We were neighbors for almost 30 years. Every year around Valentines Day we cleaned out the old shed in back of his house to make room for the new seedlings for spring planting.
The first thing at hand was cleaning up the mess made by the raccoon's who somehow managed to walk through walls and bolted doors. No matter how we tried or what we did the waddling critters found their way into the seed room of the shed.
We reorganized the tables, built frames for the walls of plastic sheeting that would cover the new sprouted plants and attached grow-lights to the top of the frames. We had our own indoor greenhouse.
Every year the ritual was the same. Around 10 a.m. I would go to his house and his wife would have an early Italian lunch prepared for us. By noon the pasta, salad and bread was gone. Then came the wine.
Tony, being a first generation Italian, never liked having wine with lunch. He preferred to drink it after he ate. He said, “You don’t spoil the taste of good pasta with wine and you don’t ruin the taste of a good wine with the taste of garlic bread.”
Being half Sicilian myself, I agreed with him.
As usual, we brought the bottle of wine to the shed, lined up the peat pots and very carefully and methodically started planting the pepper, tomato and egg plant seeds. And as usual, the wine started racing to our head and we decided the process was much too tedious and time consuming. We grabbed a few empty flats left over from last year, hurriedly filled them with potting soil and started spreading the seed into the box. After placing them under the protection of the plastic sheeting, we attached the grow lights to the frame, gave them a little water and tony and I finished the bottle of wine. We were ready for spring planting .
Since Tony entered the nursing home his back yard has been the home of weeds, dirt and staggering spots of grass. His children are too busy to take care of the house, and never water the yard. The first question he asks me when I get to his room is “How does the yard look?” I tell him it just doesn’t look as good as it did when he treated the garden as a paradise created by God.
During the heat of the summer Tony would start working in the garden at 5:30 a.m. On his hands and knees, he pulled weeds and gently loosened the soil around his treasured plants. He used buckets of water to quench the thirst of his growing vegetables, keeping the walkways dry and weed free. He cultivated his garden with love, tenderness and hard work. His reward was good health, contentment and the best tomatoes in town.
As the years passed Tony could no longer work the garden in his usual fashion. He watered with a sprinkling system, used his walker to sit on while he hoed his hallowed soil and he no longer worked in the hot sun. The only thing he said he was still good at was drinking his brothers homemade wine.
It always amused me when I hear friends who are getting old or who are handicapped say they can’t work in the yard, don’t have the strength to cook, clean the house or plant a garden. However, they seem to find their way to casinos, restaurants and grocery stores. What is more amusing is that they have to park in a handicapped zone because they can’t make it to the inside of the store yet, they can walk around Wal-Mart for two hours.
It was time for my visit with Tony to end. As I started to leave, he thanked me for being a good friend over the years. I knew what friendship meant to him .
When I saw him on his 84th birthday, last year, we talked about friendship and what it meant to him. He said, “A true friend, is someone who can understand our tears and values our laughter: Someone capable of sharing our happiness, and who gently guides us through our occasional moments of despair, grief and sorrow. A true friend is someone who is willing to jeopardize his own well being for your protection and one you are willing to risk your own life for.
"A friend is someone attached to us by mutual affection and self-esteem: a person we can interact with on a personal level and is reciprocal in honesty and integrity.
I will never forget what Tony said as I was leaving on the day of his birthday. As we made our way across the room, Tony gently tapped me on the arm with his cane. He was clutching his worn VFW hat in his hands and slowly moved towards the door. His eyes suddenly swelled with emotion. And then, in a very quiet trembling voice, he said, "David, I know what I would really like someday for my birthday — a friend.”
Today, as I slowly made my way to the car my eyes suddenly swelled with emotion and in a very quiet, trembling voice I said to myself how fortunate I was to be considered Tony's friend and I realized how much I really miss our garden of friendship.