Landscaping, Gardening, and Flowers Everywhere, 1st Place Winning Essay, 21st Annual Essay Contest

by John Unger

Unimaginable fatigue, like cotton candy melting and wilting on a hot day, slows the mind and body; sleep becomes an escape, but the body and mind never shed the sticky fatigue from one dialysis treatment to the next. The challenge is always to push the fatigue away. Stand up, keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. I’ve turned to landscaping my yard to be creative and push back against fatigue.

After clearing weeds, this first phase of the landscaping involves moving crusher-fine rock and seven-sixteenth small rock, both called pueblo red, the color of red wine and a red sky. I move this rock and dirt one shovel at a time, one wheelbarrow at a time, carful to lift the shovel with my fistula-free arm. I roll out and cut black weed-blocker material in sections before pushing and dumping wheelbarrow loads.

As I’m shoveling and dumping loads, and then spreading with a rake and shovel in mile-high sun, I’m floating in imaginations of carnations that will go over there, sunflowers here, borders in strawberries, climbing roses on the wall that separates the back yard into two sections, and a five-by-four-foot pond, eighteen inches deep, near a small waterfall. Near the waterfall, I want to plant lavender all around. I’m in the sunny, mile-high desert in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so I have to think about water-usage when I’m choosing plants. A few are indulgences.

I imagine wooden borders: large Lincoln logs, stacked just two high, marking the approximate fifteen-by-ten-foot grassy area for the dogs. I’ll plant buffalo grass and some of that flower mix that hummingbirds and bees love. Other borders will be red brick and white rocks, and I’ll paint some four-by-fours bright red and white for dividing the already cross-fenced yard.


Tall sunflowers will stand in yellow contrast to the turquoise gate and the patchy green forests and brown/gray rock of the Sandias that rise up in the distance. Those mountains change color with the sun and clouds all day, turning a reddish color with most sunsets, often matching the pueblo red rock and dirt.


As I have been spreading dirt and rock, I’ve been reeling from sixteen months of designer chemo drugs for my amyloidosis (it’s mine; I own it, and it me). I’ve also been turned down from the list twice because the numbers were not low enough. Just a week ago, my oncologist told me that some miscommunication occurred; she said we’d stop the chemo for a couple of months and “see what happens.” I’m a yo-yo. One day up, the next day down.

Shoveling and moving dirt and rock and sweating in the hot sun (taking frequent breaks in air conditioning) feels so normal to me, as simple as walking. My body knows these movements from an earlier me, working the fishing boats off Alaska and shoveling massive quantities of ice for days and days. As I push the shovel and lean forward into the pile of rocks or dirt, my arms and back feel as smooth as yoga moves. Then I lift, using my fistula arm only to brace the handle of the shovel on my thigh. The burn on the bicep of my good arm sings. I feel alive for a moment like I used to, shadows of my healthy self-dance in the sun.

I’m planning on having a pond in by Christmas (I’ll wait for warm weather to fill it) and lay some patio/walkway slabs down. Then I’ll buy a firepit on legs with a screen and grill. I need to patch and paint some of the stucco walls where stucco was put over cinder block. I think some kind of turquoise or other bright color will work. Perhaps I’ll plant agave near one of the walls, along with autumn sage, which blooms in purple, pink, or violet colors all summer long, and more lavender. When I walk my dogs, I see a large amount of lavender in yards in this neighborhood of 1950s homes. There are so many creative folks in my neighborhood with colorful yards. My neighbors inspire me.

As my future becomes opaque, then clear, then cloudy, then dark, then stormy, and then sunshine, my shovel, wheelbarrow, and pueblo red dirt keep me from flittering away from life, like a frenetic hummingbird dashing around. I arrange and rearrange and discover new patterns and colors I can use to create my refuge from the world and CKD. I’m grateful, alive, and trying to live somewhere over the rainbow.


Lea la versión en español de este ensayo aquí.

Listen to the audio version of Landscaping, Gardening, and Flowers Everywhere, read by the author John Unger:



John Unger is a former college English teacher (College ESL; Adult transitional literacy), Navy Veteran, and former deckhand on commercial fishing boats in the northern Pacific, Gulf of Alaska, and Bering Sea. He now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his two dogs, Aristotle and Oliver.



Read John’s past essays:

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, President’s Pick, 20th Annual Essay Contest


Web ID 5080