Two months after my wife left me, I found the baby palm tree.
Biking home from the açai bowl restaurant where I work during the day, I had been mentally bracing myself for the too-familiar emptiness of the apartment when I saw the little guy. Its stubby leaves poked defiantly out of a crack in the curb; I pulled over to inspect.
One of the tall palms that lined my Hollywood neighborhood had likely dropped it as a seed, and by chance, it had sprouted, half-buried in plastic wrappers and broken glass. I felt a surge of pity. Here was a survivor, destined to be choked out once it grew bigger. I felt a camaraderie with the tiny tree. I, too, was in survival mode, in a strange, unexpected place. Going inside the dusty, mausoleum-like apartment, I found a Mason jar and filled it with water, then hurried back to the curb and tugged the little seedling from its crevice. Its roots clung to the concrete, and for a moment I was worried its stem would snap. Suddenly, it came loose. I suspended it with a string, roots submerged, in the jar.
As the dirt on the seedling’s roots dissolved in little puffs sinking to the bottom of the jar, I felt the weight of my own grief.
Talking to friends who have been divorced, I hear of a “hundred-mile gaze” that haunts those who have suffered separation — like soldiers returning from war, unable to fully process the trauma — our own guilt unreconciled with the ache of abandonment and missed opportunity.
At first, separation had felt like a shipwreck, or perhaps a forced marooning. I was on solid ground, the physical pieces of my life still around me. I had my bed, my clothes, my apartment, but the identity of my whole life — being a married man — was floating further and further away, and no amount of shouting from the shore could bring it closer.
At the beginning of the separation, being alone with the detritus of the nest we had built together overwhelmed me. I was crazed. Pacing the apartment, I raged, finding it hard to take responsibility for my part in the split, the thousand moments of anger, selfishness, and distant half-love that had led to our wreck.
Looking at her old belongings embittered me. Each piece of carefully arranged furniture felt like mockery. I hated the couch with its throw pillows and folded fuzzy blankets. Each carefully curated piece of art on the walls felt out of place, a façade of something good.
In those first few months apart, I swung between rage and sorrow, blaming her for moving out and begging her to come home. My co-workers noticed changes in my mood. My friends grew tired of my snarling. My wife came back twice, once for her clothes, and once for a few pieces of furniture, and then I was alone on my desert island.
Before the little palm arrived, I moved furniture around. If this was my space, I would make it look my way, I angrily reasoned. I shoved my chair closer to the TV, moved my razor and toothbrush to the prime shelf in the medicine cabinet, and left my shoes strewn across the living room. I was playing out a childish pantomime of freedom. If I couldn’t control the important stuff, by golly, I would at least be the king of my own confounded castle.
In its jar, the little palm tree grew new leaves and put out fresh roots. I watched. Something about its presence was grounding. From its new home on my window ledge, the little plant stood out like a beacon of order over my sulking-grounds, chiding me with its cheerful resilience.
It hit me that this was the first thing that I had actually brought into my now-isolated life, like the first piece of a puzzle with no picture to work from. It stirred something primal inside me, a need to cultivate something living in a time of destruction. I’ve always believed that nature is evidence of some higher purpose.
Perhaps it’s because I’m the son of a Presbyterian minister. Getting married, for me, felt like falling into a part of that powerful rhythm of life: two becoming one, and perhaps, in doing so, getting a glimpse of something eternal within that bond. Divorce, of course, shakes my concept down to the bone. “I do” becomes “What did I do?” “What DID I do?”
What I did was garden, determined to occupy my time and terraform the hostile environment of bad memory. Salvaging glass Coke bottles and pickle jars, I went out in search of new specimens.
A week later, I had six more plants: a thriving succulent, another tiny palm (perhaps a sibling or cousin of the first), leafy basil and lavender plants from the Home Depot garden section, a tiny four-leaf clover — roots and all — spotted offhandedly while on a walk, and a fragrant parsley seedling from the savings rack at a grocery store. Like made-up friends, my little mismatched garden cheered something in me. In its contained way, something in the act of preserving the greenery sustained me as the waves of life crashed outside. Papers were filed, “irreconcilable differences” drawn up by lawyers I never saw. Money was pushed into separate accounts. Family members moved in and out of the unfolding drama. If this had been a fairy tale, all might have ended happily ever after between my wife and me, but alas, this was real life. I stayed in the apartment, partly in the distant hope that we might reconcile, partly disoriented.
Finding a roommate off Craigslist, I renested in the living room behind a curtained partition. Sleepless night after sleepless night, I watched the little window garden, silhouetted in moonlight, and wrestled with my new bachelor identity. I was living in a new world, missing an old one, like a prisoner in Botany Bay, unwilling to accept that my relationship was over. The intangible, haunting connection between my wife and me was vanishing, and no power of mine could will it into existence, no matter how much I wailed.
There is a heaviness that comes from understanding our brief time on earth, a heaviness that, I imagine, can kill if it is laced too heavily with regret and doubt. Something about the way plants grow mirrors this. When I forgot to water them, they drooped and leaves died, much like my marriage. My heart aches when I think of my failings as a husband, my inattention — staring at a TV screen when I should have been engaged — forgetting to water with love and connection, withdrawing to fantasies instead of planting seeds. But underneath my broken heart, something sustains me, life goes on — it has to. My neglected plants sprout new foliage. Months apart knit old wounds in my heart.
Learning from the plants, I try to put down new roots.
I begin to seek out new relationships. I join a community wood shop and immerse myself in the therapy of sawdust and sculpting boards. I began to make time with co-workers for beers and board game nights, laughing and arguing over rules as we play Dungeons & Dragons. I volunteer as a greeter at church and start attending a community group where I meet many young folks who are going through similar straits. We share our broken hopes and fears and text each other for advice and support. I laugh with customers at the açai bowl restaurant, and on my commute home, I fight the urge to bike past her new house. Hurt and fear still linger but begin to be crowded out as the business of life blooms.
As I move in and out of my apartment, I intentionally introduced myself to my neighbors, striking up friendships. An ex-hippie on my block who grew beans, tomatoes, and Brussels sprouts in a sprawling complex in his front yard invites me over to garden. We talk about farming and science, debating religion and the best techniques for supporting and growing tomatoes. He gives me Chinese long bean seeds, which I plant in jars, ecstatic when they sprout and peep over the edge of their tiny glass plots. My roommate and I become friends; he occasionally asks me how things are going with my wife, and slowly, my answers shorten. She doesn’t want me, and that’s okay. I am learning that other people can’t be controlled, but emotions can. Winter becomes spring on my less-deserted island. My life begins to feel fuller, more vibrant, and time, as promised, begins to heal.
I’m still convinced that marriage is a good thing, and I’ve never believed it more than now; in the final days of the impending divorce, I still wear my wedding ring, like a prayer. Even wilted greenery can revive with watering.
Sometimes, however, I find that grief still sneaks up and floors me at unexpected moments. I catch myself in a half-sob alone in the locker room of a gym, worn out after a long week, or drifting into weary daydreams at work, thinking of her. But there is no escape from the past, my flaws, our shipwreck. In my isolation, I am learning to think of her as a friend. A friend who may never forgive me, but a friend who also needs to heal.
The palm tree fills its jar, its roots pressing the glass. I have a yard sale. My neighbors say they are sad that I am moving, and when they ask why, I never know exactly what to say. I tell a man from El Salvador that I am going through a divorce. He squeezes my shoulder and tells me he has been through two already, his eyes welling. I don’t know how to respond. Joy and pain; is it all a meaningless thing? What do the plants think? The same night, as I look online for a new apartment, a new island to live on, I notice the row of jars, filled with plant life.
Something about the line of tiny leaves, patiently waiting for the sun to rise, gives me hope.