There is more drama in plant life than meets the eye. For as long as I can remember, the end of May means that many inside plants can be moved to shaded areas of the garden and patio, where they can blend with the outdoor flora. As the Huron saying goes, “No branch is foolish enough to fight with the other branches.” And so, mostly, there was peace in our garden. This hadn’t always been the case. Often there were pushy plants that would choose to grow without regard for their neighbours. My wife was always the supreme arbiter in those cases.
The main character in this story is a tree part from a ficus benjamina, a.k.a. weeping fig, benjamina fig, or simply ficus. The tree trunk itself was in the shape of a wide “Y”; it had grown to a robust six feet and was just as wide. It was the alpha plant of our home and garden and it knew it, though its summer perch was, humbly, at the base of a huge oak tree.
Because of its size, it could only be wintered in my painting studio, a 14 by 18-foot room with a cathedral ceiling. Each year, as it grew, it became a greater struggle to transport into the studio. Once inside, the tree and I needed to make an uneasy pact as to how we would share the room. I thought it took up too much space and hindered the light. Its concern was that I was much too enthusiastic of a painter and, because of that, some of its leaves occasionally became smeared with paint.
Every year, we would talk about doing something about the tree. We tried to give it to our children, but it was too big for some, and others were plant killers. We thought we could donate it to the library or the hospital, but unfortunately, it would not fit in our car. In my weaker moments, I’d think, “It’s just so damn onerous – let’s see if it can survive a Canadian winter.”
One October morning, my wife, Maria, finally decided that it was time for major plant surgery; she would divide the tree into a Solomonesque two parts. I’m a bit hard of hearing, so I asked her to repeat what she had just said.
You would think I would have been overjoyed to reclaim my work space. Yet, I found myself defending this tree. Despite our differences, I truly loved the tree and believed that surgery would surely kill it. She assured me that it wouldn’t and, in the end, I gave in easily enough. Seeing as my wife was recovering from her second cancer surgery at the time, I found it difficult to refuse her request. So, we set out to do the deed. Well, I did most of it, but under my wife’s close supervision. It was an awful mess. By the end, we delivered what looked like twin trees and one clump. My wife could have taught Solomon a thing or two about making judicious decisions.
The ficus clump was a growth of about 8 by 6 by 4 inches that I was more than glad to put in a recycling bag. I really did want to get this lump of dark greys and browns out of our sight as soon as I could. It was repulsive to me – a runaway growth on the trunk. Every year, I had to saw it off, and every year it grew back. Now, I could get rid of it for good. But before I could bag it, to my surprise Maria intervened.
“Let’s plant it,” she suggested. And so we did. In two months, both trees seemed to have recovered well, and were now much more manageable. As for the clump, it remained a clump in a pot in the dining room, with a few leaves sprouting from it.
We sent photos of the trees to the library. This time, they sent someone to pick them up. That same week, Maria learned that her liver, most of which had been surgically removed, would regenerate in a few weeks’ time.
Though it seemed unlikely anything would ever come of it, by Thanksgiving the clump was covered in shiny green leaves. I thought it was neither a tree, nor a plant, nor a bush: just thick, beautiful leaves completely covering a now barely visible dark grey and brown lump.
By November, Maria’s health had worsened considerably. She went from a walker to a wheelchair. Finally, in early February, she was admitted to a palliative care residence where the personnel was very caring and kind. I stayed by her side, day and night. In late February, she passed away.
No one thought to water the plants much during those final days. When things had settled down a bit, I noticed that yellow leaves covered the floor around the clump. Thinking it dead, I removed it from its pot and bagged it. As I walked to the trash container, something moved me to give it one last chance.
I replanted and nursed it through a long recovery. It came to flourish, and now it has a special place in my new condo. It is still not a tree, nor a bush, nor really anything that can be given a neat definition.
It has been two years since Maria’s passing. The clump and I are doing well. I do not know where our essence goes when we die, but I have come to believe that life always finds a way to renew itself.