A Secret Garden
I know a man who plants lilies in secret spots by the river because he doesn’t have a garden of his own. He doesn’t even have a home, but he loves ornamental lilies so much that he buys bulbs and plants them in secret public places, lovingly tending to them and waiting for their exotic blooms. I met this man a few summers ago. My husband is a market vendor at a weekend market during the summer. Every Saturday this man, who I will call Sam*, rides his bike to our booth to say hello and sometimes buys the honey we sell. After Sam left, my husband turned to me and said, “you would never know it, but Sam was in prison for over 40 years and just got out a few years ago.”
After the 3rd or 4th Saturday of our acquaintance, Sam opened up to me about his time in prison and what put him there. I don’t know why he told me. I think it was more an act of penance to a person willing to listen than any particular connection or trust he felt in me. He has done his time, but it was clear he had not yet forgiven himself, and telling people is his way of dealing with that guilt.
As I listened to him, I was disturbed by his crime, but also found myself understanding that this man will never be free. Not only within himself, but also because of the way our society deals with its released inmates. Sam can’t find a permanent home. He bounces from extended-stay motels, being evicted for his past alone. He makes his living collecting cans and turning them in for cash. And despite being in prison for over 40 years, he is “making it” on the “outside.” His only possessions are his bike, some clothes, a hot plate that he uses to cook on, and his secret lilies.
He can talk at length about his lilies – the names and varieties, the prized bulbs he is saving up for by collecting cans, the colors of those that have bloomed, and his desire to go to a flower show. I don’t know that his latter wish will ever come true. Sam is getting older, has health problems, and is having trouble with his memory. He still comes to the booth on Saturdays, but despite knowing my husband for years, he often forgets his name.
But we still have good conversations, Sam and I. He likes to talk about the places he used to visit as a child and asks what places are like now. We give Sam all of our cans, and help him out where we can. Once the market season ends, we look for him around town and hope that we will see him at our booth the next season so we know he is okay.
I don’t feel like I have done Sam any great kindness by bringing him cans or talking with him. I actually think he has (unknowingly) done more for me than I ever have for him. I think more about compassion and the importance of treating people like people. I think about the crimes he committed and the time he did for those crimes. I think about what it must be like for someone to spend half their life incarcerated. When Sam was released, his parents had long passed away, his friends had long forgotten him, and the world had changed. But unlike many, Sam has carved out a life for himself. I don’t condone what he did, but he paid for the consequences of those actions and served the punishment handed to him.
I wish I could give Sam a garden–a plot of land to grow his lilies and live out his days. Instead, I’ll buy him some lily bulbs, and smile knowing I could give a small amount of joy to another person in this crazy, crazy world.
*Name has been changed to respect privacy.