*(C) is the Roman numeral for one hundred thousand
I watched the grass grow the summer I was eight years old. The Texas heat and loam met in the upside down world where I leaned back and switched my focus between high, bright clouds and the flipping, unfurling green turf where I lay. An hour in the shade on a blazing afternoon feels like a lifetime. I would rise, itching from the grass and the secret of its growing. I would see a person or a bird and want to tell them how the grass was alive, how I had seen it grow, but I wouldn’t have the words. How can you tell your grandpa that you respect the grass when he spends so much time mowing it?
That wonder resurfaced over the past few weeks as we’ve struggled against the verge of overgrown lawn and wildflowers in our backyard. I was sick for so long, and the grass had its growing to do whether or not we did our part to trim it. I went to bed at the beginning of the clover and climbed back into the sun when the yard was covered in tall, yellow Texas dandelions. I have used my scarce strength to weed and sow the herb garden -it is a prayer garden-, but we haven’t tamed those wildflowers yet.
I knew that grass would grow when I wasn’t looking because I had spent those hours watching. I knew the coronavirus would spread, almost in silence, slowly, but right before our eyes, because I have survived it. It’s disorienting, macabre, to feel the symmetry of growing things and a deadly pandemic. But they are linked in my mind, by my suffering, by my waiting, and by my hope. I could only stand upright for a few minutes at a time when I emerged into my garden after nearly two months, but I needed to tend it. I needed to plant seeds and remove weeds and make sure that my herbs had sun and water. The weeds might have grown while I slept and struggled, but so did the seedlings I had sown at the beginning of March. Our lavender blooms bright purple, and the five little lavenders that survived along with me are almost ready to join it. They are fruits of prayer, fruits of hope.
I have seen the horrifying death totals for our country, one hundred thousand people dead in three months from the monster virus that didn’t quite grab my feet while I was in bed. I bring them with me to the garden, the dead. I don’t know them, but we are so near to one another. We looked at death together, but my death decided to stop for a while, to enjoy the garden or take in the sea air, to wait its turn. I know I did not earn my life, just as they did not earn their death. The virus is impartial, a shadow echo of love, which is also impartial.
For friends and family, I sometimes light candles when I pray, sometimes tuck a memorial plant into the garden for them. I don’t have one hundred thousand candles. I putter around the herb beds. There are only a few hundred herbs here, a bed of basil waiting on September to come into its glory, a patch of sage that will flavor our July, mint snaking under everything and waiting to cool our drinks through the sweltering months ahead. I walk into the sunlight, into the untamed meadow that grew unhidden while I prostrated myself inside, healing. There is enough room there to sow one hundred thousand mustard seeds, one hundred thousand clovers.
I tell my husband I’m thinking of sowing all of my 20 pounds of mustard seeds in memory of the dead. He looks at me sidelong, kindly but not understanding. “You want to plant all of those seeds in our yard?” “I want to pray for the dead, and I don’t know how else to do it.” “Hmm.” He doesn’t disagree. He, too, knows how to wait.
I sing the Trisagion as soon as my strength returns. It carries me around the house, and I carry it through my chores and resting. Sometimes I don’t know I’m singing it until I feel my heart flip and unfurl as it fills my body. I’m still weak. I still have to stop and catch my breath too often. But I’m strong when I sing. The strength to sing again has grown when I was not watching.
I read the news and make my cross and kiss the Theotokos, who really gets it. She knows what’s going on, what it’s like. I look at Jesus and just nod. He’s acquainted with grief. I search for outdoor icons. I want them in my garden, too.
I sing, “Eonia i mnimi,” in Greek and “Everlasting be their memory,” in English. I water the garden. I light a candle and let incense sweeten the house. Outside, the basil and lavender have grown enough to keep the mosquitoes away from the back door.
It would take years to sing enough for one hundred thousand people.
Maybe I should plant one hundred thousand clovers? I could sing, “Christ is risen” over the clover, the white blossoms like so many bones, their sweetness like incense. I could sing over all of them once a day instead of trying to count out prayers for each. It would only take a pound of clover. The kids could help scatter it. We could dust the seeds off of our sweat-sticky hands onto the lawn and the patch of dandelions.
I find my bag of mustard seeds. I’ve distributed some of them in play bins and dropped a lot of them while teaching, but I still have over five pounds. I would only need a half pound for now, about one hundred thousand seeds. I could scatter them in a few minutes. It would be quick, and the yard would be all yellow when they sprouted, a paradise for birds.
But I am so tired still. Even the planning of so much sowing has worn me out. I have to rest first. A day passes, three days, ten. I go to the icons again and reach out my gardening hands to Christ and the Mother of God. They hold my heart, and it is filled with prayers, one hundred thousand prayers, one hundred thousand seeds cracking open to eternity, all wrapped up in a wrinkled brown packet, waiting. I tuck the seeds and my heart into their hands. “I’m so weak,” I whisper. “Please. Tend them.”