This blog was originally published on Dyingwell.uk, a website owned by Clair Fisher.
In Clair’s words: “Dying Well was my retirement project. A space for me to document my personal journey, to explore the evidence around wellbeing in terminal illness and test out some of the theories.”
If you follow me on twitter you may have noticed my recent obsession with Dahlias. This is the back story and a little bit about what Dahlias have to do with planning ahead.
My Dad likes to remind me that as a child I loved to water the pots and window boxes outside my playhouse. Every time I mention gardening he gets out the picture of me in a pinafore dress and slippers with a small plastic watering can. My first garden of my own was a tiny patch under the window of my flat. I can’t remember what I planted in it, but I remember the feeling of this space being mine.
When I got married I took over the garden at my husband’s house from the care of his mother. This was initially quite a daunting prospect because she has an amazing garden herself and had set this garden out, chosen the plants and cared for it for several years before my arrival. Mostly I maintained what she started, but I added a very small vegetable plot.
Once I started with planting edibles I was hooked and really couldn’t understand why anyone would bother putting effort into something that you couldn’t harvest! I put my name down for a local allotment, undaunted by the length of the waiting list. My own allotment, when it came several years later, was a source of great joy. I learnt so much and the summer evenings of peacefulness that it afforded me after my baby twins were in bed were so precious. As my kids grew they came with me to the allotment and pottered about with small plastic watering cans and mini wheelbarrows of their own.
Five years ago I gave up my allotment and transferred my vegetable gardening efforts to the garden of my new house. We had several very productive years, enjoying sweetcorn, lettuce, tomatoes, salad, beetroot, courgettes, various beans and cucumbers. I did begin to sneak sweet peas and other annuals in around the edges and come to appreciate the extra happiness the flower brought to the garden.
The last 2 years my vegetable growing has been interrupted by hospital stays and illness. I’ve realised that growing vegetables requires you to be consistently well and attentive to your garden from February through to at least September. The frustration of seeing things fail and my husband’s concern that he would have to maintain ‘my’ vegetable garden as some sort of weird shrine to me has provoked a change of direction this year.
I’m taking over the vegetable garden with perennials and bulbs. The plan is for effortless (or at least low maintenance) flowers year after year. I started by adopting a couple of end of season dahlias last year and completely fell in love with their bounteous blooms. Looking through catalogues and ordering tubers was a source of great happiness in the dark winter months. As spring arrives along with the cardboard boxes from various nurseries, I realise that I may have slightly overestimated the size of my garden! As I write this I have more than 30 dahlia tubers ready to sprout, plus several trays of seeds, and pots of freesia, ranunculus and anemone bulbs. I’m hoping to get them all going and then find space to jam them into the ground before sitting back and enjoying their beauty. I’ve invested in some sturdy plastic labels to identify their locations in years to come, when hopefully they’ll continue to bloom.
Preparing to die isn’t always a sad or hard thing to do. For me it’s about working through all the various areas of my life tidying and preparing so that my family are spared from as much unnecessary admin as possible. Much death admin is dull, procedural and desk based. Working through bills and logins, switching things over, dealing with insurances, wills and other legal matters. But preparing to handover my garden has been very therapeutic and joyful. My children have got involved; choosing and planting things that they will hopefully look after and enjoy after I’ve gone.
We know that making a plan and seeing it come to fruition is excellent for wellbeing. I’ve found creating a garden to be the ultimate act of hopeful defiance. For those of us living with terminal illness it becomes even more important that we can take control and have autonomy over decisions. For me, making my Advance Care Plan was a great source of reassurance. Another job done and something that can take the pressure off my family in the difficult times to come. I didn’t specify anything very medical, but have asked to be able to see the outside for as long as possible. I’m grateful to the excellent team at St. Catherine’s Hospice for taking me through this so gently, and looking forward to visiting their beautiful garden in person one day.
I’ll be writing more about my personal experience of Advance Care Planning (and advocating for more people living with terminal illness to have these conversations sooner rather than later) as part of Dying Matters week in May.
Look out for details of that, along with updates on the Dahlias, on my Twitter feed.