08/15/2012 08:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What We Leave Behind

The other day I was up at my brother's old cabin, which I have taken over to restore as a writing and painting retreat.  I've let the landscape go wild and crazy, the way it was when he and I first saw it more than 30 years ago. While my mother managed it, it was a Pennsylvania Dutch model of a neatly groomed yard. But to me, it was always supposed to be wild. There are peonies that pre-date even my brother, that are now tangled with roses gone to brambles. There are also some inappropriate juniper bushes that I am thinking about just digging out and dumping somewhere. But this year the grass hasn't been mowed, and I like it that way. The other night, I watched as the fireflies lifted from the grass like sparks as the dusk fell to darkness.

But in the morning light I noticed what looked suspiciously like gladiolas over by the old wishing well (yes, this was originally a magical fairy abode, or so my brother and I believed). Gladiolas? There is only one person who could have planted those and that would be my brother, who died of AIDS 27 years ago. He was one of the first to go from AIDS. And he was the type of guy who never had a dinner party without a fabulous vase filled with gladiolas.

It became clear as I trudged through the long, soggy grass for a closer inspection that before he went (he was only 30) he planted gladiolas that--shockingly--still bloom, even though there is absolutely no logical reason they should. (In my planting zone, Zone 6, you are supposed to dig them up every fall, put them somewhere they won't freeze, and replant them in the spring if the mice haven't eaten them.) You can't blame global warming because I remember at least two blizzards in those intervening 27 years during which we had 3 feet of snow.

Just to make sure I wasn't imagining things, I asked my brother's partner, with whom I am still close, if the two of them had planted them. "Yup," he confirmed. "We did." We looked at each other in the way people do who have been through everything together and are no longer surprised by the mystical or magical things that the universe throws our way. "Well, they are still blooming," I confirmed.

I don't know what it means, if anything, but I do know it has got me thinking about what we leave behind when we are gone.

People leave behind all sorts of things: stories, songs, recipes, works of art, or quilts and blankets that wrap our children up with love. Some people leave wounds that need to be healed, and some people leave lots of junk. But everybody leaves something. No one lives on this earth without leaving a "wake" behind them, like a boat that sails the sea; the ripples may eventually dissipate, but all the other boats and swimmers feel the rocking.

My brother's things have long since been sorted through and given away (although, when my mother died, she had saved quite a few things that were hard to throw away: his wisdom teeth, a pair of glasses, and an odd assortment of bits and pieces that no longer hold much meaning). But the gladiolas speak to me not of death and passing, but of life, ongoing life. They're a reminder that while our time here is finite, what we leave behind can linger long after. What we plant may just keep on growing.


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