It’s that time of year… when I haven’t cut the grass for about 5 months and things have started to grow again. There’s something about this time of the year when nothing’s been cut in a while, and a fresh, wild green-ness is evident all around.
Everything is growing… the grass is growing, the weeds are growing, the stuff that I’m not sure if it’s a “weed” or a “native plant” is growing too. But I have noticed something new that I can’t “un-notice.” It’s not about “what” is growing… it’s about “where” it’s growing.
Here is a photo from one of the trees in my yard. Look at the abundant plants flourishing in its shade. This is not a photo trick or an intentional planting that thrives in shade. This is nature on John Street in Ashland, VA. The grass out in the vast yard survived winter. It’s alive but just beginning to grow and regain its color. But the many species in the shade beneath the tree are thriving, even as spring has barely begun.
What does the tree represent? At first my mind went to God… with a message to “be sure we little plants should stay rooted in the big tree’s shade.” But that makes no sense. God is bigger than one tree. God cares for all the grass and weeds and native plants and every living thing… whether they are near the trunk, beneath the branches, or far away roasting in the midday sun. Plus, we don’t choose where we’re planted, right? Which of us chose the families that birthed and/or raised us? Our multiple identities? No… that first analogy is flawed in many ways.
So what is the wisdom to be discovered in this beautiful image I noticed in my yard?
Maybe it’s a simple fact: things thrive when they are nurtured and protected, yet living things come in many forms. There are times, there are relationships where I’m the tree, working to nurture someone else. There are times that I am the weed, where some think I don’t belong, but I can still thrive and be beautiful if nurtured by another. And there are times that I’m the grass far across the yard, nothing special, but still rooted, still gonna grow, still alive.
I often think of dementia in terms of a progression: First I’m healthy, offering shade to others, then later I will be like a plant in the soil beneath another’s shade. And even if I find myself in a stage where I’m not able to be so protected or nurtured, if I’m a body in a bed in a large facility with little personal attention, I’ll still be alive, still a part of the landscape.
But no… that’s not the message either. I’m sure of it. Simple analogies are often flawed. You see, Mom has advanced dementia but she’s not merely grass far out in the yard. She’s still the tree that holds its branches over me. She still says kind and nurturing things that remind me of her loving intention, even if she can’t carry out her intentions. She asked me just this week if I could think of a place I’d like to travel and pick a time that works for me, how she’d be happy to pay for it and we could go together. I remember the many times she arranged wonderful, generous family vacations. She’s also still being nurtured like the abundant plants beneath the tree. She recently received an Easter goodie bag from a church friend, a photo book from her sister, a cat calendar, and more. All these things bring big smiles and great joy to her. And yes, in some ways she’s a sprig of grass far out in the yard. She’s growing frail, she doesn’t know where she is… and yet, then she surprises you with something beautiful, with kind words, with a clever joke… beautiful even if limited. She’s all three… nurturing tree, thriving plant in the shade, and grass far across the yard.
So… we’re all trees offering shade, we’re all plants thriving in the shade of another tree, and we’re all blades of grass far out in the yard. Avoid the simple analogies, they are too limited. Life is abundant, we have many roles to play… even our loved ones with dementia… even us when dementia comes for us. We can be the nurturing tree, the thriving shaded plant, and the struggling grass across the yard all at the same time. We can all be beautiful, each in our own ways, fulfilling our many roles, simply being grateful for the gift of life.
As Spring continues to come and the landscape changes, I may forget this image of the shade tree and the yard beyond. But I trust new beauty will come. Sunshine or rain, new sprouts or deep roots… I’ll be looking for analogies, searching for wisdom, and remaining grateful simply to be alive and a part of this magnificent Creation.