When documentary filmmaker, Daria Matza, lost her mom to cancer, it was a subculture of giant pumpkin growers that brought her renewed hope.
My precious mother, my favorite person on this planet was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome; a type of cancer that was caused by her breast cancer treatment 5 years prior. My mother had beaten cancer before, but this was different.
The next year was an insane roller coaster ride of hope and loss. Hope of a stem cell transplant, loss as the chemo stripped away her body and spirit. Hope, when the transplant worked, greater loss when the cancer returned. But, there was still hope, right? There had to be, because it’s my mom and there could be no other answer than her survival.
Like a dizzy dream, we were eventually told she had days to live.
Hospice came to her house for only 12 hours. We sat with her, said our good-byes and she drifted away from us forever. In silence, my sister and I washed her beautiful body and dressed her in white, returning her grace that months of harsh medical treatments had stolen.
It’s then that the horror of my dark future truly began. In losing her, I was one foot in the grave; part of me had died.
Ever since her diagnosis, I’d been getting on my knees every night and praying. But was anyone listening? It didn’t feel like it, because if they were, they’d understand what a mistake they’d made.
It constantly felt like there was a black-tentacled sea monster trying to pull me under. I stayed in bed most days as that heavy shadow filled our home. My 4-year-old daughter would often say, “Mommy are you crying again?” Everyday I would tell myself, “all you have to do today is take Sienna (my daughter) to preschool.” I was barely surviving.
Six months after her passing, my husband (Mark) came to me and said “we have to change something, this isn’t good for any of us.” His solution: a road trip to Utah.
After a long, difficult trip we arrived at Mark’s aunts, where we settled in the basement bedroom. But soon, that black creature was pulling me down, hard. I crawled into the only place I knew to be safe: bed.
But hope, as most of us know, comes in unexpected ways. For me, it came in the form of a pumpkin.
A year before I saw an image that kept popping up in my mind. A man rowing (yes, as in, rowing like a boat and sitting inside of) a giant pumpkin! It whispered my name, sang of magic and joy, something that felt far from my reach. As a documentary filmmaker, I wondered, was there a movie there?
Lying in that dark basement, I emailed ten pumpkin growing clubs all over the country, asking if I could talk to them about their hobby.
The first response, someone in Utah! I called Kyle immediately. He had so much passion and excitement for his hobby and family. Secretly, I hoped his enthusiasm would rub off on me, so I asked him if he was available the next day for an interview. His said, “Sure, come on up!”
Kyle, his wife, and four boys, live in a 100 year old home with the most incredible yard I’ve ever seen: chickens, bunnies, goats, a trampoline, a playground, a garden and giant pumpkin patch. That day we talked for a long time in the kitchen, their boys sitting on the counter eating pizza rolls, and I immediately knew I’d met life-long friends. I felt a spark of light, a light that I thought was gone from my life forever; a light I thought my mom took with her.
As we drove back, I asked my husband, “is there a documentary here?” He said, “I don’t know, but let’s follow it until we find out.” I think he saw that spark in me and had missed it.
Since then, it’s been an incredible journey of meeting people with a happiness that is woven into their souls despite the many difficulties they face.
Life was still overwhelmingly dark for me, but I just kept following that little glimmer of light. The film, unlike previous projects was happening easily and every step was really fun. It felt like all I had to do was walk through the open doors that were placed in front of me and keep following the pumpkin story.
Working on this documentary returned me to values that my mom embodied. She was born on a farm in Missouri during World War II. Despite the struggles of my grandfather’s TB and post-war realities, their family prospered. They had a kind of soul contentment and a joy that was contagious.
As I watched these men and women, working for hours in the dirt to help an inedible pumpkin grow, I had to ask, “Why?” The most common answer, “they make people smile.”
One day my husband asked, “Did you plant pumpkin seeds in the yard?” I said “No, why?” There were 16 wild pumpkin plants growing our hillside! I was surrounded by pumpkins and saw it as a pretty clear sign.
This world is complicated. Tragedy strikes us all at some point, but I’m convinced we can build that part of our soul that is steady and content. It’s hard in our world of more internet connections but fewer genuine relationships. My mom had that soul contentment and so do these growers. This project and the people I’ve met were gifts from my mom, to remind me of what’s important; to give me light, when all I could see was dark. Because the only way to get rid of darkness is to turn on the light and let it in.
To be a part of seeing Daria’s film “Rise of the Giants” check out their kickstarter campaign.