At the end of our street is a garden for Jan and Elena. Elena died a month after Jan – and both of them died well before their time.
I don’t think I’ve ever said that out loud before. “Before their time.” I’m not sure what it means. Maybe it means, before those of us around them were ready.
Jan lived down the street from us. If you’d watched Jan and her relationship with the high school girl who lived next door to her you would know that she died well before her time. As for Elena, six years may be longer than some people get but it’s way shorter than her mom and I needed.
Jennifer and Carolyn decided that it would be nice to have a garden planted for Jan and Elena. They wrote an application to the city and were given a grant with which they bought trees and plants and mulch and a bench. Elena would have liked to stop and sit on the bench.
“Daddy, I’m so tired. I just need to sit down on the bench for a minute.”
“But we’re almost home.”
“Elena, we live four houses away.”
“You never let me do anything.”
“Elena, we can sit on the bench tomorrow.”
“You always say that.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, give me one good reason I can’t sit on the bench.”
I would have given in at that point because there wasn’t any good reason. I guess no good reason except that the bench wasn’t here until she was dead seven months.
In September Jennifer and Carolyn organized a day of digging and planting. The whole neighborhood turned out. We dug out a big oval and smoothed over the dirt and mulch that was delivered. We planted the tree and the plants and the flowers in the pattern that someone had designed and then we stood back and looked at the work.
Someone passed by and shouted to us, “it’ll never last.”
Someone else, trying to be friendly, saw a bunch of us digging up the dirt with shovels and called across, “who died?”
But mostly it was neighbors building a garden for two or their own.
There was a flood in George and Jan’s house. I still think of it as their house. A problem with plumbing while he was away led to water damage and a lot of work. He shrugged and said that it bothered him less than it would have a year earlier. Perspective is everything.
George paused in his digging to tell me a story. He had been telling his sister that Elena had died. He described her as the little girl who had come to the house after Jan had died. The sister said, “I remember her. She was the little girl who told me she had always wanted to see the inside of your house.”
It made me smile. Elena had met this woman for just a few minutes and had made an impression.
The bench came a couple of weeks later. A beautiful and simple stone bench with a simple engraving. A couple of weeks after that on a cold and rainy morning the neighbors gathered again at the garden for its dedication. People said words here and there while we stood with coffee in styrofoam cups warming our hands. The words were beautiful and we’ve asked for a copy to post here but mostly I remember George being nice enough to repeat that story for Kim and her parents.
We looked at the garden. We looked at the bench. We thought of Jan and Elena and we smiled.