As predicted, we’ve had 3 nights of frosts here at 6512 feet. At first light—the hour of pitter-pattering children seeking warm bodies and dinosaur vitamins—the red arrow of our outdoor thermometer points to 24 degrees. Of course we’ve covered the garden, with tarps and sheets and even sleeping bags and wool blankets, but the cold air sneaks under and through the swaddling clothes, blackening squash leaves and making paste of the cucumbers.
When the temperature warms to forty degrees, the kids and I slip outside to peel sheets off the garden, which feels a bit like stripping bandages off injured patients. After that first frost, the jalapenos and green beans didn’t even know what hit them, knocked down under cover of night they hung like limp, shriveled caricatures of themselves. The tomatoes and squash looked like they had survived a night in the wilderness with only a power bar and a cheap Dora the Explorer sleeping bag. Alive yes, but haggard, shivery and frightened.
As soon as the first fingers of light nudges the carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, cabbage and broccoli awake, these hardy warriors stand up, brush themselves off and say what frost? I am in love with chard, that stalwart soldier who specializes in power-packed nutrition and a no frills lifestyle, that plant that quietly unfurls a new leaf each night and doesn’t seem to notice whether it’s chokingly hot July or freezy September.
As I was resuscitating tomatoes, plunking reddish romas into a bucket and clipping the frostbitten leaves, I kept thinking if we could just stabilize the garden through this cold snap, the tomatoes and squash could make it through mid-October. I would be their nurse, bandaging and suturing and removing all the dead, blackened skin, so we could return to frolicking in the hale garden, popping cherry tomatoes like that frost was all a bad dream.
Then, two stories began to swirl together like a twist cone; there were the tomatoes battling frost and suddenly there was my son fighting for his life in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), where he spent his first one hundred and one days after being born at 25 weeks. Much of his stay was frightening but textbook preemie life: IV’s in his fishing line sized-veins, his mouth and nose stuffed with tubes. But when the weather suddenly changed, blowing infection into his incubator, all we could do—like the past three nights of killing frosts—was enlist the appropriate tools and apply hope and love like a salve.
Not that I’m comparing my first born to a tomato plant, but if I were, those first heavy clouds scuttled in when he was just two weeks old. Col hadn’t quite regained his birth weight of 1 pound, 12 ounces, when he developed an infection of unknown origin. He required a ventilator, a device that breathes for you when you are physically unable to perform this most basic function yourself, breathing.
For eight days this tiny person—our baby—lay in his incubator, ventilator inflating his papery lungs, which were no bigger than a wild strawberry and just as fragile. Everything that had become normal in our first two weeks in preemieland changed in an instant. We weren’t allowed to hold Col anymore, he was taken off my breastmilk, (which he received through a tube: 1 teaspoon every 2 hours), and the ventilator created a sad, mucusy rattle in his lungs. We sat by Col’s bedside everyday, our giant fingers stroking his softball-sized head, our voices drifting into his knowing ears. And one day the storm blew out and we exhaled.
The truth of the twist cone is that when the cold winds blow in–pummeling tender life–nothing is ever the same again. The tomatoes are hobbled like an old man, and Col? He has dodged a trillion bullets but his lungs are scarred and weakened. So we continue to do exactly what any parent would, enlist the appropriate tools and apply hope and love like a salve.