More or Less

In honor of Little A's first birthday, I am digging back in the archives and sharing a piece I wrote before she was born. I wrote it in 2010. It's a little different from what I usually post and a unique window into my life before I became a mother--before I even knew if I intended to become a mother. Most importantly, it intensifies my appreciation for the direction my life has taken and the love I have for this wonderful and amazing little person.
It also serves as a eulogy to all of the houseplants that have died under my care over the years.
And before we begin, I would like to issue a formal apology to my childhood friend, Christine. The confession about your hermit crab may not come as a shock to you, but it is long overdue. I hope you can forgive me.
More or Less

It’s happening again.  My dracaena, the hardiest plant to survive my care, is committing slow suicide in the corner of my living room.  
I spied the telltale signs this morning as I brewed my tea: the once-emerald leaves singed with lifeless brown, drooping from the stalk like rotten banana petals.  A small bottom leaf lost its battle with gravity and drifted to the floor right before my widened eyes, a Kevorkian-esque ballet with more pathos than The Black Swan.  
How could this be?  It looked perfect yesterday!  
Didn’t it?
Well, I’m not one hundred percent sure, since I can’t precisely recall the last time I paid close attention to it, but I felt that we had a closer relationship than this.  To be completely honest, however, our home often functions as an end of life care facility for dead and dying plants.  Watching four basil plants wither into oblivion on our patio table one summer was like keeping vigil over a constant herbal wake.  I killed a cactus.  I lost a battle with a flowering ground plant that could purportedly thrive anywhere under any conditions.  
I had chosen this dracaena after our bamboo palm begin drifting toward the light, shedding corn husk yellow remnants of itself with such melodramatic regularity it seemed it was making a statement.  When I saw the potted dracaenas in Home Depot weeks later, their vivid plumes of thick leaves and scaly stalks reminded me of the trees in a favorite childhood book—Where the Wild Things Are—and I had to have one.  I shoved our indoor bamboo palm into a painfully sunny corner of our upstairs balcony to hasten its exit and gave the dracaena its former place of honor.  
“You know, you can’t do that with children,” my co-worker told me later over lunch in a voice that suggested she sincerely believed this was news to me.  “That’s why Not Everyone should have children.”  I was clearly starring in the role of Not Everyone.
I spring into action.  Mason jar of tap water in hand, I head to the plant and conduct a cursory forensics examination.  The soil looks dry, but the directions I left hanging from a bottom frond say to water the dracaena rarely.  The pot does look a bit undersized for the plant, but my attempt to transplant it would surely be a final death blow.  Bugs, no.  Fertilizer, yes.  I pour the water in circles around the inside perimeter of the pot.  I grab a mister from the kitchen counter and mist the dusty leaves for good measure.  Water dribbles down a drooping leaf like spittle on an invalid’s chin.
Thus begins phase one of Plant Grief.  Similar to the stages of the human grieving process, I have identified three stages through which I pass as a plant dies under my watch:  
Phase one: I become a frantic plant triage attendant.  I water it until there are standing puddles on the top of the pot.  I whisk it across the living room floor and shove it in a sunny window.  I dust it.  
Phase two: I wheedle, plead, beg, and bargain with the plant.  I assume that at the very least, the carbon dioxide I am emitting is good for it.  
Phase three: When the plant fails to respond to phases one and two, I spitefully turn my back on it.  I refuse it water, sunlight, and whispered encouragement.  I wait for it to die.  Or shove it on the upstairs balcony like the bamboo palm.  Both paths end in the parking lot dumpster.  Hell hath no fury like an armchair horticulturalist scorned.
I don't have a photograph of the dracaena--it's long-since died--but this current withering plant on our balcony will do just fine.

I burst into our dark bedroom and hiss in my slumbering husband’s ear, “The dracaena is dying!”  
“Mumph,” he mumbles from beneath a pillow.  How someone sleeps with a pillow smashed onto his face is beyond me.  How suffocating.
“We did everything the directions said to do.  Everything.”
Out of respect for the fact that he is sleeping because it is 5:50 in the morning and he does not need to wake up for another hour and a half, I whisper.  But it’s one of those stage whispers that you can hear from the other side of the house.  It begs for attention.
“Mumph,” the Zen Master repeats.  
“If we take it out to the dumpster, maybe one of the neighbors will rescue it.” I think of Nancy two units over with her hanging creepers swaying from a rafter, and her window boxes of immaculate geraniums.  Geraniums.  Humph.  I’m sure I could grow equally hardy blooms if I wanted to devote my time to such a common plant.  “We’ll have to take it to the inconvenient dumpster, though,” I think aloud.  “I left two diseased potted annuals by the front dumpster last week.  I’m worried about what the neighbors will think.  Although, if we take it out in the middle of the night—”
“We can just take it back and get a new one,” my husband says, pillow still over his face.
“This isn’t about getting a new one.  This is about making sure this one lives.  We took this plant from its happy home at Home Depot and brought it to Auschwitz for succulents.  We are its parents.  Surely we can do this?”  The stage whisper is gone.  We will figure this out.  Right here.  Right now.  I care about this little tree/shrub/cactus/whatever it is, and I will do right by it.  Even if that means shoving it in the neighborhood foster system.  My co-worker had no idea what she was talking about.  
A huge sigh escapes from beneath the pillow.  I do feel bad.  It was only a few days ago that I found a cockroach on our downstairs bathroom floor at 6:00 in the morning.  We keep a fairly clean house and had never seen a cockroach indoors before—nor have we since.  I don’t know what this one thought he was doing.  I screamed, charged upstairs, and demanded it be removed immediately.  Not killed, because I am considerate.  So Z rolled out of bed and shuffled downstairs, chasing the offending pest with a water glass and a paper plate, walking outside in his pajama pants in the dark to deposit it in a bush at my behest.  “Not a great way to wake up,” he muttered as he swept past me and went back to bed.  
What I am thinking is, I suppose it isn’t necessary for us to figure this out right now.  You need to sleep.  What comes out of my mouth is, “Although, the dracaena really does spruce up the living room, and it brings out the green in those Frida Khalo paintings.  I really don’t want to see it go, but I suppose we would need to replace it with something…”  
He pulls the pillow down and looks at me.  “There’s a year warranty on the plant.  The receipt is taped to the bottom of the pot.”  
“Sort of shows a lack of faith, doesn’t it?”  
His look says the conversation is over.  The pillow goes back.  I go downstairs.
You never really stood a chance, I think, as I drag the dracaena to the nearest window and mash its leaves against what will later be sunny glass.  I mean, how can anything thrive when so little faith is attached to its efforts to live?  Taping a Home Depot warranty to the bottom of the pot was like taking out a life insurance policy on a sick patient.  We were betting against it.  You knew your days were numbered, fella.    
I sneak a peek to make sure the receipt is still there and a year hasn’t gone by.  Good.

After researching dracaenas on the Internet, I discover the plant is poisonous to our dog.  
My co-worker’s words echo in my head.  Will I ever be responsible and selfless enough to raise a child?  Like plants, there are millions of websites designed to help people raise healthy children, but children don’t come with one year warranties.  
As I eat a bowl of cereal, I recall my friend Christine’s hermit crab.  The summer between fifth and sixth grades, I was asked to care for the pet crab while Christine vacationed in Europe with her parents, both professors.  I couldn’t appreciate the cultural depth of such a trip at the time, as my family’s biggest cultural tour de force was pointing out the old Greek man who wore speedos to the public pool.  
At first a novelty, the crab probably suffered too much attention upon arrival.  We let it crawl around on our arms, on the floor.  We made it houses with sticks and moss in the back yard.  A hermit crab compound.  He spent the rest of his time in a plastic terrarium on my dad’s work bench in the basement.  My mom did not find him endearing.
cute hermit crab.png
This image was originally found at

That summer was especially busy.  My family was moving to a new house.  We were packing every day.  When my mom asked me if I had packed up Christine’s hermit crab, I recall thinking I couldn’t precisely recall the last time I had seen the hermit crab.  I went downstairs and found his limp corpse spilling out of his shell in the terrarium.  His food and water dishes were completely empty.  
Christine was supposed to meet me at my new house that afternoon to pick him up.  Too embarrassed to admit what I had done, I threw the terrarium in the back of the moving truck without a word.  Extended family occupied all of the corners of our new house when we arrived.  Aunts and uncles helped unload the truck, move boxes upstairs, and arrange furniture.  My Aunt Lynne got to the terrarium before I did.  Her eyes narrowed as she peered at the very obviously lifeless crustacean within.  Shaking her head, she set the plastic container on the kitchen counter.  
When no one was looking, I filled the hermit crab’s food and water dishes to overflowing.  
Christine showed up a few hours later with her dad and a thank you gift: a beautiful Italian fountain pen and a picture post card from the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, an ossuary filled with the skulls and bones of thousands of dead monks.  It was eerily appropriate.  
“He just didn’t survive the move,” I told her, shaking my head and looking at her dead pet in its plexiglass coffin.  “He had everything he needed.  I don’t know what else I could have done for him.”  Anyone with half a brain could tell this crab had been dead for considerably more than twelve hours.  Christine graciously exited with her dead crab and her questions.  
“I don’t remember there being food and water in there before,” my Aunt Lynne said after the door shut, looking me dead in the eye.  

Oh. Dear.  Am I utterly incapable of nurturing things?  Am I parentally inept?  Dependably poisonous?  Has the state of California made a horrific mistake in entrusting me with the safety and education of hundreds of teenagers every year?  
I sit back on my sofa and consider this.  I mean really consider it.  My dog jumps up next to me and stares me in the eyes.  At first I feel we are sharing a profound moment of connection--one of those Animal Planet type scenarios where the dog has a sixth sense about something significant. She is trying to tell me she loves me, she believes in me, I think.  I reach down and scratch her head right behind each ear, her favorite spot.  I see myself reflected in those big, brown, dewy eyes of hers—and realize I forgot to feed her.  

As I head into the kitchen with her food bowl, Scout trots along behind me.  I add a treat to her pile of kibble and set the bowl on the floor.  She snatches it eagerly and runs into the living room to chew it on the carpet.  I am so easily forgiven.  Despite sharing the living room with a plant that could apparently kill her, Scout is six years old, well-nourished, and happy.  We weren’t sure if we could handle the responsibility of a dog when we got her, but now life without her is unimaginable.
I think of the things in my life I have sustained.  Z sleeps peacefully upstairs.  For fifteen years we have kept each other happy and healthy and warm.  I try to remember the last time we had a significant argument—something that made us stop speaking to each other for a while.  A few weeks back we argued about the fact that he likes to keep his credit card and driver’s license floating loose in his back pocket when we go out, and I can’t stand that.  We got annoyed with each other. We stopped talking for a few minutes…and then it was over.  It was nothing.  In fifteen years, no warranties have expired; neither of us has ever tried to make an exchange for another model.  We have cared for each other through good times and bad.  We have never given up.  
Maybe, I consider as I sip my tea, there is a mother in me somewhere.  Maybe one day I will find out.  
After all, so long as I am able to be selfless and dependable where it counts, what’s one plant or hermit crab more or less?

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