One of the last gifts my husband gave me before we divorced was an orchid on Mother’s Day. We never had children together, but we played the role of surrogate parents to a few young men who were adrift in the world, without families that were shaped the way one might expect, or the way our guys deserved. My husband gave me the orchid as a thank you for embracing these rough-around-the-edges boys, and as a promise of future family.
When he presented me with the orchid, it was in full, delicate flower. I don’t recall what color the diaphanous blooms were, but the firm, plump leaves were dark green and supple. The gift was characteristic of my husband — a surprising offering of beauty.
Within a few weeks the orchid blossoms had fallen away, and within a year or two, my husband and I had fallen away from each other, too, which is the gentlest possible description of our painful dissolution.
Even though what had been a stunning showpiece had become just a squat cluster of withered leaves against a dark pot, I tended to it as best I could. I made a trip to a nursery, bought new bark and a new pot, transplanted the shallowly covered roots, and watered around the base. But as my pothos and peace lily — plants that can withstand neglect and whose leaves will regain their strong stance within minutes after being watered, even if their heads have been hung low — continued to thrive, my orchid receded into itself and continued to languish.
When I moved out of the house my husband and I had shared, the orchid found a home on the kitchen windowsill in my new apartment, where it continued to receive regular attention, or at least as much attention as I could muster, when I could lift my gaze and connect with anything outside of the hemorrhaging pain of divorce. By the time my life showed glimmers of hope, the orchid was down to three dehydrated, shrunken, thinning leaves, a stump of a pale yellow tendril of stem, and brown, desiccated roots.
With a mixture of determination and regret, I drove the orchid to the nursery one afternoon to see if they could talk me through reviving the once regal plant. A woman brusquely grabbed the pot and pulled the orchid free of the bark with no effort at all. She flopped the leaves back and forth, then scalded me with her glare.
“This is dead,” she said. “Buy a new one, because there’s nothing you can do for this one. There’s a compost pile at the end of the greenhouse. You can toss it there on your way out.”
My inability to nurture the plant, a gift from someone who had once cherished me, someone I had once cherished, made me ashamed. The thought of tossing the plant aside brought on fresh grief.
“Isn’t there anything I can do to bring it back to life?” I asked.
The woman rolled her eyes. But then, after looking at me closely, she showed the hint of a smile as she gently placed the pot and uprooted orchid back in my hands. “I suppose if you want to try replanting it, and attending to it really carefully, and giving it a little water — just an ice cube’s worth, no more — every three days, and rotating it in the sun, then you just might revive it. I doubt it, but you can try.”
Over the next few months, I did all the things she told me to, paying closer attention to the orchid. The leaves slowly started to become heartier, the tendril turned pale green and grew longer, and then one day, from the middle of the cluster of leaves, a tiny sliver of new growth appeared. Day by day the baby leaf grew larger, until there were four full leaves — not the grand leaf canopies it had shown off its first days out of the florists’ care, but undeniably alive once more.
When I arrived in New York a month ago, I propped the orchid in the living room window and then got busy and distracted trying to navigate a cramped apartment, an overwhelming workload, and the challenges of uprooting a relationship in its early growth and transplanting our coupling to a difficult climate. So it was that a few weeks went by before I noticed that the oldest, scrappiest orchid leaf had become sunburned, losing its dark green and becoming a mottled brown and yellow.
The old shame of having been neglectful and inhospitable washed over me on a day when I already felt neglectful and inhospitable to the one I most wanted to nurture. I thought about pinching off the leaf, throwing it in the compost pile, giving up. It occurred to me that maybe this just isn’t meant to be. Getting something to flower isn’t yet a possibility, I thought; I’m not even able to keep things green and growing. Orchids are supposed to be dramatic, and mysterious, and beautiful. No one keeps a pot of pitiful orchid leaves around. What’s the point of that? Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll cut it off.
Yesterday was a very hard day. It was oppressively hot, my work was constantly interrupted, the boxes that remain unpacked caused me deeper anxiety, frustration, embarrassment. The air was thick with misunderstanding, unmet expectations, sadness. So, in the late afternoon, on a walk, when one of my closest friends called, I burst into tears as soon as she asked, “How are you?”
For twenty-five minutes I leaned into the wrought iron fence surrounding the playground a block away from my apartment and sobbed, while parents and toddlers played on the swings and cavorted through the fountains. “What is wrong with me?” I cried. “I feel like I can’t do anything right. I feel like things are never going to be okay. I feel like I’m so damaged and so horrible and I’m trying so hard to make my life work, but I feel like I can’t keep going. I feel like I hurt everything I touch, and I let down everyone I love. I don’t have any more energy. Even if I knew how to make everything I want happen and fix everything that’s messed up, I don’t have the energy to do it.”
She listened, lovingly and patiently, as she always does, as I always do when she calls me in a similar state of tearful despair — we’ve taken turns caring for each other in this way over the past fifteen years of our friendship — and she said many comforting things. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” “You’re not damaged.” “You’re doing the best you can.” “You have to be gentle with yourself.” “Things can be difficult to reconcile.” “It’s going to be okay. I believe that no matter what, you’re going to be okay.”
And then she said, “You know, it’s all right that you don’t have any more energy. You don’t have to have energy right now. There’s not a finite amount of energy in the world or in a lifetime or in you. It doesn’t work that way. Later you’ll have more. Don’t worry.” And this was the most comforting thing to hear, because it made me remember the two years of deep, sustained, all-consuming grieving after my divorce, when I felt, too, that I had no energy and would never again have any stamina or strength, that I was a dead thing, but bit by bit, that intensity of anguish eased and I found myself again, and rebuilt my life, and no longer felt like a walking wound, but like a real person.
When I returned home, I made a salad and texted my friend that yes, I was eating something, and I drank some water and then a glass of cold rosé, and took a deep breath, when I noticed the orchid. At first I was confused, because I knew I had not pinched off that yellow leaf the night before, but it was no longer there. And then I realized that after few days out of the direct light of the sun, and with a little water, and a little relief from the elements, vibrant color had flooded through the leaf, returning it to a lush green. The leaf was scarred with a small brown gouge carved by the too-harsh sunlight in which I left it, but still, it seemed a wondrous thing, that what had been bruised and seemed beyond repair or redemption, could renew and restore itself.
This plant may never again look like an orchid “should.” It may be more reasonable to throw it away and start over, or, like some people do, rent an orchid, trading in the old for new whenever the blooms fade. I’d love for my orchid to flower and flourish and achieve a state of perfection once more, but maybe this plant is already perfect, in spite or because of all its imperfection. It has survived for years under challenging conditions, when I’ve not been at my best, when I’ve made mistakes and taken it for granted and not paid it attention and misunderstood its needs and been inattentive. It’s come to the brink of death, but still, it persists and will not be discarded. This orchid shows me that it’s enough for me to keep on doing the best I can, that it will not die because I’m not perfect, and that there is beauty and elegance in surviving and adapting and living in a way that is my own, even if it doesn’t turn out exactly the way I imagined.