“Advent what? Garden? What’s that?” Susie piped up over the phone.
“It’s not really for you, Mom,” I replied guardedly.
“I can do it. I’m a Mainer now.”
“We’ll see . . .” I offered.
The Advent Garden is a magical tradition held every December at Portland (Maine) Meeting. All the chairs in the meetingroom are pushed back and a large spiral is laid out on the floor made from a garland of evergreen boughs. In the heart of the spiral is a large tree stump, topped by a lit candle: the sole source of light in the dark room.
As wintry piano music plays, the children of the meeting, one by one, are handed an unlit candle and are invited to walk the spiral and light their candle at the center. Then they wind their way back out, placing the lit candle somewhere along the way, amidst the boughs. As each child lights their candle, the room gradually grows bright, and by the end, it’s aglow with dozens of flickering candles. The teenagers play a role too, handing out the candles to the younger children.
The Advent Garden is a literal rite of passage. My wife, Sarah, and I have been going ever since 2006, when we carried our two-week-old daughter, Cedar, in our arms through the spiral. It’s an annual marker for us and other parents in the meeting. For a few years we walked with Cedar, holding her hand or hovering behind her to make sure she didn’t burn down the building with her candle.
Some years, you can find us with tears rolling down our cheeks, watching Cedar and other kids we know and love: tears of joy, tears of melancholy, tears over the passage of time, of being broken open by the beauty of the moment. Sometimes, in the minute or so between entering and leaving the spiral, our kids seem to grow older and wiser—and maybe even a bit taller. They are maturing right before our eyes.
Like all good things, the tradition was canceled in 2020 because of COVID. Then in 2021, it was moved outdoors at the nearby Friends school. It was the first year Cedar would be old enough to hand out the candles to the younger kids.
Outdoors at night in early December in Maine is not exactly a propitious setting for my ailing, 81-year-old mom. A former Floridian, her idea of a cold day was anything below 65 degrees. We didn’t even think to invite Susie, as we assumed it would be way too much for her frail body.
And then the phone rang. My mom’s caregiver had canceled, and we were the backup. I tried to be evasive about our evening plans, but then I faltered.
Ever the optimist, my mom had a tendency to make grand plans for trips, dinner at a fancy restaurant, or a movie, but as the Parkinson’s caught up with her body, her ambitions were often cruelly frustrated. Evenings in particular were fraught. A few times, she had gone out in good spirits, only to need to be rushed home in the middle of a meal. By that December, Sarah and I had assumed the killjoy role, trying to anticipate and head off calamity.
Sarah and I made a quick plan. She and Cedar would go to the Advent Garden. I would go to be with my mom, and maybe—if everything lined up and Susie was feeling okay—we’d make a drive-by appearance. Even that seemed like it would take a miraculous series of events.
The first miracle of the evening was that my mom was right at the front door of her building when I arrived. I had been very noncommittal, but now she was forcing my hand. The second miracle was that she had a proper coat, hat, and mittens: the ones we usually couldn’t find. I looked for a reason to keep us from going, but not coming up with one, I eased her into the car.
“We’ll just drive up and park, Mom. I think you’ll be able to see it from the car.”
“Rob, if we’re there, I’m getting out of the car. I’m not an invalid.” She emphasized the last word with her signature hand-jabbing motion.
“We’ll see,” I said, trying hard to suppress an eye-roll.
From the parking lot, we could make out a glowing campfire. Sarah was passing out mugs of steaming cider and cocoa. Families were milling about. There was no keeping my mom in that car. After navigating a bumpy, frozen lawn with her walker, we reached the fire. She settled into a chair and immediately started chatting up anyone and everyone around her. The evergreen spiral was off in the distance in a back field away from the campfire.
“This is just wonderful!” she exclaimed. “I haven’t been to a campfire in years. I haven’t been anywhere in years!”
I was happy to be there too. The air was chilly but joyful. We would sit by the fire for a few minutes, then I would usher her back to the car and home: calamity-free and safe.
“Where’s the spiral?” my mom asked after a little while.
“Oh, it’s way back there,” I said. “See? You can just make out the candles.”
“Candles!” She roused herself from the chair, motioning for her walker.
The distance from the campfire to the spiral was probably no more than 200 feet. But it was now full-on dark, and obstacles abounded: landscaped berms and gullies, uneven terrain, tree branches at eye level, and children running around. Given my mom’s condition, it might as well have been the Appalachian Trail. Sarah and I exchanged a look: I guess we’re doing this.
We each took a side, guiding my mom over and through the many challenges. Somehow we made it. We stood by the side of the spiral, and watched Cedar in her “teendom,” handing out candles to the last of the younger kids.
“What happens next?” my mom asked. I hesitated. By this point, the cold air was biting, now that we were away from the fire.
“Well . . . a few adults take a turn, if they want to. But most don’t.”
“I want to go.”
Sarah and I again took deep breaths: I guess we’re doing this.
Flickering candles dotted the evergreens, but it was still pretty dark and tough for my mom to make out the pathway. The first loop or two around was touch and go, and we careened a bit from side to side, trampling some of the boughs with the walker. But gradually we made our way, reaching the center, lighting my mom’s candle, and nestling it in a spot along the garland on our way back out. By then, even Sarah and I were having trouble walking, what with the tears in our eyes. It was a moment out of time, for all three of us.
That evening was the highlight of the last year of my mom’s life. She died three months later, in March 2022.
Life comes full spiral. Our parents guide us through our early years. We guide our children, holding them in our arms, then holding their hands, then holding them in our hearts. Eventually, we guide our parents. And if we’re fortunate, our children guide us through the last years of our spiral.
But maybe it’s even richer and more layered than that. Yes, we were propping up my mom physically, helping her along the path. But if it had been up to me, she would have never left her apartment that night. And we would have never gotten out of the car, or trekked over, or walked the spiral. So, in a deeper sense, who was really doing the guiding, and who was being guided?