The washboard dirt road bumps me farther into the acreage of the desert nursery. Thickets of scrub oak form a sound barrier, dimming the roar of traffic from the highway. My breathing slows as my anger dissipates, but my face burns as self-righteous justification is replaced by guilty shame.
I feel like a poster child for burned-out caretakers. I want a navigation app to guide me through the labyrinth of complications arising from parenting one’s parent. Every impatient word and expression of irritation adds another layer of resentment — a compression bandage on my compassion.
The steering wheel jerks. I focus my attention back on maneuvering the ruts in this goat trail of a road. A tangled canopy of ironwood and palo verde trees fragments the relentless desert sunlight, strobing it rhythmically across the windshield. The effect is other-worldly but strangely soothing.
This morning my mother’s frustration exploded like a cholla cactus, her sharp needles of words intended to inflict pain. Terminal illness doesn’t cultivate diplomacy. Neither does fatigue. I was too worn down to respond rationally. By the time I helped my ailing mother bathe and dress, her lips were pinched tight and my teeth were clenched to halt the flow of unchecked words. Thank God for respite care.
A corkscrew turn in the road spills me into a packed-dirt parking area by the main greenhouse. A display of garishly painted Mexican pots creates a ceramic circus of curly tailed lizards, open-mouthed frogs, and fat-bellied donkeys. My gloominess fades in the face of such colorful chaos. Gravel crunches under my sandals as I walk between rows of cacti potted in black nursery containers. The staid cacti are in full bloom, their horny arms adorned with huge immodest blossoms. Nuns on reprieve from the convent, the austere plants celebrate late spring with a mosaic of vibrant color. Flamenco dancer reds, sunflower yellows, and passionate pinks compete for attention. Each Cinderella bloom dazzles for one day before withering a few hours after midnight. The full bloom of life passes all too quickly.
I enter a rustic greenhouse. The tin roof is corroded and the plank-board exterior sports peeling paint. I settle onto a well-worn cedar bench, lean back, and close my eyes. The pungent scent of soil and compost satisfies my soul. My passion for gardening was inherited from my mother as surely as her auburn hair.
The woman has always been a fighter. She taught me to be a fighter, so why can’t she understand that I’m not ready to watch her surrender? She says she’s had enough. She won’t continue a battle she cannot win. More time — time with me — comes at the cost of another miserable round of chemo and radiation. The cost is too high. For whatever time is left, she wants home palliative care. She’s at peace with her decision. Her ashes will be spread in the garden of the house we share, mingling her essence with the elements of the earth — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I compress my lips and fight to keep my fledgling feeling of calm. I grip the edge of the bench and rock. Is she right? Am I being selfish?
The sharp clicking sound of dueling male hummingbirds vibrates off the corrugated roof. In a flash of green and purple, one hummer spins downward, his tail feathers whistling with the speed of his dive. He thrusts his greedy beak into a row of elongated, red flowers, his wings a grayish blur. Satiated, the tiny whirlwind perches on a fragile stem, then lifts off to hover inches from my face before rocketing away, full of energy and joie de vivre. This diminutive dynamo lives life fully, on his own terms. My mother has lived much like the hummingbird — at full speed, forever curious, and whenever possible, with autonomy.
Plant therapy has dissolved the tightness in my neck. A froth of white catches my eye as I stand to leave. I’ve never seen jade plants in bloom. Their thick, satiny leaves are smothered in tiny white flowers. I choose two perfect specimens. This offering will say to my mother what I know I can’t, not just yet. She can direct placement while I plant. Maybe, in the garden, we’ll both find peace.
Lynn Nicholas writes across the genres of fiction, nonfiction, and occasionally, poetry. Her work has been published by A Long Story Short, Wow! (Women on Writing), The Storyteller (annual publication – Society of Southwestern Authors), Every Day Fiction, Further Stars Than These, Gay Fiction, Rose City Sisters, and the AARP Bulletin. Lynn’s creativity is nourished by solitude, the companionship of animals, the energy of plants, ballroom dancing, sunsets, good wine and chocolate. Her writing is supervised by a black cat who loves to straddle her desktop’s keyboard.