The bottom leaves of my echeveria succulent had streaks of brown in them—scorched by the sun, or maybe a too-chilly April night. A dozen came off in my hand at a touch. I almost tossed them in the grass—I hadn’t had success with propagating succulents. But it seemed a shame to waste so many intact leaves, so I spread them on dry soil in a shallow dish and left them alone.
The dull aches came first. I canceled a playdate. I scolded myself for being weak.
My body has never been good enough for me—and it’s brought me a lot of shame. I was a hard master, demanding perfection and punishing fragility, so when pain invaded my body and stole my capabilities, I buried my body under blankets in hopes that no one would see my failure.
The pain lengthened and sharpened and grew into a thorn. Doctors ruled out only the immediate, life-threatening possibilities, but didn’t have any other answers. While I waited to see a specialist, the pain grew so severe that I could not bend over without gasping, or stand for more than a few minutes. I stayed in bed.
Friends and family took turns watching my son while I counted the hours until my next painkiller. I wanted to cultivate imagination and a love of growing things in his two-year-old heart, not wearily reach over my pillows to thank him for the tiny yellow flowers he had picked with someone else.
When my son climbed onto my bed for a story or a snuggle, every energetic bounce left me gasping in pain. My heart ached each time I asked him to contain his toddler wiggles. Crying hurt, but sometimes I couldn’t help it when he’d leave my room sadly to go play somewhere else. My supportive pillows left no room for my husband to sleep or even sit and read, so we spent most evenings apart. Only reading and writing distracted me from my discomfort.
Weeks of uncertainty turned into months. Even surgery didn’t calm the muscle spasms and shooting pain. I learned to breathe through contractions that came and returned void, with no promise of new life to guide me through the moments of concentrated agony. Our best guess was endometriosis, a disease of lesions that grow on internal abdominal surfaces like predatory weeds, but only another surgery would confirm the diagnosis.
The leaves on my plectranthus are dark green and fuzzy on top and deep purple underneath. I tried to show my son their beautiful undersides one day, and accidentally broke off a section of the plant. It was too pretty to throw away, so I stuck it in a vase, hoping to enjoy it for a few extra days. It started sending out roots, delicate and white as dental floss. More leaves sprouted and grew, and finally, just when purple blossoms appeared all over its mother plant, this little broken branch, almost trashed, began to bloom. I planted it in a tiny terracotta pot.
My bedside book pile grew and with it, a small peace. I couldn’t cook or clean or tend the garden, but I could nourish my soul with wisdom and beauty. I devoured fantasy novels in a day and flew through every nonfiction C. S. Lewis title we owned. The thorny disease remained, but the months of rest were refreshing my mind, enabling me to focus on literature with more depth than I would have chosen before my illness. My forced rest began to feel less like a burial and more like a planting.
My second surgeon not only confirmed the presence of endometriosis, but dug it out, roots and all. After thorough treatment, some thought I would turn a quick corner, but healing from countless internal wounds takes time. The weight of expectations threatened to bury me even deeper than the pain had. As soon as I would successfully navigate a trip to the grocery store, I would be back in my bed, my tender, still-knotted muscles screaming for rest. I fought months of depression, clawing weakly through the darkness like a sprouted seed pushing toward the sun.
I watered my birthday chrysanthemum for few days, but the mental energy required to truly care for it was beyond my reach. The blossoms soon shriveled, and the October sun burned the leaves to a crisp, a symbol of yet another failure. I left it on the front patio and forgot about it through the winter.
My recovery had ground to a halt, and new symptoms sprouted up. My wrists and fingers ached after only moderate piano playing. My quads pulsed with visible, throbbing spasms at every spike and plunge of January’s unpredictable temperatures. My body tempted me to coddle it again, to protect it from any more pain, to burrow into my bed and never come out. My responsibilities tethered me to activity, but failure felt just steps away.
How could life flourish in such weakness? Could these thorns in my side and my hands and my legs ever grow into a mighty cypress?
After weeks without visible growth, four of the fallen echeveria leaves suddenly sent out new roots, fuschia-bright against the dirt, and one was now nourishing two fresh leaves, each smaller than the head of a pin.
While I waited to see yet another specialist, I channeled my restlessness into my forgotten plants. Light green leaves had appeared on the scorched mum. My plectranthus, another neglected birthday plant, had began to leaf again as well, and my anxious heart latched onto these signs of hope. On days I made it to the grocery store with my son, we would look through their garden offerings for clearance plants that just needed a bit of attention. I fell in love with the furry white leaves of a fifty-cent Dusty Miller, and he picked out a pot of pink and yellow daisies. As we repotted our new treasures, filling a larger pot with soil, hollowing out a space for the roots, and gently placing the plant in its new home, the holes in my heart left by missed opportunities the year before began, slowly, to be filled.
Cover photo by Annie Spratt.