“You think they will live?” I asked, feeling at once hopeful and skeptical.
“Yes.” Lila answered, patting the loose dirt around the hyacinth. Lila was twelve but she spoke with greater authority than most adults I knew then.
Perhaps she came to be that way because she was raised by a single dad. Her mom skipped out on them when Lila was five. Lila’s dad came home to a note that said, "Off to Nashville." She left Lila with a neighbor who rented the house my family now lived in. Lila’s mom never became a country star she aspired to be. After six months in Nashville, she was found dead in her hotel room from a drug overdose.
Lila shared this important part of her history in the same matter-of-fact way she tells me how she knitted a hat or skinned a rabbit. Like me, she never developed a taste for other people’s sympathy or to be looked upon as a victim of her circumstances. I was careful to keep a neutral expression but I studied her face closely while she was telling me the story and caught no trace of anger, betrayal or pain.
As if reading my mind, Lila shrugged her shoulders and said, “I didn’t know her well enough to care.”
She was one of the most composed human beings I’ve ever met.
I met Lila and her dad when my family moved to Sheldon Street. I associate the people from my childhood to street names I grew up on. Daniel, the Chicken Man, on Yale. Linda, the single mom, on Oak. Lila on Sheldon Street. One of the reasons Lila and I gravitated toward each other was because we were two kids who didn’t know how to behave as kids. We both experienced too much, too soon.
That morning with our hands covered in dirt and the two of us leaning back on our heels to appreciate the neat rows of flowers, I wasn’t thinking then that people need their own constant gardener as much as flowers do.
Some flowers - despite the presence of bugs, lack of rain or inadequate soil, still grow hardy and can withstand their environment. And it was because someone loved them and took the time to patiently water, fertilize, and prune them. They have a constant gardener.
Lila’s dad was that constant gardener. He was a big man, Lila’s dad; gruff, a man of few words. Lila inherited his Irish coloring; red hair, freckles, fair skin. He wasn’t particularly affectionate but no one would doubt his devotion to her. I never heard him raised his voice or his hand to her. He also didn't smother; he gave her plenty of space to figure things out on her own. But if she did something she wasn’t supposed to, it was certain that she was going to be grounded. Lila knew all of her dad’s rules by heart.
After we moved to another neighborhood, my next-door neighbor - a boy who was a couple years older - reminded me of Lila. The first time I stood and spoke to him in his front yard, I thought of an oak tree. Peaceful, quiet, solid. The Oak became my nickname for him.
It was rumored that his parents were alcoholics and heavily into gambling. My parents have aversion to both and to gossip, and they felt a certain duty to guard the new neighbor against unkind words that were being spoken behind their backs. They also told me to mind my business, an advice I quickly ignored.
I took to the habit of climbing up the pine tree in our backyard; and from one of its branches; it was an easy swing up the roof of our house. Hidden by the branches, I was able to see the goings on in my neighbor’s house. Veronica Mars without a cause.
Through my spying, I noticed how the Oak was often left on his own to fend for dinner and put his siblings to bed. Some nights his parents were too into their poker games to come home. When they do remember to come home, their cars would turn up in the driveway with new scrapes, then the father’s sports car was missing altogether from the driveway. (Lost it in a bet).
With the father’s car gone, things changed for the kids. The little ones grew sullen; the Oak began to have too many “accidents” around the house.
Dad, a private man himself, could no longer keep quiet and decided to have a man-to-man talk with the father. It didn’t go well. Then one day, they disappeared. Their landlord told us they must have taken only their clothes because none of their things went with them.
We never heard of them again until the year I was about to leave for college. Word got to my parents that all three kids, including the Oak, were in jail for gang-related charges.
I wonder to this day, if the Oak and his little brothers had a constant gardener like Lila’s dad, how beautiful and stately they would have grown up to be. I take comfort in my memory of Lila planting her hyacinth. Maybe for every hyacinth - every kindness - a Lila plants in this world, it will make up for every oak tree chopped down.
Your turn: When you showed another human some kindness, what bloomed in its place?
- Being Present
- Getting Off the Couch
- Life Lessons from Sports
- Mental Clutter
- Overcoming Challenge
- Overcoming Sadness
- Positive Attitude
- Positive Self-Talk
- Taking Action