Cultivating cheer, tending to a friend

January 16, 2002|By Donna Schaper

MIAMI - I returned to work after a mastectomy and found a 250-pound man, dressed in khakis, climbing a small palm tree outside my office door.

My office faces a courtyard in our Miami Mediterranean-style church. To say the gardens had been neglected in this courtyard is like saying cancer is a minor disease.

The man was hanging orchids in the trees outside my office door and placing them precisely at the level where I might see them if I glanced up from my desk.

"Richard," I had to say, "What the hell are you doing?" In his British accent, borrowed from a youth in South Africa, he said, "I am reminding you to smell the roses."

Richard is an expert horticulturist who "imports" tropical plants from around the world. He also steals them and smuggles them in. He consistently overspends the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter flower budget.

He and his son decorate the church the night before each of these festivals. We give him an enormous amount of money, and he always spends more and complains about the congregation's stinginess. You should hear what he says about the neglected courtyard gardens, which he put in himself many years ago, using a variety of rare plants, now extinct doubly, both in our courtyard garden and elsewhere.

Still, with all this expensive beauty and important conflict in his life, three months ago, Richard tried to take his own life. Then I had stood by his hospital bed and prayed that he would live. He had overdosed on a bizarre variety of pills, fully intending to kill himself but being too large for the dose to matter.

His wife was leaving him, and they couldn't come to an agreement on the antiques and plants that dominate their small house. These imports were "un-split-up-able," a word Richard coined in weak British that is quite perfect. It matches his passion for the near-extinct.

Many prayers, including my own, were answered, and Richard survived. He was disappointed. Somehow he found a way to give up the antiques and the plants and the wife and the family. He has started a new house, already a jungle of important horticultural matter.

In Richard's and my little victory garden, we have added two teak loungers, plastic children's chairs and a bowl full of rocks.

Having cancer is no fun. But having rare specimens like Richard around while having cancer is great. After the surgery, I wanted above all to get my "silly" back. When I saw Richard in that palm tree, it came.

I also knew that he had found a way to go on. He, too, had found a way to smell the roses.

Donna Schaper, senior pastor of the Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami, is the author of Spiritual Rock Gardening (Paulist Press, 2000).

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