when life gives you lemons
by Nam Tran
Among other things, gardening was never on my mother’s itinerary for as long as I could remember. At least not until my brother and I entered senior year and out-of-state colleges became a topic of conversation. Having grown accustomed to the two of us always around, the thought of our inevitable departure became too great for her to bear. My mother first entertained the idea of getting a pet, either a cat or dog she could snuggle with during times of emotional crises. This fantasy, however, quickly fell to the wayside as she imagined the scent of urine permanently embedded into our couch cushions despite the infinite wash cycles they endured. After much deliberation along with input from Dad, my mother decided to fully embrace the “plant mom” aesthetic.
Being a low energy person and catering to the needs of a little tree sounded more appealing than chasing a fleeing feline or throwing a bone shaped chew-toy a couple hundred times. My mother insisted adding greenery would also spruce things up given the interior of our home was a drab yellow color. To her delight, the Home Depot five miles away housed a reputable Garden Center and it was here that Mom began to frequent. She’d split her time 50/50, allocating just enough attention to her real children while building friendships with our future leafy counterparts. Weekly trips quickly doubled and tripled in frequency until she practically became an employee by virtue of association. Orange apron or not, Mom always came home with stories detailing how she assisted folks with inquiries regarding the various plants on display. From hydrangeas to lavender and everything in between, there wasn’t a single species left unaccounted for.
Excluding the gifts of oxygen and shade, plants surpass humans on one fundamental level: never will they leave your side, regardless of how big they become. Granted that plants do not attend school or have any legs, the stationary quality of their existence was still a source of immense comfort for my mother. In the sense that, besides havoc from an occasional mischievous squirrel, a plant is almost guaranteed to remain exactly where you put it.
The first green member of our household was Doug, a two-inch tall bonsai situated in a rectangular pot with a dragon painted on the side of it. He was sold to my mother along with an impressively tiny pair of sheers and a one-year warranty should he die within 365 days of purchase. My mother hadn’t known any Dougs as far as I was concerned, selecting the name solely because it sounded like the past tense of dig. I returned from the Y one afternoon to find her hunched over Doug, sheers in hand snipping away the leaves which had fallen victim to some sort of white fungus. There were still some hanging on while most lay scattered across the kitchen counter, rigid and curled at the tips like arthritic fingers.
“You’re home,” my mother said, pausing her work momentarily to address me. “Just giving the little guy a trim is all!”
Before I commented on the bonsai’s haircut, my brother shuffled out from his room and darted glances at the two of us before staring Doug down with utmost fascination. Without saying a word, I watched his pupils oscillate as they followed the winding stature of our mother’s new buddy.
“Do you think trees can get scoliosis?” he asked.
Mom flinched at my brother’s remark and cupped Doug’s crown the way parents do with children to protect them from swear words.
“You take that back right now!”
“Maybe you should take that back of your bonsai to the plant doctor to see if they can straighten that shit out.”
I’ve known my brother for the better part of eighteen years and never once was there a rift in his demeanor. The moniker “that cool dude” stemmed from his unrelenting ability to maintain composure even in the midst of high-stress situations. He had his off days, but don’t we all? And a single isolated incident should never become the measuring stick for a person’s character in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps this was a coping mechanism for the fact that something, or someone else rather, had become the primary recipient of Mom’s affection.
After her newfound passion expanded beyond the confines of our home, Mom decided it was time to bump things up a notch. Pre-potted plants no longer invigorated my mother the way they once did. Sure, the convenience was nice, but sowing seeds herself offered the luxury of witnessing the fruits of her care and dedication firsthand. Trips to Home Depot continued with purchases shifting to palm-sized packets housing seeds of such things as okra and summer squash. When the afternoon Sun began its descent, my mother headed out back to prep the soil for her newly acquired seeds. I’d take breaks from sending out college apps to peep through the blinds, watching as Mom whacked the land with fork shaped tools before digging holes with a shovel the size of a sweet potato.
In each went a seed or two, placed into the earth with such clinical precision you’d think a single mishap would catalyze an explosion of unimaginable proportions. A personal favorite of mine was Francoise, a lemon tree cultivated from seeds attained at a local flea market. Francoise developed rapidly under Mom’s oversight with growth monitored via Sharpie marks upon a cardboard sheet placed beside the hole. Seeing my mother in action pleased me immensely, calling forth memories of pencil-etched door frames being testaments to Mom’s nurturing abilities. And within a year, Francoise began bearing lemons which lined the length of his outstretched limbs; miniature Suns longing for their rightful spots in the heavens up above.
On the day of our departure, the sheer bravado of our backyard could’ve easily given the Amazon Rainforest a run for its money. Unfortunately, moving hundreds of miles away failed to offer my brother and I liberation from plant related content. Having recently upgraded to an iPhone from an early 2000’s cinderblock, Mom could now send photos of her leafy babies with greater efficiency. And that was exactly what happened. As health majors, my brother and I detached ourselves from cellphones to mitigate prospects of puncturing the wrong organ or misplacing a whole ass wrench in somebody’s abdomen. This meant that for several hours each day during labs, we were free from the onslaught of pictures being flung at us. Knowing damn well there were a dozen or so digital plants awaiting our return later that evening.
The three hour difference between Philly and Seattle meant finding pockets of free time accommodating our schedules proved almost impossible. We pressed onwards despite this misfortune, opting to converse through text messages when phone calls were simply out of the question. Reading words off a screen had become commonplace I was taken aback when my brother gave me a ring halfway into the second semester. He informed me college was treating him well and hoped the same for me. I gave it to him straight. Busy, but doable with enough gumption and proper time management skills. My brother and I never spoke much but distance has a funny way of making even the most miniscule pieces of information seem worthy of sharing. Talk of academia shifted to familial matters and we somehow ended up discussing our mother’s growing obsession.
“How does it feel to get replaced by a fucking plant?” my brother asked.
“Not replaced,” I corrected. “Think of them as stand-ins for the time being while neither of us are there to keep Mom company.”
“You think she’s doing all right? Been pretty slow with the plant pics.”
“Fingers crossed,” I replied. “Talked to her a couple weeks ago and she seemed out of breath, but I’d chalk that up to all that damn gardening.”
“Let’s sure hope that’s the case.”
We agreed Spring Break was as good of a time as ever to visit given our absence during both Thanksgiving and Christmas, the two holidays reserved for family. Visiting Mom had crossed our minds though neither of us wanted to admit it. While nothing was mentioned explicitly, her being the focal point of nearly every conversation spoke volumes on the matter. Of course we were delighted she was (literally) knee deep in a new pastime. We also knew she would get carried away if her compulsion was given free rein. Booking the cheapest flights within reason, the two of us landed at Orlando International Airport and fought through crowds of snowbirds before reuniting at an out-of-service vending machine on Level 3. From there, an Uber was requested and within fifteen minutes a Peruvian man arrived promising to deliver us safely home.
For some reason I expected major changes despite it being only a year since we left. Things remained more or less the same, with the houses flanking our neighborhood streets receiving minor renovations. A palm tree here, a new flowerbed there, so on so forth. Several lucky ones did receive fresh coats of paint which gave me a kick. Much the same way I found humor in adults blurring demographic lines by throwing on the trendiest Forever 21 or Urban Outfitters pieces they could find. Visually they pass with flying colors, but the age difference really shows when you ask about NFT’s and they have absolutely zero clue what you’re talking about. My brother tracked down our home within minutes, identifying the front lawn divot resulting from a failed attempt at teaching us golf on my father’s part. A series of staccato knocks were unleashed upon the front door and Dad greeted us shortly carrying a pitcher of lemonade.
Our father had changed quite a bit, though neither of us were able to put a finger on it. Dad was still Dad, just more tired looking, I suppose, given the effects of time becoming more prominent the older you get.
“Store-bought?” I asked.
“Of course, Mom’s lemon tree,” my brother and I said simultaneously. “How’s he holding up?”
“Still chugging along!”
Dad let out a heavy sigh, the way he does when the gravity of situations at hand were too great to be captured in words. “How about you two ask her yourselves?” We nodded before following our father inside, entering a space which at once felt both familiar and not. Plants of various sizes still lined the baseboards of our living room except many now hung heavy in their pots. The leaves drooping as though saddened by our yearlong absence. All the windows were open, too. Same with the doors of rooms my brother and I had memorized by heart as children. In one of the rooms music was playing. Nina Simone. Which when paired with our ceiling fan’s steady hum filled the house with an eerie, almost timeless quality.
“In there?” I asked.
Mom sat facing the door on her recliner, rocking ever so slightly to the record spinning nearby. She was much frailer than I remembered. Clothing now appeared oversized while most fingers curled inwards like the dying leaves she once removed from her beloved babies.
“Hey Ma, how are you? We got worried when the plant photos stopped coming in.”
“Yeah?” Mom asked. “It hasn’t been easy considering my inability to hold a smartphone still.”
She lifted her hands to around shoulder level and I noticed both palms shaking at steady increments. These weren’t the sort of trembles brought about from temperature changes or worry, but those occurring when one’s body becomes under siege by forces much greater than oneself. I maintained eye contact with Mom for a while, taking in the moment as best I could, deafening silence and all. My brother was on a couch beside me unable to take a single sip from the lemonade. In the corner of my eye I saw Dad pacing near the doorway of Mom’s room, wringing his hands impatiently as though awaiting the big reveal.
“Parkinson’s,” Mom finally uttered as my entire world came to a standstill.
As happy as we’d hope to be coming home, it broke me seeing our mother this way. A woman, once able-bodied and brimming with enthusiasm, now reduced to a fraction of her former self. It was all right there I thought. Everything was right there. The shortness of breath. The decrease in text messages. And it took but a diagnosis to materialize the deepest fear I’d refuse to accept this whole time. Mom extended her trembling palms towards me and I held them tightly in my own. My fingers interlocked between hers like ten roots latching onto the earth which kept me grounded for so much of my adult life.
“Don’t you boys go leaving me again,” she pleaded in a voice no louder than a whisper.
“We aren’t going anywhere, Mom. For the time being at least,” I reassured my mother with gentle strokes of her forearms. All while daring the wind flooding in from outside to take it's absolute best shot. Knowing with every muscle in my body that neither of us would budge even if we tried.
Nam Tran is a writer and photographer based in Orlando, FL. His work appears in various places and collectively at www.namhtran.com. He once mistook a child waiting at the bus stop for a garden gnome.
— Jared Berberabe
"People were chasing and shouting after him, but he paid them no mind. He could not gain any distance closer to the figure, yet Yano couldn’t tell if it was even running in the first place. It seemed, rather, to float with impossible dexterity over every obstacle, and always out of his reach."