Alex and Kathy Davis crawled on their hands and knees, yanking weeds. Webs of chickweed. Nettles. All of it strangling their beet field. Dirt filled the slivers of their fingernails and caked on the backs of their hands.
Four weeks have passed since their son, Gideon, died in an Anchorage hospital room. He wasn't yet 2 years old. He had cancer.
"If you try to find a reason for it, you're going to go crazy," Kathy said, clawing at the dirt. "So you don't."
There is no making sense. There is only searing loss. And work. All that it takes to keep a farm afloat and Gideon's brother and sisters fed and comforted. Some people say work heals. For now, for Alex and Kathy, work is what they have to do to keep their business alive. One chore and another, tending animals and plants.
The Davises have nurtured AD Farm in Palmer for eight years, raising organic vegetables and pork. They sold their goods Wednesdays in the parking lot of the Mall at Sears, anchoring what is now a popular market. Sales doubled and doubled again. They took on employees. Alex wrote a weekly newsletter to 500 customers. A loyal following grew that included chefs from high-end restaurants. They had five children.
In November, Gideon got fussy, and Kathy couldn't console him. They went to the walk-in clinic, then to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, then to Providence. He had a tumor near his bladder, a rare muscle cancer.
It plunged their family into a world far from the dirt roads and wide fields outside Palmer. Red-eyed nights in hospital rooms. Injections. Blood draws. Scans. Surgeries. Anxious waits for test results. They spent weeks in Portland while Gideon got cancer treatments.
The logistics of parenting a child with cancer, taking care of four other kids and running the farm were numbing. Alex quit going to the market, relying on his business partner. Family flew in. People from church helped. Hot Stixx held a fundraiser. Kathy stayed at the hospital. Alex kept an online diary of Gideon's illness. He took the kids to Anchorage. They got pizza and stayed the night. He brought them home. He fed the pigs. He planted the fields.
Gideon endured 25 sessions of radiation and about as many sessions of chemotherapy. Almost always, Kathy said, he woke up smiling.
In June, a test showed his tumor was still growing. The chemo and radiation had done nothing. Alex and Kathy sat down with Kaylynn, 9, Evelyn, 7, Adah, 5, and Jace, 3. They are farm kids. They know about life and death, Alex said. He didn't have to sugarcoat anything.
"I told them we were bringing (Gideon) home to play with him and love him as long as we could have him," Alex said. "They understood it."
Gideon died on July 17. They had a funeral at Lazy Mountain Bible Church. Kathy's brother-in-law made his casket. Now comes the project of getting back to their lives.
The Davises have no health insurance. Denali KidCare covered Gideon's medical expenses. Despite the hard work of friends and employees, business slipped. The spring was cold. Germination was poor. Alex hadn't been going to markets, and there was less to sell. Their only choice was to lay off their six workers. They weren't making enough to keep up with the payroll.
Alex and Kathy made their way down the rows. The kids played in the dirt. Beets -- red, yellow and chioggia -- are almost ready for the market. Alex went back to the Sears mall parking lot for the first time last week. It was good to go back, he said, but it exhausted him.
They didn't realize how many parents have lost children until their own son died. Stories keep coming from people they know, from customers and people at church. It's different than other kinds of grieving. You carry it longer.
It makes you angry and bleeds out your patience.
"I'm no longer cursing and kicking things in the barn," Alex said. "We're talking. I'm not smoking. I'm not drinking. We're still going to church."
Some couples don't recover, but Alex and Kathy are determined. They aren't perfect, but they try to be easy on each other.
"You don't want to take a horrible situation and turn it into a terrible tragedy," he said.
He went to his first market last week. He'll go again. They'll keep farming unless they grow to flat out hate it, he said.
They reached the end of the row, stood and stretched.
"What'd that take us?" Kathy asked. "An hour?"
The kids were already in the car. One of them hollered that the others were fighting.
"Nobody's bleeding yet, right?" Alex called back, smiling at Kathy. They loaded up and drove back to the house, where they invited me inside to see some pictures of Gideon.
The long kitchen table held a vase of dahlias, the breakfast dishes, a pile of mail and a calculator. A turtle swam in an aquarium in the corner. The children clamored in and out, showing off puppets, blowing up balloons, crunching mouthfuls of Cheez-its. Alex found his tablet computer and pulled up a video. The children came around to watch. The sound wasn't working, but there was Gideon just last month, with his fuzz-covered head, pounding his palms on his father's chest.
An earlier version of this column gave an outdated name, Valley Hospital, for Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.