Less Grief, More Green

February 20, 2009
By

JANET M. CROMER

Guiding children in the Arboretum makes a big difference

The following essay was published last year in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Resolution” and appears here with permission in slightly different form.

As the year 2004 dawned, I was at one of the lowest points of my life. During 2003, my sister, a dear friend and even my sweet dog died. In addition, my husband Alan Cromer’s medical condition was getting worse. Alan had a massive heart attack and cardiac arrest in 1998 that left him with a severe brain injury from lack of oxygen. The brain injury led to dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Although Alan excelled at being his best self, he needed and deserved my love and care around the clock.

Living in this world of illness, grief and loss left me wrung out physically, emotionally and spiritu-ally. I knew I needed to begin to replenish my energy and outlook even as I rode the tides of ongoing grief.

One November afternoon in 2003, I sat in a nook formed by the spreading roots of a copper beech tree in my favorite sanctuary, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Protected by a generous mantle of boughs, I let my mind roam over the sorrows and happier occasions of the year. I wanted time away from the worry and constant, serious responsibility that every caregiver knows so well. I decided to find new ways to get in-volved with nature as one way of bringing restorative balance to my life.

As I walked home, my 2004 New Year’s resolution took shape in my mind. My resolution became: “Less grief, more green.”

I joined the Arnold Arboretum training program for volunteer school field guides in March. The field guides provide outdoor learning experiences for Boston Public Schools students in grades 3-5. As a lifelong urban dweller, I welcomed the chance to introduce children to nature as a source of pleasure and curiosity for years to come.

Nancy Sableski, the program director, provided guides with several bountiful days of training. I dived into the spring curriculum on pollination. The thick notebook brimmed with information and diagrams about how flowers and tree flowers bud, bloom, and produce the seeds that assure that the species will continue.

I relished being a student again instead of the expert I had to be to manage Alan’s care. In the circle of guides, who ranged from college students and mothers to retired plant experts, illness was not a distraction. Instead we asked each other questions such as, “Which azalea bushes have the most pollen this week?”

A morning spent dissecting daffodils under a microscope made me happier and more energetic than I’d felt in months. Back at home, I set up a selection of flowers and fruits on the kitchen table, and gave Alan a magnifying glass to identify the stamen, pistols, and ovules. “Demonstrations are the best part of science,” said Alan, a retired physics professor.

After weeks of training, it was time to guide. A field trip to the Arnold Arboretum gives students a day full of information, excitement, and surprises. When 60 third-graders piled off the yellow school bus for the “Flowers Change” class, we gathered into small groups in the lecture hall to look at buttercups with a hand lens and practice the words for the parts.

The kids watched an old-fashioned movie about the life-cycle of cherry blossoms. They loved the ending when the mother bird feeds her babies the ripe cherry fruit, and we talked about how birds spread cherry seeds.

Then the students built a model flower, acting out the roles of the stamen, pistol and petals. The child manning the bee puppet hammed it up as he buzzed in to gather pollen and deposit it firmly on the head of the student playing the sticky stigma.

Finally, the teams of junior scientists swarmed the Arboretum armed with hand lenses, fuzzy black pipe cleaners to gather pollen and the most important tools of all—their senses. As we moved from the spectacular Elizabeth magnolias to the tulip poplar trees and katsura dogwoods, the kids collected colorful specimens and drew the stages of a flower. I encouraged the students to stroke the ridged bark of an oak tree, sniff skunk cabbage and pause to listen to birdsong and spring peepers.

Throughout my first spring of practicing less grief, more green, my senses came alive and expanded. My self image tenderly bloomed from being a wounded caregiver to now being a guide in my sanctuary. I moved beyond wonder and astonishment about nature to a better understanding. I learned about the workings of a child’s mind along with the workings of trees and flowers.

Although I continued to grieve, those days spent under blue skies observing the cycles of life brought me joy and gave me a connection to the world beyond myself and my family.

I went on to be a proud and enthusiastic Arnold Arboretum field guide for four seasons. I still carry all that understanding and curiosity about what I don’t know each time I’m out in nature. And I still look at a tulip through the eyes of a 3rd-grader.

The writer, a registered nurse, is a freelance writer and psychotherapist in Jamaica Plain. She is fin-ishing her book, “Professor Cromer Learns to Read: A Couple’s New Life after Brain Injury.” She received a 2006 and 2008 Solimene Award for Excellence in Medical Communication from the American Medical Writers Asso-ciation/NE chapter for her articles for healthcare professionals. For more information, e-mail janetcro-mer@comcast.net.