Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Strawberry Fields Forever

Let me take you down
Cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields Forever

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me

Shortly after we moved to the East Coast we built a small garden at the end of our driveway so the kids could grow vegetables and we could see progress each time we came home.  With our neighbor’s help, we built the outline with railroad ties, secured the base with spikes, and added small seats at each corner so the kids could sit and plant or just sit and enjoy time with their achievements.  We had no intention of securing a food supply for the next natural disaster or becoming organic farmers.  This was just your normal small garden so we could bring a bit of country into the suburbs.

Over the years the garden has produced chives, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and even a pumpkin or two.  There were years in which it thrived with activity and years in which it laid dormant waiting patiently for the next season.  What has been interesting is that while each planting and harvesting season past only one item remained behind, quietly battling the elements.  As the garden became covered in fall's leaves, winter's snow, and spring’s pollen, the one crop that continued to fight and continued to survive were strawberries.

Since the moment of Maddie's diagnosis with Pompe in November 2009, our lives have been turned upside down.  While the grass continued to be cut, and the flowers continued to be watered, the thought of taking care of anything else was a too much to handle so the garden filled with weeds.  This became somewhat of a symbol for our life.  From far away everything looked fine, but as you got closer you could see that weeds were eating away at the very soil which was supposed to nourish us.  Here we were living on the East Coast, 3000 miles from our family, facing the toughest challenge we had ever faced, and wondering why we were here. Why had we found ourselves so far away from our family when we needed them most?  There were many days we wanted to leave those weeds behind and head back to sunny California with the hope that things would be better or at least easier.  But, despite the pain, we knew we were here for a reason and we had to find out why.

During the past year, sometimes I would walk over to check out the garden and think about life.  Occasionally, I would even pull a few weeds and sweep up a bit of the mess.  I did not do this for the good of the soil.  I did it for the kids so they could see that it was healthy and that one day it would return to full bloom.  Curiously, as I did this I noticed that almost everything had disappeared into the soil after the harsh winter except for the strawberries.  Despite the weeds, the weather, and the disrepair, the strawberries held firm, spreading across the garden on their own, almost to say, “You can’t get rid of me that easy!”

This always made my smile because as a kid growing up in Southern California I fondly remember stops at the strawberry fields and purchases of boxes and boxes of strawberries.  I remember my mom preparing them along side pound cake and whipped cream because that was my dad’s favorite dessert.  As I got older and we moved to Northern California, I remember driving along the road near our house and watching the men and women toiling in the strawberry fields.  From afar it seemed that they took care to move, plant by plant and check if they were healthy, if they were strong, and if there were ready to be set free.

A couple weeks ago Maddie and her friend approached Donna and asked if they could take over the garden this year.  They said nothing had grown last season and they had some ideas to make it better.  We responded with a resounding “Yes”, but before they could plant we would need to clean it up.  As usual, Maddie was five steps ahead and already had a plan.  Over the next few days, in between school, sports, music, and everything else that seems to fill a kid’s lives these days, she squeezed in gardening.  Bit by bit, she cleaned out the weeds until all of them were gone.  Then she came across the strawberries.  I did not tell her what to do with them, whether they needed to stay or needed to go.  It was her garden and her choice. 

When I came out one afternoon to check on her progress I was surprised.  Rather than taking the easy way out by clearing everything with a rake and starting new, Maddie had decided that the strawberries needed their own place to shine so she separated the garden in two.  Painstakingly, she dug up each wayward strawberry plant and brought them back to where they were originally planted, back to their friends.  Her logic was if they were together they could grow stronger and healthier.  I couldn’t help but smile as I was taken back in time.  Just like those men and women I had watched years before, she went plant by plant, took care to check if they were healthy, if they were strong, and if there were ready to be set free.  Doing so, she was making a quiet statement.  It was a quiet statement to Pompe and to each and every little change the last two years has brought us.  “You can’t get rid of me that easy!”

A few days later we took Maddie and her friend to the garden store where they picked out fresh soil and their vegetables for the year.  They chose lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, and a few cayenne peppers just to “make it spicy," she said.  Later that day they tiled the soil, planted their new crops, placed the little markers by their side, and watered away.  Since then, they have closely monitored their new garden watching for all signs of growth and looking forward to a strong harvest. 

I must admit the garden looks a lot better than it has for the last couple seasons.  It is full of life and full of promise.  It’s funny how a little plot of dirt has made me think the same about our life.  Yes, we are still 3000 miles from our family, but it’s OK.  We are now only 35 miles from the best doctors and nurses at CHOP, only a two hour flight from our University of Florida based support team, and a just a short distance from friends who have become our family.  We are here in the land of cheesesteaks and Rocky movie fanatics for a reason.  We are here because this is where our kids will get the best medical care and because they are growing up at a pace that reminds us of our youth.  We are here because fate has planted us here.

We have been given a choice, a choice to let weeds grow or like our strawberries, a choice to look adversity in the eye and say, “You can’t get rid of me that easy!”  Thanks to a little girl and her innocent actions, we’ve decided to stay.  Sure, we still miss our family deeply and wish they were here by our side, but if Maddie is ready to bloom where she has been planted we are too. So, if you have time this summer, and don’t mind some home grown strawberries, drop by with some shortcake and whipped cream.  You’ll find us at the end of the driveway, gloves in hand, singing...

Strawberry Fields Forever
Strawberry Fields Forever
Strawberry Fields Forever

Stay strong!
Matt

Credit to: The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever”