For nearly four years I walked the dogs the same route; along the wooden path, up the hill past the river, over the bridge, past the allotments and into the meadow. It was fairly quiet area and very few people walked that way. It gave me plenty of peaceful time and the boys all the freedom they could ever want.
Whenever we got to the top of the hill there was a cup of tea for me and bowl of water for the boys made for us by the loveliest gentleman gardener who owned an allotment there. We talked about his plants, the birds that visited his plot, the pesky kids that caused so much trouble for him, the park council who found his unauthorised bench very worrisome, the dogs and their owners that passed by, his grand children and their friends. In other words we talked about nothing important. I don’t know his second name or where he lived, I couldn’t guess his favourite flavour of ice cream or pick his favourite song off the radio, but he was a welcome cheerful face when I moved across the country and didn’t know a single person except my husband, and later when I was unemployed and everyone else was at work all day, and much, much later when I was pregnant and only able to drag myself up the hill because I knew I could have a rest on his illegal bench. He seemed to smile through all the phases of my adulthood, always there with a trowel and a cup of tea.
Yesterday after being away for a few months I came back. And found his patch over grown. His shed empty. His rosettes faded. His kettle cold and his bench broken. My gentleman gardener had passed away.
Embarrassingly I stood, on the path that had always felt so loved, with weeds under my feet and cried for a near stranger. I cried for all the love and life that had poured into that garden, for the emptiness that throbbed around his battered wicket fence and for the finality of life that confronted me at 2pm on a casual Thursday. So many versions of myself had walked through that allotment; single, married, pregnant, mother, old Dubliner, new Northerner, librarian, unemployed moper, triumphant teacher. Now the man who paid quiet witness to each of these selves was no longer here.
So much changes when you become a mother and much of your old self falls away. Until today I had never felt like this was a loss, I’ve viewed it as a massive gain and a welcome growth but today felt different. My gentleman gardener seemed to carry away with him the identities I had held before and I will grieve them as much as I will grieve the almost stranger in the moleskin gloves.