They Don’t Complain and They Die Quietly
There were always plants in our house. A vegetable garden in back, and plants in every room. I didn’t think anything of it, really. I thought it was normal for a dad to come home from work and spend an hour in the yard, watering. It’s what dad’s do.
I remember planting seeds in the vegetable garden with him. He taught me to put two seeds in every hole, because sometimes plants didn’t make it. Understanding plants means understanding death.
This was in the 80s when my dad was working at City of Hope. My dad’s a psychologist who did groundbreaking early work to prove that cancer treatments had cognitive effects. To do this, he worked with kids who were dying of Leukemia. He watched them die, one after another. And then he came home to his kids, who were about the same age.
So he stood in his garden, still wearing his work clothes, tie loosened around his neck, and watered his plants, crying when no one was looking.
My dad was not like other dads because he watched kids just like his die for a living. I always wondered why my dad so often told me that life was fragile, temporary, and precious. Now I know.
In the 90s, when I was about to move away to college, I finally asked him why he had so many plants. He answered, “They don’t complain, and they die quietly.”
Now I’m in my late 30s. I’m married and have my own house. My life is incredibly different from my father’s. He’s worked at a handful of hospitals over the course of his entire career. I’ve worked for dozens of internet companies, most of which don’t even exist anymore. He got a single family home in the burbs and two kids. I got a condo in the city, two dogs, and a cat.
But the one thing we unquestionably have in common is the plants. The vegetable garden I built in the back yard is not unlike the one I built with him in the 80s. He’s got a whole greenhouse for his orchids, but mine seem happy by the window in the kitchen. And everywhere, in both our houses, are houseplants, big and small.
We bond over it. He praised me for getting orchids to reflower and seemed particularly impressed at the Elephant Ear I’ve got growing inside. We mail each other digital snapshots of our yards. When one of my African Mask plants sprang baby bulbs, I mailed some to him, and now they’re growing in his house, too.
I know why my dad grows plants. It has something to do with watching all those kids die. When you can’t use your hands to stop death, you have to use them to make life instead, and just hope that the balance works out.
I don’t have nearly as dramatic a story. But I can draw a line that connects all of my life’s work. From the high school writer’s club, to the college papers, to the early websites, all the way through to today … everything I’ve done has been about giving people tools to use their voice, growing community, making media. It’s all connected. And it’s all very noisy.
Usually, I love the cacophony. The swirling mass of comments and retweets and internet craziness. I thrive on it. But there are times when it gets to be too much. Times when I’m full and I just need to take care of something that doesn’t talk back.
All plants want is a little water, a little sun, and a little company. And in return they’ll grow and change and reward you occasionally with explosions of beauty.
These changes don’t happen at internet speeds. You’ll hardly know they’re happening at all. This is one of the gifts plants give me. They remind me to slow down, to take the long view, to breathe, relax, and just wait for what happens next.
After a day spent moving pixels on a screen and typing words that will never see paper, plants give me the opportunity to get soil under my fingernails, play in the dirt like a kid, to create something real.
And in the end, dad’s right. Plants will teach you what they can, and then they leave this world the way they came into it: without a single word.
In this hyper-modern age of real-time always-on location-based info-overload, perhaps a moment of true peace and quiet is the greatest gift one can receive.