“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
I used to consider myself a decent gardener. What that actually means is that back before I had kids, I managed to plant a few things and keep most of them alive. Decorative things, mostly. Aside from the occasional Rosemary plant that stuck around no matter how much attention it got, or didn’t get, I haven’t dabbled in much that was edible, because I could never quite manage the complicated chemistry required to nourish that kind of garden. I did get a bowl’s worth of various lettuces to grow from an entire seed packet once, and it was truly the best salad I’ve ever eaten, but my gardening temperament is better suited to plants and flowers whose only job is to sit around and look pretty. Bright purple butterfly bushes, gorgeous Lantana, unapologetically large and colorful Gerbera daisies in clay pots, stalky Lavender and dark fuschia-colored Clematis vine, Portulaca and Phlox and Lupine–there was a time a long time ago when all of these beauties were thriving under my care.
That was three houses, two kids, and one husband ago. Now the only things growing in our “flower bed” are the Holly trees, Boxwoods, and purple Liriope the builders planted when the house was built six years ago. I have some clay pots on the steps and scattered around our patio area, but most of them are empty. Well, not empty. Some of them contain a dehydrated cylindrical brick of grayish soil and the stalk of some unfortunate former flora that got watered too much or too little and simply gave up the fight. There are some straggly Portulacas hanging on, but mainly because they are succulents and really don’t require a lot. There’s a fairly hearty Rosemary plant holding its own. The grape tomato plant I bought in its prime is not dead per se, but it looks like it wants to be; it hasn’t produced fruit since early July, save that one lone tiny tomato that appeared like a Hail Mary on the last day of August. My son keeps pouring sand from his activity table over it, like some sort of last rites, so it’s only a matter of time.
But then there is the miniature rose. It–who am I kidding? SHE–goes all the way back to my first house, my first front porch, my first attempt at sustaining plant life. I bought her at the floral department of a Lowes Foods after falling in love with her perfect little pink-rimmed pale yellow buds, named her Rosaline, and left her in the original pot on my kitchen counter until the cat started chewing on her leaves. Then I moved her outside to the only empty pot I had, a huge terracotta planter that had once housed the Clematis I got to plant at the base of my mailbox. The planter dwarfed her. I thought about transferring her to something smaller, but I kept forgetting to buy something smaller, and then winter came so I just left her where she was and hoped for the best. And that is what I got. My little rose flourished year after year, eventually filling up the empty space in that clay pot like she had been growing there all along.
My friend Glenda knows roses. She does not have a grocery store rose in an old clay pot. She has a rose garden. She grows the kind of roses people purchase by the dozen at fancy florists, but in artists’ colors–lemony yellow and pale cream and deep salmon. They boast robust buds and lush green stems. Their leaves are free of blemishes, and I’ve never seen little crowds of aphids feasting on them. Glenda and I have never discussed rose gardening–my knowledge of her skill is based solely on years of observation–but I feel certain if I ever asked her about proper soil management, pruning, pest control, she would have an answer. She knows roses.
Glenda and I have been friends since the spring of 1994. Our connection started with a shared love of London in London, which is a loaded statement only she can fully understand, and grew over time into one of the deepest, most enduring relationships of my life. There are people you just know, who also just know you–people who unexpectedly graft to your very soul and grow along with you into something you never even imagined. Glenda is one of those people. I would try to explain it, but I would fall short. If you have one of those people in your life, you know exactly what I mean, and so you understand that I am talking about a friendship that defies description. You understand how conversations easily take place with no words exchanged, just raised eyebrows and facial expressions. You understand that some things are simply known without reason or explanation. You understand that between us is an entire verbal code filled with references and abbreviations no other human could ever fully learn. Sure, I could describe that Italian cafe near the New London Theatre, or tell you about walking through the artists’ terrace at Place du Tertre, Montmartre; I could recount a Swansea sunrise or mountain walks or long living room floor conversations littered with wine and popcorn and Snickers bars–but to you it would just sound like setting. Exposition. Place and time. Conditions, climate, mere composition. You might see the table where we sat, note the painting that gorgeous French artist was working on, remark about the weather, but what transpired there in those places, the words exchanged, the spirit and emotion that rooted and bloomed–that is between my friend and me. In the words of artist and poet Brian Andreas, we are “tied together by stuff too difficult to explain to someone new.”
Shortly after I moved into my second house, my little Rosaline stopped thriving. She had more than grown into her pot throughout that spring and summer. Her golden-red tinged leaves spilled over the sides, and she filled jam jars and green glass Italian limonata bottles with beautiful tiny buds. But that fall I noticed a decline in blooming, and then some dark brown leaves, and then no leaves at all on the spiny brown-green stalks. The ends grew brittle and broke off in my hand, and I almost cried. I know what you are probably thinking: duh, roses are dormant in the colder months. But this was more than dormant; this was death. I did all the things I had always done when she looked frail: aerated the soil and added some new dirt with built-in fertilizer and trimmed the fragile dead stems away to make way for healthy ones. Nothing changed. Not that long mild fall, nor my careful tending, revived my little rose bush, and so assuming it was over for us, I put the pot in a corner of my back deck and left it there to weather the approaching winter months until I could find a replacement for its much loved tenant.
Except Rosaline was not really dead. All signs pointed to death, but the roots I had so carefully tended years before were alive and well down deep in that pot, hibernating if you will, and cutting away the struggling stems was the only way to breathe life into them. Rose husbandry calls these canes, and there are four kinds of them: the regular, healthy canes that produce buds; redundant canes; cross-over canes; and weak canes. Canes grow from the root center, or the crown, which is the life center of the rose. There is also a special kind of cane called a “sucker,” and it does what you’d expect–it starts at the crown and sucks the life out of the roots and healthy canes, and it must be removed at detection. These enemy canes are detrimental to the life of the plant, depriving it of essential nutrients, and if they are left to their own devices, they will leave the rose’s anchor roots with no choice but to shut down until further notice. That’s where my little rose found herself that fall–dearly, deeply loved, but taken for granted and benignly neglected. The only way she could save herself was to take everything I had to offer her and disappear for a while.
People are a lot like this. Relationships are also a lot like this. Both need to be cared for, tended, fed and watered appropriately. When the “bad canes” creep into our sacred space and deplete us, and when the suckers go for our roots and take what’s left of us after the flowering ceases and the color starts to fade, we shut down like my little rose bush did. We appear dead and vacant. We are, for all intents and purposes, gone away for those who once relied on us to bloom. Any connections between us and others appear to die as well when we retreat underground, and one of two things eventually happens to those connections: they leave us for dead and sever from us completely, or they keep checking in, murmuring their prayers and hopes on our behalf, tending to us the best way they know how, and hope we will come back to them. Having once found myself mostly dead and dried up and clinging for life below the surface, I know firsthand that some relationships cannot withstand this period of desiccation. It is so easy to see the ghost of someone where a blossoming friend used to stand and, assuming there is nothing left there for you, walk away and leave her for dead, much like I did Rosaline all those years ago. But like Rosaline, I found my way back to life. Someone cut away the bad canes and gave me some proper nourishment, and over time I was not only restored to my former self, but I became stronger than I had been before, my roots grew deeper in all the right places, my colors were brighter than they had ever been. Maybe it was her experience with roses, or maybe it was because that long ago graft still held strong–but even when I was no good to her at all for a very long time, void of the life and color and light she had once celebrated, Glenda did not write me off or assume I was gone to her forever. She waited for me to grow back.
A few months ago as summer began to wane and the Liriope’s purple stalks announced that it was time for school to start again, I noticed Rosaline was looking a little off–brown-tipped leaves and brittle, bloomless canes dominated her planter. There was a weed flourishing next to her, and a piece of sidewalk chalk was jammed into her soil, compliments of my 2 year-old. I grabbed my clippers and cut away all but her strong center, still holding even as she appeared to fall apart on the surface. I removed what didn’t belong and worked some new soil into the old, and then I fed and watered her, moved her planter to a corner of the patio, and told her to take her time. “What did you do to the rose?” my daughter asked, her voice full of shock when she saw nothing but the crown peeking up out of the soil. “You killed it!” I knew the feeling. I’d had this same thought years before, that first time Rosaline had gone beneath the surface to regenerate. But I knew better this time. I knew she wasn’t dead, because she had taught me to be patient, to give her a little space, to wait quietly for her to return.
“No,” I assured her. “She’s fine. Just wait and see.” And then one morning a few weeks later my daughter ran inside to tell me the rose had not only grown back but was also blooming again. “I know,” I said. I know. I know because I have seen her grow back. I know because I have grown back, and I know because when roots are deep and strong, they are capable of holding it together even when the surface looks shriveled and neglected. My 20+ year friendship with Glenda has been the source of many gifts, but this is one of the greatest–this understanding of history and connection and commitment. This reminder that when the most difficult seasons of life make nurturing growth in a friendship next to impossible, it’s not a death sentence for that relationship, just a period of silence and recovery for one or both parties. A long, dormant winter that sometimes goes on for years, as it did for Glenda and me when I was underneath, below the surface, fighting to keep my center and my soul intact.
A few years ago I found myself compromised again–because there is no immunity in surviving, only understanding and insight for the next battle–drained and struggling to thrive as life’s redundant and weak and cross-over canes threatened me and the suckers attacked my roots, my center. My people rallied around me, and I survived–continue to survive–that particular threat with my whole self intact. Glenda remains one of those people, and I am continually reminded of her faith in me when things looked bleak before, back when I had to disappear to stay alive. She could have written me off then, but she didn’t. She knew who I was deep down in my core, because that is where we are forever tied together, grafted at the root like roses.