Garlic is funny, because it sprouts at a time when the rest of the garden is fading.
By Carla Vergot
It’s been well over a year since I shared a story about the garden. So much has transpired. I took a sabbatical from teaching special education. Ricky and I got married. I wrote a book and painted the kitchen. Upon completing the sabbatical, I permanently resigned from teaching. The biggest news, though, is that Ricky didn’t die. This is a story of how what was supposed to be our last garden turned into our next garden … our victory garden.
It was May of 2016 when the first symptom appeared. A ghost itch that couldn’t be traced to one of the usual suspects like a rash, dry skin, or bug bites. Before long, jaundice accompanied the itch, and Ricky turned as yellow as a crook neck summer squash. The prognosis wasn’t good. We heard the word “cholangiocarcinoma.” A Google marathon uncovered one thing: it would likely kill him before we learned how to spell it.
We weren’t prepared to fight this opponent. Up to that point, our adversaries had been hornworms, squash beetles, and stink bugs. In our organic approach to gardening, we relied heavily on the pluck-and-smash method to deal with an enemy. However, squeezing the guts out of the bad guy wasn’t a viable option in this case. It’s fair to say we didn’t know what to do besides cry and pray. We did both in the garden.
While he was too sick and I was too sad to tend to the vegetables, we still found peace there. It has been his haven ever since we put it in six or seven years ago. Whenever I can’t find him, he’s probably in the garden, doing God knows what. During that dark time, it was a natural place for us both to be.
By mid-summer, the 2016 garden was a jungle of overgrown beds and weeds up to our knees. Even though we weren’t taking care of it, we accepted that it was taking care of us. We ate beans and tomatoes and goofy, twisted sculptures of trombone zucchini.
Since we both kept picturing a time when one of us wouldn’t be there, we tried to make as many memories in the garden as we could. When we got married in July, we took that cheesy picture of our left hands that everyone takes. Not only did we take the picture in the garden, but we embraced our inner hillbilly and used the tomato plants on the cow fence for the backdrop.
As we dealt with end-of-life issues and had those hard conversations, I asked him if there was anything he really wanted to do. He thought about it for days before answering, and his response was so pure: he wanted to plant the garlic.
Ricky has always had a chronic problem with over-planting which may or may not stem from his chronic problem of over-purchasing seeds. Needless to say, I was not surprised when he ordered a quantity of garlic sufficient to supply a chain of Italian restaurants. It had been delivered during the madness, and now he wanted to plant it. Such a simple and sweet request from my farmer, I couldn’t say no, but the thought of harvesting it without him the next spring broke my heart. Regardless, we launched Operation Too Much Garlic in early September, planting a hundred cloves.
Garlic is funny because it sprouts at a time when the rest of the garden is fading. Surrounded by the crumpled cucumber vines and the yellowish-brown tomato plants, the tender bright green shoots seem to mock the garden’s natural life cycle.
Right around the time the garlic shoots appeared, things with his diagnosis became inexplicable. After a whole lot of endoscopies and biopsies and core samples, a tiny blob of cells told a different story. The untreatable, incurable cholangiocarcinoma everyone expected was in fact a treatable and curable lymphoma. Just like the garlic popping up amidst the death and decay, there was suddenly hope.
Medically speaking, no one can say for sure how this happened. Spiritually speaking, we can say for sure it was the power of prayer. We didn’t pray for a cure, we prayed for a chance to fight the disease. Ricky got the chance and entered chemotherapy like a warrior. He is cancer free today.
When I think back on the year and the fact that we weren’t supposed to have another garden together, my heart gets full and one phrase comes to mind every time. It’s a phrase I first heard from my granddad—”the victory garden.”
I asked Pap once why he always called people’s gardens victory gardens. He explained that when he was a boy a victory garden was a way for citizens to support the country during the war by planting a few things in the yard to ease the strain on the food supply. Every garden was a victory garden when he was a kid, and he called it that for the rest of his life.
Our victory garden took on a new layer of meaning in 2017 with Ricky’s victory over cancer. We started our plants last winter with the joy of two people who felt like they had actually discovered a cure for the disease. The garden, with all it’s sappy symbolism, became the metaphor of the cancer experience. Hope was like the garlic planted when everything around it was dying.
The tomatoes this past year were sweeter, and the squirrels took fewer of them. The red Chinese noodle beans made us laugh. The smell of basil perfumed the whole side yard. We harvested buckets of poblano peppers. And there was a bumper crop of garlic.
Sometimes working outside this past summer I would secretly stare at him while he fussed with a vine or weeded a bed, and my gratitude flowed through my tear ducts. The things that used to irritate me don’t anymore. Like when he picks tomatoes and leaves the little green starfish things on the top just because it looks prettier that way.
Everything about the victory garden is prettier to me, even the weeds. The lesson, I think, is to celebrate the moment while you’re in the moment. Each one is a victory.