On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the Missouri Botanical Garden opens at 7 a.m. for seekers of tranquil walking upon deserted, dewy paths and among the early birds singing in quiet and fresh morning air. As a rule, I am not a disciple of mornings, as most of my nights are late and disrupted, but I make happy exception for daybreak in the garden. The gentle solitude of an early morning spent walking with memories, lost and found among the trees and the flowers, wraps up my broken heart and brittle bones like a heavy, handmade quilt on a lonely night in winter. For most of these quiet morning walks, I take Mack with me. Like me, she was not enamored of wakefulness at god-awful hours, nor was she a devotee of strolling or of flowers or of birdsong before coffee. Yet I think it is precisely the unlikelihood of this path forward with grief that would lead me and my lost girl into a garden in morning that renders such productive peace upon my soul. These morning walks are when I feel most grateful and lucky and human.
Recently, after a particularly difficult two days, my large umbrella and an overwhelming need to commune with the garden gave me the resolve necessary to venture out on a dark and rainy Wednesday morning. By the time I arrived at the garden, the rain had mostly cleared, although the southern skies still threatened. I stood at the car debating the inconvenience of carrying an unneeded umbrella for my morning therapy stroll in the garden, and I closed the car door and left the umbrella on the passenger seat. I walked away from the car and toward the garden and the dark clouds. Yet although I could feel the warming presence of the sun lurking just beyond the dissipating thunderhead, I stopped walking, sighed deeply, and then returned to the car to retrieve my umbrella. It was to be just my first curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.
My umbrella tucked uncomfortably under my arm, I entered the visitor center, scanned my garden-member card and collected my ticket, and ascended the stairs to the garden entry. I stopped before the fountain on the main plaza, like I always do, and weighed the options of taking a clockwise or counter-clockwise path. Remembering that my most recent morning walking had taken me left around the Linnean House and toward the Ottoman Garden, I stepped right, thinking I would walk toward the Climatron first and spend a little time in the rock garden. As I reached the tram shelter along the clockwise path I had selected, I abruptly turned back toward the fountain and headed toward the Linnean House after all. I do not know why. I just did. Sometimes simple life choices simply make themselves, I guess. I looped the handle of my umbrella on my right arm, knowing now that the day was free and clear of the rain, and I walked briskly toward the Ottoman Garden. Curious and fortunate volte-face number two.
The Ottoman Garden is tucked away in the northeast corner of the Missouri Botanical Garden on a short spur off of the main circuitous path around the entire perimeter of the garden. It is a small, square, wall-lined garden with a lovely pool and fountain in the center and lined with graveled paths trimmed with Turkish plantings. At the back of this quiet little garden, which is never crowded even on busy afternoons, there is a wooden arbor in front of a stucco wall and topped with a Moorish dome. Under the tiled roof sits a glorious, regally decorated wooden throne that sits up upon a slightly raised portico offering royal views over the fountain and the flowers. Whenever I take a female visitor to the garden, I always snap a picture of her sitting upon that throne being a sultan, if only for the duration of a minute or two. However, I do not always visit the Ottoman Garden on my early morning walks, but I suppose on this particular morning I needed to feel like a sultan in control of my life and the world. Or maybe this was my third curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.
I walked over to the throne, and of course, it was wet with rain. Too wet for a sit, I thought, but then I brushed off the biggest puddle and struck a pose for a selfie, documenting that royal feeling with a photo I could pull out later as a reminder of yet another productively therapeutic trip to the garden in morning. After I snapped the picture, I noticed movement in the fountain. A small animal was frantically swimming and making repeated attempts to scale the deep lip around the edges of the pool. I kneeled down to see a chipmunk, desperately keeping her little head above the water, legs rapidly paddling. I put down my bag and my umbrella upon the wet stone and watched the chipmunk through eyes welling up with tears, and I wondered how in the world I might manage to catch the soaked and scared little chipmunk with my bare hands, fish her out of the pool, and bring her to safety. Almost before I could even rationalize or consider it, I grabbed the handle of my umbrella and gently dipped the thicker end of it into the pool directly in front of my desperate little swimmer. She immediately climbed aboard her unlikely life raft, and I carefully guided the umbrella away from the fountain, softly depositing its precious cargo upon the solid ground of stone.
She sat for several seconds, shivering and catching her breath, as I counted her blessings, and then she began to dry off and look noticeably stronger and more calm. As she collected herself and I cried, movement in my teary peripheral vision drew my attention. It was another chipmunk, this one much smaller, desperately swimming and barely keeping her tired head and sleepy eyes above the cold water. I picked up my “unneeded” umbrella and it performed its second heroic rescue of the day. For this second chipmunk, the cold morning swim had been more harrowing, and her breathing more labored and her body more shivery, as I gently sat her down upon the stone. She was just a baby and much more disoriented than her “sister” chipmunk, who by now was breathing normally and was drying herself off with busy little paws. I sat with those sweet little animals for about ten minutes, as their tiny bodies were warming in the humid morning air. When it was clear to my mind that they would live to see the sun burst out from behind the morning’s storm clouds, I resumed my morning walk in the garden, albeit upon shaky legs and with eyes still full of tears of sadness and joy and tender feelings for small creatures.
Mack would have rescued those chipmunks, too. And, like her Momma Bear, she would have cried with worry over the unfortunate morning circumstances of their cold and terrifying swim and fretted over their recovery long after they finally scurried along to dry and warm places under the protective branches of a flowering shrub. For the remainder of my walk that morning, Mack stayed with me, bringing to mind all of the memories of her and her tender heart for animals. You see, I do not go to the garden to escape my grief. Rather, I go to walk beside my grief, and to learn how better to live with my grief. I go to share my present life with Mack, because she is and will always be with me. And because she is with me in my memories and in my daily life, she was with me, too, for the lucky rescue of those sweet chipmunks.
I do not often feel lucky, and on many days I feel almost as unlucky as any person who has ever lived. But on one early morning in the garden, I was lucky to have an unneeded umbrella, lucky to visit the Ottoman Garden first, and lucky to happen upon two precious creatures in need of a life preserver. Most of all, it was a lucky day to be reminded of how lucky I was to have Mack, and how lucky I am that early morning walks and the rescue of chipmunks can melt my still-broken heart, can reveal to me something of the beauty in the world, and can bring me a little much appreciated and necessary peace.