Our gardener has left — why is that making me cry?

The gardener quit. He’s moving to Hawaii. Can’t take the wildfires and horrible Northern California air anymore. It’s not the first time he’s quit. He recently came back to work after two years away in South America. He’s a free spirit, a hippie. But this time, I think he’s gone for good, and I’m really sad. Truthfully, I’m more than sad. I’m distraught.

I’ve been this way since he told me he was leaving — on the day he returned from a two-month camping trip in the middle of the pandemic, taking this vacation just four months after starting work.

You might wonder why I care about the gardener. It’s not the challenge of someone new. It definitely will be hard to find anybody who works as hard as John N. does (when he’s around) or does as beautiful a job (again, when he’s around).

You might speculate I have a crush on the gardener. Or even that I’m even in love with him. And you’re sort of right. I am a little in love with the gardener, but not romantically. I’m a little in love with him in a familial way — and only by proxy. You see he reminds me of my late brother Malcolm.

Mal, like John N., was never content to settle in one place. Mal, like John N., was utterly charming and spoke in a mellifluous, deep voice about the state of the world, peace and harmony.

Both men liked to share their writing, music and photography with me.

Both charmed my husband, forming a deep bond discussing things spiritual and practical, like woodworking and tools.

Mal, like John N., loved nature and beautiful women, often wounded women, and both could not be counted on.

And both drove me crazy, causing me to worry about their health, livelihood and safety. And now both are gone — albeit in vastly different ways — from my life.

My brother Mal was an outlier in our family. Difficult to love, always removed, always distant. Even in death, he denied us closeness and closure. He wanted no ceremony. No service. And certainly, nobody sitting shiva for him.

My parents were already gone. My oldest brother, too. My third brother lives a distance away and so, I mourned — and mulled over — Mal’s life alone. It was an unsatisfactory, unfulfilling way to say goodbye, but it was, as they say, what it was. And so, time passed. Life resumed its normal course.

Until the gardener quit.

I was so agitated about John N.’s departure that each time he came over, I avoided him and made my husband, who is working from home during the pandemic, talk with him. Husband Jon, of course, was thrilled to gab with his buddy John N. Meanwhile, inside the house, I steamed. Sure, talk with that two-timer, leaving us for parts unknown. OK, leaving for Hawaii and clean air, but still …

My husband was the first to understand my weird rage. He “got” the uncanny similarities between my brother and the gardener, and he “got” my crazy transference of missing/mourning Mal onto poor John N.’s unwitting curly, straw-hatted head.

On John’s last day of work, I sulked and hid. I wouldn’t/couldn’t come out to say goodbye. Then, hours later, I felt terrible and sent an email, wishing him safe travels and a happy new life. He replied with a mellow “Aloha.”

The next day, I went into a meltdown about my brother, crying and listening to music that reminded me of him. Two and a half years ago, when my brother died, I barely cried. I was in such a state of conflicted emotions. I mourned, of course, but my grief was restrained by my sentimental standards. Yet the departure of the gardener sent me down a path of unrestrained grief. The prescribed time for sitting shiva, according to Jewish tradition, had long passed, but so be it. The time, my time, for mourning had come.

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. An award-winning journalist, her nonfiction and fiction essays and stories have been featured in multiple publications. She is a former resident Berkeley who now lives in Reno and can be reached at [email protected].