ultimate judge; the glare of the midday sun bears upon me the inescapable force of reality. All prior imaging disappears with the dew. The garden is simply what it is.

Realism is the theme of my summer.  Last month my father went through a complicated open-heart surgery and began a miraculous recovery from a stroke. Seeing him suffer through an intense recovery has also confronted me with a jarring reality. With a recovery like his, nothing goes the way you expect. With every hurdle he overcomes, another battery of complications sprout up. He has faced his recovery with a strength and grace that is indescribable unless witnessed. The man I knew as the sweetest man on earth has proved to be one of the strongest.

It is times like this when reality itself overcomes our ability to process it in words. When tragedy strikes, I find myself instinctively trying to cloak it in metaphor, to find words to distance me from the experience itself. But the firmness and weight of that reality causes metaphor to fail. What analogy is there for watching someone you love suffer?  What platitudes?  I was recently reading an account of a father, writer Aleksander Hemon, who lost his ninth-month old daughter to cancer. During her illness, he described, “Isabel’s illness overrode any form of imaginative involvement on my part. All I cared about was the firm reality of her breaths on my chest, the concreteness of her slipping into slumber as I sang my three lullabies. I did not want to extend myself in any direction but hers.”*

Since my father’s surgery, I find myself directing the affection I feel for him more urgently toward my eleven-month son. It is my way of bridging the distance. As Jude slips into sleep, I brush my fingers across his temple and channel a prayer for my father. It is the only prayer I ever really mean: please, please, please. The precious beating heart in front of me is linked to the precious healing heart of my dad in a sea of my confused, inadequate love.

After my son has gone to bed and the dishes have been washed, I step outside to the garden. The sun is setting, and I make a half-hearted effort to pull a few weeds. For a moment, I squint my eyes and try to recall the image of what I thought this garden would look like. But I can’t remember. All I can see is what is here.

*  The referenced article was written by Aleksander Hemmon, “The Aquarium,” The New Yorker, June 13, 2011, pg. 50.

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