Monday, June 04, 2007

For Father's Day

Father’s Day is a few weeks away, but I won’t have to find a gift for Dad this year. He died on the first day of March, the day I returned home after seeing him for the last time. He’s gone and I am just beginning to realize what that means. My father is dead.

The funeral arrangements went quickly and smoothly without too much fuss, but no one talked about what to do with all his plants. There are so many. Flowers, bushes, and trees grew for him the way they did for no one else. He had a gift, plucking a twig or a leaf and sticking it in the earth so that it grew. They didn’t just grow for him; they flourished, spread profusely, riotously, gloriously, abundantly, happily.

Dad started an English ivy plant when I was a child, pinching a few leaves off a neighbor’s plant, tucking them in his pocket, and thumbing them into moist, rich earth when he got home. The ivy sprouted and grew in a small hanging pot, racing over the edges of the planter and down in bright green garlands like the arms of a floral octopus, entangling drapes and sheers, curling around pictures and over china cabinets and chairs, and the wagon wheel chandelier that hung from the center of the room, crisscrossing and weaving in and around the spokes and rim of the wheel until it was a living leafy Rose Parade imitation. “One of these days,” I told him twenty years later, “that plant is going to wrap around your neck and pull you right into the pot and consume you.”

He stroked the variegated green leaves with one thick, gnarled, arthritic finger and smiled the kind of smile shared between mischievous fathers and impish children ignoring, just this once, discipline and rules. “They love me.”

Every one of his plants performed for him, secure healthy children certain of his approval, outdoing themselves to please him. In every corner of the house and the enclosed front porch in the winter and the palisade-fenced yard in spring, summer, and fall, a rain forest jungle of green wreathed faces followed him like bright-faced sunflowers tracking the sun, filling the air with the soft sweet kisses of perfectly blended perfumes.

Dad’s floral family of adopted and fostered plants thrived, like the avocado seed stuck with toothpicks I nurtured in a juice glass on a narrow kitchen windowsill nearly thirty years ago that now bends beneath the ten-foot ceiling like a polite giant among pygmies. Elephant ears are not nearly as wide or large as the leaves on the floral namesake standing amid the wild profusion of domesticated nature under Dad’s tender care. Delicate irises, snobbish aristocratic roses, fragile orchids, clowning day lilies, pregnant raucous peonies, humble violets, promiscuous lilacs, and seductive exotics sheltered beneath hoary black walnut, youthful peach, wide-eyed cherry, and sour-faced crabapple trees bordered by fat royal purple grape-festooned arbors and inquisitive flowered weeds. All received the same attentive care and all bloom despite their superficial differences, temperament, and abilities.

Only two plants defied Dad watchful, loving care: African violets and a five-year-old bonsai rose tree we gave him one year for Father’s Day. He embraced their uniqueness or kept close track of them among his far-flung adopted, fostered, and biological children, and yet they faded and died as though unable to live up to their idea of his expectations.

Gem-bright African violet blooms brightened and stretched when he smiled. Fuzzy leaves uncurled and reached out, spreading to fill their clay homes, eventually needing bigger and bigger pots. Then suddenly they faded. Not even resuscitative grow lights in the warmth of the enclosed and protected front porch coaxed their return. Dad was heartbroken. He didn’t give up, but tried again and again, pruning, repotting, layering sand, gravel, and charcoal, giving them every advantage. For a while, they brightened and raised their drooping hearts only to wither, weaken, and disappear. Sad and disheartened, he let them go, always ready to welcome them back.

The bonsai rose was older, a preteen full brilliant possibilities, anxiously looking forward to a stable home far from its rootless wandering life in the back of a hippie-painted van. My baby sister and I rescued him and brought it home. The bonsai rose stayed with me for a couple of weeks. I fell in love with his perfect tiny white flowers and miniature glossy green leaves. I knew he belonged with Dad. Reluctantly, I took him it to Dad’s house Father’s Day Sunday, carefully packed and dressed. Dad’s smile of childlike wonder made it worthwhile giving up the bonsai rose’s company. “Reminds me so much of Japan.”

I wondered if the bonsai reminded him, too, of his first child, the child his Japanese wife and her family took when she left him. That was long before he married Mom, adopted me, and had two more daughters and a son.

Like the memory of that marriage and the joy at the birth of his first daughter, the bonsai rose faded, leaving nothing more than a tangled brown husk of twisted branches and desiccated roots. Every Father’s Day I teased him about the bonsai rose. Dad smiled and laughed, but a ghostly shadow of sadness clouded his clear blue eyes. There were limits to his gift, limits to love. Dad felt like a failure.

Dad gave us all so much: intelligence, tenacity, an adventurous spirit, and an easy, friendly smile. We don’t share the innate gift or encyclopedic knowledge necessary to care for his orphaned floral children. Though Dad’s plants weathered the moves from the city to the country to the suburbs, where the city reached out and engulfed Dad’s palisade fenced sanctuary, and, finally, back to the country again, I wonder if they are resilient enough to withstand losing him. Without his ever-present smile, his easy laughter, his gentle touch, despite gnawing arthritis, his unfailing attention, or the way he talked with friends and strangers alike, how will they survive? We can give them nourishment and water, sunshine and shelter. We can tend them and see to their physical needs, but Dad gave them more. He gave all his children—adopted, fostered, and biological—so much. He gave us a piece of his boundless generous and loving soul. Maybe that is enough and how we will all survive, maybe I do have a gift after all.

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