If I were an azalea, I would have required intensive plant care—pruning, repotting, fertilizing. Perhaps even a mumbled prayer to the garden gods. My problem was a recent stress-acquired insomnia. Rather, the result was the sleeplessness. The problem was that my wife, Penny, had just succumbed to breast cancer. It had been a six-year dance with the Big C, to the songs we all have heard:
Diagnosis and Surgery
Hope and Relapse
Chemo, Curses, and Prayers
Then the disease’s conclusion and another dance we all have danced. Tears fall, diminish, but don’t quite depart. Sleep becomes elusive, rare. Deep sleep is literally a dream. I tried multiple “cures,” natural and pharmaceutical. I began walking long, rambling distances in a hopeless attempt to exhaust myself. I didn’t realize how bad the insomnia had become until I attended a Catholic wedding and didn’t even doze.
I am a sommelier (actually, I’m more of a gameshow host with a corkscrew) and work late hours. For the last few months, I have experimented with different post-work, calm-down routines. A game of solitaire (real cards) and a shower. Music instead of TV. Yoga instead of music. Reading instead of a crossword …
None of these activities hurt and several actually nudged me closer to a proper and satisfying slumber. But a few nights ago after work, I decided to sit in the garden. Clear California skies were just cool enough to snuggle into a hoodie, I reclined into a creaky patio chair. To my left lurked a pair of dwarf Alberta spruce bonsai. On the right a saikei (mini-landscape) of nine trident maples fluttered. A forty-year-old, three-foot-tall California coffeeberry was backlit by an almost-full moon.
My backyard is a bonsai garden in a mature redwood grove, with redwoods marking the slightly overgrown garden’s back border. Mature Japanese maples provide Summer shade and yearly flats of seedlings. Chrysanthemum, Hosta, wood spurge, rhododendron, hydrangea, and ferns thrive. Nearly 200 bonsai dot the yard, displayed on splintered old picnic benches, thrift-store barstools, and wooden wine crates with the names Rothschild, Latour, and Mondavi. Finn the cat took longer to find me than to disappear again into the darkness. I cozied myself deeper into the chair. I exhaled and relaxed.
I thought no unique thoughts, had no insights, felt little more than fatigue and the breeze. Then I shuffled off to bed—and slept for nine straight hours. A deep, dreamless sleep. A type of slumber I feared had vanished forever. But it returned, to stay, which gives me hope.
That night bonsai trees, illuminated by a bright moon, cast a thin shade, as I sat silent, for an hour or two, with my backyard’s smaller shadows.
Sometimes a trace, a whiff, a glance in my garden can be enough. ❖