The Hospice Garden
On my twentieth birthday, I ate a few peyote buttons in the foothills near
a small Colorado town. While walking aimlessly, feeling disappointed that I
remained unchanged, I discovered a beat-up hearse parked near an unused
mining road with an old man lying in the front seat.
My screaming woke the man. "I thought you were dead," I yelled.
"I've thought that too," he chuckled.
The old man moved over to the passenger door and kicked it open. "Damn door
always sticks. Other one doesn't even open. Used to be a great car. This
car has seen plenty of dead bodies, but mine ain't one of them. Name's
Ralph. You just gonna stand there staring at me or are you going to identify
yourself? This is my home you're visiting."
"My name's Sky Hawk."
"Are you another one of those hippies from Oak Creek coming up here on a
peyote feast? Sky Hawk. Why not Ground Hog? Now there's a name I'd like.
But my name is Ralph. Just Ralph. Your parents didn't name you Sky Hawk.
What are you staring at anyway? You never seen an old man before?"
"Oh, shit. I forgot to put my badge over my eye." Ralph looked into the
side mirror and began to laugh. "Ain't I a sight? I had one of those glass
eyes but I lost it." Ralph laughed so hard, he started to choke. "A
one-eyed old geezer with one lousy lung sitting in a beautiful hearse. No
wonder you're staring."
"Are you all right?"
"Sure, I'm all right. Which patch do you like? I like this one with the
stars. A friend who works at the wind-powered radio station made it for me.
You like it?"
"It suits you." Looking closer, I noticed it was batik. "It's a fine
"You bet it is. I got a lot of friends down there. One drives a beer truck
and walks up that hill hauling me a case of beer every week. Some of it is
good beer. Real good beer. Heineken's. Anchor Steam. Fancy shit you kids
like. Bottles break. Six-packs turn into five-packs and my friend fills a
case for me. You kids ain't all bad. Walk over here with me. I got
something to show you, girlie."
Not far from the hearse was a slow-moving stream. Beyond the stream a few
yards, Ralph stopped, spread his arms, and asked, "Ain't she a beauty?"
Ralph was right. It was a beauty. Straight rows of broccoli, cabbage,
lettuce, carrots, and egg plant. Tomato and bean plants were tied up,
thriving. Marigolds encircled the entire garden.
"I got to have something to feed my friends who visit. You ain't the only
one who walks up here. I started all of these by seed. Up here in the
mountains, that ain't easy. Many a day I've called this my hospice garden.
One sunny morning, I've got a beautiful garden. Next night we get a freeze
and I'm left weeding out the dead. And I don't pull nothing out until it's
really dead. Sometimes it's the sun that kills my broccoli. Fries it way up
here. But the rabbits don't eat it. I toss carrots and lettuce over there
for them. I like those little critters and they like me."
"This doesn't look like a hospice garden."
"Not today. But these vegetables go just like my friends. That's why I
like having you youngsters for friends."
"You have a lot of people visiting you?"
"Not a lot, but enough. Look at these tomato plants. Ain't they something?
If they don't die off before summer's over, I'll haul them down to town and
use a friend's kitchen to can them. When the snow comes, my trunk is full of
"You live up here all winter?"
"I have. I've spent some time at the Veteran's hospital. I hold off going
there until winter. I ain't leaving my garden in the summer. I've been here
all my life. My old man worked the mines. See those railroad tracks by
town? I've repaired just about every one that goes through this valley. I
remember when Oak Creek was nothing but ranchers, miners, and railroad
workers. When I got restless or needed more work, I hopped a train." Ralph
stopped talking for a few minutes and just looked at the railroad tracks,
mentally reliving one of those long rides. "Pick some of those peas for
your friends down there. Tell them they came from Ralph's garden. They'll
know who I am."
"You mind if I come back up here with my tent in a few days? I won't camp
too close to your hearse, but this is a beautiful spot."
"You think I'd park my hearse in some dump?"
"How did you get this hearse up here?"
"That's a long story, but a good one. I'll tell you next time you come.
Now take some vegetables down there with you. Most those folks are friends
A few nights later, I loaded my backpack and hiked up the mountain. I had
taken some cheese and sunflower bread for Ralph. For dessert, I made him
The hearse was empty. Ralph wasn't by the garden either. Not wanting to
invade his space, I had set my tent up a fair distance from his hearse, and
took out my sketch pad and began to draw a picture of his garden.
Having plenty of time on my hands, I drew each and every plant, tending to
each vegetable the same way Ralph tended to each seed. Hours passed as I
counted the leaves and replicated them on the paper. Not one leaf was
missing from any plant. The moon was almost full. Not full like three
nights ago, but bright enough to see the plant's shimmering reflections of
leaves dancing on the soil.
One-eye Ralph. One-lung Ralph. Oh, how your garden grows. Ralph has
joined the Hospice Garden. This I suddenly know. Old one-eye Ralph. How
does your garden grow? There's so much I'll never know.