Keeper of the Roses

My last name means “Keeper of the Roses,” and I like to think I have fully lived into the name. I don’t just mean that my Instagram is full of flower-crown selfies, that my senior photography project was inspired by flowers, and that my closet holds more floral-patterned clothing than any one person should probably own. To me, the name means something much more.

I come from a family of gardeners on both sides. I grew up following my father’s father around his backyard with a watering can, and helping my mother dig holes in damp soil, where she’d sprinkle marigold seeds and I’d come back every day to see how they’d grown. But my inherited love of plants did not really come alive until I was twenty-one.

I was taking a semester off of college after a terrible breakup, spending time with family, allowing myself to heal. Knowing that I needed a hobby to occupy all of my newfound free time, I set my heart on starting a garden. During a time when it was everything I could do just to get out of bed each morning, there seemed to be a beautiful symmetry between caring for plants and caring for myself – as I watered my mother’s flowers in the yard, I’d ask myself, “Have I showered today? Have I eaten?” Moving a potted plant into a sunlit window, I’d remember that I, too, needed to get out of my dark bedroom-cave and spend some time in the sun. I’d carefully pick each dried leaf off of a lavender stalk so that a new one could grow in its place. I’d imagine that I was doing the same to myself.

My first plant was a gift from my grandmother, after I explained to her that I wanted a garden of my own. As I asked her advice on a starter plant, she pursed her lips together in thought and then said, “Aloe. It soothes the skin from burns. Doesn’t that sound like what you need?” I laughed and asked her if there was a plant that could soothe the soul from burns. “All of them,” she answered.

I soon discovered that she was right. After Al the Aloe, my small collection of plants began to grow. I wasn’t making it easy on myself, however – I developed a habit of taking home the sickliest plants on the shelf. I pitied them, but mostly, I identified with them. Here I was in the lowest point of my life, determined to turn it around, and it seemed that there was no one better suited to take on a project than me. Nevermind that I still knew almost nothing about taking care of plants, and even the healthy ones were a challenge. I refused to give up on what seemed like an impossibly doomed plant, because I refused to give up on myself.

In a particularly dramatic episode, my mother the nurse helped me give emergency CPR to Spike, a tiny, brown cactus whom I had picked from the clearance shelf at Home Depot, noticing the miniscule section of green that remained at the top of the plant otherwise plagued with disease. Ignoring all odds, I held onto the idea that there was still a chance to save him. An inch of green among six inches of brown looked like a tiny speck of hope. We researched what to do, and I had a very difficult time accepting it. The only thing we could do was to decapitate him: if we wanted to save the head, we had to separate it from the dead body, in hopes that it would re-root itself and grow back. The chances were slim, but it was our only option. I sliced off the tiny green tip, placed Spike’s head on a small bed of soil, and waited for weeks, following the directions of the wise Wikipedia. Each day, my mother would ask with the utmost sensitivity, “How is Spike doing today?” In complete denial, day after day, I’d explain that even though no roots had formed yet, I was sure that they would. But after six rootless weeks, the tiny fraction of cactus was desiccating. My mother sat me down and said, “Bethany, sometimes you just have to give up on what has died so that you can move forward. There are some things that we just have to let go.” I wondered if Spike was a metaphor for something deeper – I needed to move on from a dead cactus and I needed to move on from a dead relationship, and I wasn’t really allowing myself to mourn either one. That day I threw Spike into the garbage, and although the tiny piece of dead cactus was the size of my thumb, it felt like I had rid myself of a much larger weight.

As the end of the semester approached, I noticed that some of my plants were beginning to wilt, despite the consistent care I was giving. New leaves were growing, but they were smaller and more yellow than they should have been. “Maybe they are root-bound,” my mother suggested. “This is when the roots have grown so big that they’ve filled the entire pot, and the plant has begun to sort of suffocate. It needs more room to grow.” I was startled to think that they could have grown so much – wouldn’t I have noticed? I looked back at old Instagram posts featuring pictures of my plants when I’d first taken them home, and sure enough, I was astounded at how much they had grown.

I wondered if the same could be said of myself. I’d spent every day taking baby steps at healing, and the steps were so small that I hadn’t really noticed how much they had added up. I had come further than I was giving myself credit for. Though I dreaded leaving the comfort of home and returning to Chicago, I had become root-bound, and it was time for me to transplant myself to the city, to school, to a much bigger pot – away from my family and friends and my tiny bedroom. I needed fresh soil. There would be new challenges, yes, but there would be more room to grow. As we drove with the car packed full of my things, I sat with a crate filled with all of my plants on my lap – my little potted garden was still small, but it had been nothing four months ago, when I had felt like nothing. There was a time when I couldn’t see the seed beneath the soil. But every flower must grow through dirt.

Recently, I bought my first actual rose plant. It seemed to carry a large amount of pressure, given my last name: there was something to prove, here. Roses have a reputation for being difficult to grow, requiring a lot of maintenance and grooming, and I found this reputation to be true. During the trial and error period of moving the pot from window to window, watering every day or every other, attempting to figure out just what on earth this rose wanted or needed, I couldn’t get the song “Every Rose Has its Thorn” out of my head. I'd sing to the plant, much like you might sing to a fussy baby to cheer him up. It was quite a comical episode, and unlike Spike, this didn’t result in tears, but in laughter. I loved the poetry of it: roses are so beautiful and soft, but their thorns show a tougher side – that they are not to be messed with. And yet, they need such delicate care.

The rose reminded me of a person I knew, to whom I was desperately trying to be a friend, but he kept me at arm’s length with his own thorns. I wondered if maybe, instead of greeting his stubbornness with anger or frustration, he just needed more delicate care, too. It was a wilting rose plant, and a thumb bleeding from a thorn injury, that convicted me to be kinder that day. It occurred to me then that plant care isn’t just a beautiful parallel to self-care, but to caring for others as well. The truth is, more important to me than my identity as a greenthumb, or a gardener, or someone who just really loves flowers, is my identity as an empathetic and loving person. I would like to be known for taking just as much gentle, patient, persistent care with each person I meet as I do with each plant that I tend, and more.

In truth, my rose plant died. But I am not dismayed - I am a Keeper of the Roses. And you, my friend, are a rose.