We  came home yesterday from a trip to California to find warm, sunny weather that smacks of Spring. The signs are everywhere: The buds are orangey-red on the Plain Trees outside my window. The neighbor’s crocuses are crocusing. The parrots are crooning. And I ran into Stephen this morning, raking last year’s dead vegetation out of his front flower beds.

Stephen is our apartment building’s ad hoc gardener. He strides the concrete walkways, creating oases of bloom, lush harbors of purple and pink. He coaxes dog-pissed saplings back to life, and drapes the brick courtyard with exotic vines grown from straggles he clipped off the plants of unsuspecting neighbors.

He does all this because he loves it. God knows, he doesn’t get paid. Unless you count the odd bill one or another of his fellow apartment dwellers might toss his way, an occurrence far more rare than it should be. When that does happen, Stephen buys yet another flat of plants, yet another baby tree, spending more of his own money in the process.

Last year, we bought him a new compost barrel, a replacement for one that was falling apart. This new one could be rotated manually. It takes effort, but it’s an improvement over the old one, which required an auger to turn the compost. I gave him some of the worms I bought in Union Square last year (see my earlier post: http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/off-the-matrix/2010/09/18/the-worms-crawl-out/). Since I was operating a small compost of my own on our balcony, I didn’t throw my food scraps into his until late fall, when mine was overflowing.

His barrel, it turns out, was also over-full. So in the cold heart of winter, I went back to pitching my potential compost out with the trash.

It was but a minor glitch in a winter full of craziness. There was Paul’s slow convalescence from broken ribs, and his mother’s two falls that took her out of her home for good–not unexpected, considering Ev is 93, but heartbreaking nonetheless. There was my mother, whose Alzheimers finally qualified her for Hospice. Two of our kids lost their healthcare insurance because it became too expensive for people working in the arts. Our older son’s fiancee’s father was hospitalized with cancer. And, of course, there was the weather–a potent brew of high winds, fallen trees, disrupted subways, cars mired in mountainous snowbanks, floods, even a nasty little tornado.

Stephen, too, was not inclined to sing this winter’s praises. A few weeks ago, his father died suddenly, back in New England. His father was a proud man of advanced age who, although blind, insisted on living alone in his own house. Stephen reasons that, all things considered, it wasn’t a bad way for him to go.

But this is reason. Grief is not reasonable.

Two days ago, Stephen cleaned his oven. He turned the gas off, he thought, and left the apartment. “I went back later because I needed sunglasses,” he told me. The smell of gas permeated the entire floor. But his partner, who was in the apartment, hadn’t noticed it.

“God,” I said, “You could’ve killed Richard.”

He nodded. “I know. Isn’t it horrible? It’s just…I’ve been doing such flaky things. Ever since my dad died, it’s like I just–I’m there, and then I’m not.”

I told him about my own father’s death seven years ago. About flying to Indiana and helping Mom set things in order. About accepting that a quick, fatal stroke at 84 wasn’t a bad thing. About how, a month later, I burst into tears for no apparent reason when I was walking through the scanner in an airport, bound for somewhere that wasn’t the Midwest. About bumbling about, doing flaky things. “It felt like grief waited until I was looking the other way,” I told him, “Then just smacked me upside the head. Whack. Again and again.”

“I’m tired of it.” His rake ripped dead stems from the bed’s grubby scalp. “I figured I need my therapy here.” Rip. Rip. “Or maybe I need a shrink to give me a pill. We’ll see.”

I asked him how his compost was doing.

He said there was still a warm core to it, even after the frigid weather. “And those worms? They’re still alive.”

“Really? All the Internet info says they have to be brought in for the winter.”

He waved his hand. “They’re in great shape, wiggling all over the place.”

And so, this afternoon, I dug into my own neglected compost. The lid had blown off, and the contents were soggy and black. I turned the lumpy mess. And found a worm. Then another. And another. They were bloated, lethargic, but they squirmed away from my little shovel as I dug. I raked and turned, raked and turned the compost in its makeshift plastic vat. The water slowly seeped out through the holes I’d punched in its bottom and sides.

I found more worms. The compost smoothed, broke up, began to look like soil.

I lifted the vat out of the identical but non-perforated vat that it nested in, a rig I’d improvised so drainage from the compost had someplace to go. There was a shallow pool of brown water, full of good soil nutrients.

I stood, my vat of compost “tea” in hand, and looked over the wrack and ruin of my balcony: dead tomato branches, broken flower vines, piles of rotted brown leaves; a wind-flung plastic trellis, trailing filthy string; a burst plastic bag leaking crumbled brick and toxic mortal chips from last summer’s pointing repairs. Torn, sagging coconut fiber plant holders. The broken pieces of the nozzle that had fallen off the water hose. The rusty remains of a watering can.

Yep, I thought. That’s how it is.

In the middle of this mess, I noticed four stiff skeletons poking out of grubby brown pots. I carried my vat over for a closer look.

Last spring, I’d made a $10 contribution to the National Arbor Society. In return, they’d sent me ten “trees.” They were little more than bad jokes: ten six-inch sticks with stunted roots hairs on one end.

By mid-summer, six had died.

But four had survived. Barely.

I was looking at them.

They were still sticks. But they were a little bit longer. And they had tiny branches. And on those branches: buds.

I carefully poured the nutrient liquid into each pot. There was a little left over. I squinted at a battered planter on the balcony wall. A chaos of twisted straw–and, in the middle, my lavender plant.

It had survived. Barely.

I poured the mucky dregs at its base.

Tomorrow, it will be cold. Again. There will be wind; there will be rain. Again.

There will be destruction and death and radiation and war–

But maybe, if I nurture these bud-rough sticks; if I feed the lavender; if I throw scraps and torn newspaper in the vat for those stalwart worms–maybe I will find some small therapy for the angst and loss.

We’ll see.