What do you do when your spouse dies before the planned book tour to promote her new memoir about her battle with cancer? If you're Dick Wall, author Carol Wall's husband, you go on tour for her. Wall will present his wife's book, Mr. Owita's Guide to Gardening, at the Library Society on August 27. "Giles [Owita] taught her how to graciously slip into Plan B. And now, I'm Plan B," says Dick.
The memoir covers a period of a few seasons and follows the burgeoning friendship between empty nest school teacher, Carol, and her gardener, Giles. Giles is from Kenya, and he and Carol swap stories of their struggles; she has an unruly yard and an uncertain cancer and he has several part-time jobs and a daughter he wishes to bring to America. The two never become too close, maintaining certain cultural boundaries that often leave them with a gap in communication. Ultimately, though, they rely on one another for solace and wisdom, helping the other answer, "Well, what do I do now?"
"If this book becomes a movie, he's the hero," says Dick of Giles. Giles makes small changes in Carol's life when he begins to work in her yard, pruning trees and planting seeds. He insists that she leave the azaleas that she so desperately wants to uproot. She caves to his quiet calm, and she grows to appreciate the lush colors of the previously detested flowers. And so begins a chain of metaphors and growing opportunities. The memoir, in this sense, can grow tiring, in a "We get it, you know?" kind of way.
But then there's Carol, who is resilient in a way we didn't know we needed to see. At times it feels like she is forcing her relationship with Giles, and we cringe every time she throws out a platitude about how deeply she cares about him getting his daughter back. We never really buy it. What we do feel, however, is the sense of hopeful desperation that courses through Carol. She is sick and even when she is recovering, she remains convinced that she will stay sick.
"She really wanted to live," says Dick. "We had a great family and she wanted to be with her family." Dick's words are heartbreaking and they are mirrored by his wife in her memoir. She does not face her possible death with a sturdy courage: she is very scared.
The memoir moves slowly, as it should, if it is to truly reflect the life of a garden. Giles begins to show signs of illness and Carol's parents get older and more fragile. The ordinary tragedies of every passing day start to seep into the reader's bones. They say, "Oh, so this is what it's like to grow old." The book is gentle in this. It is kind and loving towards life.
"The book isn't about death or cancer," insists Dick. "It's about the lessons Giles taught her about life. He was the teacher and she was the student, but he wasn't trying to be that. He was just living." Dick acknowledges a not-so-subtle point of the book: Giles is black and lives in a small Southern town. Dick references a Publisher's Weekly review that calls the book a "tender narrative [that] gently probes the complicated terrain of American race relations." Dick says that if the novel's gardener had been from Norway, the story may not have appealed as much to publishers. Because Carol and Giles come from two very different places, the story is made more interesting. This fact is as pragmatic and realistic as Carol is about her cancer.
The memoir is about more than just Carol and her relationship with Giles. It is also a love story, in the truest sense, waxing poetically on the staying power of an unlikely coupling. Dick and Carol got married while they were still in college: Dick was a Northen transplant in Virginia and a Catholic to Carol's Southern Protestantism. Carol tries to protect Dick from her cancer, putting on an "I'm OK" face as often as possible. She resents him when he treats her as though she is fragile; she becomes upset when he doesn't seem upset enough.
"She had an open heart," says Dick. "The lessons she learned resonate so broadly."
The book has received critical acclaim, with recognition from both USA Today and AARP for being one of the top 10 books of 2014. The success, of course, is bittersweet. "It's a dream interrupted," says Dick. "I'm supposed to be answering the phone for her."
Now, though, Dick Wall must carry on his wife's legacy, with the help of her three children and four grandkids. "We were married for 42 years and I'm never gonna be the same," he says. "I can't be cured, but I can be healed."