A couple of weeks before Mother’s Day last year, feeling overtired and underappreciated, I bought myself a fig tree.
It was an impulsive buy. But only sort of.
It was the kind of purchase you make when you find the thing you’ve wanted (in a vague sense) standing right in front of you, priced well, in a store you rarely go in, and suddenly it becomes something you want very specifically.
I did my best to pick out the healthiest plant, the one with green supple leaves, no brown spots, with good soil. But how do you really know if a plant is doing well on the inside, just by looking at her on the outside?
My thumbs are not black. Nor are they excessively green. If anything, I’d say they’re turquoise: a color I’d pick for being intuitive and bohemian and laid back with my plants. Fiddle figs can be finicky, needing a certain amount of light. Not too much water. Not too little either. Maybe fertilizer is involved? (I’ll look it up.) I was probably not the safest bet to tend this type of plant, but before I could buy what I walked in for, she was mine.
Mother’s Day gets dicey around here, emotionally as well as gift-wise. My mother died at the end of May, and no matter how many years have passed and how much joy my own children bring me, it can be a hard day. And to be perfectly honest, it had been a hard year.
Anyone who’s been married for a while or has a handful of kids knows this happens. It’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons. And it can be a challenge, too, when you don’t know when it’ll end or what to do to make it better. (What kind of fertilizer works well on miscommunication, a full schedule of activities that all feel necessary, work stress, and personality differences?)
I brought the fig plant home. Set her down by the front door. Announced, “This plant is my Mother’s Day gift.” I wasn’t trying to justify her purchase, it’s just that I wanted to fix one variable in a long equation that didn’t always equal me, the mom, feeling known and loved the way I wanted or needed on Mother’s Day. My kids and husband nodded, not giving her much of a second thought.
The next day, I placed my not-yet-officially-given-to-me-Mother’s-Day plant into a large dark blue pot and assigned her the empty space in the corner of our dining room. Our house is small. There weren’t many options for where she could go.
In the weeks that passed, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed her. How nice she looked. How inviting she was. I didn’t have many plants so her presence made the room brighter. Better. She wasn’t growing, yet. But I figured the indirect light from the glass door she stood next to was enough. I had to give her time.
Then one day, for no real reason, while I was puttering around the house, refilling a water cup or vacuuming crumbs from under the table, I noticed one of her dark green leathery leaves had dropped down to the floor. I stopped moving for a minute, stared at her for a while, tried to process why she’d do that. Why she’d drop a leaf.
I felt sad. And a little mad. What gives, Fig? I gave you everything you needed.
The next day, I moved her. Further from the light, but how much sun does a plant really need? She obviously didn’t like that spot.
A few days later, she dropped another leaf.
She’s not happy, I remember thinking.
But happy isn’t the right word, is it? It’s the word we use when we want something—anything—to grow and thrive. Be it a plant, a child, a spouse. Ourselves. But happy and unhappy feel too easy. Too empty. Words thin as paper. Words that dissolve with water.
What we really mean, what is harder to say for all it entails, is that we want what we love to be healthy.
But we say happy because when we see healthiness—the real kind—when mind, and body, and spirit are all flourishing, happiness—or the substantial version of it seen in contented joy or hopeful peace -- is not usually too far behind.
It’s an easy mistake though, isn’t it?
We don’t say, “she’s doing so well, she’s so healthy.” We simply say, she’s happy. And all too often, we minimize whatever hard work is being done on the inside, down to that fleeting circumstantial word.
In the following weeks, I’d move my plant three, maybe four more times, vigilantly looking for signs of fresh growth.
“Those plants need a lot of sun,” a friend said as we both stood in my kitchen, hands on our hips, heads tilted, looking at my dying plant.
“I know! I’ve moved her all over the house!” I practically shouted.
“This isn’t enough. She needs more.”
More? How much more?
This friend owned two of these plants, both of which I watched move from dark empty corners in her house to their current watchful places next to bright windows, like old dogs vigilantly guarding the neighborhood.
I picked her up, the heavy ceramic pot filling the spread of my arms, felt the full weight of her in my lower back and thighs. I set her on the wide sill of our front bay window. And then I waited.
In the coming weeks, I sat at the table next to her, sorting through my children’s papers, answering emails, writing reminders in my calendar, and encouraged her, Be happy!
While making dinner, or wiping a counter, or running back into the house for my wallet, I’d look at her and think: Don’t you see? You have everything you need!
I’d hang up the phone after a curt conversation, break up never ending arguments between any and all combination of my kids, then sit down exasperated, frustrated, and demand: Grow!
Eventually, I’d just offer a sad smile, like how I smile when I see an elderly couple slowly walking hand in hand, the bittersweetness of love and eventual loss weaving beautifully, painfully, between their thin fingers. Okay, I told her. Don’t grow. Just please don’t drop more leaves.
How do we get to this point? When we give up on new growth? When we no longer feel capable of positive change, but become satisfied with simply not dropping more leaves?
What brings us to this point? When we know circumstances or communication or patterns of behavior aren’t ideal, but we don’t know what will make things better. When we give up hoping new spot or a pep talk or a demand will work, will fix it, will make every vague thing that’s wrong, be specifically better.
Yes, there might be a current of understanding that we require … more. But the questions grow ever-louder with each adjustment, each offering, each concession: Isn’t this enough? Are you happy now? How much more sun/light/water/heat do you require? How long have you been holding on like this? How thirsty are you? How deep does this issue go?
One day, after moving my plant to yet another spot, I asked her (as if she were able to speak back), “Is this where you want to be? Is this a good spot for you?” I licked my thumb to wipe away some of the dirt from a low leaf, just like I’d do with schmutz on one of my kids’ cheeks.
Have you ever looked at a leaf up close? Each one is uniquely veined, just like a fingerprint. With the leaf between my finger and thumb, she let it go. And my heart sunk as I held that piece of her in my hand, a part she could never get back, something I could never fix.
“Okay,” I said, knowing in my bones what needed to be done.
I picked her up, my fingers barely touching while I held her pot, as if in a tight hug. Her leaves batted against my face and I lumbered, step by hulking step, across the house to the sliding glass doors where I set her down, opened the door, then pulled her outside.
And this is where I left her.
In the sun. In the heat. Letting her breathe the fresh air. Soak in the rain that watered her soil. Giving her space. Giving her time.
After a few weeks of hanging out next to pots of basil and mint, a small bright green bud flashed at the tip of her thin trunk. In a blink, two tender leaves emerged, unfolding as if in reverse botanical origami. A magic trick—from nothing to something. A grace—from death to life.
After a few more weeks, she stretched out, growing inches of fleshy green height. When the next set of leaves emerged, and without any more reason than I knew it was time and that she couldn’t stay there forever, I moved her back into the house.
While she was outside, I had paid attention to the light. I noticed how the afternoon sun beamed into the living room through the back windows for hours at a time, right were two chairs and a table sat.
When I brought her in, I moved the furniture. Rearranging and reorienting is sometimes necessary in order for those we love to stay healthy. I explained to the family that this is her spot now. That she loves being around their noise and energy. It’s so, so good for her. But she also needs this light. This space.
A year later, with Mother’s Day approaching again, my fiddle fig has grown tall, birthed more leaves. They’ve come in bunches, subject to the seasons—as we all are, to the ebb and flow of waiting and blooming. But she’s healthy.
She still needs plenty of light. Regular watering. The occasional fertilizer boost. But I’m no longer concerned about her dropping leaves. Or my ability to take care of her. It’s obvious she’s getting what she needs.