by Tara Campbell
One of my plants, a philodendron, drops leaves every spring. Just when she should be happy, sprawling into the light of longer days, a string of leaves begins to yellow. One after another, the leaves lose their green and shrivel, like they’re finally deciding that what they’ve been trying to do all winter isn’t going to work. Despairing just when things are getting better.
You’ve made it, I want to tell them. Why are you going away?
I keep having this dream where I need to talk to someone. The person changes from dream to dream, but it’s always urgent, and I know their phone number, but I can only move as fast as the rotary phone dial lets me. After each digit, I can’t do anything but watch the disc rotate, leisurely whirring back into place while my finger hovers over the phone. Then I screw up on the fourth or fifth number and have to hang up and start all over.
My mother had plants all over the house, keeping five kids alive even with that poisonous dieffenbachia in the hug-sized ceramic pot on the living room floor. She never gave up on any of them, not even the spindly fig tree in the front window, letting it fan out in whatever directions it chose. As it grew, we had to sit in certain chairs to get an unobstructed view of the TV. Eventually it was a two-person job to rotate the pot so the sparse side could get some sun.
“I should have pruned it,” she’d say at every turn.
“Don’t worry,” we’d say. “It’s fine.”
In the dream, it’s urgent. I know the phone number, but I can only press the little square buttons so quickly. Then I screw up on the fourth or fifth digit and have to hang up and start all over.
Mom finally moved in with my sister, at the point where the stairs were becoming a problem, the house too much, the yard unkempt. It was an out-of-state move, so she ran an ad in the paper to give away her plants. The living room jungle thinned; formerly rambunctious plants appeared awkward outside, fingers laced, digging a toe into the driveway at the edge of the front lawn, waiting for their new parents to arrive. When the fig tree went, the living room window stretched and yawned, naked.
It’s urgent. I know the phone number, but I have to be precise, touching just the right spot on the screen for each tiny digit. Then I screw up on the fourth or fifth number and have to delete and start all over.
After dwindling health and doctors and Hospice and kids flying in from across the country, my sister and I, one on each side of our mother’s bed, held her hands as she inhaled and exhaled, inhaled and exhaled, inhaled and exhaled and exhaled and exhaled and exhaled…
I always hated group video calls. Better said, I hated how they began: so much time spent on can you hear me, I can see you but I can’t hear you, then you’d look up each other’s noses on screen and wait for someone to say something, then you’d all talk at the same time, then someone’s connection would drop out and you’d start all over.
I missed the last family video chat — I had another appointment. I messaged with one of my brothers afterward. He’d missed it too; his invite went to an old e-mail. It didn’t get through.
You kids should call each other, Mom used to say.
We text, we’d say. We e-mail.
She always caught us up on each other anyway.
It’s not the same, she’d say.
Now all meetings are online, and the technology is far better. Connections hold. No matter where in the house I take the calls, there’s a plant on screen behind me. Most of the foliage comes from my philodendron Maxine, my first houseplant, now clipped and repotted into dozens of children, in a pot on a shelf, or climbing the wall, or twining across the ceiling with an assist from clear tape, a stepstool, and a decade’s worth of growth.
My husband and I talk about moving back West someday, closer to family, after he retires. It’s not far away, only single-digit years, but leaving our community here is still a far-flung abstraction to me.
And what will happen to my leafy girl when I go?
We’re having a family video call this weekend. No other appointments, all the e-mail addresses are up to date, we all have the link — all we have to do is click.
My sister will show us her garden, Maxine looking over my shoulder. My brothers will show us the work they’ve done in their yards. Someone will say something silly, and we’ll laugh and laugh.
The hub is gone, but the spokes still speak. Sprouts fill the empty center, thicken, green.
Originally published in Jellyfish Review. Click here to read Tara Campbell’s reflection on writing about caregiving.
Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse, and graduate of American University’s MFA. Publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Strange Horizons, and CRAFT Literary. She’s the author of a novel and four multi-genre collections including her newest, Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection. Connect with her on Twitter at @TaraCampbellCom