My wife loved plants.
Love, even such a powerful word, cannot accurately describe how intensely she felt about them. The leaves, the petals, the roots … were all intertwined within her. She could never walk past without running her fingers across them, without whispering a word of affection. Sometimes I felt as if she loved them more than me, more than herself.
Our tiny house was full of them, hanging from the ceilings, lining the hallways, crammed together on dusty windowsills. I used to tell her that she should register with the town and give tours to this botanical garden that she had created. I was only half joking.
In truth I hated them. Hate is another strong word, perhaps too strong, but my resentment was deep. My wife was an amazing woman but she got so lost inside this foliage. Clipping, pruning. watering, feeding… it took up almost all of her free time. I was jealous. And even on the rare occasions I managed to get her out of the house she would be distracted by them, the red pointy leaves of the Japanese Maple down the street, or the single lily in a delicate blue vase placed on the table of our favorite restaurant.
Our life together had not begun like this. She used to like flowers the way most people do, taking a moment to acknowledge their beauty, breathing in their sweet smell the few times I had come home with them from the market. But that’s where it stopped.
Until our son passed away.
We had always dreamed of having a child connected biologically to one of us, but after a year of unsuccessful IVF treatments we let that dream melt away and decided instead to adopt. It had taken us three years of paperwork, interviews, house calls, and almost all of our savings to make this a reality. As arduous as this process was we often spoke about those who paved the way to allow us a smoother transition, yet wondered if our ‘unconventional’ union still left a bad taste in the mouth in the agency. If it had it had been hidden well.
On June 13, 2015 we left the worn stone building with Eden, wrapped in soft green blanket despite the unusual summer heat. He was one month old.
The next few years were spent as one would expect, changing dirty diapers, wiping messy faces, picking up toys in the darkness. But his bubbly laughter and intense curiosity overshadowed the exhaustion and trivial arguments over our differing child rearing approaches. Eden brought us joy, a joy neither of us could have ever expected.
And then he died. He was to turn five the following month.
The details of that day are still a blur to me, and at this point inconsequential. Except the fact that he had died in a garden.
That was the day my wife began to love plants, the day she became obsessed with them. She started to fill the house with them, slowly at first, coming home with one or two a week. I said nothing. Then it was one or two a day. I held my tongue. By the time a year had passed, it had gotten out of control. I tried to talk her to about it, gently at first and then more stern as our house became overrun with the leafy reminders of his death. There was no where I could go where there wasn’t a potted plant, and I spent way to much time moving them from here to there to uncover enough space to make a sandwich or clear a path to the bathroom.
“It makes me happy,” she replied with a cheery smile, and yet I saw the sadness behind it.
How could I argue with that? But I did, almost everyday. I huffed and I sighed and I made my irritation known every chance I could. I will never forget her face when, in a fit of rage, I shoved some pots off the table and they went crashing to the ground. She looked at me as if I had killed Eden all over again. It had been neither of our faults, his death, just a random accident and we had never placed blame on the other, until this moment.
She cleaned up the mess in silence, cradling the fallen plants, checking their roots and disappearing into the other room in hopes of repotting them.
I grabbed my jacket and stormed out of the house.
I loved my wife, and she loved me.
Be we were broken.
On that day, we lost more than our son. We lost our future.
She looked to these plants to give her solace, and I found anger in it. Or maybe it was fear.
On June 13, 2021 I lost my wife.
Her light had been lost a long time ago, and her body had given up the fight too.
I found her on the couch surrounded by her beloved plants, clutching Edens favorite stuffed elephant. The details are inconsequential. Except for the coroners report. ‘Heart attack’
My wife had died of a broken heart.
I went through the motions, planned the funeral, made the calls, spoke with the lawyer.
I wore my black dress and provided the customary “thank you for coming” along with the weak smiles. I accepted the casseroles and the soups and the offers of condolence. But the flowers I did not take.
The day of her service was grueling, but as I closed the door to our tiny house I felt a quietude in the knowledge that it was over, and I could finally be alone with my feelings. I stood there and stared at the place we lived and was overcome by hatred. Hatred for these stupid plants, hatred for my beautiful wife who chose to find comfort in them instead of me. But I was too tired to feel anymore that evening. I dragged myself up the stairs, cursing the plants as I went.
I didn’t leave the house for a week.
I survived on the sympathy food and spent my days playing the maybe/what if game. Maybe I should have taken her to a doctor; what if I had insisted she come to bed. Maybe I should have thrown the plants out; what if I had joined her in her love for them. But this too was inconsequential.
I paid no attention to the plants, pretending they were there, and they began to wither.
And I was glad.
How dare they get to live on while my wife hadn’t. How dare they not give her the peace that she so disparately needed. I hated them. I willed them to perish.
Until I didn’t.
Until the eighth day of solitude. Until they too began to die. Until I realized they were all I had left of her.
It had only been eight days. Plants are resilient, or so I thought. I watered them and gave them food and still they drooped. I rotated them in the sunny spots and spoke to them in a soft voice as she had done, and yet the leaves continued to brown. I dumped the lifeless ones in the backyard, in a pile at the end of the steps. A pile that grew larger and larger, a visual representation of my failures.
Her obsession became my obsession.
I sang and danced for them, I carried her picture with me and wore her robe as if to fool them into believing I was her. To trick them to live.
On my third week of isolation there was a knock at the door. I didn’t move. I sat quietly, fixated on the last surviving plant. A black and white Anemone. Her favorite.
I heard a key in the lock. I heard the door creak open, and I remained motionless.
“Ellie, are you in here?” I heard my brother call.
I greeted him with the same silence that I had surrounded myself within this tiny house.
I heard his footsteps getting closer. I head him gasp. I hadn’t eaten in days and showering wasn’t even an activity I remembered.
I could feel him next to me, but he said nothing, just put his hand on my shoulder where it lingered for a moment. I continued to stare at the plant, blinking only out of necessity.
He started by opening all the curtains, fumbling with the window locks. The warm fresh air entered slowly, as if not unsure if it was welcomed.
A few hours laters my tiny house was clean. My sheets were changed, my dishes done, and all the dust dispersed. It wasn’t until he came back from taking out the numerous garbage bags that he finally spoke.
“I could barely get down those stairs. What’s with all that dirt?”
“Her dead plants,” was all I could manage.
He sat down across from me and slid the Anemone out of my view.
I looked at him. He looked at me.
“This is the only one I have left, and it’s dying too, and once it’s gone so will everything.”
“I can’t even begin to understand how you’re feeling. I am so sorr-“
I put my hand up and swatted his words away. They were … inconsequential.
“Fine,” he said. After a moment he continued, “You need to get your shit together.”
My eyes narrowed but this time I did not wave his words away.
He acknowledged this and went on. “I know you feel like death is following you. I know that you’ve had more heartbreak than most and that you feel lost and broken. But you are still here and you might as well make the most of it. Be strong. Survive for them, for their memories, and for yours.”
“I don’t want to,” I said as stubborn as a child.
He let out a cautious laugh, “I know but you’ve got no choice.”
I sighed. He was right. I knew it was time to start mending my fractured heart. I knew things would never be the same. I’d never hear my son giggled as he played with a butterfly, I’d never see my wife make silly faces at me as I watched her brush her teeth, I’d never take another picture of our happy family together. I knew I could never be as happy as I was but I knew it was time to try.
I sighed again.
“Get your butt in the shower. You smell awful.”
I rolled my eyes but knew he wasn’t wrong.
I let the scalding hot water burn away my filth, just as I had let my brothers words burn away my anger. He had said the things I kept from the surface, the ones I knew to be true, the ones I couldn’t say to myself. It’s time.
‘They’ say to take life one day a time, but I chose to focus on each second. Dry off your leg. Put on this sock. Press the button on the coffee maker. My seconds turned into successful minutes. My minutes turned into successful hours and before long my days were just days, and the struggle of surviving them was less and less.
The Anemone had died, the last petal fell on a Tuesday. On Wednesday I climbed down my back steps, shovel in hand and spread the drying dirt out across the small rectangular lawn. Perhaps something would grow from it. Perhaps it wasn’t dead at all, just needed room to breathe.
Months passed and I started to feel more like myself. I started to smile when I thought of my lost loves instead of wiping away my fallen tears. But I had one last thing to tackle.
My wife’s favorite place.
I drove by it often, telling myself it was because it was on the way home, but if I was to be honest with myself I knew it was because conquering it was the final piece to the puzzle that I had been working on since the day of my brothers tough love.
One day I’ll pull in, I told myself. I’ll buy a plant and I would be free. One day.
That day was a Thursday.
I sat in my car in the parking lot for an hour. I opened and closed the door so many times I began to worry that it would break off the hinges like an overworked paperclip.
Deep breath…open…sigh…close. Repeat.
I decided to try something different and instead rolled down the window. Cold air filled my car, filled my lungs, and I willed it to fill me with courage. ‘Why is this so hard’ I asked myself. ‘It’s just a stupid nursery, just stupid plant.’
A quick gust blew in, startling me, leaving something small and white behind. I watched as it gently fluttered onto my lap. ‘Is it snowing already’ I wondered? I picked it up and rolled it between my fingers waiting for it to melt. It didn’t. It maintained its shape, silky to the touch.
How had this petal found its way into my car and onto my lap in the midst of winter. A sign. I chuckled. I didn’t believe in signs, but if I had this would have been a good one.
What I did take away was how stupid I was being. I didn’t take a deep breath and get out of the car. I didn’t muster up all of my courage or give myself some extensive pep talk. I just did it, without any thought at all.
I wandered around the wooden tables crammed with pots and soil and garden ornaments. I passed the trees and the perennials, overlooked the ferns and bulbs. The options were overwhelming, I didn’t know what I was looking for, or if it even mattered which one I chose. I just needed something to break the spell, to finish the puzzle. So I did what any smart person would do in my shoes.
I closed my eyes and stuck my hand out.
I let my fingers graze the foliage and walked forward slowly, careful not to knock anything over. And then I stopped. My hand settled on a semi thick stem, covered in evenly spaced little grooves. I opened my eyes and saw the orchid. It boasted a white flower with pink edges and a deep purple center. I looked at the tag. Dendrobium Nobile.
I said it out loud. Well, I attempted to.
With my purchase made, I ventured out into the cold, put my orchid on the front seat and started the car. I had done it. It was much easier than I had anticipated, and a bit anticlimactic; not that I was complaining.
I looked over at my last puzzle piece. Something didn’t feel right. I stared for a moment and then reached over to fasten the seatbelt around it. Much better.
When I arrived home I placed it in the kitchen window. I put an ice cube in the pot as instructed and gave her a name, Elizabeth Eden after my beautiful wife and son.
The puzzle had been completed. And this was not inconsequential.
It was everything.