In the Garden

Nancy Haffner had received her share of bouquets from admirers, but Dr. Alvin Reiter won her over when he planted a small garden in front of her townhouse while she was at work. She returned home to find a colorful patch of English primrose, cineraria, and Iceland poppies where there had been nothing but a barren strip of dirt when she had left for work that morning!

Gardening has always played a vital role in Dr. Reiter’s life.  Not only did it help him win over Nancy, who is now his wife, but on a much more serious note, gardening helped him through the most difficult time in his life.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Reiter and his then-wife, Karen, cultivated an award-winning English-style cottage garden. Then Karen was diagnosed with early breast cancer in 1999.  Although she was given a 95% change of total cure, she died four years later of metastatic breast cancer, her death drastically accelerated by medical negligence.

The years during which Karen fought her cancer were a nightmare roller-coaster of medical consultations, surgical procedures, and shining moments of optimism that were burst by devastating new developments in her condition. The couple’s garden became an oasis where they could briefly escape their worries and fears, and simply spend time together surrounded by the beautiful flowers and plants they had nurtured together over the years.

As Dr. Reiter desperately sought treatment for his wife, whose breast cancer returned and spread, their shared love for their garden helped them deal with their overwhelming stress and emotions. Karen derived more comfort from time spent in their garden than from the most powerful painkiller her doctors could prescribe.

After she died, Dr. Reiter turned to gardening as a way to honor her memory.  As he writes in his memoir Even Doctors Cry: Love, Death, Scandal and a Terribly Flawed Medical System—A Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon’s Story, “I got the inspiration to create a new garden to remember Karen by…In this sanctuary I wanted to experience the deepest sense of peace, peace with my past, acceptance of the loss of Karen, and the loneliness I was feeling.”  He describes in loving detail the Zen garden he created and how it helped him heal from the tragic ordeal of losing Karen.

Today, seven years after Karen’s death, Dr. Reiter has entered a fresh chapter in his life with his wife Nancy, whom he’d originally courted by planting her garden. Dr. Reiter and Nancy plant, prune, and harvest together, cultivating a superb garden that not only represents the life they have created together, but that also represents their hope for the future.

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