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This Week in the Garden | The flower press 

This Week in the Garden | The flower press 

He was my assignment, with extensive background information. At the time, I was a hospice volunteer preparing myself to meet Joaquin, a retired Monterey County Park Ranger with a fatal health diagnosis.

When meeting someone in such an intense situation, I go out of my way to find something in common so that our connection shines with the most meaning. This time, it was not difficult. By the time I met him, he was in an assisted living situation. A mushroom poster, animal figurines, a vase of feathers and potted plants were all notable items in his room. His naturalist knowledge was more than casual. Probably, for the better part of the last decade and a half, I haven’t had a living mentor up until that moment. My expectations for mentorship were not existent, however, Joaquin created a  surprise situation.

Knowing he would pass, possibly soon, I pulled out his personal life stories and knowledge as  much as I could. There was still more for me to learn. Beyond gardening, it was about revering  natural spaces. It was about learning what happened before human manipulation, the  conservation work needed and restoration efforts from the public.

Our talks were endless about plants and animal encounters, good books, good hikes and secret spots. I even asked my family to take me to Royal Oaks Park in Monterey County, where he worked for many years. He was becoming a fast friend.

Ironically, with every visit, Joaquin seemed to regain his health. His stories were certainly full of  adventure, survival and overcoming adversity. He served in the United States Air Force from 1968 to 1972, and was a Vietnam veteran. He was also a veteran from the Army and MPC Colleges. He was clearly proud of his 30 year service as a park ranger. He really lived.

One day, he showed me his flower pressed plants and identification book. He told me “Do this,  it’s easy! Make a flower press.” He let me borrow an old binder of his pressed plants with their  scientific identification. This was a self-initiated project that proved useful to me. The binder was a practical tool; Joaquin showed me the art of documentation and citizen science. After showing my husband the binder, he offered to make a flower press. He too was charmed by this “vintage” approach to plant identification.

For the better part of the year, Joaquin’s health improved. He began playing the guitar on our  visits. He met my family, and even gave my grandson a ranger patch. We were invited to his  birthday at the Vets Hall. One day, I was told that Joaquin’s health improved so much that he  was being graduated out of hospice and no longer had a terminal diagnosis. It seemed true and was a more lucid person amongst the other residents in the assisted living home. His daughter found a better fit at an independent living apartment complex.

Some months after the move, the pandemic struck. Our visits then became weekly phone calls. Fortunately his daughter, Elina, kept me posted on his health and his new place. There was excitement about the new apartment and the bigger living room area for get-togethers. Our talks continued and our friendship moved beyond hospice service. It was obvious that he was an open-hearted soul with everyone he met.

One day, I got a call that he was hospitalized with COVID-19. The prognosis was not obvious to  me, honestly, I felt he was full of miracles. At the hospital, he asked for me— a vaccine was not  yet available to me, but this was important. With extreme effort, his daughter fulfilled his wishes to go home; it was clear that he would not recover.

It was then that I chose to see him as a friend and spiritual support person. Suited, gloved, and masked, I finally made it to his new apartment. His posters, seashells, feathers, books about nature and potted plants, all there. Blessed by the good spirits of nature. Thank you Joaquin Ernesto Aguilar (1949-2021) for your immortal gifts.

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