Mother’s Day is a bittersweet day for Misty VanderWeele of Palmer.
As the owner of All Dahlia’d Up Flower Farm based at the sprawling VanderWeele Farms on the Outer Spring Loop where potatoes are king, it is the time of the year she begins to see her own soil-oriented work begin to grow.
Her world is even more colorful this mid-May as 2019 marks the first year her flower farm will harvest tulips.
“I married in to a Dutch family,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “I couldn’t believe that they had never grown tulips before. So for me it was a real treat to bring tulips from their home country to the farm.”
The successful growing and harvesting of tulips on a commercial basis in Alaska plus all the vibrant color of graceful tulips is the sweet side for VanderWeele.
The bitter part is that as she preps flowers for other moms to enjoy, as she cuts stems and wraps delicate bundles, VanderWeele is constantly reminded of the how her blossoming floral farm came into existence.
Its roots are found in her son’s rare and debilitating illness that led to his early death.
Luke was a happy child.
But something just wasn’t right physically for him.
One day on a camping trip with extended family, VanderWeele realized that her son wasn’t just tired. Eight other kids were running around and playing non-stop. Luke was sitting on a mound of grass watching the others.
“It just broke my heart,” she recalls. “He was happy. He was smiling. But he was tired and he couldn’t keep up with the other kids. I had to find out what was going on.”
She did her research and took Luke to Dr. Charles Ryan in Anchorage.
“He knew what was going on the minute he saw Luke,” she said. “But they had to do blood work to confirm it.”
She’d barely gotten back to the Valley when the phone call requesting her to return immediately came in.
“They said that I would probably need a driver,” VanderWeele remembers. “That usually means it isn’t good news.”
Luke was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy — a currently incurable disease mostly impacting males that begins to show symptoms usually between ages 3 and 4. It is marked by muscle loss and weakness, particularly in the skeletal muscles. Pelvic and thigh muscles are normally impacted first. Most people diagnosed with this condition are unable to walk by age 12. Most don’t live past age 14 less alone graduate from high school was the stark reality check doctors gave VanderWeele.
“I remember walking down the hallway and it felt as if I was on a turntable but I know I was walking,” she said in reference to leaving the doctor’s office. “It was awful.”
She began thinking about how to let Glen VanderWeele – her then boyfriend, now husband of 20 years – off the hook for their developing relationship.
“I told him this was guaranteed heartache. I was giving him an out,” she said.
But that wasn’t going to work for Glen.
“He just put his arms around me and said, ‘this is ridiculous. I love you and I love Luke,” Misty said.
From that moment on, she made a rule: Moving forward, we are going to be happy. She was not going to settle and just allow the disease to run its course. She was going to give her son the best life possible.
She and Glen married a couple years later. When Misty became pregnant with their first child, she admits she was scared. Fortunately, she and Glen’s daughter, Jenna, is neurotypical.
Jenna was a toddler when Luke began to experience significant loss of limb functioning.
“It was kind of weird,” VanderWeele recalls. “I had one little baby learning to walk and one older son that was losing the ability to walk. I had one kid gaining abilities and one kid losing them.”
One day Luke came home from kindergarten with a dahlia plant.
It was a spindly little plant. It needed a lot of tender, loving care. Kind of similar to Luke.
“I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “I just knew that I had to try to make is survive.”
Luke knew it was going to bloom purple. He had picked that seed color because he knew it was his mother’s favorite.
It was lovely.
“I had no idea what a remarkable gift that plant would turn out to be,” she said.
Glen, Misty, Luke and Jenna lived and worked on the farm. Treatments to ease the progression of Luke’s disease kept Misty busy, but the family lived intentionally. They took Luke camping. They had a wheelchair modified so he could get around most of the farm. While his physical body was ailing, Luke’s mind was fit as a fiddle. He graduated from high school.
Luke lived to age 21 — a highly unusual occurrence for someone with DMD.
The months leading up to his death were marked by constant caregiving by family members and longterm care professionals as well as bouts with the shingles for Misty.
She remembers promising her son that she would learn to live on through the pain of losing him at such a young age.
“No matter what,” VanderWeele said. “I told him that no matter what I would learn to thrive through the tears.”
Through the years between kindergarten and Luke’s death, that little dahlia and its subsequent progeny became a mainstay in VanderWeele’s private garden.
Luke died in January and so when spring and summer rolled around and VanderWeele was still dealing with that heart-breaking reality, the dahlias came to life again.
“It was something for me that I could show that his life was still here,” she said.
In fact, she had abundancy from Luke’s dahlia.
“There were so many of them, I had no idea what to do with them,” she said. “They had never bloomed like that before. I felt like he was loving me from heaven and it was a gift.”
She began giving the flowers away to friends.
But then she began to think of the business side of things. After all, her friends were telling her how incredibly pretty the flowers were.
“I thought, well, florists have to get their flowers from somewhere, right?” she said.
So she did some research. She took an online marketing class. She thought about becoming a grief coach.
Well, why not just roll all of that in to one?
In 2014, she started her business with 54 plants.
She went to see her sister in Michigan during the growing season and a neighbor took care of the plants. She wasn’t sure what to expect when she returned.
That neighbor knew a little bit about plant growth. She hand-picked off the dead buds and upon VanderWeele’s return, the flowers were all in bloom.
The neighbor posted photos on social media and a frenzy of purchasing by locals craving the gorgeous colors took place.
VanderWeele couldn’t keep up with the demand.
For the next several years, she doubled and tripled the production of dahlias and added sunflowers and sweat pea flowering plants. This year she has more than 20 different types of flowers in production – including the tulips in an updated greenhouse from the 1970s that was on the VanderWeele Farms property.
Each year she learns something knew about flower production, she said.
This year’s lesson: “I didn’t plant enough.”
She planted 8,600 bulbs.
The flowers are selling quickly.
“This time of the year we in Alaska are just dying for some more color,” she said. “It is pretty nice to be able to extend the season and provide flowers earlier. I can’t wait for next year.”
She bundles the tulips in two different amounts selling for anywhere from $15 to $27.
She doesn’t sell tulips singularly.
It’s too tough on the delicate flower known for bending itself to follow the light when on display.
She knows tulips do better when supported in a group.
It’s a bit like the life she has created for herself, Glen and Jenna. VanderWeele is active in many Valley women’s groups and she is an advocate for those experiencing DMD. She does farm tours, she’s turned her gardens into a showcase destination spot for weddings and other events, she has a booming floral subscription delivery service in the summers and she’s written numerous books about surviving loss.
She believes flowers have the power to heal broken hearts.
“Sometimes I felt so much sadness, that I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said of her son’s death. “I learned that you can get through the pain. I wanted to share that with others.”
Learn more about All Dahlia’d Up Flower Farm online at: www.mistyvanderweele.com.