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Stiehm: A rose helps quiet the noise inside

By Jamie Stiehm - | May 16, 2024

Jamie Stiehm

My father, Richard, 91, was missing his departed friends and folk, so I suggested planting a memory garden.

Close to his heart was Leon Rosenberg, his friend from Randall School to the University of Wisconsin and medical school. They knew each other from ages 10 to 89, when Leon died. They were born weeks apart: my father on Jan. 22, 1933, Leon on March 3.

“A rose for the Rose,” Richard said, recalling his friend’s nickname. So roses went into the ground first: peach, yellow and pink. In California sunlight, pastels look perfectly at home.

These two grew up as boys from Madison who later went east and west to become distinguished in their fields. Leon, the West High valedictorian, became dean of Yale Medical School and later chief science officer at Bristol Myers Squibb.

My father, a pediatric immunologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, shared classes (even a cadaver up in the science building) and a basketball league with his pal, the son of immigrants. Once Leon took half an hour, deep in conversation with the record clerk, before buying “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Richard’s mother, Marie, a widowed nurse, predicted Leon would go far. She was right. I heard many stories about this mythical friend who urged my father to join him at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center as medical residents.

The brilliant blue eyes, the disarming smile, the way with words that expressed exactly what he meant: I came to share what my father loved about Leon. He showed up by surprise to my father’s 80th birthday party, and they embraced, Richard shedding his WASP reserve.

A sheer joy to witness.

My father and I wept on the phone when he told me Leon was close to dying. He had a chance to tell him how much his friendship meant. I represented our family at Leon’s funeral in Princeton in July 2022.

It hit me hard: a friend like that, with a mountain of shared memories, including his daughter’s wedding and my birthday party in Washington, is gone and never coming back.

A memory garden makes loss more bearable.

Richard added ideas and other names to the plaque he envisioned. The white wall would hold a dedication and pictures: his wedding, beloved Aunt Aden and namesake uncle — a legendary Midwestern athlete and football coach.

Catching a wave of inspiration, I placed cosmos around the roses for the wide universe where our loved ones’ spirits may dwell. They are not dainty but smaller than the roses and make the roses look more showy. Cosmos lend a floating feeling to a garden.

The garden greeted Richard when he came home from breaking his hip and getting a replacement. The surgeon said it was an honor to operate on him. All told, he was in the hospital and rehabilitation center for two weeks. I went back home to Washington.

Would the garden I planted for my father give him solace? Hopefully. But it did something else, unexpectedly. It gave me peace of mind.

If you’re feeling fraught, if the seamy trial of former President Donald Trump is wearing you down, if you witness road rage, if the 2024 election and wars in Ukraine and Gaza cause you — and me — high anxiety, we are not alone.

Campus protests of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza may reflect a general churn and angst.

A new book reviewed in The New York Times, Clayton Page Aldern’s “The Weight of Nature,” connects our collective state of mind to climate change. Stated simply, rising heat doesn’t only cause drought, wildfires and other extreme weather events.

In this transformation, hotter climes affect human moods and behavior, leading to more depression, anger and violence. A trend of strangers punching women on the streets of New York City fits this pattern.

Aldern gives evidence that sea creatures also act differently as oceans and lakes warm and glaciers melt.

In a striking passage, Nataniel Rich’s review states, “Dolphins appear to be getting Alzheimer’s disease. Mountaintop removal makes Appalachians depressed. … Climate change isn’t only here, writes Aldern. It is inside us.” A slow burn of our brains — really?

Clearing room for roses and remembrance flowers helps.

As wise French philosopher Voltaire once wrote amid social uproar, “We must cultivate our garden.”

The author may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.


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