January 4, 2018

laurel leaves

I got a croton plant for Christmas.

Yesterday, I freaked out because it had already dropped two leaves and a third looked like it was about to go.  I watered it and calculated the best location for sunlight and fretted copiously.

A croton plant is a simultaneous kick and flutter in my chest.  When I see them in the hardware stores in the summertime, I long for one.  That's why it was a Christmas present.  But my eyes also brim with tears as I stare at the displays of large, waxy, brightly-colored leaves.  

This is my second croton.  My first one was a gift from Kate Campbell, delivered by florist, for the funeral.  

My infant son had died two days earlier, and she had been plugged into the grapevine of news about his hospitalization and status, his surgery to correct an extremely rare birth defect and his succumbing to the stresses of life support machines and an infection after ten short weeks of life, most of which he was unaware of on any level due to all of the drugs.

Most people send flowers.  Some send beautiful lilies, others white roses.  A neighbor brought by four freshly-baked pecan pies, which in her mind must have been staple nourishment for a grieving couple.  

But Kate sent a plant.  In the months after the funeral, long after the flower arrangements had wilted, the plant sat by the window in the living room of our apartment.  I watered it.  I cared for it.  And it died, too.  I was already on shaky ground in terms of confidence that I could keep things in my care alive.  It died. 

I didn't tell Kate it had died.  Kate was my folk music hero, and in many ways still is.  She knew me because of how many concerts I had attended and how often I bugged her after the show for an autograph or a conversation or just an acknowledgement.  When she told me to be careful driving home, it was wind in my heart's sails.  A tenuous thread of strangely forged friendship has connected us for two decades.  

Kate cared, because she is who she is.  

She saw me at eight months pregnant with my son, and sent a card after his birth, not knowing I'd be reading it in the hospital NICU by the side of his incubator.  I wrote her back and told her everything, using a bright green gel pen and torn-out sheets of notebook paper, which was all I could manage to nab.  

It's been sixteen years.

My wife didn't know about the ambivalence about crotons, which I succeeded in hiding from her (a rare feat), only about the longing in the garden department at Home Depot.  She wasn't expecting my reaction.  I think I startled her when I snatched up the new plant and began repeating, "I have to keep it alive.  I have to.  It can't die.  I have to take care of it."  I paced the house with it held out in front of me, trying to decide what to do with it.  I wanted to hold it close to my chest.  I thought about the tiny pewter urn in the closet, ashes that will wait to be scattered with my own.  I even remembered to put that in my suicide note last year.  I thought about ashes and soil and roots and minerals.

Something inside me wanted the second chance that I will never have with the first plant.  

This plant must thrive.  It must.  Did I mention I've managed to kill a philodendron?  This time has to be different.  

I am not wise enough to know what things in this world can and cannot serve as vehicles for healing.  But I have my suspicions.

I'm naming the plant Bruce, just to keep things clear.

Update:  P.J., who is the brains of this operation, came up with the idea of a terrarium of some sort, to give it the tropical conditions needed.

Updated update:  We've decided a vivarium would 212% more awesome than a terrarium, but I'm mad because I can't put tree frogs in it because you have to feed them live crickets and worms and stuff.  Do turtles, frogs, and geckos get along?  Do they eat croton leaves?  More research needed.

Updated update-update:  I took the plant to work.  Our office suite has already become a kind of Home for Wayward Plants and people bring us plants that are ailing in their dim offices for rehabilitation.  One of my office mates is a former arborist, and our room is always full of chatter, so the plants aren't exactly being talked to, but they can eavesdrop.  They thrive here.

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