Welcome to Xanderland. A fantasy world created by a mother in mourning, Xanderland may seem small, but its borders are as far-reaching as grief and as everlasting as the delight of neighborhood children.
The Katonas installed the dragon about a month after their youngest son, Alexander, who went by Xander, died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest in 2015 at the age of 21. He was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, Shannon Katona said; hence the dragon. The family named the creature Gleep and decided to share him with their Northeast Baltimore neighborhood.
“I didn’t want to put him in a hidden spot,” said Katona, “because other people’s joy is also my joy.” She invited friends to bring found objects to a memorial service, and Gleep’s playground became Xanderland, a corner of Katona’s larger garden, which stretches over two adjoining yards that she and her husband own at Northern Parkway and Sefton Avenue.
On a recent afternoon, two children scampered through the yard counting fairies and wind chimes. It was breezy, and the chimes jingled. Elsa Lisse, 7, lives nearby, and she was showing Xanderland to her friend, 6-year-old Terra Crespo. “I wish this was my garden!” Terra cried as she flitted among gnomes and gewgaws. Before their visit ended, Terra found 72 fairies; Elsa counted 62 wind chimes, or maybe 101. (Shannon Katona believes she has about 40 chimes, but she herself has lost count.)
Gleep in particular has enchanted the neighborhood. “We can’t go for a walk without going by the dragon,” said Sara Margraf, who lives around the corner and often takes 3-year-old Elle and 1-year-old Vaughn to Xanderland. “The only way I can get Elle to sit down in the stroller is to say, ‘We’re gonna go to the dragon!’ ”
Katona finds solace in watching Xanderland come to life for children. “I love being out here,” she said. “I call it painting with plants.” While she talks, she fidgets with a tiny figure, setting it right again after a child or perhaps a cat has toppled it. She often finds items that visitors have left for her. “People want to contribute because they get something from it,” she said. “So, it’s my vortex of love.”
Katona, 64, comes from a family of artists. Her sister is the actress Lea Thompson, star of "Back to the Future" and other films. One brother was principal dancer with the Minnesota Dance Theatre. Their mother was a painter. Katona herself was a garden artist before Xanderland; her yard was alive with flowers, a koi pond, dozens of wind chimes, a forest of glass mushrooms, a huge fairy mosaic in the grass and shiny spinning doodads amid it all. Joe Katona, 61, owns a computer store.
When Xander Katona died, he had just earned an undergraduate degree in marine and atmospheric science at the University of Miami in Florida. The youngest of the couple’s three sons, he loved baseball and was living in Miami with college friends while he pursued advanced studies in ecosystem food chains.
On the cusp of so much life, he seemed healthy. But no one knew he had been born with a condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome that could speed up his heartbeat. “You have a rogue signal in your heart,” said his mother. “So your heart just keeps going faster and faster.”
On Halloween 2015, Xander attended a punk music festival with friends in Gainesville. Afterward, he vomited, then went to bed. Sometime during the night his heart stopped. For at least 45 minutes his brain was without oxygen. He was in a coma for eight days, until his devastated family took him off life support.
The wait was excruciating. “When we were down in the hospital in Florida,” said Joe, “I got up and wrote on the little marker board, ‘The pain we feel is proportional to the love we have.’ ”
The summer after his death, Shannon took her anguish out to her yard. She brought to life the miniature tableau around the dragon, creating a castle and moat out of a material called hypertufa. She ordered glass beads and gathered found objects. She worked at it every day. “I needed to create,” she said. “I needed to take my grief and make it productive.”
She kept adding, rearranging, tinkering. From a tree branch near the dragon, she hung a wind chime with Xander’s picture on it. She talked to him: “What do you think of this?” Then the chimes might sound, and she took that as his approval. “There was a lot of comfort,” she said.
In November, the Katonas marked the fourth anniversary of Xander’s death. It was a Friday, and their other two sons were expected for the weekend, from Florida and Virginia. “I did some work,” said Joe, “and we made sure we kept in touch during the day,” but mostly he left Shannon alone in the garden. “[I] let her be out there and find her joy and peace in the garden, because that’s where she finds it.”
The pain of losing their son “doesn’t go away,” Shannon said. “We used to think grief got smaller and smaller, but now we think it’s like this big boulder. You build stuff around it; you landscape it. Sometimes things erode and that boulder shows up, and then you have to put more landscape around it. And you decorate it. You decorate your grief.”
Sheri Venema is a writer in Baltimore.