Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Growing Toward the Light: life lessons from a tea rose

For my thirty-seventh birthday, my whole family got together at my parents’ house to celebrate the occasion with pound cake, mom’s famous coffee, and a few tasty cocktails (not necessarily in that order!).  It was April 24th, thirty seven years to the day that I had graced the earth with my presence...truly something to celebrate in the context of the turmoil I’d experienced, lo those many years.  I can’t explain the phenomenon of birthday ecstasy, but every year, as mature and independent a woman as I am, I still get giddy when people wish me happy birthday.  Perhaps it’s not such a mystery, though, that feeling that wells up inside us when people sing (or half shout) “Happy Birthday” in twelve different keys while we gaze at a flaming sphere of frosting, flour and egg.  After all, aren’t birthday parties some of the fondest memories of our childhood?  Isn’t that when we learned to wish upon a burning candle and then actually believed that our wish would come true?  And even if it wasn’t our own birthday party but that of a brother or sister or best friend, we still gathered around that flaming sphere of butter cream deliciousness and dreamt of our own upcoming birthday that was only 78 and 1/2 days away, secretly making our own wish in the flickering darkness.


A family gathering may not be every person’s ideal way to spend a birthday, for there will always be sibling rivalries over who has the hottest husband, the biggest and most stylishly decorated home, and the smartest most well-adjusted kids. Believe me: more often than not, issues similar to those contribute to the Smith family dynamic, but none of them surfaced that night. At all. It was simply a delightful gathering of people who loved me in spite of my many faults. And that felt good. It felt good that people showed up even if they really didn’t feel like it. As my four sisters and one brother (another brother was unable to attend) gathered around the table with my mom and dad by my side, I felt loved. Corny? Probably. But it’s true. Things got even better when my sister Susie said, “Okay, it’s time for presents!” Presents! Who doesn’t love to get presents? While I do enjoy giving, once again there’s something about a beautifully wrapped package that taps into our childhood happy place and melts that serious adult fa├žade we’re forced to wear when we face the outside world.
One of the gifts I received that night was a tea rose plant from my sister Becky. I remember how she described it as I peeled off the neatly wrapped pink and white tissue paper: “I know that regular roses are beautiful," she said. "But there’s a sweetness about a tea rose plant that’s equally beautiful.” I couldn’t agree more, which is why, when the plant started drying up after a couple of weeks I became very upset. I kept thinking, “Why do all of my plants go through this when I bring them home to this apartment? Is the air too dry? Is there too much sun? Maybe not enough? Am I not giving them enough attention? Do I exude anti-plant love?”

Lo and behold, that little tea rose plant surprised me by finally seeing the light, literally, just as my born again geranium had. Out of the blue one day, I noticed a tiny bud protruding from a rogue stem that had gradually diverged from its neighbors. Little by little the fragile wisp of a stem had begun reaching toward the source of light that fed it, craning its neck like a baby bird poking through its shell. Some might say that this kind of thing happens all the time, right? Plants are just plants. But to me, as I embark on this journey of joblessness, self-evaluation, and fear of what the future might hold, nature’s resilience continues to inspire me. After all, plants are like people: they grow toward the light.