Cemeteries to Gardens

Willow Creek | May 3, 2021

I did not know a cemetery could feel like a garden until my mama died.


I had not been well-acquainted with death before then, as I was only 22 when she died. Before, cemeteries were places I drove by, sometimes visiting when a public figure or president was buried within its gates. Or cemeteries lived in ghost stories, laden with towering tombstones or caked with cobwebs. Or they represented places to be avoided because they evoked such sadness and pain.


But all of these perceptions and anxieties shifted when my mom died at age 52. In the cemetery where she is buried, a row of bonsai trees filters sunlight as it hits her tombstone. The cemetery feels like a place of respite, of comfort and contemplation. It feels like a garden. Every year, the cemetery becomes part of my Mother’s Day weekend, and now that I am a mother, it has become a part of my kids’ Mother’s Day, too.


It has been more than 17 years since Mama died, since the night she, my dad and I went out to New Year’s Eve dinner at a Japanese restaurant. That evening, my parents had flown back from visiting Hong Kong, where they had both grown up. We celebrated our mini-reunion over bowls of udon and conversation about my impending new job, not knowing the shock to come.


Over the years, my mom had accumulated a flurry of autoimmune diseases— Sjogren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus nephritis, amyloidosis—and every day contained some kind of ache or pain. At the height of her rheumatoid arthritis, she pointed out a hallway to me at work that took her 15 minutes to shuffle down. 


I remember asking her, “How do you deal with all the pain?” She told me this: “I assume that every day, I will have pain. It’s a normal part of my life. And if I have a day without pain, I see it as a gift from God.”


She stunned me in the best of ways. She could have blamed God for her predicament. She could have felt resentful. Instead, she saw small deviations from daily discomfort as gifts.


Coincidentally, the treatment for one of her autoimmune diseases alleviated the symptoms of another. The chemotherapy she received for lupus allowed her to move as if she had rid herself of rheumatoid arthritis. When she and my dad were in Hong Kong, she was so agile she even hiked up 268 steep steps to a monument on a hill. 


It was just days after that hike and hours after our little family dinner that my mom began coughing up blood. She asked us to call 911 and fell unconscious. We watched as paramedics pumped her chest. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital. Later, doctors told us she had suffered a heart attack coupled with respiratory failure, presumably brought about by the phalanx of autoimmune diseases. She never woke up.


When I was growing up, my mom had a big job, serving as the director of pharmacy of Children’s Memorial Hospital (now Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital) in Chicago. She often did not get home until 8 p.m. and left for work at 5:30 a.m. I saw her for just an hour or two on most weekdays. Because she worked so late, she often did not get around to practicing the piano, which she loved and played once or twice a month for church services, until after she and my dad had tucked me into bed. I often fell asleep to strains of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “How Great Thou Art.” But my mom had a favorite: “In the Garden.”


During those few days we spent in her hospital room, when Mama was in a coma, when we found out she had no brain function and that her lungs would not sustain her, when my grandma flew in from Canada to say goodbye to her daughter, when my uncle and aunt rushed to the intensive care unit to hold their sister’s hand one last time, I brought my laptop so we could play “In the Garden” on a loop. On January 3, 2004, when my mom’s breathing stopped and her pulse flat-lined, “In the Garden” played on.


Mother’s Day has become for me, like so many of us whose mothers have died and have become mothers ourselves, layered with feelings. I revel in the drawings and handmade cards by my 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. I feel genuine joy in being loved by them.


And I am drawn, every year, to Wheaton Cemetery where my mom is buried. It’s different for my dad, who has visited her gravesite for a few minutes nearly every day for the past 17 years.


“I know her soul is with Jesus,” he says, “but I feel closest to her here.”


For me, the pull always comes on Mother’s Day. I know I am not alone, as every year on Mother’s Day weekend, we see fresh flowers all over and wave to others visiting the burial places of their moms.