Encounter With Grace

Early morning mist rises from the fountain at the Longview Arboretum. Photos by Steven Chamblee.

So I’m buzzing around the arboretum on the Gator, hauling pine straw bales and other supplies to keep the volunteers happy and on task, when I stop to fill a few buckets with water to take to a remote location.

I am almost finished when I notice a lovely woman in a wheelchair being pushed by a rather muscular man headed toward me…and I’ve got the Gator blocking the path. Before I can apologize and move the Gator, the woman begins telling me how much she loves the arboretum, especially the calla lilies. She is cheerfully enthusiastic, and from her ease with plant names, obviously an experienced gardener. The man lovingly caresses her long, dark hair as the woman tells me about her own garden at home. They both quietly radiate a gentle love for each other, and he kisses the top of her head every now and again.

The buckets are filled about the time she gets to her fondness for sweet olive and its intense scent, and she reminds me to place these flowering shrubs on the south side of the garden, so the prevailing wind naturally brings the fragrance into it. As I shut the water off, the woman quickly introduces herself…and casually says she suffered a stroke three weeks ago. I am stunned. I had reckoned the couple for their mid, maybe late forties, and assumed she was in the wheelchair for something like a water-skiing mishap. Only now did I notice her limp left side, and probably never would have if she didn’t mention it.

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I almost laugh aloud at the irony of it. This woman’s joy and love for life fills the scene so completely that I am oblivious to her condition. She chooses to fully live in and appreciate the blessings of this simple moment…a stroll through a garden under the pine trees with her husband…instead of focusing on her problems. My right brain reminds me that I ought to do the same.

I tell her that she is fortunate to have a garden, as it will be an ideal place to recuperate. I tell her horticultural therapy is not just a buzz word, but an actual discipline; one can even get a master’s degree in the field. The couple listens politely and they exchange a glance between them before she matter-of-factly states, “I’m an alcoholic…and I got my life back by working in my garden.”

I almost fall over. My mind blurs with the full implications of that statement and the myriad of trials, failures, and precipice moments that go with it. I’m not sure what expression my face wears as my mind churns away, but I hope it is one of admiration. Life can dish out some pretty high hurdles, and I am standing in the presence of someone who has the strength and dignity to carry on with joy in her heart, love in her eyes, and a smile on her face.

This Whopper Begonia is part of the Southern Living Plant Collection.

Five minutes later, the Gator and I roll away and the work continues, but the air is sweeter now, the flowers more vivid. The toil of work seems like a privilege. As I pass by a few extra begonias in my ad hoc nursery, I remember how much she loved the ones in our large containers…surely I could spare one for this amazing lady. I have three tall, lanky begonias and a much shorter, but more robust one. It is the one that was literally broken in half during its trip to the arboretum, but has miraculously recovered and is now even more beautiful than the others. The ridiculously obvious metaphor literally brings tears to my eyes. I leave it at the front desk for my new friends to plant in her garden.

The newly-planted Full Moon Maple (Acer japonicum ‘Vitifolium’).

Today I planted a tree in the arboretum to honor of this lovely woman. A sweet little Full Moon Maple recently found its way to me through a peculiar and convoluted series of events, and I could think of no better destiny for it. No paperwork, no official plaques; just a little reminder to myself of the experience of meeting her. Sometimes little moments can change your life forever. True grace is a rare and precious thing, and should never go unacknowledged.


Just so you know…the Longview Arboretum & Nature Center is OPEN! Summer hours are 10am-5pm, Tuesday through Saturday; Sunday Noon-5pm. Come out and see us! Check out the progress on the Southern Living Garden and other areas of the Arboretum. Please observe social distancing at this time. And bring your own brand of Zen! 903-281-2181 Longviewarboretum.org

I need a road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come and speak to your group sometime. I’m low maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town to small. Just send me an e-mail at stevenchamblee@yahoo.com and we’ll work something out.

Posted by Steven Chamblee
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