Sunday Opinion: How Gardening Feels

Just six days ago all that was on my mind was a hopelessly deteriorated knee that was scheduled for replacement the following morning at 7am.  Though my surgeon insisted that some terrible injury had paved the way for an arthritis that had only worsened over time, I am quite sure the many years of gardening had made my knees old before their time.  I did not make the decision to replace it with a titanium prosthesis lightly-I had tried everything else.  There did come a time when the backslide became a backward landslide.  Stairs, and construction sites weren’t difficult-they were impossible.   Buck installed railings on both sides of the basement stairs so I could pull myself up, and stop myself from falling, going down.  A bad situation had become intolerable.  I have three really good girlfriends who persuaded me to say yes.  Two are respected professionals at the hospital who would do the work-the third an optimistic and gutsy girl that had both of hers done at the same time-when she was 69.  They made the appointment with the surgeon, and scheduled the date for me when they decided I was stalling.  They loudly and enthusiastically coached.  How lucky am I to have them?

Taking a major surgery to the bank may seem like a contradiction in terms up front-but I was not really prepared to give up my garden, or my client’s gardens.   As Buck put so succinctly-“Keep foremost in your mind your faith in the beauty of science and scientists, and your complete respect for the scientist who will be in charge of designing, executing, and insuring your future as a gardener.”  Another very good friend advised me a week before to try to put my ability to focus to work on my own behalf.  Time does go by; you will be swept up and deposited on the other side in a week’s time-swim with it.  On  her recommendation, swim I did.

An amazing number of clients and contractors broached the topic with stories of  their own experiences; it had become obvious to them it was time for me. Lots of people have knee replacements. Gardening takes its toll on everyone who loves it. Like every other gardener,  I have been stung, stabbed, poked, and bested more times than I care to admit-but I always came back for more. I have fallen and wrenched both of my knees, and both of my ankles.  I have strained my back, sunburned my neck, and broken my leg- obliviously stepping into an 18 inch drop in grade accomodating a giant drain. Every finger I have has quarter inch deep splits in the spring from wet soil.  I have cut myself with my own pruners lots of times.  I always came back for more.  Whatever you come back for, is worth fighting for, yes?  Faced with the prospect of do, or give it up, I put myself in someone else’s hands.

Should you be a gardener whose history has worn your knees to that excruciatingly painful grinding point, I would tell you this.  The level of medicine available at your local hospital is formidably, unbelievably good.  My knee is criss-crossed with lines made from a marker; such a companion computer program exists to enable a surgeon to implant the new knee exactly in the proper cross hairs.  A knee that sits right underneath your body in the correct spot-not close to correct.  A knee made for your sex and size.  A knee that will work for a long time.  Wow.  Just four days post op, I would tell you that there is a good gardening life ahead of you should you be stopped in your tracks with a knee no longer working-you only need to risk it.  I attended no classes, nor did I read anything about this procedure on my computer.  For me, there is such a thing as too much information.  Knowledge of every detail doesn’t help me-it overwhelms me with doubt and worry.  The surgical details I did not need to fret over-they would only keep me in a state of poorly controlled panic for the month I had to wait.  I had a program clearly outlined by the doctor, all of which I did.  I avoided everything else except well wishes and encouragement.   

I will admit the half hour I spent alone in pre-op before my team got up and running almost did me in.  I could feel my resolve slipping.  I could feel tears welling up, and I thought to run for my life.  Finally, my anesthesiologist.  He has a smile that made it seem like the sun was shining in the room, and a clearly confident way of explaining how what he would do would make the process go smoothly and unobtrusively for me.  I noticed a giant head of hair stuffed up under his surgical cap; I asked him about that.  He took the time to get a picture out of his wallet-the most gorgeous black and silver dreadlocks in a pony tail I have ever seen. He took the time to focus me on something else other than my own dreadlock.  He managed to be handsome, sunny, but  completely and competently in charge of the pre-op shop, and he took the time to treat me as a person.  I went gently into that good night.

So I wake up in recovery, thinking nothing has happened yet.  I remember the elevator ride to my room, and the woman’s face who took me. I was alert.   Amazing; not one bit like a surgery thirty years ago.  The big revolution-a spinal anesthesia and a Stryker pain pump. Numbing medication was being dispensed to the nerve governing the outraged knee on a digitally controlled schedule. What did this mean to me? Spinal anesthesia is a lot easier on, and less difficult to come out of  for a human being than general anesthesia.  A pain pump erased the need for narcotics to control the pain.  I was myself, right off the bat.  I came out of the starting block with everything I had at my disposal-to recover.  This is my lay point of view-I am not a doctor.  I only say what I had to do went as if it were my choice all along.

Steve gave me Dominique Browning’s book “Paths of Desire”-to read during my recovery. I took it to the hospital on a lark, never believing I could read there.  But   I was able to read- and reflected on every word.  I did not forget what I had read, even when interrupted. She is a writer whose every phrase and sentence is worth taking time with. You would miss the point, speed reading. I was able to think about her idea that a garden is everything about how it makes you feel.  And how others feel, being there.  It is a story of how rebuilding her garden and her life were one in the same.  The story of why and how she loves her garden put so much into words for me.  She got me to think about how a garden absorbs history and change, and gives back-should you open your heart to it. I was introduced to, and able to concentrate on her writing.  What a fabulous book this is-have you had the time to  read it?  In the process of being introduced to the writing of Dominique Browning, I have a new knee.  The prospect of gardening again  feels really good.  I have a new tool that I know is going to work just fine.


  1. Deborah! What a shock to find this post instead of the usual excellent musings on design. I’m so glad the dread is over, because I know in recovery and rehab you’ll be unstoppable. The book sounds wonderful. I always cling to books when in hospitals (and airplanes), and there is definitely an unusual level of attention given at those moments. Best wishes to you and so glad the surgery is behind you.

  2. Deborah Silver says

    Denise, thanks a million for the well wishes! I may go on over to the office tomorrow-with leg brace and walker in tow. It is the best, to be by the worst.

  3. Dear Denise…and Deborah please post this!, While it is true that Deborah did indeed try and stall a few times I think she knew all along that if she wanted to have fun in her and everyone elses garden this spring then stalling wasn’t an option! When you are as passionate about something as Deborah is about the soil and everything related to it you go to great lengths to make sure you can continue on. All that aside I must report that she was the star patient and a poster person for knee replacement, in fact rumor has it that she should be used in the hospital’s commercials. This says so much about her will and determination and her love of gardens, gardening and gardeners.. A PS..I was 69 not 70. XXX

  4. Surgery is scary! I’m glad to hear you are doing better! I wish you good healing. Enjoy your down time to rest, think, and read! However, I know you’ll be busy doing therapy on your knee as well as getting ready for spring!

  5. I hope you’re on the mend! I’m so pleased to hear that Dominique’s book spoke to you. You might be interested to know that her new memoir SLOW LOVE: HOW I LOST MY JOB, PUT ON MY PAJAMAS & FOUND HAPPINESS will be published later this spring. Publisher’s weekly raved today: “There is such feeling and care on each page of Browning’s well-honed memoir—her rediscovery of nature, her avowal to let love find her rather than seek it, tapping satisfying work at her own keyboard—that the reader is swept along in a pleasant mood of transcendence.” Her words are a salve. May your recovery be a speedy one.

  6. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Lauren, thanks for the info on Dominique Browning’s new book-I will of course read it. She is such a good writer. Deborah

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