[This is the fourth in a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent remembering and lamenting is what’s happening here. Onward, and perhaps some odd humor in this episode.]
Mark was a natural born gardener. He loved to grow edible things: tomatoes, cantaloupes, zucchini, watermelon, green beans, cucumbers, marijuana.
He kept gardens at my mom’s house and at one of her rental properties, where his friend J– was a tenant. He was devoted to his plants with a wonder and joy that infected me. He watered, fertilized, even occasionally weeded. He loved bringing vegetables into the house for mom and sharing them with others. Mom would give his beautiful vegetables to church members and neighbors, proudly bragging that her son had grown them. He’d get on the phone with me and go on and on about his plants and his harvests, the excellent pickles Mom had made, the delicious salsa J– made.
If I was in town at the right time of year, he and I would head over to the local nursery and buy seedlings for him to plant. When I built and established our own vegetable boxes out front, early in the pandemic, I thought of him as we filled the boxes with soil and chose the plants to grow. I didn’t know how much the simple pleasure of growing and harvesting vegetables in my yard was connected to him, until he was gone.
There’s a quirky issue I decide to deal with while we’re in Stockton for Mark’s funeral: all the marijuana.
Mark has collected 6 or 7 plants in large black plastic nursery pots. I think only three of those are legal. There are rules and limits in California for how many plants a non-dealer can have. Based on my experience with Mark’s poor decision-making, I am certain he has exceeded those rules and limits. Mark also has a couple plants in the ground, among the vegetables. Having weed in the ground in a personal residence is definitely illegal, as far as I know.
I infer from the placement of the in-ground plants that Mark has been tactical. The bigger of the two plants towers at about 7 feet tall, its diameter exceeding my 5-foot wingspan significantly. It is magnificent, and it’s also begging for a police visit. But he’s got it next to the pole beans, which tower even higher and wider in a dense, thriving thatch that makes it nearly impossible to spy the weed from the road.
Well played, Mark.
What I can’t fathom is how Mom has never noticed. The scent alone is unmistakable. Then again, maybe she did notice but simply admitted defeat.
Mark used to sit outside at night in the darkness on Mom’s patio, surrounded by his pack of semi-feral dogs, smoking and playing poker on his phone. When we were in town, Anthony and I would frequently join him. We haven’t smoked anything in decades, but we would bring out our drinks and catch the fresh air, talk a bit. During one of these moments, Mark chattered happily about his pot plants, in his superficially cheerful way. They were growing well, the buds were going to form up soon, these were special cultivars that were intended for a certain type of high, he could only have this many or that many, these pots were the right size, he had a couple extra over what the law allowed but that was okay, if he got the good harvest he expected he’d be able to share with friends, he promised he wouldn’t sell any and get arrested, he told mom they were tomato plants.
Hold on now.
You told her what?
Yeah, he laughed. She asked what they were, and I told her they were tomato plants.
I was filled with dissonance. Mark was caregiver to Mom. He wished her well. How could he lie to her like this, possibly endanger her with the law by having too many pot plants on her property? He relied entirely on her for income, room, board, clothing, basic needs, everything. What was he thinking?
I always struggled to find my way through my feelings, in moments like this. I was angry at Mark for the selfishness of the situation, and yet I also knew him not to be selfish. Maybe addiction played a role, but it felt like more than that. He had been a crank dealer early in his adulthood, and maybe he was a little too comfortable with the idea of making a bit of side money that didn’t come from Mom. Maybe he was compelled to do risky things as a sort of middle finger to Mom. Maybe growing excessive quantities of pot brought him a gardener’s happiness. Maybe he liked having gifts for friends. Maybe he was just a walking sack of unadulterated impulsivity and nihilism.
Where I inevitably ended up was, maybe he deserved my compassion and acceptance, because his life was pretty shitty. Maybe all those unanswered needs swirling around his mental health, all the stigma attached to his life’s journey, all his failures and stumbles and falls, all his loneliness… Maybe all of it felt a little further away when he looked at a bunch of thriving weed next to the beans and zucchini.
The next day, I sat outside with Mom and Anthony in the morning, enjoying the patio’s warmth. We were all facing the array of potted plants.
Mom remarked, “Mark is growing those tomato plants, but there are no tomatoes coming in.” She looked puzzled.
Anthony and I glanced at each other and tried not to laugh. Anthony commented dryly and quietly, “Those aren’t tomato plants.”
Mom was oddly firm in her reply. “Yes they are. Mark said so.”
As the funeral day approaches, there are in fact authentic tomato plants in Mom’s vegetable bed, and they are in fact bearing fruit. I’m going to leave those of course, but Anthony and I decide to get rid of the false tomatoes for Mom’s sake. We dig the plants out and throw them street-side, roots and all, hoping someone will just take them and that the police won’t drive by at the wrong moment. The guy next door takes a couple of the pots of pot, and the remainder we give to Mark’s friend Doug. I think Doug ends up taking the dug-up plants too; he has to use his trailer to fit them. It’s a bonanza.
Later on, I stand and stare down at the hole left in the vegetable garden, shaking my head and trying not to turn it into a banal metaphor for the hole Mark’s death will leave in my life. I pick green beans and tomatoes and zucchinis, all planted and watered by Mark in the months before he collapsed. There are so many that we’ll never be able to eat them all, but I don’t know how to leave them on the plants to wither and die.
I carry piles of vegetables into the house. Mom and I marvel at the bounty Mark has left behind.