My daughter Ella, 8, and I put on our fleece jackets, found our gloves and tools, and walked to our local community garden together.  Ella was excited to be within the gates we walk past all the time.  She had noticed all the activity there this summer, and seen a difference in our neighborhood since the blighted corner had become full of garden plots, tomato plants, and all sorts of vegetables along with bright garden ornaments through the Peterson Project.

In the garden is a plot tended by a grandfather with care.  It has a big orange sign that says “Jake’s Garden” and all the produce goes to an area pantry.  Ella ran to the sign and stood in front of it.

We met Jake on our block outside his grandparent’s house when they were barely one, and as one year olds tend to do, they immediately took to each other and began to play.  We became friends with Jake’s parents, and the folks next door who had a daughter a few months younger, Isabel.

Year after year as the three of them grew together, the girls chased Jake down the street, sometimes took his toys, and always decided what game to play.  When it was time for preschool, Ella and Jake walked together hand in hand to school.   At Halloween, they would trick or treat; at Christmas, they stood next to each other in the school play; at Easter, they would exchange little gifts from the Easter Bunny, and they were always there to blow out the candles on each other’s birthday cakes.

Jake died in February after a yearlong battle with brain cancer.

Jake’s Garden is a way for his family to heal and to honor him through service.

There were many months when my daughter could not talk about Jake without crying. There were more when she could, and then later as the day went on, she would get sad and that night we would talk and cry together.  I told her, now the wound is fresh, and it hurts to think about Jake being gone, but someday you will remember your friend, not the pain, and thinking of him will warm your heart.

“Mom,” she said, “I don’t want anyone else to die.”  Ella spent the summer raising money to fight childhood cancer by setting up a virtual lemonade shop.  She had to do something, she said, for someone else’s Jake.

And Jake’s Grandfather Lenny too needed a way to give back, to heal, to watch something grow, to honor his grandson, the blonde boy, always a bit serious for his age, an old soul,  funny,  warm, caring, good.   Lenny built Jake a garden and he tends it.

A few Saturdays ago at Vedgewater, Ella came ready to go fueled by cinnamon rolls and the idea that service matters, doing something matters.  She weeded longer than I would have expected. She pulled the weeds around Jake’s garden bed and put them in a neat-for-her pile.

A professor from Loyola came by with his class to learn about community gardening from the Peterson Project.  He approached us as we were tending the plot and in a solemn voice said “We just learned about Jake. I am so sorry; this is a wonderful way to honor him.”

“We are just volunteering here today,” I said. “This plot is tended by Jake’s Grandfather, Lenny.  But this is my daughter Ella.  Ella tell him about Jake.”

She looked up and smiled. “Jake was my very first friend. He was awesome. He let us boss him around and didn’t even get that mad. He liked to ride his bike, and Legos, and baseball and superheroes and all sorts of stuff.  He had a car for a bed. I miss him.”  Then she went back to weeding.

We often think of service as a nice thing to do, as part of our civic responsibility, as what we do to make sure our neck of the woods is a nice place to be, to ease the suffering of others.  We show up with smiles, we dig in and get the work done.  When we are finished we leave with a sense of accomplishment.

But sometimes, service heals more than those we serve, it heals us.

Lenny tending the garden helps him heal.  He has a monument, a physical space to tend, to help grow, to place meaningful objects, like the White Sox garden gnome, that remind him of his grandson.  The food from the plot will feed many families, and provide them with fresh produce that otherwise they would not have, Lenny is giving back in Jake’s honor.

Ella raised money because she knew she could draw comics, and the idea of being able to help another family, someone else’s very first friend, helped her heal.  She drew over 40 drawings and small paintings and her lemonade stand raised $1,000 from folks across the country.

And on Saturday, she saw his garden, and she explored it, noticing all the things he loved, the colors orange and yellow, butterflies, his grandfather’s Golden Retriever, and she knelt down and began to weed.  This was her friend, her loss, but now so many months later, she remembers the good, she remembers chasing him, she remembers riding bikes, she remembers trick or treat, she remembers standing side by side in the school play, and if asked, she doesn’t cry; she smiles.

Service heals. It gives us a way to do good, to put something positive into the world when we are faced with tragedy. It restores a sense of control of one’s life, of the world we live in when faced with the uncontrollable.  It is a way to do something physical, to count an impact, to see a difference, to help ease another’s way and in that way our own burden is eased.

Service heals.  And serving alongside my daughter healed me, as it healed her, and together we told people about not the death, not the disease that claimed him, not the tragedy, but the boy who rode down the block on his big wheel with Ella and Isabel close behind on their trikes across a sidewalk colored in their own creations.

Today’s post is written by Vice President, Programs, Kris Smart.

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