My Life as a Plant

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.

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It’s a Small, Small World.

My husband and I took our 17-year-old son to Walt Disney World at Christmas time this year. We toured Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios together the first day. My husband decided to enjoy some relaxation while our son and I went to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center the second day. My son’s name is Matt. We rode several rides and watched several attractions together. I wanted to ride “It’s a Small World” – and he didn’t. We waited together through about half of the 45 minute queue, and when he made it abundantly clear that he would rather be eating lint, I allowed him to exit the wait when we came upon a gate that would allow him to escape.

I waited another 30 minutes alone, surrounded by people, and watched their interactions. The park was terribly crowded. It was still early in the day, so children weren’t having full on meltdowns yet, but it was lunchtime, and there were plenty of hungry little people. I started to feel a little sorry for myself, waiting all alone, and then I realized that I don’t need to make my son miserable to have a fabulous time.

I came to love that ride because my mother loved it. I came to love it more this year, riding alone, because it brought a plethora of beautiful colors and a whirlwind of motion into what had become a dark night of the soul- my journey of grief after Mom’s death in November.

I sat next to someone else’s child. He saw tears streaming down my face and said, “don’t cry.” I smiled and laughed through my tears and said back, “they’re happy tears.” I’m not sure that they were until that moment, but at the moment I made the claim of happiness, I was determined to be in love with that moment – and I was.

Winter in Ohio can be a hard time to create happiness – at least for me. The ground is covered with dirty snow or thick ice. The trees are barren. The birds are somewhere warm for the winter. It’s dark by the time I leave my windowless office to cook dinner, and the dining table looks out over the deck that is covered in dead leaves instead of containers overflowing with flowers in a hundred different hues.

My world got a lot smaller when Mom died. I lost the person I phoned when I needed to talk about what was bothering me. I lost my frequent destination for my Tuesday “day off.” My world got “small.” I wrote about losing her daily for a short while, until someone I don’t even know in “real life” said something that I decided made me feel like reading my words was a burden to other people. I stopped writing, and my world became still smaller.

I came to the realization a little over a week ago that my world had become too small – too dark. I set out to change it. A friend shared social media invitations to a class teaching African dance. I signed up, even though I knew that when I arrived, I wouldn’t know a single soul. I did something so far outside of my comfort zone – dancing – in public – in stretchy fabrics. I didn’t hide when, later in the evening, my friend showed up and started filming and sharing “live.” Just by being there, my world got a little bigger.

The following weekend, instead of sitting inside the house and doing the same old thing, I got my husband into the car and drove to the “Great Big Home and Garden Show.” We don’t have any home improvement projects on the agenda for this year, but I wanted to see the gardens. They didn’t disappoint. There were tulips and daffodils and hyacinths – a riot of color. There were trees in bud, and although I was in a giant building, I could almost feel myself outside beside a running brook in one of my favorite parks. Almost. I felt my world expand a little more.

When I moved to my present home nearly two decades ago, I never built a new network of close friends.  While I don’t mean to minimize the importance of the male friends and mentors in my life, I’ve reached an age where I’m looking to build my connection with other women.

I don’t go out and “do” things with women. Now that I have become a “woman of a particular age,” –  now that I am the involuntary matriarch – I see clearly how important that network of strong, wise women is to have. Only by reaching out and by sharing our joy and sorrow can we truly live a full life.

This is the “year of yes,” to quote Shonda Rimes. This is the year that I will grow my world by doing things that I don’t usually do – by saying yes to new experiences and learning new things. It is a small, small world – but it doesn’t have to be.

The cookie story

I haven’t felt much like Christmas this year. We decided to spend Christmas Day with Mickey Mouse this year since Mom isn’t here anymore and the family seems to be heading in 12 different directions this year. The only decorating I’ve done was to pull a small tree out of a box already decorated and “fluff” it a bit along with putting a strange crèche I found up on the piano. Five minutes. Done. Boom.

While going through a box of Mom’s things, I found a binder full of family recipes. I didn’t think I was up to the task of making the butter cookie cut outs I made with Mom or the chocolate molasses cookies that she sent us boxes of for every special occasion. I decided to make something emotionally easier – my aunt’s “dunkin platters.”

I assembled all of the ingredients on the kitchen island and went off to search for my kitchen aid mixer. I stepped into the storage area and found it right outside the door – not where I expected it to be – but very handy indeed. It was filthy, but I figured it must have gotten dusty when my husband blew in insulation a couple of weeks ago.

I put the full pound of butter on the stove to melt and then I set about cleaning up the dirty mixer. I grumbled under my breath that the last kid to put it away had left something sticky on the base. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it didn’t want to leave. The bread hook and wire whip were in the bowl, which was odd because I don’t store them together. They looked nasty, too, so I stuck the, into the dishwasher. Next, I checked the mixer bowl for any stray dog hair, since we share our home with 3 of them now. Instead of hair, I found a layer of dead bugs in a variety of shapes and sizes. I shivered a little and then tried to shake them into the trash. They weren’t leaving. It took tons of hot water, soap and elbow grease to make that bowl sparkle. I was more than a little annoyed.

The beater was attached to the stand. I wanted to clean it, too, since it may have touched the bugs. It wouldn’t come off. As I wrestled with the mechanism, more dead bugs fell out of the mixer head. I pinched myself to make sure this wasn’t just a bad dream. Ouch! It wasn’t. It was then that I realized this wasn’t my mixer (thank goodness). It was Mom’s. Those bugs had probably been there for years.

I was still a little queasy. I wasn’t sure that cookies still sounded good, but the full pound of butter was now melted. Waste not, want not..

I have to eat strictly gluten free, so baking cookies required ordering certified gluten free oats and gluten free corn flakes, along with gluten free flour. These were not cheap cookies to make, and they required planning. I was committed now. I went in search of another navy blue kitchen aid mixer. It took a while, but I found it, right where my husband told me he had put it.

I followed the recipe, heated the oven, and lovingly plopped spoonfuls on the ungreased tray. 10 minutes later I found a single 11 x 14 inch cookie instead of 18 3-inch rounds. I decided I needed a smaller spoon. I eventually worked out the right size, timing and temperature for the gluten-free version of these treats. After baking for most of the afternoon, I put two on a plate and made a cup of instant coffee, because Mom always have me a cup of instant to dunk fresh cookies into.

I haven’t cried in a day or three, but when I put that coffee-covered cookie into my mouth, the dam burst. I cried until the tears ran down my shirt, and then I cried some more. It was then that it hit me – these cookies are Christmas for me. Mom made cut outs all year long. They weren’t special. I only got these once a year – on Christmas Eve – and I would eat the dunkin platters because they were my favorite. My aunt who made them is still living, but she has memory problems. I haven’t had one of these cookies in at least 20 years. Suddenly, I was 8 years old and sneaking into a corner with a handful of my favorite cookies before someone else could eat them.

I really needed that coffee. Those cookies are sweet! I guess my adult self prefers slightly less sweet, which is a good thing because even after giving some away there remains a huge box.

I’m leaking a little again. It’s alright. The best memories, sometimes, are the ones that run down your face.

Ask Me Anything

I always thought I knew a lot about my mom’s life.  She told scores of stories.  I can tell you about the day that her old dog, Shep, died.  I can tell you about the day my dad proposed to her – and that she didn’t answer him right away.  I can tell you about the day that she received the phone call that there was a baby girl waiting to be adopted, and she could pick her (me) up that same day.  I thought I knew a lot.

One day, my still-sharp 88-year-old mother’s brain changed.  She couldn’t tell me the familiar stories anymore.  During her final illness, on days she couldn’t quite place who iI was in her life, she asked me questions that led me to pose my own questions about what shaped her early life  – questions that she could no longer answer.

I don’t know if my mother ever had a boyfriend before she married my dad at the age of 37.  I don’t know what she dreamed of when she was a teenager.  I don’t know a lot of things. Looking back, I don’t think that I know a single story about Mom’s life between ages 10 and 25 or so.  There are still family members alive who might be able to tell me their own stories about her during those years, but nobody can tell “her” story.

As we cleaned out her apartment last weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder why she kept certain things.  although I never saw her journaling, a part of me hoped that I would find a box of notebooks – diaries – hints at who my mom had been before she was my mom – and who she was when nobody was watching.

I wonder sometimes how much my children really know.  Once in a while Matt, my youngest, appears shocked when he learns some bit of my history – some part of my life prior to the year 2000.

I wish that my mother had written her story.  I do keep a journal most days, so my life from age 50+ is theirs for the reading if they should choose to to do some day.  The years before, however, the years who made me who I am – flaws and all – are locked away in my head except for the little glimpses I tell in my stories.

Maybe some day I will tell my children to “ask me anything,” and record those answers in writing or on video.  How I wish Mom had said to me, “ask me anything” in those months leading up to the end of her life.  There are so many things I would love to know now – not that they would change a thing – but things that would help me to understand why things were the way they were.

There were things that were hinted at but never spoken.  There were times when I asked Mom about first-hand memories that were vivid to me that, according to her, “never happened.”

I’m not certain that I have the courage to tell my children to “Ask me anything” and give them the answers while I am still living.  Perhaps, though, the revelation of that information might help them to understand me and the experiences that made me who I am.  Perhaps the joys and sorrows and traumas don’t matter to anyone else.  Perhaps, though, my daughter, or my great-granddaughter some day far in the future would hear my memories and realize that I, too, questioned my worth at times, and that I spent 50 years or so worrying too much about what others thought.

Perhaps some day I will write my own story.  Parts are interesting – other parts heartbreaking or downright boring.  What might be boring to me might explain to my daughter why I am quirky about certain things.  If she ever wishes she had asked me a certain question, perhaps she could find the answer.

So, kids, when I am gone, look for the name of the document and the password hint.  In the meantime, ask me anything, and I’ll do my best to answer now – or in the future.

 

 

Day 8 – Sometimes You Just Have to Feel It

Sometimes the lesson is simply indescribable. You just have to feel it. Any attempt to find the words to describe those profound, deeply-felt changes will pale in contrast to the realization.

This is as close as I can come: The depth of the feeling of being very sad about a change – like death – is in direct proportion to how hard we resist the change. As long as I dwell in the past, wishing things could have gone differently or that I had said something or did something else, I will continue to feel sadness.

When I accept that Mom is gone, and that it happened just the way that it was always going to happen, the sadness eases. It’s out of my control. It always was.

The words make it sound much simpler than the feelings do. You’ll have to trust me on that one.

Day 7 – The Keeper of Secrets

The word “secret” has so many nuanced meanings. Some secrets are precious – the “secret recipe,” for example. Then there is “The Secret,” the power of intention that some believe can make a strawberry ice cream cone appear without them lifting a finger to help themselves. Other secrets are neutral. I hold a lot of confidential information for my clients. The “secrets” aren’t necessarily dark or ominous – they simply aren’t anyone else’s business.

When Mom died a week and a half ago, her secrets died with her. At 50 years of age, I realize how little I know about my mother’s years before me. I know a few select stories, of course – the ones that she told regularly. Those are committed to memory, some word for word. There are other stories that died with her – good and bad. I now have to make peace with the things that I will never know. There are curious, half-formed memories from childhood that will now never be explained.

When I was a young girl, my questions were met with “we’ll talk about that when you are older.” As I grew into adulthood, the deflection became, “I’d rather talk about you,” or “I need to go to the store.” I didn’t press for answers because I didn’t want to upset Mom. Making Mom cry was something I tried to avoid at all costs. I love(d) my Mom.

Ready or not, I have a new position in life. I am the oldest female. I have become the reluctant matriarch, for want of a better word. Like my mom, there are things I don’t talk about – things that are a part of me and that have shaped me and thus have shaped the lives of my children.

Without living parents to think about, I have the freedom to bring “secrets” into the daylight where they can fade without worrying about hurting feelings. No, I won’t be writing a salacious “tell all.” My life hasn’t been “that” interesting.

I do believe, however, that it is time to write my own “book of secrets.” My secret recipes. My secret thoughts. My private past. Someday when I am gone, one of my children may wonder what experiences shaped me. I can only tell them my side of the story, or at least my memory of it.  My story would never be a bestseller.  Indeed, it would probably be boring to even my own children.  Still, one day they may have questions about what experiences made me into who I am.

I haven’t cleaned out Mom’s apartment yet, but I’ve been through enough of her things to know that there probably isn’t a “book of secrets” waiting to be discovered. It’s a shame, but at the same time, it is also a relief. I can live my life authentically. I can choose not to wear the title of the “keeper of secrets.” I control the narrative. I can tell my story without being a victim of anything or anyone in my past. I can choose not to die with my words still in me.

Day 5 – Be Authentic

I learned many lessons during Day 4, but I didn’t write about them. I was in a dark mood. I didn’t feel like doing anything except knitting and wasting time on social media, so I didn’t.

I spent a few minutes reviewing some of the comments that readers have left on my previous blog posts. One of the comments that I received recently made note of the observation that although there have been very difficult times in the past year or so, my posts have been (mostly) positive. That is by design, but I realize that perhaps that isn’t the for the greatest good.

I write as a way to cope with my emotions. Being sad, depressed or lonely feels bad. Being angry and anxious feels bad. For me, and I believe for many others, emotions each have a physical sensation that feels “good,” “bad,” or “neutral.”

These past months have been extraordinarily difficult. There have been many days during which I have lashed out at people who care the most about me. There have been days that I have cried and days that I have shirked responsibilities. I have made nasty comments under my breath and though unkind thoughts.

I will be the first to admit that I am extraordinarily imperfect. I strive to be positive and to show kindness. Some days I fail. Some days I am a miserable person to be around.

There would be something wrong with me if I only felt happiness while my mother was dying. I experienced sadness, rage, confusion and frustration on a daily basis. I had some really bad days.

I wrote in a journal daily. I let the feelings out. I didn’t keep them inside, and by letting them out in the light, I was able to deal with them. Writing about the negative emotions felt like opening the curtains on a dark room and throwing open the windows to allow the clean air to come in.

Many problems don’t look so big or so scary when you put them on a piece of paper.

I started writing in a new journal 3 days before Mom was hospitalized in August. I chose a book with black paper because I felt like even a grocery list could look elegant written in white ink on black paper. I filled every page of that book. Today I filled the last page. I’ve never been so relieved to finish filling a journal and being able to move on. Instead of a black book with black pages and a black cover, I’m next writing in a beautiful book wit a purple cover embellished with beautiful colors. The pages are ivory and they have lines so that my writing doesn’t end up all crooked.

I hope that the sadness and anger that sometimes filled those black pages becomes a thing of the past as I move out of this dark chapter in my life.

Death visits us all. My experience is not special or unique. Losing a parent is the “natural order” of things. Although I won’t allow myself to wallow in grief, the words of a dear friend remind me to be kind to myself. “You are never truly prepared to say goodbye to your mother, no matter hard you try.” He was right.

I’m not feeling very happy or positive today. I’m also not feeling very negative today. I’m pretty close to “neutral” on the emotional spectrum, and I think that’s a pretty good place to be at this stage in the grieving game.

Spread kindness, sprinkle joy. Be authentic.