I just returned from a weekend camping in a place with absolutely no internet connectivity. My cell phone did not work. Zero bars. Nada. No Facebook. No weather. No checking my calendar or sharing pics on Instagram. The only purposes my handy dandy pocket computer served were alarm clock, music player and e-reader.
Our 18-year-old son is old enough, now, to spend a weekend without Mom and Dad here to manage him. He wasn’t alone, though. It was closing weekend of the musical theater show he has been rehearsing for all summer long. He’s a busy guy.
I had intended to ask my son to water my plants while I was gone, but I forgot, and by the time I arrived home, a few were just beginning to droop. I don’t generally keep indoor plants because I have a tendency to kill them, but for a few brief months every year, my back deck becomes a tropical paradise filled with a riot of colors. I “visit” the plants nearly every day. I pinch this one back here to encourage more blooms and I move that one a little to the left so that it gets more sunlight. Sometimes, though, I get busy and I forget a day of watering. Earlier this summer, a combination of a badly-planned container and failure of a drip-watering system led to a “dead” planter. I had my husband drill a bunch of holes in the bottom of an old aluminum tea kettle that was my mother’s, and I filled it with vines and flowers. It was lovely.
I went out to the deck one night to commune with my flowering friends and found the kettle plants wilted and dead-looking. The soil was crispy. The leaves were crinkly. The situation looked pretty hopeless. I cried a little. I had “built” that container as a tribute to Mom, who I lost in November, and in that moment, my irrational mind felt that I had let her down (again).
My husband said, “just throw the plants out and buy new ones.” It was tempting. Instead, though, I soaked the container thoroughly. I used my garden shears to cut back the completely brown parts and I moved the kettle from the hook where it hung “crooked,” as if pouring a cup of tea to a shelf where it could sit flat (and was much easier to water).
I began watching the kettle planter each day. On Day 2, it looked a little better. The leaves that had still been green, but were wrinkled instead of full and lush had filled back out. The extremities on the vines though, continued to wilt and grow brown. I pulled out the shears once again and cut back a little more.
By Day 3, the “core” of the planter was beginning to look healthy. There were no flowers anywhere, but the greenery was looking healthier.
By Day 7, new runners were beginning to appear from the vining plants. By Day 10, a few buds had appeared on the the plant with the tiny white flowers.
Now, two full weeks after the disaster, three of the four plants have made a brilliant recovery. They almost look as if they had never been nearly killed. I say “almost,” because if you look closely, you can see the scarring on some leaves. There are some brown parts, too – but if you view the kettle from a distance, you would never know that it was nearly a lost cause. The fourth plant, with it’s delicate leaves and tiny fuschia blossoms, though, isn’t faring as well as its neighbors. Perhaps it is the diminutive size of the leaves. Perhaps this plant wouldn’t have thrived in the same container as the other three even without my unintentionally-caused drought. It’s surviving, but it isn’t thriving.
While running on a narrow trail through the forest this weekend (without music), I began thinking about the plants in Mom’s kettle. When you neglect a plant, or when it goes through a crisis, it begins to shut down. It conserves precious resources for its core. It keeps its center alive for as long as possible. Humans do this, too.
It was just about a year ago when Mom told me that her cancer was “alive” again, and that she would need radiation treatments to knock it back down. In the weeks leading up to that day, I had celebrated my 50th birthday. I was joyful. I was celebrating life. If I were a plant, I would have been “blooming all over the place.”
As the illness progressed, it took her mind. My own soul began to wilt a little. My extremities began to wither – I stopped seeking out people and conversations. A leaf began to die here and there. She became sicker and died. People soon stopped sending cards and notes. The flowers people sent died. The houseplants that people sent to the funeral died, too. I suppose the fact that I hadn’t watered them had something to do with it. We entered the longest winter ever, and I had my own “dark night of the soul.”
With Spring came hope. I waited impatiently for the last chance of frost to pass so that I could plant new life in the containers that still held the wilted remains of last year’s flower garden. The trails called me, too. I began running again on paths through woods and meadows. I began smiling more. As the pots and kettles and gutters filled with living, blooming things began to fill my life with color, my mood lifted. I began reaching out. I even invited people long gone from my life for coffee and conversation. I, too, began to bloom again.
I recognize my plant-like nature. When there is a “trauma” in my environment, the “extremities” are the first to go. I stop doing the extra things that bring me into contact with others. I stop “vining” – reaching out for new places to connect and grow. I stop blooming – whether my blossoms are written words or photographs of pretty teacups.
My grief is not over. Most days I am happy, but once in a while I will forget for a moment that Mom is dead. I reach for the phone to call her, or spot something I would love to send her. Those moments are no longer enough to ruin me for the day.
By late Winter, if I were a plant, I would have looked pretty sad. I imagine I was there, with my long, flowing fronds, once lush and green, now hanging sad and brown. Someone would come along and offer a word or encouragement and my “core” plant would lap it up. At work, I would have an opportunity to help someone, and they showed their appreciation through kind words or referrals that brought me more and more to life. Each act of kindness – each “touch,” whether physical or through the magic of the internet – was like a drop of rain to my parched soul.
Running through the Mohican State Forest this weekend, I was in awe of the resilience of plants – especially the trees. In some spots, I was forced to climb tree roots as if they were a staircase. In other places, I saw trees that had been blown over completely and started to grow again in a new direction. Trees don’t give up and stop growing because there is a storm.
I don’t picture myself as a tree. I’m far too fickle. I’m more like a vining plant with long colorful fronds that blooms brightly once in a while. As I heal, my fronds are filling out and buds forming. as I hit “publish,” I will have put out my first blossom in a long while.
So, today I will be like a plant. I will bloom where I’m planted while sending out vines, seeking new places to experience and erupting in an occasional flower that, when wilted, sends seeds out to land in someone else’s waiting, fertile soil of their imagination.