When they returned to the old house after her death, Mr. Lee and Jin, their son, found out that all the chrysanthemums in the garden had died, for lack of proper care, and the kitchen garden in the courtyard had been laid to waste.
The floorboards creaked like crackling bones, and a silent breeze would whistle through the house like a ghost, rustling the wind chimes that Mrs. Lee had put up. The elaborate wall hangings and delicate ornamental vases were covered in a thin layer of dust, and the sun would rise and set upon a house that was wrapped in a thick shroud of grief.
Although her life had been a long and fulfilling one, Mrs. Lee did not find a similar comfort in her death. The cancer killed her slowly, dragging out the life from her in bits and pieces, until all that remained was a skeleton of a woman, with most of her hair fallen out, moaning and writhing in agony in her hospital bed.
Down the street from the Cancer Research and Treatment Center where Mrs. Lee was undergoing treatment was a pharmacist’s shop where Jin would be sent, pocket heavy with notes, to buy many of his mother’s costly medicines. Right across from this pharmacy was a café where Jin would sit down for a coffee sometimes, to shake off the lingering smell of death that would remain in his nostrils. They also sold cigarettes at this particular joint. Somebody at university had told him that they greatly helped with stress, so Jin bought a pack one day, as his mother was undergoing her second round of chemotherapy in the hospital a few hundred meters away. He smoked a few more the next day, and some more the next time he was around for coffee. By the time his mother was on the last leg of her journey, he was smoking a pack a day. Jin didn’t know whether it helped or not, but he liked to think that it did. In any case, it took away the ‘hospital smell’ from his nose.
So when they returned to the old house, carrying between them the empty space where Mrs. Lee should have been, Jin continued to smoke a pack a day.
He knew his mother would have killed him if she herself were alive to see, his father’s opinion he didn’t care much for, but he still hid his packs in the second pocket of his green school bag, so that Mr. Lee would not find out that his son had become what they call a ‘chain smoker’.
But one day he found his son, sitting on the banks of the river near their house, puffing away one cigarette after another like a greedy kid at a buffet restaurant.
He descended upon him in a fit of rage. Though his son had grown past the age for beatings, yet this time Mr. Lee did not hesitate, giving him a slap that left the boy red faced.
“What would your Ma have thought if she was here?”
Jin was silent.
“Have some respect for a dead woman’s memory.” Mr. Lee said quietly, rage and despair bubbling inside him.
“Where did you buy these?” he asked, snatching away the box, which was almost half empty.
“the coffee shop near the hospital.”
“And how long have you been smoking for?”
“Ever since Ma got sick”
Mr. Lee was silent.
The river gurgled and frothed in the distance.
In happier times, they would sometimes fry the catch from that same river, daub it with pepper and lemon juice and eat it together sitting on the porch.
His house was cold and dead. The green and bursting garden, something that the family had always been proud of, had withered away from months of neglect and only the skeletons of the plants remained, a grim reminder of the past. His son, motherless and grieving in his own way, had fallen into a pit of self-destruction.
For the first time, the reality of his wife’s death hit him. Not when he had watched her crumpled body in that miserable hospital room, not when he had seen it wrapped in a sheet before being pushed into the electric crematorium; it was at that moment, that he realized that she was gone, and the life that had to be lived stretched in front of him like a dark, unassailable sea.
Growing life is tough. Mothers of all species of animals carry around whole babies in their stomach for months and push them out in an effort that tears muscle, spills copious amount blood, and can even lead to death.
To grow anything out of the soil is also hard work. We have to prepare the soil, keep the seasonal conditions in mind.
Water it too much and it drowns, too little and it wilts. Give it too much sun and it withers away, too little sun and it rots in the damp shade. One also has to keep an eye out for unruly weather and also for pests that could crawl into the plant and feed off it.
If all goes well, one is rewarded with the end result, efflorescent flowers, bursting green foliage, maybe a tree bowed heavy with juicy fruit.
A relationship also has to be treated in the same manner. Give it the tenderness, affection and the hard work it deserves. Understands its needs and adapt to them. Compromise in trying times. Shelter it from turbulence. Pests will attack and sometimes the weather will unleash rampage. Then one day a moment will come that will make all that effort seem worthwhile.
One day, when Mr. Lee went to the mail office to collect the monthly pension money that came in the mail, he was surprised to find there was a letter addressed to him. There was no return address, no sign of who had sent it, but on opening it, he recognized the long, sloping writing in an instant.
It belonged to his dead wife.
In the evening, Mr. Lee sat on the porch as the sky melded into a haze of orange, reading and re-reading the strange letter. It was short and sweet. It asked him to take care of his son, and keep the garden blooming. Mr. Lee’s face fell as he read those words.
It was his wife, no doubt, and she had written them in her final months. But who had sent these and what did it mean?
Mr. Lee pondered these questions for a long time, till the mosquitoes and the rustle of snakes in the bushes forced him to go inside.
That summer Mr. and Mrs. Lee had celebrated their ten-year wedding anniversary and Jin had turned seven. Mrs. Lee would spend hours and hours outside in the garden, trimming and weeding and planting and watering, all the while humming songs to herself. Her face would glow at every tiny seedling that emerged from the soil, and at every little bud as it unwrapped slowly to reveal its petals. It was her own sweet labor of love, and every season when the perfume of the tuberoses and honeysuckle would waft throughout the house, and white chrysanthemums and blue pink sweet pea flowers would wave gently in the breeze, Mrs. Lee would be filled with a kind of happiness that made it seem like a thousand suns lived inside her tiny body.
Then one fine morning, Mr. Lee walked into the garden armed with a startling motivation and all sorts of gardening paraphernalia from the tool shed. He started by pulling out the weeds and the rotting and dried up plants. When Jin asked his father what madness had gotten into him, he didn’t stop working but quietly replied that he wanted to keep his wife’s memories alive. Jin listened intently, and then returned a few minutes later to help his father.
From that day onward, they worked everyday in the garden, almost religiously, as if their very lives depended on it. They woke up early, when the grass was still slick with morning dew, so that Jin could help out before leaving for university. They worked on the vegetable patch in the backyard too.
They learned the song of the garden. They learned to listen to the birdsong that flooded the air in early light, and the twittering and chitterlings of the tiny insect inhabitants of the garden. They learned the needs of their plants, The water, the sun, the soil, the air, how they came together to birth a seedling. They learned that gardening wasn't the feminine, weak job they'd imagined it to be. It was tough, it required strong arms, deft fingers and a large amount of dedication, patience and perseverance.
Over time, as their arms grew stringy with muscle and their skin changed shades, they learnt why the flowers that their mother had grown meant so much, and together they remembered her fondly.
Seasons changed. A letter from Mrs. Lee would arrive occasionally, bringing with it a fresh wave of heartache, but they soon realized that although it never stopped hurting, it hurt a little less each time.
One spring morning, Jin awoke, dying for a cigarette. Lids still heavy with sleep, he groped about in his bag in the half-light of the morning, but came up empty handed. It was then he realized what his father had done. He flew downstairs, livid, determined to give a piece of his mind to the old man. He saw his father’s shadow in the porch and rushed towards it. Reaching the threshold, he stopped suddenly.
The garden, the memorial they had worked so hard create, had burst into life overnight.
The first chrysanthemum of the season, with its translucent pink white petals, his mother’s favorite flower, was enough to move Jin. Without a single word, he embraced his father for the first time since his mother’s passing, eyes wet with tears.
As days passed, the sight of the flowers filled Mr. Lee and his son with new hope and strength. In mid summer, a letter from Mrs. Lee came in the mail again. This time a note was attached at the bottom. It was from a nurse at the District Cancer Hospital, who explained that Mrs. Lee has given her all the letters and asked her to mail them to the family one by one, without giving away the identity of the sender. She apologized profusely for causing them much discomfort and shock but said that she couldn’t refuse the dying woman’s wish, eccentric though it was.
One morning when the last of the letters arrived, attached with Mrs. Lee’s best shrimp soup recipe, Jin and his father spent an entire afternoon in the kitchen together, trading supermarket food for a real meal.
And when evening came, they sat out on the porch till late, as the stars slowly spilled across the night sky and crickets chorused in the thickets, laughing and talking, surrounded by the flowers that had thawed through the ice between them.