DMG's first "official" work date - April 25, 2009

The last couple of weeks I've had the great pleasure of meeting with several Dunbar clubs as we continue to rally support for our efforts at the Dunbar Memorial Garden. A new club at Dunbar this year the "Sisterhood" is a collective of young women with the ominous goal of not only improving the quality of life for women, but also the community as a whole.

When I contacted Jackie, the groups' president, I was certainly not aware of all the connections we shared. Jackie not only knew Jesse from middle school but just so happens to be dating the young man who received the first Spencerian College "Jesse Higginb
otham" scholarship in 2007. About a dozen members met me at the garden and we talked about how they might help. They've taken on the task of refurbishing one of the picnic tables at the garden and have also volunteered to help create ceramic tiles to be used as art in the straw bale benches.

On Thursday I met with the Beta Club and was ill-prepared for Ellidia handing me a microphone to talk to a group of about 80 plus students about the garden and the Mindtriggerz Project. Thankfully, Mr. Richardson was on hand to share infor
mation about the computers. James has been about the most steadfast young man I think I've ever met, and while he may claim he had an aftershock of nerves, he did a beautiful job of detailing what we are trying to accomplish in Jesse's honor and name.

James spent the early morning today helping Jesse's dad set up the Mindtriggerz teaching lab at Cardinal Valley Park. I picked him up to go to the garden at about 9:30am. It is an unwritten rule that we never know what to expect as far as volunteers are concerned but we had packed all our tools and sanding equipment knowing at least a few of the Sisterhood members would be there to
start on the picnic table. When we arrived at the garden near 10am, there were only a couple of us unloading the truck. By 10am close to 30 people had arrived including a large number of Beta's as well as one of our favorite new groups, the "No day but today" club, founded in honor of Hannah Landers.

While James demonstrated use of the sanders, scrapers and other tools for the table, I asked the others to help edge the pathways. Luckily, Tyler showed up on a weekend pass from EKU and was able to take over as lead instructor on how to clear a paver. Several other Dunbar graduates arrived including Austin (who is often stalked by monster sized bees) and Beth - a young woman attending UK whose dad has been a great contributor to Mindtriggerz and that I ever so luckily ha
ve begun to know via correspondance on Facebook. While Sarah's sister slept, her mom came too - always at the ready with her own weed digger!

Of course, we were thrilled with the turnout - 98.75% of the garden is now edged, in an environmentally friendly fashion (aka "hands") and the picnic table should be ready to prime after just a bit more sanding. Several ceramic tiles were created and me, well, I got absolutely nothing done for greeting, talking, directing and hugging. Special thanks to Dunbar teachers Ms. Davis (Beta club sponsor and all-around incredible person) and Ms. Anderson who came by to bring us about a dozen sunflower stakes. Oh and Louanne's mom who donated a big mass of Autumn Glory Sedum that we immediately placed in the rain barrel planter and of which there is no doubt it will be happy.

The plants at the garden are spreading beautifully - and prolifically - and while I am still amazed by the young people who come to work there who have never walked through it, in a school as large as Dunbar, I should not be surprised but still am. Among the many stories and comments shared today, learning that teachers vie for the chance to hold class out there, well, that was about the coolest. It continues to be our labor of love - and it was so good to be there today in the sun (even with the 80 degree heat), among old friends and new ones.

"Thank you" seems the most futile of phrases - it can't begin to express our <3.

April 18, 2009

Among the "sad mom and dad" club of which noone wants to be a member, there is a plethora of advice shared about those "hardest" dates. Birthdays and the day that marked the end of our old normal lives. We are told to plan something, anything and then have a backup plan that includes the potential of simply falling into a puddle of our own tears.
Everyone is different, everyone reacts in their own way. Everyone is allowed to do whatever it is that will simply help get through that day.

I planned to work at the garden on April 18th - the date of Jesse's accident and had every intention of simply wearing myself out pulling weeds, digging plants. I didn't have a "Plan B."

Many weeks ago, April and I had bumped into Colleen - a former classmate from both Leestown Middle and Dunbar High, a friend of Jesse's who had travelled with us to Italy in 2004. We distracted her from her work and discussed her upcoming graduation as a massage therapist. She gave me her clinic schedule and I had every intention of calling for an appointment but it was just one more thing on my list of "to-do's" that fell between the cracks. When I finally remembered, the only date Colleen had available according the receptionist was April 18th. After a long pause I took it - there was something fortuitous about that being her "only opening."

On the way to my appointment, Linda called - she's been a great friend to the garden posting information of our work in the Dunbar Enews among so many other things. She's become a great friend period. Her son needed some community service hours and she wondered if I might be at the garden later in the day. She turned my attention, handed me a distraction and I am thankful for that call because as I entered the Lexington Healing Arts Academy, I was able to do so without tears.

Colleen performed miraculous work - she had a box of Kleenex at the ready but I think because of her connection to Jesse - I didn't need it. We talked some while she worked and she pinpointed the muscle in my back causing me the most pain and wrote down notes and suggestions. As I left she told me to drink more water and handed me a card with explicit instructions not to read it until I got home.

As I started gathering up the gear to take to the garden April appeared. She helped me pack up then we both drove out to Dunbar. A beautiful chalk drawing on the sidewalk greeted us - Jesse's name and how he will never be forgotten. Adults could stand to learn a few things from their younger counterparts. Compassion as an act, instead of an afterthought.

We'd barely begun work when others started arriving. Linda and her son pulled a boat load of weeds, then pruned back the remainder of the grasses. They also did a bit of correcting of the wooden benches while others came by. As the day progressed, Sarah and James came to help as did Jesse's best friend Jon. Joyce, having helped Jerome with the Mindtriggerz Training lab all morning showed up in time to remind me of all the butterflies we'd seen last summer. She asked about the butterfly milkweed and I showed her the marker for it but said "I just haven't seen it emerging yet" - so we both bent to the ground and I uncovered some mulch and there it was: bright green tendrils stretching for the sky.

Sarah helped me dig sunflowers for a potential native plant sale, April cleaned all the picnic tables with the help of James. I saw them sitting in the shade, backs propped against the school building and wondered at how many times Jesse might have done the same and Hannah. We worked and stopped and started and stopped again and they got me through the day. They touched me and patted me when I cried and they ran through the garden with wild abandon on such a particularly beautiful day at such a particularly beautiful place. They laughed and goofed off. They remembered.

The garden is a safe place for them as it is for me. It continues to be our labor of love no matter who shows up to work or even why. Whether they knew Josh or Jesse or Hannah or Ross or any of the other great kids who surely must surround us somehow while we are there because it's never been a sad place to be. It is "our place" to be. Every day we are there it's even more beautiful. Every day we are there together it is a comfort. With every weed we pull and all the mulch we move and every silly thing that's said, we remember. That is the thing that makes it worth the labor. That we always remember, and care enough to do so together.

When all that is the culmination of our memories and love gather in one specific space, there are no words to describe it. The flowers return along wtih the butterflies and birds and bees. And the people - that's the best part, the people who might continue the work of those who left us too soon.

They are loved. Never forgotten. And one day I will have my flashing lolcube for Jesse. One day.

April 12, 2009

This afternoon amid a strong breeze and cooler temperatures, a sign was planted in our latest mulch pile reading "Property of the Dunbar Memorial Garden." As we near our first official work date of April 25th there are many lists to be made and subsequently lost (j/k) and many contacts to be re-made, many things to be done.
Ellidia - the eternally wonderful president of Dunbar's Beta Club stopped by to visit and allow me to rant on about what we want to do this year, about her wonderful scholarship to Vandy, about the plans that are perpetually evolving and changing - of which her participation for the past two years has been a kind of saving grace.

We really love Ellidia and will miss her as she graduates this year - not just for her support of the garden and mindtriggerz but for her exuberance and compassion and her ability to make us laugh! She will most definitely be a force to reckon with at Vandy. Yesterday most of our native grasses got pruned back and green shoots were seen sprouting below. On Saturday afternoon with assistance from Josh, Joyce and James, we unloaded a couple of truck loads of mulch Jesse's dad and I picked up that morning. It was good to be in the sunshine amid the laughter and will be good to get back to working there together again.

During Spring Break on an afternoon when I surely clocked 6 hours at the garden pulling onion grass and dandelions, transplanting and giving away several flats of native sunflowers - I went to dump my bucket of weeds and spotted my first goldfinch of the year. Yellow is Jesse's "color" so of course the goldfinch has become my favorite bird. The little guy was just chirping away in a tree close by so I responded in his non-native language: "hey buddy, what's up with you?" His response was to fly closer and land with two of his friends in a tree in front of my face. I stood there for a moment then turned and walked away because I wasn't seeing them clearly anymore due to tears.

Most of the bereaved parents I know look for signs in nature for their kids so I know I'm not alone in this. Many of the kids while working in the garden will look to the sky and when they spot a buzzard will wave at "Tevis." In various photos taken during work sessions a mysterious pink "orb" is seen - we attribute that to Josh who loved the color pink.

For almost two years now I have been unable to do any garden work at my own home - something that prior to losing Jesse was a source of passion and great therapy for me. After working all day at the garden and spotting those birds I decided to try. I planted a few of the native sunflowers along with a rattlesnake master in my backyard. It was hard but I managed. As I stood there considering this altered landscape I noticed one single bright pink tulip. I'd planted many tulips many years ago but this guy was the only one that sprouted. I stood there thinking of Josh and hoping it was a "sign" from him or for him? When I turned around there sitting in my basement window was the single survivor of a triptych of primroses Jesse had given me for Mothers Day in 2006. Two of the plants died during the early weeks following Jesse's accident and when I finally noticed, I made it a mission to do whatever I could to save the last one and yes, that was a struggle. I tried every spot in the house, every chemical I could find but it struggled and struggled until finally this winter I just put it in the sunniest window of the house and asked it to please keep trying. It did, and when I looked at it that evening a perfect yellow flower had blossomed. If I hadn't been where I was doing what I was at the time, I would have never seen it.

I will always struggle with these "signs" and my hopes that they are real. The young ones that gather around help a lot with that because they do believe and I am thankful to them for that almost more than anything else. They KNOW the energies of Josh, Jesse and Hannah are still here. I can't imagine surviving without them. <3

Coming up close

During the summer and fall of 2007 we averaged 30 to 40 people each Saturday - a feat I doubt I will ever stop expounding on. As we moved into the first Spring date of 2008 our numbers dropped but at each work session there would randomly be at least a dozen people there.
After we lost Hannah on May 6, 2008 - I know it was harder for many of our regulars to return.
I know it was for me.

I mentioned earlier that the summer of 2007 in Lexington was a total drought and while I knew we had done everything we could to get the soil prepped - I worried. By the time we started planting in the fall, we were all amazed at how easy it was to dig in the soil. I remember one little girl - one of Athena's younger sisters - saying "How come all these plants we are planting just look like sticks?"

She couldn't imagine their future and quite frankly the rest of us were kind of yeah, really.

We started pulling weeds early in the Spring of 2008. Onion grass, oh my. Dandelions, oh my. But as we tried to convince each other, our natives would outshine them soon enough. More than weeds began to emerge but it was still pretty colorless in early April of 2008.

As we approached the first year after Jesse's accident I had no idea what to do or where to be but someone, I just don't know who, called and said I should come to the garden. The 19th, a Saturday, a few of Jesse's friends showed up at the house and took me there. As we walked around the corner I was astounded. Several beautiful pots filled with yellow flowers dangled from the limbs of the Bur Oak we had planted. Scattered around the garden were other pots filled with colors - annuals. There was our precious Hannah, digging in the dirt - planting yellow pansies around the tree. There was Aaron, and April, Andi and JA. We hugged and kissed and cried and laughed and Hannah presented me with a beautiful clay pot she had made - with a glaze half yellow and half blue/purple. She'd filled it with yellow pansies.
When I hear adults prattle on negatively about "the youth nowadays" I close my eyes and remember what the youth nowadays do so much better than so many of their adult counterparts. People are freaked about death - especially the death of a young person. But these kids, these "youth" intuitively knew what I needed - simply, that Jesse was remembered on the day my life changed forever. They did it well.
We all went to Fazoli's (Jesse loved pasta) and we sat and ate and talked and remembered.
There were many who remembered Jesse that day and many who were not at the garden that Saturday but who worked the night before. I don't know who they all were - but I love every one of them with all my heart for doing it.

Now, it's getting dark on the back porch so to get us closer. During the Spring and Summer of 2008, we dug a lot of weeds. We mulched and mulched and mulched faster. The beautiful red bee balm got a sweet case of powdery mildew and after researching "non chemical treatments" we just decided to prune it down and clean our tools and see what happened. What happened is it rebloomed. Then we found out bee balm has this tendency - so this year we will be prepared.

We had a female kildeer who decided to make a nest among the emerging swamp milk weed. She left three eggs that we checked on as much as we could. Stick flags were placed around her ground nest in the hopes no one would step on them. We learned that both the male and female tend to the nest and we also learned (with some help from our Florida-bred friend Aida Fine) that if we moved close to the nest, they would distract us by pretending to be wounded, dragging a wing along the ground as if to say "come get me instead."

Then there were the butterflies. Monarchs, fritallaries, buckeyes, sulphurs. An American snout, swallowtails and hairstreaks. Joyce became as fascinated as I was just trying to catch a picture and "look it up." This year, we are going to buy the field guide instead of renewing the same field guide over and over again from the Lexington Public Library. The birds were there too - but harder to catch in action. We have a particular affinity to gold finches (yellow is the color associated to Jesse), buzzards (Tevis' bird), great blue herons (for Aida's son David) and hawks (Hannah's dad said something one day and now when I see one it is hers).

There were a lot of weird bugs too - aphids love swamp milkweed but so do ladybugs and then we spotted the swamp milkweed bug - orange and laying eggs like crazy. Many, many hours were spent studying the ecology of the garden over the summer. It was absolutely crazy. For the record, we had as big a collection of bees as I have ever seen. They were HUGE but apparently were only interested in one smashing young man named Austin, who while incredibly good-looking, must have worn the perfect complimentary cologne when he came to the garden. These bees are now known as "Austin's stalker bees" - they didn't sting - they just liked his essence!

Now, a word about Sarah. Sarah was a long long time friend of Hannah's, they grew up together and she knew how important the garden was to Hannah. Without a doubt Sarah has been the steadfast presence that Hannah had been. Without a doubt, she stepped up and into a lot of lives of people who needed her badly - and she is one of those absolutely perfect "youth" that every parent dreams of - and yeah, we rib her about that relentlessly.

As the summer came to a close we decided to go ahead and start our straw bale construction benches. We also replaced the tops on several of our picnic tables - our good friend Tyler can attest to just how difficult it is to remove old bolts from old wood on very old picnic tables. We created a purple table for Hannah. Sarah created beautiful stencils and Hannah's dad helped us paint them. As did Lucy and Rebecca and Ariel in from Tulane.

As Linda Noffsinger so eloquently put it so very very many months ago - this is our "labor of love" - it won't ever stop. At least as long as those of us who won't forget, remember.

There was a summer day, sitting alone at the garden just pulling weeds, watching for gold finches, listening to the air move that I looked around and said "Hannah, you would love this" and I felt something leaning on me even though there wasn't anything tangible to attribute that to, but I want to believe it was her. Somehow, crossing whatever line there might be in the universe. We planted a "callicarpa" for Hannah, a "beautyberry" because that's what she is and it bloomed the prettiest purple ever.

At the garden last week - every day I checked on Hannah's beautyberry with the beautiful wooden star Sarah painted in front of it. There is an indescribable feeling I get every time I go to the garden. That it will be gone or the flowers will not flower. Mostly, I obsess about the beautyberry. Finally, I spied green buds emerging on it. Finally.


Getting Warmer Now

During Fayette County Public Schools Spring Break the weather did - and so a few of us meandered out to see what was emerging at the Memorial Garden. Sarah (a very good friend of Hannah's and just as good a friend of the garden) had visited earlier and was afraid some anonymous mint was spreading among the bee balm. By the time I got out there for a look see last week I laughed so hard and sent her a message: "not weeds kid - that's the bee balm spreading."

There is little doubt in my mind that this years' garden will surpass last years' which is almost, just almost, unimaginable.

But wait, back to "backpedaling." During the early stages of planning what plants we wanted to see in the garden, a group of students huddled around a teachers computer during a GSA meeting oohing and aahing over the possibilities we saw at the Shooting Star Nursery website. What a funny and random coincidence that at one of those first meetings as I asked that they consider going "all native" I learned that Jesse's good friend Natalia who was present, had recently completed a research paper on using native plants. We wanted a wide variety of colors - pinks for Josh, yellows for Jesse. The list grew longer and longer but we knew we'd be limited in by the fact that the garden area is a windy, high site in full sun and with very little in the way of protection from the elements. We also knew that by the time we went to purchase those plants in the Fall the selection would surely be limited.

At that time, while I was still in such shock over losing Jesse (of which I am still not "over") I was so very grateful to the young people of Dunbar's GSA who welcomed me to their meetings, whose members hugged me and tried to help me, who somehow knew that if I got involved it would be "for good" and that nothing would keep us from accomplishing this beautiful project inspired by Josh's life and now by Jesse's too. We jumped through a lot of hoops, filled out a lot of paper work. Perservered. Perhaps it was the fog of loss that kept me from growing too impatient as I sat at the kitchen table so many late nights surrounded by native plant books and research drafting and re-drafting what would be acceptable to present to the FCPS board as "plans". I know I was not the only one who went "WHAT?" when we were told we needed a plan detailing every plant to be installed, each piece of art, all the extras. Jesse's dad had a CAD person from Spencerian where he teaches evening classes draw up an official blueprint and we were finally called to meet with folks from FCPS to discuss them.

We were told by others who had been through this maze of installing a garden on school property that having a meeting was a good thing and that it would bring us closer to approval. There would be several members from FCPS's risk management, physical services as well as an associate principal from Dunbar. I can say in all honesty that I was very scared the project would not be approved but the students kept saying "we are going to do this." They almost convinced me.

The meeting was to take place at Dunbar in the Administrative office. Just to shore up our side, I asked for some physical support via presence at the meeting. Among a variety of students we also had an arborist, horticulturalist, several native plant guru's, some parents, and others and when we walked into the office there was a look of shock on the faces of those who thought this "small meeting" would take place quickly and without question.

We needed more space so it was decided we'd relocate to the cafeteria - appropriate considering the garden would be placed outside of its windows. After a round of questions - which in retrospect we think were mostly to assure the staffers that this garden would not only be installed but maintained for an extended time - everyone tried to smile away the nervousness.

I will in fact, never forget the look on all those faces. There was no doubt about our commitment, no question of our sincerity. I have an inkling that had our "turn out" not been so great and diverse at that meeting that we may not have been able to do this. While many of those beautiful young students who came back to school on their summer break just for that meeting are now off in the great wide world - at colleges and locations near and far, what they did with their optimism and courage is the reason that we were able to create "a celebration of life, a labor of love," the Dunbar Memorial Garden.

When I post tomorrow, I have every intention of getting us up to date. There are just a great deal of emotional moments - so many trials, so many feats. So many people to give so much thanks to.


Crawling closer

The original plans for the garden called for three 25' square beds but along the way they kind of merged into the pattern of a three leaf clover or as one of the kids said upon viewing it from up high "a big heart" - or as Jesse's dad likes to call it "a tree of life."

I don't suppose it matters much what it looks like to others. It has been a teaching, training, learning, dissecting, relearning, defined and then redefined place to simply pour out work, sweat, blood and tears.

The day we marked the beds - with cans of orange spray paint and Hannah there ready to make sure it was fun, I can say without fear of anyone else's judgment that I cried. It was marking a space in memory of kids who should still be here. There was nothing happy about that for me.

But magically it all started falling into the place it needed to be. Ideas were bantered, many were consulted. I recall this haze of meetings and gatherings and people hugging me, a million email exchanges and new friends who became more steadfast than those I'd assumed would always be there but ultimately weren't. There, everywhere were young people. The "young people" - they were and continue to be the heart and soul behind everything we do because without them we would not "be" at all and nothing at the garden would have ever materialized.

While we waited for planting season, we created pathways. We spread grass seed. We sanded and painted old worn-out picnic tables. We designed stencils then cut them and decorated the tables. We filled every Saturday with "something else" - some other idea someone else sprouted. We laughed and joked and fumbled and yelled but every single day was another miracle.

I remember a summer Saturday when some kind of testing was being held at Dunbar. The cafeteria was filled with students and sharp pencils. Jesse's dad had the acumen to move our work further away from the glass windows to try to prevent any disruption. We toiled outside while the kids did inside and more then a few jokes were made among us about those poor kids trapped inside while the sun shined and we were soaking up the rays.

I remember the very first day (7/7/07) when we had coverage from the local newspaper, when we were amazed to see 30 plus people gathered ready to get down to building a garden. I remember Katherine and Carol and Matt - all parents who had lost a child. I remember the clearness of the air, the too-perfect blue sky, and the earth moving. Most of all I remember the simple fact that so many had risen so early to be a part of something that was the result of such sorrow. What I remember most is that every one there was a part of "not forgetting."

That's all we want - for people to remember, not always in tears but forever in love.

Backpedaling a little closer to the present

Over the course of late Summer and Fall of 2007 we estimated that we had well over 100 people work with us at the Dunbar Memorial Garden. There were MANY students as well as parents, teachers, friends and of course, Jesse's dads' fabulous co-workers! Were it not for the input and physical labor of the guys from Phase IV Contracting (Penny, the dog included) we are certain the beautiful stone work we got done would have never happened. At their side, they taught many young people the art of doing a good job and doing it right - and how to work with your hands and brains. Our debt to Phase IV is a big one. REALLY.

But even before the onset of our paver walkways we were incredibly lucky to have the assistance of arborists and horticulturalists who helped us evaluate the best way to prepare the soil for planting. During the month of July 2007 we tilled three 25' by 25' beds, added compost and tilled again. We then placed a layer of cardboard across each of the beds and topped them off with a thick layer of wood chips. The Summer of 2007 in Kentucky was an awful drought year with non-native landscapes and trees suffering horribly and while we did water our newly sown grass seed, we did nothing much at all in the way of our planting beds.

A little side note about our paver pathways: they are RECYCLED material! We were advised that a large sidewalk outside of the Dunbar cafeteria was being replaced with concrete and were asked if we might like the pavers. Of course we said "yes!" The contractors hauled them to an area down hill of the garden so we physically moved several thousand via a variety of means (see 8/18/07 post). Many, many by hand. Most of us touched a paver or three hundred at some course during our time working on the pathways.

There was a moment during our second Saturday at the Garden when I almost had a nervous breakdown. We had all the beds tilled and were ready to lay the cardboard and mulch. But in the course of the concrete being poured on the sidewalks some heavy trucks had literally plowed through two of our bed leaving the soil heavily compacted and "rutted." Everyone, including all the students, tried to convince me we could "fix" it before the loads of wood chips arrived. I doubted it and to prove so banged my rake into some of the rock hard soil that the week before had been so perfect and light. Fortuitously, the general contractor arrived to check on his own work and before anyone could stop me I approached him, told him about Jesse and the purpose of this garden and through streaming tears and shaking hands advised him of the damage he had done to our hard work. In retrospect, I wonder if it was right to allow the young people to overhear that conversation and see my distress but he apologized in front of them all. And then he left and came back with a rototiller and worked the soil his trucks had compacted back to a state close to what it had been before. What he did was the "right thing" - something I think our young folks and even old people like me just don't see often enough. If that guy ever reads this blog I hope he knows what a positive turn he gave to a negative situation.

On that note, a good one, we'll leave additional backpedaling for next time.

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