Crafting a Well Tended Life (no surviving children)
by Terry Jones-Brady
The bare bones story of my life is this: I lost two daughters to a vile and nasty genetic disease called Cystic Fibrosis. My older daughter, Heather, was twelve when she died undergoing a bronchial lavage that was meant to prolong her life. My younger daughter, Holly, died twelve days following an unsuccessful bilateral lung transplant that we thought would give her new life. During those twelve long days, Holly was comatose. She was twenty-two when the medical team decided to unplug the equipment that was keeping her vital functions going. Five years later, my husband, the girls’ father, put a .357 magnum handgun to his temple and pulled the trigger. He sat downstairs in his favorite chair in the living room to commit suicide. I was upstairs reading when it happened.
Those events are the bones. The meat of the story is this: my girls led lives as full as possible while they were on this earth. They were in gifted programs for academics and art during their elementary school days. Holly, the only one who lived long enough to go to high school, was accepted into the Governor’s Magnet School, which she attended every afternoon after classes at the high school in the morning. They both rode horses and bicycles. Heather was a gifted visual artist, while Holly was a talented ballet, jazz, and modern dancer. They both had close friendships, and Holly had a steady boyfriend during high school and beyond. Their father and I decided very early in their lives that they would not be treated as hothouse flowers; rather, we encouraged them to participate in as much of life as they were able to do.
The part of the story that I pray will be of help to other sufferers, the part I especially want to share, is that I have lived through searing grief, worked through unfathomable mourning, and gone on to live a productive and new life. I stand as living proof that the human spirit is capable of responding to tragic loss – in my case, multiple tragic losses – with resilience. There is power in the broken heart.
The heart-broken open has room for new love, greater compassion, and deep empathy. The broken heart can either remain crushed and susceptible to dark depression and suicide, or it can be reconfigured and enhanced into a vessel ready to be recreated, metaphorically speaking.
No magic formula exists. A long, dark tunnel does exist, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel is a gift in a strange way, because the darkness gives you the opportunity to go within, where a spark of the divinity is waiting for you. God is always there, in the good times and the bad.
Resilience is a process of adapting in a positive way to significant tragedy or adversity. I emphasize process because I want you to know that it took me a long time to bounce back from the tragedies that life handed me. I’m still bouncing back, and always will be, but each day, I’ve chosen to move farther along the road towards happiness. Resilience was not handed to me on a silver platter. I learned to be resilient.
Gardening is one of the activities that calms and renews my soul, and helps to increase my resilience. My garden is lush and overgrown, and that’s the way I want it. It’s not neatly manicured. For instance, I love wild violet, little pesky wild perennials that many gardeners strive to eliminate. I love them when their little purple faces first peek up out of the ground soon after the crocuses have thrust their heads up. Crocuses emerge in their amazing way, right up through snow, surprising us with nearly forgotten promise of color to come.
Then the season progresses and we move into late spring. Watching the seasons roll round and round is a joy. Miniature roses in hues of coral, red and yellow bloom in abundance on my balcony. The azaleas have almost finished their glorious displays of fuchsia, pink, and wedding gown white. We plant summer annuals – celosia, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, and impatiens.
Still the cool weather permits the pansies to hold their own, even as heat-loving perennials begin to emerge. Pansies, with their cheerful, friendly, diverse faces – each individual contributes to a multihued palette of irrepressible color.
And as we put order into our patchwork garden, I begin to see why the violets, their blooms spent, seem like little intruders in the scheme of things. For a short time they are sprightly heralds of the rebirth of the Earth in springtime. Later in the season they consist of heart-shaped raggedy green patches popping up erratically around the lawn and garden. Wild violets are free and hard to uproot, yet their time of flowering in the garden is fairly brief. Thus it is with most spring flowers, thus their value, their heartbreakingly short-lived significance.
Planting and tending our gardens is one way we may become co-creators with the universe, stewards of beauty and delight. Gardening encourages us to live in a state of awe and reverence. Despite the drudgery of tilling soil and pulling weeds, gardening becomes a sacred act.
In commemoration of my daughter Heather’s birthday in November, I bought some pansies. Now pansies, I have to tell you, are cousins to the wild violets. They share a common family name in the botanical classification system: Violaceae. Viola wittrockiana is the horticultural name of the cultivated pansy; Viola papilionacea is its weedy and wilder relative.
The pansies I planted in little pots in memory of Heather were apricot, orange, and yellow; also palest sunrise pink with an occasional splash of deep purple. I set the pots on the railing of the kitchen deck where their cheerful faces greeted me every day. Proud and sturdy, their delicate appearance of fragility contradicted their true resilience to withstand winter’s blasts of frost, sleet, snow, or wind. Joyous in the bright calm cold solstice air, these little potted flowers were a birthday present given to Heather and right back to me.
Gardening has taught me that death is a natural process, a natural transition, perhaps a mere breath from one form of life into the next. This lesson has been a great gift to me. Nothing can stop the seasons from returning each and every year, and no matter how brief a life is, it has its perfect season.
Year after year in autumn, we plant pansies to brighten the landscape through winter and into spring. Unlike the wild violets, they need sowing and nurturance. Like the wild violets, they possess the sturdy ability to withstand harsh winter weather. Their little upturned faces peeping through blankets of snow remind us that life prevails. Until I developed an appreciation for gardening as a balm for grieving, I did not understand the desire of many gardeners to eradicate the violets as mere weeds. Common little violets are lovely when they bloom in the spring. But as the weather warms, their delicate blossoms fade, leaving persistent colonies of vegetation that spread with abandon. Their dense, fibrous root system enables them to encroach upon the flowerbeds sown and cultivated with design.
You see, there’s a tension in the gardening process. Do I let nature take its course or do I impose my own landscaping ideas? Do I turn the garden over to God, or do I demonstrate stewardship by helping Mother Nature tidy up?
Similarly, I am trying to balance the tension between grief for my dead family and gratitude for my new life. It is a tough balancing act, because the grief continues to reassert itself into the present time. In the fresh comeliness of their blooms, the violets are a joy. But as leftovers, the rampant weedy patches simply threaten the aesthetics of the garden. Rooting them out, I make way for pattern and design.
And I’ve learned to give grief its due, but then to root out the chaos of overwhelming mourning. Sadness will never be gone from my heart, just as I will never eradicate the root system of the wild violets in my lawn and garden. I know they’ll return next year, and I know I’ll welcome them. But when they are no longer pretty, I’ll dispense with them. So it is that I will dispense with weeping out of season, and get on with authentic composition of the remainder of my life.
I had one daughter born during the time of the pansies’ reign in the autumn garden, and I had another daughter born during the spring, when the wild violets have reasserted their fearless tenacious little selves through the thawing earth. Heather was born in the fall of the year, and for her I planted the pansies. Holly, four and a half years younger, came along in May, when the wild violets sprout and bloom of their own accord.
In May, on the anniversary of Holly’s birthday and to commemorate her life, I placed
arrangements of colorful flowers on the altar at our church. From my garden, I gathered snapdragons – mostly yellow, but a few reds and pinks – white spirea, and red Jupiter’s beard. From the florist, I bought purple liatris, tiny green mums, and some white baby’s breath. From these various stems I crafted two symmetrical bouquets to honor the memory of one of my dead daughters.
True to the ordered cycle of life’s processes, the pansies as well as the bouquets of spring flowers are dead now. Sadly, my girls too are dead, and I will always miss them terribly. Sometimes my grief sticks in my throat and threatens to choke me. Other times I feel the girls are still with me, playful gossamer sprites tickled to see their mother creating a new life.
That is the tension – between the losing and the gaining, the giving up and the receiving, the weeding out and the nurturing. Finally, between florid sentimentality and the authentic work of crafting a well-tended life.
Embrace the tension. Rejoice in it, for it rewards you with a full and rich life.
About the Author: Terry Jones-Brady is the author of A Mosaic Heart: Reshaping the Shards of a Shattered Life, published by Quartet Books and winner of a Silver Prize in the 2012 Nautilus Literary Awards, a national award that honors, awards and promotes print books that inspire and connect our lives as individuals, communities and global citizens. A piece that became a chapter in the book was awarded the William Brenner Prize for First Place in Non-Fiction at the 2010 Hampton Roads Writers Conference.
She was born in Richmond, Virginia, but spent most of her childhood in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her family moved to California when she was fourteen and she went to high school near San Diego, and then to the University of California, Berkeley. A love of acting started in high school where she was an active member of the drama club. At Berkeley, she majored in Dramatic Arts and minored in English Literature. She appeared in several plays on the Berkeley campus and at the same time conformed to the stringent academic requirements of the university.
Following graduation she moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater. There, she met and married a theater director, Tim Jones. Together, the couple had two daughters. Both girls were diagnosed with the life-threatening genetic disease, cystic fibrosis, and Terry’s primary interest was diverted from acting to the care of her beloved daughters. For many years, she was the primary caregiver as well as cheerleader for Heather and Holly.
When their older daughter, Heather, died at the age of twelve, and with Tim’s encouragement, Terry enrolled in a graduate program in special education, taking classes offered jointly by the Departments of Education at Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University. She earned a Master’s degree and began teaching students with learning disabilities when her surviving daughter, Holly, was in elementary school.
She taught English as a Second Language to the wives of Saudi Arabian Naval personnel stationed at the local naval base for training, and taught in the Education Department of a local psychiatric hospital. She became an instructional support counselor for a regional cooperative educational program for special students sponsored and funded by eight local school systems. Two years following her retirement, she was asked by the organization to return to teach a class of high-functioning autistic middle schoolers, which she did for a year.
Terry is a graduate of the Tidewater Writing Project at Old Dominion University. She is also a certified spiritual director, having completed the two-year course required for certification at the Virginia Institute of Spiritual Direction, and is a master gardener affiliated with Western Tidewater Master Gardeners. In addition, she taught drama for Norfolk’s Hurrah Players. Terry is a mosaic artist and her work has been displayed in the Suffolk Art League’s members show at the Suffolk Museum.
Her poetry has been published in Seabury in Memoriam, and her non-fiction articles have appeared in The Smithfield Times and Suffolk Happening. Her short story, “From Dropout to Entrepreneur,” was featured in Book 2 of The Troubled and Troubling Child series.
Terry and her husband, Kevin, live in Suffolk with an English bulldog and a cockatiel. Visit Terry’s website HERE.