One of my dearest friends is dying of cancer. Richard was diagnosed just shy of a year ago, and each visit now that I get to share with him feels especially poignant.
When I first moved to East Blue Hill, Maine nearly ten years ago to join Lorie, uncertain that I would find a way to comfortably assimilate into the life of this tiny rural coastal village, Richard was one of the first people I encountered. Lorie had hired him to regrade the slope of earth in front of our house in hopes of redirecting rain water that was finding its way through the cracks in the foundation. Richard’s gruff style and lumbering Scandinavian stature intimidated me. Our first verbal exchanges – his directive to finish the clean-up on the job he had started at our home – felt more like challenges to my masculinity than gestures of welcome. Richard embodied everything I feared I wasn’t enough of. I saw right away that he knew how to do the kinds of things with his hands – guy things – that I had never learned to do as a young man.
The following summer, I overheard Richard talking to others at a neighbor’s Fourth of July potluck. He was looking for a helper to assist with his landscape/gardening business. I had no experience beyond the bit of personal gardening I had done for myself, but without any real reflection I felt compelled to speak up and volunteer myself. I started out as his “dogsbody” on projects here and there, but soon Richard saw that I could think through a project from start to finish, and how diligently I applied myself to the work, so he invited me to join him as often as my schedule as a practicing massage therapist allowed.
Our friendship grew through the work we shared. He was rough for me at first, barking orders and managing me in a style that I didn’t fully respect. But I hung in because I knew I had a lot to learn from Richard. He taught me how to plant a tree the “right” way, how to identify and care for plants so they would thrive, how to prune a bush or a tree not just to promote growth but to bring out its unique qualities and accentuate its place in the landscape. As we dug and weeded and hauled, I listened to the stories of his youth on a Midwest farm during the 1940’s, of the colorful and sometimes reckless life he had lived as an artist in New York City, of the high-end landscaping business he had built in the Hamptons. He often shared with me his views on politics and his insights on art.
In time, I took the risk to share with him the stories of my own reckless youthful years spent living in New York City, of my wounded relationship to my father, my family, and the healing I had pursued since moving to Maine. I confided in Richard the struggle I’ve always felt about knowing myself as a sensitive man and feeling the confidence to be that man in the world. Richard listened. He cared. Occasionally, he offered advice. But most importantly, he modeled for me in so many ways that a man’s sensitivity can often be his strength.
Now Richard is teaching me about death, about how not to be afraid of it, about how to face it and talk about it openly, and about how a person can die with dignity and graceful acceptance. During a visit this past week, he gave me a gift when he asked me to take over the care of a particular ornamental crabapple tree that he planted in front of the East Blue Hill Library. He explained, “that species of Sargentii crabapple wants to revert to becoming a bush, so you have to tend it, you have to prune the suckers that insist on sprouting from the base of the trunk. And mulch it, of course, but keep the mulch away from the base of the trunk so the mice will not nest there in the winter and chew on the bark. And when there’s a summer with a bit of drought, give it some water. It can be a beautiful species of tree, and if you take care of it it will keep getting more beautiful each year.”
I’m understanding that it’s like this, with would-be bushes that become glorious trees but also with us. We discover that we can do more than we thought we could, that we are more than we believe we are, when someone else sees us. We become more fascinating and we take our full rightful place in the world through the recognition and caring of others. It will be my honor to care for this tree and when I do to feel Richard at my back, just as he’s been through his friendship over the past 9 years.