There are forty-five minutes of perfect sunlight in my new apartment. That’s not a lot to go on, I know, and so does my plant, who sits beneath the southwest window, waiting for her shining opportunity, her daily shot at photosynthesized glory. We keep each other company, my plant and I. She spends the afternoon hours converting carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, her chloroplasts soaking up the sunlight and ejecting oxygen which is life for the alveoli in my lungs. The little lavender buds stretch toward the window along with the deep purple leaves that open and close like bat wings—anxiously awaiting the 5 o’clock glow.
I wait too, but instead of determined productivity mine is a restless occupation. My deadline looms like the promise of a storm, but instead of writing, I wait for the sun. For my feet to get warm. For creative inspiration. For my husband to come home.
Living is a serious business.
I didn’t call her the night before the stroke. I meant to, but I was too full of good intentions to remember, and then well, it’s not so easy to communicate with someone when their left side mouth muscles are frozen. They said there was too much blood in her heart. She was being transferred to hospice.
She kept asking me to visit her back then, before the stroke, before I met my husband, before the new apartment. I was in that nomadic expanse between jobs, strung out on wanderlust and desensitized to real world stuff like working and eating and breathing and staying alive. A three-week European expedition in my sights, no amount of cold-water reality could reduce my adventure high.
“I’ll come when I get back,” I promised. “I might even bring a British boyfriend.”
I could hear traces of skepticism in between the gliding southern vowels and the rasping asthma breaths—directed at the promised visit or the accented lover I never found out.
“All right then,” she said. “That’ll be just fine.”
I was single at the time, and she was always hassling me about boyfriends. Like a fine Southern lady, she considered it her personal duty to guarantee I encouraged members of the opposite sex. If Grandma had it her way, she’d have me married off tomorrow with a full array of silver and a completed china set.
“You’re too picky,” she’d chide. “They ain’t gonna wait for you and I won’t either”—her polite way of saying she’d be dead and gone before I found someone. I’d mumble something about there being plenty of cookies in the jar and she’d whittle it down to my obvious lack of cooking prowess.
The new apartment is a chilly existence today. I tug a second set of socks over the first pair—woolen guardians slipping seamlessly over the useless cotton. My husband bought them for me, knowing how cold my feet get. There’s a picture of us on my desk where I sit; it’s one of those rare candids capturing the integrity of our laughter, and the warmth in our faces sends warmth through my fingers as I type. I sneak a sideways glance at the plant, who seems a little deflated today. The cold must be getting to her too. But she’s stubborn; even now the shoots twist around each other and grow to the window, leaves spread wide for maximum light. Except this afternoon it’s cold and dreary outside and little chance of our forty-five minute miracle.
I’ve almost killed my plant. Twice. Her first death occurred while I was gallivanting across the continent. Somewhere between Versailles and the rolling German countryside, the plant fell from her perch on the back porch. I came home to the lone bud a roommate had salvaged from the wreckage. I repotted and put her in direct sun. That was right before I didn’t call and the oxygen couldn’t get to Grandma’s brain and they put her in hospice to die.
She wasn’t a particularly happy woman, my grandmother. I think she was disappointed, I think life, and in some ways my grandfather, had failed to meet her expectations and she felt short-changed. But she had her moments. She could tell a story about my Granddady and become so tickled that by the end she’d be wheezing with laughter.
Like the time he scared the bejesus out of the neighbor boys down the road. On Sunday evenings they’d ride their bikes over to watch TV and turn around and ride on home in the dark, despite my grandfather’s offers for a lift in his pickup. One night he’d had enough, and after they left he slipped out the back door, racing through the pines to cut them off. A specter flying across the sweaty South Georgia night, my Granddaddy rose out of the shadows in front of them with enough ghostly moans to drown out the deep-throated bellows of the bullfrogs. Catching sight of the phantom, the boys dug their heels into the dirt with an urgency only fear can ignite, and in pure prepubescent terror drove their bikes straight into the ditch with the bullfrogs.
“And if they didn’t ride home in the pickup with Daddy every Sunday after that, I’m not worth two cents,” she’d cackle and wipe her eyes, sides shaking. Then she’d sip her Co-Cola to clear her throat, throw her mobility scooter into reverse, and whip around the house searching for something that needed doing.
She spent most of her days like that, I think. Whirling around in her scooter, investigating the proficiency of her world and inevitably finding it less than satisfactory. The dishes had been stacked wrong, the beans were overcooked, her grandchildren didn’t call, and always it was cold.
It’s a lonely occupation, living.
In Europe I was ravenous. I consumed the Notre Dame and the d’Orsay, ate through Oxford and Hamburg like a box of macarons, each new experience another entre on my adventure menu. Between Monets and Van Goghs, sea spray against Scottish cliffs and catching sight of the Siene at twilight, I didn’t have time to think about my grandmother. One evening I found myself at a concentration camp in northern Germany. It was October and the leaves fell from the tall trees, blanketing the ground’s horrors in golden reverence. It was quiet, terribly so, the place a silent witness to the atrocities of human nature.
While I waited at the bus stop to return to my hostel, the gray sky shifted slowly into brilliant hues of reds and pinks, illuminating the camp in a holy glow. It was so paradoxically beautiful, the sunlight and the leaves and the death, and suddenly all the cathedrals, and mountains, and life-changing works of art, all of my exhilarating European opportunities melted into a hollow ache inside my chest.
It wasn’t enough. My adventure high spiraling with the sun’s decline, I hopped onto a bus where no one spoke my language in a town where no one knew my name, and felt the weight of my isolation. Wanderlust in full withdrawal, I got off the bus and bought a postcard. I sent it to my grandmother.
It’s 4:30 now. The socks have warmed my feet but I’ve donned hat and jacket to heat the remaining appendages. Writing words is like pulling teeth these days, and I’m tired of pretending to be productive. My husband will be home soon anyway. Perhaps we’ll take the dog on a walk and reminisce about how we feel in love. How we fell in love because of the dog, because I wanted a shorthaired pointer and he wanted one too. I get up and give the plant a once-over. She’s looking less dejected, more hopeful. I feel the soil and it’s dry. She needs to be watered.
That’s how I killed her the second time. After the concentration camp and the porch catastrophe and my grandmother in hospice. I refused to water her.
I returned from Europe humbled. I started a new job, settling into the normal routine of working, eating, breathing, sleeping. I was just a few days in when my mother called and told me about the stroke. I left the mostly-dead, newly repotted plant in my roommate’s care and drove the four hours to Ogeechee Area Hospice in silence.
When I arrived the nurse directed me to a room in the back, where my mother sat swabbing her mother’s lips, which were cracked and dry. Grandma was asleep, looking frail and out of place. She should have been riding around on her motorized throne, not lying stationary in a big hospice bed. I moved to put more blankets on her, but my mother stopped me. “She’s hot,” she said. “That’s what happens to people when the body’s internal thermostat is breaking down. They get warm.”
I was stuck in a two-day vacuum, my heart hanging on to each update. She couldn’t eat anything. They weren’t putting in a feeding tube. She wasn’t conscious. More family arrived and we went back and forth from hospice to her home, from the bizarre bedside decline to the false reality of her living—the scooter parked idly in a corner.
My mother told me I needed to let her go. She told me I had to tell my grandmother it was okay for her to die. But I didn’t want to. Not until she knew how sorry I was. I was so sorry I hadn’t called. So sorry and I loved her so much and did she know that? I’d sent her a postcard and did she get it? Did she get my postcard?
I took her warm hand and cupped it between my cold ones. I looked at her face and she was just sleeping, just like she did at home in her red comfy chair with the news blaring in the background.
“I love you Grandma,” I said. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call you. I’m sorry I didn’t come visit. I know you love me. It’s okay to go.”
She died the next morning. They told us she was leaving and we sat by her bed and sang her favorite hymns, something about “in the garden” and “oh sinner come home,” all the while the rasps of her breath growing fainter and fainter until they stopped altogether.
And then my aunt was checking her pulse and my mother was lying across her chest, “Oh Mama, I didn’t want you to go.” And the morning sun was filtering in and the birds chirping outside and suddenly I wasn’t in the hospice room with the sun and the birds and the death. Instead I was back at the concentration camp bus stop with the horror and beauty and loneliness pounding inside my chest. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.
I came home after the funeral to find my plant in full, resurrected flourish. The lone surviving shoot had multiplied, fresh sprouts popping out of the dirt in all their energy-absorbing, oxygen-producing aliveness. It was disgusting. Somehow, after irreconcilable trauma, this damn plant was alive but my grandmother was dead. No magical combination of elements would bring her back, no amount of CO2 or H2O could revive her long enough for me to know if she knew I loved her. I picked up the plant and put it outside. That’s when I stopped watering it.
A few weeks after my grandmother died, my mother called. I had gone on a date the night before and she wanted to know all the details. We talked for a few minutes—the guy was cute and even better, he liked shorthaired pointers. We didn’t mention Grandma.
“Oh I almost forgot,” she said before hanging up. “I found a postcard at Grandma’s next to her scooter. You must have sent it while you were in Europe.”
Anxious, I had her read it out loud over the phone. There was some nonsense about cathedrals and castles, and then there it was. “I hope you aren’t too cold,” it read. “I love you.” My mom hung up. I got up and watered the plant.
It’s 5 o’clock and my apartment is ablaze with fading light. The warm red glow fills up the entire room. I’ve watered my plant religiously for two years now, and she is radiant. I had given up on the dreary day, but she knew it was coming. The little lavender flowers are almost translucent as the rays pass through. The shoots are straight and strong and healthy. The dark purple leaves will close within the hour, but now they are wide open in welcome. As the last of the light fades, I hear the jostle of keys in the door.
Living can be a glorious business, too.