Tuesday, August 23, 2011

About a pumpkin

I still grow the pumpkin my son Simon brought home from first grade as a sprouted seed.
So begins "Simon's Pumpkin," a short piece of writing (vignette, essay, meditation, rumination?) that I posted to Simon's Place on July 25, 2007 and polished to read at conferences in the summer of 2008 (Wesleyan, Writers at Work in Salt Lake City). The January 2, 2008 entry offers an intermediate version of the final essay, while the July 2007 entry tells the history and shows photos of this special pumpkin from 2004 to 2007.

The reason I bring up Simon's Pumpkin is that I am watching it grow again this summer in our backyard. It's the 8th generation--or vintage, as I like to call it. Technically, there was no pumpkin crop in 2010 because we spent the summer relocating from Salt Lake City to Germany. However, one very persistent pumpkin from the 2009 batch held on as a decoration for more than a year. My friend Maritza harvested its seeds in early winter 2010, thus creating an honorary seed for the missing year. Mysteriously, the "2010" seeds were the first to sprout when I started this year's crop in May, followed closely by seeds from the original 2004 pumpkin.

There's more to show and tell about this summer's pumpkin, but I'll end for now with a current photo, followed by the most recent "finished" form of the essay (the last of six vignettes collected with pertinent quotations in 2009). Open-ended, like the pumpkin project itself, the writing remains unpublished.

Mid-summer pumpkin, August 16, 2011.

Simon's Pumpkin

“How do you parent your deceased child?”
Markus, on Simon’s “ninth” birthday,
May 2006.

I still grow the pumpkin Simon brought home from first grade as a sprouted seed. The tiny plant sat in a styrofoam cup by the kitchen sink, bent and wan with its companion sunflower sprout. We nearly forgot about the little plants, but some impulse of preservation possessed me to plant them by our backyard fence.

Now, when the newest generation sprawls across the yard each year, I relive my first encounter with Simon’s pumpkin. I remember the children who planted seeds while Simon missed school for a whole month. It was the spring of 2004. A painful tumor appeared in Simon’s jaw—the first one we could actually see and touch. The severity of the tumor propelled him into a week of radiation treatment—strapped flat on his back like a mummy, pinned under a tight-fitting mask, and left repeatedly in isolation with the beam-throwing machine. Radiation stopped the tumor’s assault but raised life with cancer to a new level of torment.

I took Simon back to school a little late on a morning in mid-May. He stopped short of his classroom, too shy to enter. His teacher shot me a “what now” look. I shrugged. I coaxed. Then all twenty-three first-graders appeared in a circle around him in the hallway—close, but not too close. Simon inhaled their affection, and I felt his head burrow into my shoulder as I crouched beside him. One friend broke the silence: “I hate it when Simon isn’t here.”

As we proceeded into the classroom, the children told us all about their seed-planting project. Simon’s seeds had sprouted first in the whole class—his pumpkin and his sunflower, they reported. Then, I easily believed Simon’s seeds had special magic. Now, I carry a riper view of rapid growth, having witnessed cancer gone wild.

Simon’s pumpkin and sunflower grew side by side that first summer. The cheery orange-yellow pumpkin blossoms burst open every morning until one day we discovered a mottled green sphere below a broad leaf. I think it was the size of a grapefruit in early July when Simon lost interest. My attempts to show him the plant—to break into his boredom and distract from his misery—met with disdain. Despite his indifference, I nurtured my own connection between Simon and his garden.

“Save the seeds,” said Simon’s hospice nurse one morning near the end. “That’s Simon’s pumpkin. Grow it every year.”

And I have. The sunflower, too, which opened its first bloom in a deep rust-brown, solemn and majestic, the day after Simon died.

Intrusive as a bee, I inspect each blossom. When I discover a pale green ball, fertilized and starting to swell, I relax a little and wonder if this one will grow to Jack-O-Lantern size. Or if I’ll make soup, or another pie inscribed: We miss you Simon.

Each year’s vines emerge from the earth like cords reaching into the present from an ever-receding past. Something is preserved in this ritual garden, some part of the bond begun when Simon’s embryo found my uterine wall. The plants grow, heedless of the ache I need their help to bear. And I measure the distance between my reality and the one I imagine in other families' homes where seedlings shrivel by the sink while children play in the summer sun. (c) 2009