Solace in a Balcony Garden -1994

This piece was written in 2004.

What should have been an exciting, happy time for us, finally together again after two years apart, was instead one of the most difficult, depressing times in my life. My husband was stationed in Germany, and we lived in a picturesque little village on the side of a hill, with a magnificent view that seemed made for us alone. Our son, a beautiful blue-eyed, blond-headed angel, had us sleep-deprived, bewildered, and when not in denial, anxious. At four, he spoke only a few words, wasn't toilet trained, wouldn't stay dressed, stayed awake thirty-six hours at a time, and screamed for hours. He was as difficult as he was beautiful. Outings with him were painful, embarrassing, and exhausting affairs, as we never knew what would set him off.

My husband and I coped as best we knew how, but weren't even treading water. To this fragile situation, we then added his two sons, 10 and 11, when they needed a safe place to live. They both suffered from learning disabilities and behavioral issues we weren't fully aware of. Within a month of their arrival, I felt completely alone, isolated, and overwhelmed. Many of the destructive coping mechanisms I had worked hard to overcome began creeping back in. My weight went up; I began smoking again. I knew I had to find something, some lifeline to hold onto.

Left home alone with the three boys for long periods because of my husband's work, I found myself retreating to our large balcony with its view of the valley, the Main River winding lazily past. The balcony was the nicest feature of the apartment, and I knew it had tremendous potential. I had always loved gardening and the endless possibilities that soil, seeds, water, and sun created, and knew I had found a lifeline. I just had to make my husband see the same possibilities and my need, as carrying forty-pound sacks of dirt up eight flights of stairs was not a chore that would fall on my shoulders. My husband, like most men, misses much he should see, but was able to see my desperation, and over a ton of dirt made its way up all those stairs, past the startled stares of our very confused neighbors. After the dirt came dozens of containers and even a wading pool, along with several flats of flowers and seedlings.

Whenever I began to feel overwhelmed by the demands of caring for three developmentally disabled, rambunctious boys, I would withdraw to my balcony garden, where it was slightly quieter, with only the sounds of boats, trains, and cars racing by below. While my little son sat beside me, lost in his own little world, lining up his toys in neat rows and my stepsons were away at school, I planted morning glories, begonias, marigolds and miniature roses and took solace in their beautiful colors and lovely scents. In the wading pool, I planted spinach, cucumbers, and onions. I had several containers with tomato plants, beans, and lettuces. Outside, on this lush, undoubtedly overloaded balcony, I found a measure of peace and some confidence that the work I did, the efforts I made, were worthwhile and effective.

Inside, as spring turned to summer and fall began to peek around the corner, my efforts did not seem to make any difference, and the situation between my stepsons and my little family continued to deteriorate. In June, the younger stepson, who had severe behavioral problems, tried to strangle my son as a roomful of adults in the special-ed classroom watched on in shock. We were fortunate to be present when it happened and were able to pull him away before any physical harm was done, but a piece of me withered. I could not bear to ask my husband to send the boys back to their mother, but also could not understand why they weren't on a plane the next day.

Things continued to slide inexorably down, despite the help we were getting from the school and the hospital. I found it increasingly difficult to function, and the next month when our oldest managed in a moment of rough play to drop our youngest upside down onto the concrete floor, I withdrew emotionally from my stepsons and my husband. I spent most of my time out on the balcony with my son, never leaving him alone with his brothers. The garden and my son were my lifelines, what I held on to. My garden let me see that I could succeed, and gave me peace. I tended my plants, I hugged my little boy, and I prayed for a solution, as I harvested my tomatoes and cucumbers, as I touched the petals of my marigolds and pansies and found comfort.

In August, as my garden reached its potential and my life reached a crisis point, I was able to see that just as the soil needs replenishing and crops need rotating, that it was not a failure for my stepsons to return to their mother now that her situation had changed. Their time with us, although painful for all, had been beneficial. The school system had worked with us to get accurate testing of all three of our boys, and my stepsons returned to the states with carefully worked out educational plans for the next school year, eager to return to Ohio and their mother and grandmothers.
My garden and the peace it provided continued to be a balm over the next two months as we readied for our own move back to the states. Because of my stepsons' time with us, our own son began to get the treatment he needed, and the word autism began to enter our vocabulary. Our lives were changing, and I began to see that my efforts mattered, not only in my garden, but also when I invested myself in my son's life and in my own, I could make a difference; it just took more than a season to see the results.

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