PAUL LEE CANNON

WRITER | GARDENER | PIANIST

Log

JUNE 2, 2004

I remember how loud silence can be.

The night “it” happened, I was lounging on my parents' sofa – the same sofa they had held onto from my childhood in Indiana but had had reupholstered. It now competed for living space with a hospital bed, oxygen machine and catheter.

My two sisters and I worked in shifts, helping my Mom care for Dad after his body had betrayed him. He had Parkinson’s Disease and diabetes – a cruel combination considering he’d honorably served in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Where was the justice? Still, I never once heard him complain about his illnesses. I know he often suffered in silence.

Dad could no longer walk and required 'round-the-clock care. Just months before, we had made the grueling decision for him to be looked after at a rehabilitation facility, a nursing home. After a short time there, he pleaded to return home. Home was where my mother could tend to him. Heaven to him was anywhere she was. He’d often tell me – as if telling a secret – that the nursing home was “a completely different place at night.” The wailing, mournful voices of dementia echoed in the hallways, found their way into his room, kept him up all night. It was hell.

“The Devil Wears Prada.” That’s the book I was reading the night of June 2, 2004, when I noticed the hissing of the oxygen machine had stopped. It was like the sudden, eerie quiet that arrives after a power outage. Mom was taking a bath; I could hear the occasional splash of wet washcloth on skin.

I bolted to my father’s bedside. He was completely still. I could tell by his bluish-white pallor he couldn’t breathe. His lips were slightly pursed, letting out a low hiss that soon became a low, horrifying moan. How long had it been? Oh my god.

“Mom!” I cried out, before scrambling for the telephone. The 911 operator asked me a few questions. I can’t remember what they were. I hung up and ran back to Dad, administering CPR, blowing with all my might into his mouth. His lips were incredibly dry, his breath wreaked of vomit. This and the adrenaline made me gag.

The paramedics arrived. It seemed like an army storming a fort, death the enemy they were hard focused on destroying. A swirl of uniforms, equipment, emotionally detached focus, Mom pacing back and forth, pleading, hysterical. “He’s going to be OK, right?! Right?!”

Dad being Dad. And me enjoying every minute of it.

“Does he have a health care directive?” the medic in charge asked me after trying to console my mother. “Yes," I told him. "He wishes to be resuscitated if possible.” Then out came the defibrillator and paddles, the familiar apparatus from all the medical dramas on TV – the ones I now never watch.

“Clear!” I looked over at Dad as his body succumbed to the powerful jolt, the swarm of medics gathered around him searching for signs of life. He now had a long plastic tube protruding from his mouth. When had they put that in? How did I miss that?

The chief medic told us there was a small pulse, but they needed to rush him to the emergency room. Mom and I jumped into her car to follow the ambulance. We didn’t talk. My legs shook so much it was amazing that I even got us to the hospital. Once there, we were escorted into a private waiting room. I don’t think there were any windows. It felt like a tomb. It was dimly lit. Just the kind of room we really didn’t need to be in. But what kind of room would give us comfort at the time?

I sat and waited, holding Mom’s hand. I can’t remember who else was in the room. Maybe a bereavement counselor? I don’t know but a doctor soon emerged from nowhere. He didn’t have to say anything.

"You are welcome to come see him one last time," he told us.

I called my partner. I called my sisters and brothers. I called Aunt Patty, my father’s only living sibling.

My sisters, who lived an hour away, arrived as soon as they could. We were allowed to go in, one at a time, into the emergency room, where beyond a curtain and under painfully bright lights lay my father’s still body, the plastic throat tube still inserted, his eyes partially opened, a look of disbelief washed over them. I didn’t want that to be our final memory of him, but it often is. I curse myself to this day for not demanding they remove the tube.

My father’s passing will always weigh heavily on my conscience, but I’ve learned to embrace it, accepting that the dark moment will revisit me whether I welcome it or not. I often question why was it me, out of all six children, who had to witness his departure. Perhaps it would have been much easier to cope with his death if I weren’t there. Then at other times, I feel honored that I was sort of the chosen one.

He was my father and friend – a gentle giant of a man who tucked me in at night, gave amazing back scratches, fought tooth and nail to put food on our table, remained devoted to my mother for 53 years, and who loved me just the way I am. Thank you for everything, Dad. I love you and miss you more than words can say.

FANTASY FOLIAGE: Season after season, anything I planted under a grove of three coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) in our backyard failed. Too much root competition and insufficient irrigation were the cause. Then this past summer I discovered this mostly shaded patch offered the perfect growing conditions for my small collection of potted begonias. So I placed those as the anchor plants among in-ground native fern, thimbleberry and wild ginger. As the begonia grew, the foliage concealed the pots, creating the effect that the plants were growing out of the ground instead of in containers. Around the same time that I was gathering all my begonia in this particular spot, I became obsessed with showy-foliage plants and was bringing home a new coleus (or several) every other day. It was super fun to play with a diversity of colors, heights and growth habits, ultimately creating a technicolor tapestry/dream coat effect. This effect intensified beautifully as the plants grew, providing a gorgeous view adjacent to a small seating area framed by a collection of Japanese maple in large containers. “The more the merrier” certainly applied, too, because the more I added, the more wonderfully fantasy-like my new understory became. I should mention that grouping the plants this way also makes it a cinch to water them. A friend noted how fantastic my vignette looked and marveled at how the vibrant colors popped against the background of enormous redwood trunks and drew the eye upward. A side effect to this design, which I lovingly call my Willa Wonka garden, is that I now have commitment issues. In other words, I’ve grown considerably more interested in growing plants in containers than committing to installing them in the ground. Container planting offers me the versatility to move the plants around whenever and wherever I want. Talk about instant gratification!

(Photo by Paul Lee Cannon)

WICKED LITTLE BLOOM: I never buy Dianthus at the nursery but this one (Dianthus chinensis heddewigii ‘Black And White Minstrels’) grabbed me by the eyeballs for obvious reasons. Depending on the light, the petals appear deep-dark Cabernet in color or almost black. So stunning, especially with the ruffled white edges. Being a huge “Hedwig & The Angry Inch” fan and all, I was a bit tickled by the variety/subspecies name, heddewigii. In the above image, Ms. Hedwig bears a striking resemblance to the flowers, wouldn’t you say?

(Dianthus photos by Paul Lee Cannon. “Hedwig & The Angry Inch” promotional photo by New Line Cinema Fine Line Features.)

OH, THE SMELL OF IT! On this cool, autumn morning I discovered that my scented selection of plants is thriving. My nose told me so. So, seized by spontaneity, I turned them into a wonderfully fragrant bouquet to enjoy indoors. What’s in it? Magic Mountain basil, ‘Jessica’ blushing pink rose, Osmanthus fragrans (Sweet Olive), Pelargonium crispum ‘Variegatum’ (variegated lemon geranium), Calamintha nepeta (calamint), and Prostanthera ovalifolia ‘Variegata’ (variegated mint bush). Ahhh …

(Photo by Paul Lee Cannon)

TYP-O MY GOODNESS! I can spot a typo a mile away. It can be pretty amusing at times. The proof is in this proofreading.

(Photos by Paul Lee Cannon)

FABULOUS FOLIAGE & FRAGRANCE FOR FALL: I’ve been contemplating what to plant in front of this Punica granatum ‘Nana’ (dwarf pomegranate). The space has poor soil and gets a lot of sun. I’m gonna try ‘Meerlo’ lavender, which I’m super excited about because of the bright, beautiful variegated foliage and wonderful fragrance. Plus I love the contrast it provides. Plus, plus, I think it’s great to combine edible ornamentals. I’m hoping the lavender will stay lovely through the colder months when the pomegranate sheds its leaves. Stay tuned.

(Photo by Paul Lee Cannon)

THREE CHEERS FOR POLLINATION! Side view of Hibiscus trionum (Flower-of-an-Hour). The stigma emerging from the golden burst of stamen reminds me of cheerleaders raising their pom-poms in victory. Hooray!

(Photo by Paul Lee Cannon)