Cancer diagnosis adds urgency to gardening project, and friends pitch in to help

January 19, 2022
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For years, Dave Whiteside and his partner, Peeter Lepson, had been working on the front yard of their Whitehorse home.

Their plan was to build a xeriscape garden, a type of garden that reduces the need to water the area.

So they took out the grass and had two piles of soil delivered. They took care of one pile.

As for the other one: “It’s funny, you just kind of procrastinate, you want to camp instead of gardening,” said Whiteside.

But then, in February 2020, Lepson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He worked on the garden most every day that year, said Whiteside.

“[Peeter] had laid down a lot of the front patio and created some beds, and you could see it turning into a garden,” said Whiteside.

A year later, in February 2021, they learned Lepson’s cancer had metastasized.

“It became urgent — for me, at least. I desperately wanted him to see his garden, to sit in it and to really enjoy it, if only briefly,” said Whiteside.

Asking for help

Whiteside knew he needed help to finish the garden so he asked Lepson, who couldn’t work much on the garden anymore, if he could send an email to their friends, asking for help.

Lepson didn’t want him to, but later that day, as Whiteside was outside, a neighbour came up to him and offered to build the deck.

“We did have a contractor scheduled, but it was much later in the summer, and so I said ‘absolutely.’ And then suddenly, we had a week and a half to get the site ready,” said Whiteside.

He went into the house and told Lepson. His palliative care doctor was there and convinced Lepson to let people help him. With his partner’s blessing, Whiteside sent the email.

He sent it to 60 people whom he thought would at least consider helping, and told them the timeline.

“And within a day or two, I had 30 offers of help,” he said.

Getting to work

The first thing to do was to get rid of several 30- to 40-year-old trunks of shrubs.

“Moving 30- to 40-year-old trunks by yourself is a lot of work,” said Whiteside.

Friends arrived, shovels in hands, ready to work, and got the job done.

Next on the list was dealing with that pile of soil that was mounted against the house.

“You have no idea how much soil we needed to move,” he said, chuckling.

“So during the next week, every evening, we had friends show up, a lot of our neighbours. We had so much fun. By Friday, we had the soil all moved and the site prepped. It was a huge mess in the backyard because we dumped all this soil.”

And on that Friday in mid-May, the neighbours that had offered to build the deck arrived with their tools and had the foundation built by the end of the day.

“It snowed that night and right on time, they showed up early in the morning and started building,” said Whiteside.

“We were sitting on the deck by 5 p.m.”

A few other people showed up.

Enjoying the deck

“We had a little party on the deck and Peeter was out there, enjoying his deck. It was so nice,” said Whiteside.

He said there was an updraft and an eagle was lazing around right above them.

“We all thought it was so special,” he said.

Later, without even consulting with Whiteside and Lepson, their neighbours got their church members to help clean up the mess in the backyard.

“It was amazing,” said Whiteside.

Later that week, Lepson went into the hospital. He died a few weeks later, in early June.

“He did sit on the deck and he did walk up the patio and he did see what his work was going to become,” said Whiteside.

“Every day I look out at that deck, or I stand on it, and I just think about all the love that was shared with us and all the people that cared so much about Peeter.”

“It meant so, so much to us, and continues every day.”

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