The Giving Cactus

You’d never guess this Christmas cactus is 20 years old. It should be overflowing its pot, filling up an entire bay window.

I bought it for $1 in 2002 as a decoration for a fireplace mantel in my beloved antique store. Three years later, the business failed. I sold the building and its contents, but I kept the cactus. Out of obligation, I guess.

Seven years ago, I downsized and gave the cactus to my daughter, relieved that I was getting rid of that sad reminder. She did her best to keep it alive, but no matter what she did, the cactus wasn’t happy.

I tried not to care that its leaves started to fade and fall off, and that it stopped blooming, but every time I saw it—withering away like The Giving Tree—I felt like it was saying, “Hey, lady, I’m still alive and so are you. Take me back. I’ll show you life.”

I took it home again and repotted it not long after my father died. I kept it in the appropriate amount of sun, gave it the appropriate amount of water, and together, we began to heal.

In my forthcoming book, An Obesity of Grief: A Journey from Traumatic Loss to Undying Love, I write about how I placed my grief on things, either elevating them to priceless treasures that represented what I lost or demoting them to painful reminders. I stopped making pork chops in mushroom soup (one of my comfort foods) because it was what I was making for lunch when I learned my husband died. I sold our car, pitched our couch, and bought a new bed. None of that relieved my grief; it just drained my bank account.

I understand there are some items that are just too painful to keep after someone we love dies or we lose a job, get divorced, or suffer other types of loss. But I really wish I’d kept the bottle of his cologne a little longer and not given away his favorite t-shirt.

I’m glad to have this cactus back. Instead of remembering the loss of my store, it now reminds me of the four years I had there and working with my dad. It grows a little more each day, leaf on leaf, dividing into new branches, and my hope is that it’s recovered enough to bloom sometime this year.

It didn’t owe me anything, this determined little Christmas cactus, but it has taught me a lesson about resilience, and how far a little (self) love and (self) care will go in making my grief lighter.  

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