Mom struggled with mental illness most of her adult life. Here was a woman who graduated in three years from Stanford University and binged on beef bouillon for weeks. She mastered the art of Japanese flower arranging, yet she heard voices in her head and believed she could walk on water. This is a story I wrote about growing up with Mom. It was first published in Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul, the book I co-authored, which quickly became a New York Times bestseller.
By Marion Owen
When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit
of talent left, and could say, “I used everything you gave me. —Irma Bombeck
As a mother of five, mom had little time during the day to be out in the garden with her beloved rhododendrons or planting bulbs. But a loyal gardener always finds a way. As soon as we were tucked away in bed, she’d grab her garden tools and car keys and go outside into the night. Starting up the car, mom shined the headlights onto a section of the garden. In peace and quiet at last, she’d settle into a gentle rhythm of weeding—a rhythm she hoped would settle her nerves after another busy day.
With five kids comes a lot of energy, and my parents found relief in Washington State’s trail system. Packing the car with lunches and a mess of kids, off we went to the mountains. The moment the car stopped at the trailhead, the doors flew open and we bounded up the path with my parents following in the rear.
Along the trail, I looked for unusual plants, ones I didn’t think Mom would recognize. Whenever I came across an oddball, I would proudly present her with the sample. Thus challenged, she opened her wild plant guide and together we’d flip through the chapters, looking for a match. Years later, I came across the battered book and discovered dried wafers of leaves and flowers still pressed between the pages.
On days the weather kept us indoors, sometimes we would flip through fine art catalogs or visit museums and art galleries. One day, a beautiful museum catalog arrived in the mail. Mom and I leafed through it, marking pages of our favorite flower paintings.
“Look!” I gasped, pointing to a Japanese print. Mom had seen it, too. It was a beautiful landscape. Tall green grass seed to ripple in the breeze and clouds dotted the blue sky. A small hut, perhaps the family home, sat near a well-tended flower garden.
“We’ll get that one,” she smiled. And we filled out the order form.
During my senior year in high school, I took a forestry course. The end of the semester loomed, but thanks to Mom, I didn’t have to take the final exam. The student who brought in and correctly identified the greatest number of native plants was exam from the Big Test. The night before class, mom and I toured the yard collecting samples and packed them in a cardboard box. The next day, I (we) won hands down.
Mom’s creativity and love for children were reflected in everything she did, from setting the dining room table with craft projects as an alternative to TV, to making houses out of grass and cattail reeds.
Sometimes, things were quite right with Mom. Sometimes she did things we didn’t understand. She tired easily. She missed appointments and went on strange eating binges.
One night, my sister and I heard a commotion from outside our bedroom. We opened the door just enough to see two men wearing white coats carrying our mother away on a stretcher. As soon as they disappeared, we ran to find Dad.
“What’s wrong with mommy?” we cried.
“She’s not feeling well,” Dad said, his voice trembling. “Mommy’s going to a special hospital for a couple of months.”
From that point on, the family had to deal with the fact of Mom’s mental illness. It was often hard for us to understand; doctors back then were still struggling with how to treat manic-depression and schizophrenia
The years went by, and we kids grew up and moved away. My parents divorced. Mom struggled with alcoholism, severe depression, and loneliness. Unable to hold down a job, she ended up in low-income housing in downtown Seattle. Undaunted by living in the middle of the city, Mom was determined to be near flowers and green things, so each spring and summer she wrote the city bus to and from her community garden plot.
Eventually, I moved to Alaska, but Mom and I stayed in close touch, our letters and phone conversations laced with “garden speak.”
“Someone’s stealing my tomatoes,” Mom once lamented. “What should I do?”
“Plant more!” I said, laughing. “You’ll really make them happy!”
Then one autumn, Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The doctors gave her a few months to live. Mom suffered immeasurable physical pain but for reasons unknown to her doctors, she was suddenly free of the mental illness that had played her most of her adult life. It was as if all of the darkness just lifted and was gone. For the first time in many years, Mom was ”there” more than she ever been, allowing us to share whole conversations, walks, and meals together. I made several visits from my home in Alaska.
On a midsummer morning, I was out in my garden when my sister and older brother called to say that mom was refusing any sort of care, food, or water. She was fading fast. He promised to stay in close touch from her hospital room.
I wanted to be alone, so I returned to the garden. After a few hours, I picked a large bouquet of yellow irises and carry them into the house. The phone was ringing. It was my sister. Mom was slipping in and out of consciousness and hadn’t responded in several hours.
My sister held the phone up to Mom’s ear so I could talk to her. The yellow irises beside me misted into a golden haze as I held back tears.
Speaking slowly and deliberately I told her that every time I’m in the garden I think of her. I told her I was grateful for all she had taught me.
“I will always love you, Mom.”
She was so weak, she could only whisper.
“Thanks, honey.” Those were her last words. Mom died that evening.
The next morning, I was going through a box of family papers and photographs, searching for memories of Mom. As I gently pull back a handful of faded newspaper clippings, my heart stopped. There was the Japanese print Mom and I had picked from the catalog over 30 years before. The sunlit garden scene was as lovely and tranquil as ever. And in the foreground was a large clump of yellow irises.
Thanks for visiting. Cheers and blessings to you and your family,
P.S. If you have thoughts or feelings to share after reading this story, I’d love to hear from you.