BEFORE WINTER COMES each year, I plant my garlic. In late October, usually. Early enough to give the thread-thin roots time to poke out of each clove and anchor in the soil before the first hard frost stiffens the ground, but late enough so sprouts as delicately green as fresh peas won’t prematurely shoot out of the earth on warm days only to be destroyed when the killing weather descends. That year, though, I waited until November because the fall was warm. Unusually warm. And I was worn out with worry, my routines as off-kilter as climate-change weather.
Planting any kind of vegetable — a seed, a seedling, a clove — is an act of faith: Faith that there will be enough sun, enough rain. That disease, insects, and blight can be kept at bay long enough for beets to fatten in the soil, tomatoes to turn red and sweet, beans to multiply on poles. That we will be there to harvest them. But planting garlic in the fall, expecting it to survive the winter underground and then to start transmuting one clove into a head of new cloves at the exact right time, takes a special kind of faith. Plucking fat new heads from the ground eight or nine months later is a special kind of victory.
By the time I planted that fall, I’d had my garlic ready to go for weeks: five organic varieties from the local farmers’ market and a few heads left over from my crop of the past summer. I’d pulled the individual cloves from the heads, careful to leave as much of the papery protective cover around each clove as I could, and then I stored them in a basket in the cold cellar until it was time. “Plant them during the full moon,” a farmer at the market had told me in a low, gruff voice, as if he were sharing a secret. I missed one full moon but didn’t want to wait for another. I assumed freezing weather was on its way even in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in one of the warmest zones in Ontario, where I then lived. And I wanted the garden put to bed for the year because there were more urgent things to do.
By the time I set out to plant my garlic, we’d received a definitive diagnosis for my husband, Peter: third-stage cancer of the esophagus.
The diagnosis came after a short holiday to celebrate my sixty-fifth birthday that fall, a trip to Colorado and beautiful New Mexico, where our faces glowed in the afternoon light and our thoughts grew darker over Peter’s increasing inability to swallow and therefore eat. In the almost twenty-seven years we’d been together, Peter had faced many physical challenges and conquered them all. We thought this was just another bump in a history of bad luck with his health. Maybe we shouldn’t have gone on that trip, but doctors had told us that Peter’s difficulties with swallowing could be anything and that swallowing problems are common as we age. We had finally made it to the specialist, a gastroenterologist in St. Catharines, the day before our departure. “Go on your holiday,” he’d said. Neither he nor anyone else had said the C-word about what seemed to be a polyp seen on an X-ray, and we were all too willing to accept their lack of concern. Blindly, I suppose.
Peter had found me the highest sand dune in North America to climb and he was eager to finally visit Santa Fe. I thrilled at exploring natural wonders, especially empty canyons, open deserts, and dunes, while Peter was content to sit and admire them. He was eager to learn the peculiarities of a new city — its odd museums, its quirky characters, and its unique past — while I loved to photograph its architecture, its splashes of colour and personality. I didn’t want to give up my birthday trip. Peter didn’t want to ruin another of my significant birthdays with a medical crisis, as had happened before. It was just for two weeks, after all. So, we went.
As soon as we got back, Peter underwent a probe and a biopsy that he’d scheduled before we left. After that procedure Peter had to follow up with the gastroenterologist’s office for an appointment. He was given a time two weeks later, a routine appointment. And we took that as a good sign. There was nothing urgent; this was something routine.
But when we arrived for the appointment, we sat in the crowded waiting room, nervous, afraid of what we might hear. When the doctor, a short, grey-haired man, called us into his office, we followed him into a small, claustrophobic room with a desk in the centre. I sensed there was clutter all around me, on file cabinets, on the desk, on the walls, but they were all in my periphery; I was focused on that doctor and what he’d say. Peter introduced me as his wife but the doctor didn’t respond, didn’t even look at me. Peter and I sat down in the two chairs across from him and watched as he shuffled papers. Without a glance at us, he turned his face toward his computer screen and muttered, “It’s cancer.”
Peter and I stared at the doctor in disbelief, waiting for something else from him, some hint of reassurance. I had to ask him what kind of cancer.
“Cancer of the esophagus,” he replied, not returning my gaze. “How can we get treatment quickly?” I asked.
“You can’t,” he said in a way that hit me like a snarl. “This is Ontario. There are procedures.”
We left his office with a form for blood work and little confidence that this doctor had a plan. In the hallway, Peter and I hugged silently. On the way home, we stopped the car and called my daughter.
“But is it really cancer?” Jane asked.
Like me, Jane had come to think of Peter as invincible. He’d been told he had cancer before. Twice. Once, an internist, after seeing a mass on Peter’s X-ray, had operated for colon cancer only to discover Peter’s appendix had burst and the mass was dead tissue. Another time I had to rush Peter to hospital when a blood test revealed a hemoglobin count so low most people would have been dead. The first doctors we encountered that time were certain Peter had leukemia, but a clever hematologist diagnosed his inability to absorb B12 as the problem, and monthly injections of the vitamin brought back Peter’s vitality. But Peter and I both sensed that this time was different, and we told Jane so.
“But Petey will beat it,” Jane said of the father figure she had known since she was three. “He always does.”
I didn’t say anything; I wondered how much damage one body could take.
At home, Peter and I cried and tried to figure out how we could make things happen. We were journalists, competent people. We knew how to put things into action. We would find the best doctor in Toronto, get a reference somehow. It was an appeal to our family doctor that got us into the well-respected Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton the next week. There, we met a team of oncologists who were kind, efficient, and ready to tackle the cancer immediately. In an examining room, the lead oncologist drew a picture on the paper sheet on the bed that showed the tumour in the middle of Peter’s esophagus, and he took the time to describe the tumour with terms like squamous cell carcinoma. The word squamous sounded like squash to me, but he told us these cells were the flat cells that lined the esophagus and they were now cancerous in the location of the tumour. He talked about treatments and didn’t mince his words when it came to his anger over the slowness of the specialist in St. Catharines. And we knew we were in good hands.
In the following weeks, a CT scan and a PET scan revealed that Peter’s tumour had spread into the surrounding lymph glands, making the cancer Stage 3. But there was still so much to learn: Could the tumour be excised after radiation and chemotherapy treatments? Would the chemotherapy destroy the stray cancer? Had the PET scan missed spots of cancer in other parts of his body?
In my garden, I knelt on the cold ground, drew lines with a stick, dug small holes six inches apart, and dropped a garlic clove in each hole. The solitary cloves looked so pale, so small, so fragile in the cold earth. What chance did they or any of us have? I patted the soil over the point of each clove with little of the joy I usually felt at the moment I set the process of growth into motion. I couldn’t help wondering if Peter would be there to savour our late-summer favourite: bruschetta made with toppings from my garden, including fresh, finely chopped garlic. Rain began to fall on the earth. Planting my garlic that fall took all the faith I had.