M.M. Carrigan reflects on the aftermath of losing loved ones and the unexpected task of caring for succulents.
When my friend’s father died, I welcomed Amanda to the dead-parents club. On the outside, it’s a strange and foreign club, too difficult to imagine. It’s a club that exists like an impossible rumor, like the rumor that Mario could make it over the flagpole in the video game, reaching the secret, minus-one level — or the rumor of the kids on the playground who said they could make the swing go all the way around the swing set.
Once you get into this rumored club, this secret level, you see everything, although there’s nothing weird here. There are no upside-down Goombas or spinning swings. There’s only ocean, vast ocean, pain, and — as Amanda found — succulents. Lots of succulents.
Her father had kept dozens of the plants, which he dutifully and gently tended at some point. Perhaps he had not been feeling well for longer than he let on over the telephone. Now they sat brittle and clenched shut in their pots, in stages of shrivel and thirst, in shades of aching pink and gray, in loneliness. Unsure of what to do with them, Amanda collected the terra-cotta orphans in a box and brought them to the Shiva gathering.
We were old roommates and friends. We have stories. Those college parties were something. One of the last times we had seen each other was at my mother’s funeral. And now, here I was for her father. This was also something.
Some people bring food to cope, a plate of pastries, or a platter of cheese. Others bring babies to wield on their hips as a forcefield against the enormity of death. A smiling baby breaks life into manageable pieces, as does eating sugar and cheese in large quantity.
People took turns dipping into the enormity, pouring over her father’s beautiful nature photographs and listening to the stories. Then, like dipping into the ocean on a warm summer day, they returned to the shore to dry off. We came to these gatherings to have something: a piece of the burden, a coffee, a tea, a memory, a hug, a tear. Here, have a plant.
“I don’t know what else to do with them,” she said to me.
I looked at the withered succulents, wondering if they were too much responsibility. I would fail as I have failed so many houseplants and Sea-Monkeys in my life. I would somehow fail her and her father. These things are like Instant Pots and tropical fish. There are beginner books and guides written about them. There are handbooks and websites. Sure, I manage to keep my kids alive, but kids are easy. Kids need Fruity Pebbles and Capri Suns. Plants are not as hearty as children. They need pruning and clipping and the advice of neighbors with immaculate tomato gardens.
I scanned them over. There was a big one, the good one, the least-dead one sitting there like the pink doughnut with sprinkles that everyone covets. Instead, I took the ugliest one, the runt. If and when I killed it, I would feel neutral. At least I tried — A for effort.
I told her I would send pictures, like a Sally Struthers’ “Save the Children” campaign. I would send updates about how the plant was getting food and water for just 13 cents a day, along with new Bibles and vaccines and sunlight. Most importantly, it would be one less thing she would need to deal with in the coming days. When you lose a parent, every minuscule thing is an elephant.
At home, I took it unceremoniously to the bathroom sink, where I turned on the faucet and gave it a drink. Then I sat it by the window. That was the extent of my houseplant knowledge.
Sea-Monkeys require you to receive “Sea-Medic Sea-Monkey Medicine” and “Cupid’s Arrow Mating Powder” by mail when they start dying. Instant Pots require you to join a Facebook group where strangers bombard you with braised cabbage, eating-clean recipes. But as it turned out, the succulent only required water and a windowsill. The next morning, it perked. It breathed. It gulped. It grew.
It opened up and greeted the sun. After a few more days, it opened in perpetuity; inside each bloom, there was a smaller bloom of the padded, fleshy mounds. The ugly, runty one was, in fact, beautiful. I was in love.
Hell, maybe one day I’ll get a book and become an expert in sustaining succulents. I’ll have a designer garden. I’ll eat braised cabbage and be healthy. I’ll raise several generations of brine shrimp. I’ll figure out how to jump back over the flagpole, back to the college parties without dead parents and all this having.
Or maybe I’ll keep it simple. Life is easier in manageable pieces, just sunlight and water, sunlight and water. Have sunlight and water.