Those of you who checked my status on facebook yesterday have already heard the sad news. Faith’s cactus is now among the dearly departed. Surprisingly, the sad passing of our cactus is not actually a recent event. The plant should have received its last rites and undergone funeral services at least a month ago. But Faith never quite noticed, and I had the feeling it would be a mistake to give the remains the old heave-ho before she had a chance to say her goodbyes. And so it has languished in our bay window, slowly shriveling.
Well, yesterday Faith noticed. And while she probably hadn’t given the plant a thought in weeks, discovering its demise was a trauma. She was not ready to accept that which was obvious to the rest of us: that the cactus was clearly no longer among the living. After careful scrutiny, we concluded that in the case of a cactus, brown and shriveled was perhaps more a sign that the end was near than of the actual end itself. We pronounced it in the final stages and arranged for top-notch cactus hospice.
Faith spent the remainder of the day tending to the cactus’s every possible need. She read stories to “him” while he warmed himself under a desk lamp. She carried him outside for a breath of fresh air. She gave him step by step instructions on how to put on soccer cleats, and then gently tucked him into the car so that he could attend her practice.
In spite of all this tender loving care, on some level Faith was already beginning the grieving process. By the time she arrived home from soccer, she was in tears. She threw herself to the floor in despair, stroking her cactus (rendered entirely harmless by the disintegration of its spines), and poured out her sorrows.
My first impulse was to help Faith to feel better. I thought about promising her another cactus, pointing out the wonderful life her plant had enjoyed under her care, and consoling her with the thought of seeing him again one day in glory. But then I realized that impulse was really more about me than it was about her. I didn’t want her to feel sad. It made me sad. And cheering her up would make me feel better. But what did Faith actually need?
I concluded that she needed to be allowed to experience her grief, and to move through it in her own way. And so I sat next to her, silently for the most part, stroking her back and sharing the moment. When Faith sobbed that she’d never love another plant, I resisted the temptation to contradict her, affirming her feelings instead with a simple, “Your cactus has such a special place in your heart, nothing will ever quite replace him.”
She lay there crying for quite a while. Eventually, I felt myself growing a touch impatient. It’s a freaking cactus, I was tempted to admonish, get over it! I mean, really…. a cactus, for goodness sake! But matters of the heart cannot be legislated, and it was not my place to decide what constituted tragedy for Faith. So instead, I took some deep breaths and allowed acceptance to wash over me.
And what happened next made me so grateful that I had. As Faith moved through her immediate sorrow, she began to ponder some seriously heavy stuff.
“I think it might be my fault, mommy. I didn’t pay enough attention to him or water him enough.” Don’t we all wrestle with this question at some point when faced with the loss of a loved one? Was it my fault? Should I have done more?
“I kind of want to get another cactus, but if I love it and take good care of it, do you think this cactus will be sad and jealous?” Any older sibling out there will tell you this question is an age-old issue. Not to mention any of us who have loved and lost and dared to love again.
“And if I love a new cactus, what happens when it dies?” Another universal question – is it indeed better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Or is it wiser to protect our hearts from the potential pain, holding everything and everyone at arm’s length?
“I waited too long to appreciate this cactus, Mommy. Now we’ve just got a few days left, and I’ll never be able to fit it all in!” How often we need the very same reminder to cherish what we have today, for tomorrow it may be gone in the blink of an eye.
What I said in response to these questions was far less important than the fact that Faith was asking them. That she was grappling with such weighty matters as a result of her loss was amazing to me. This small child, barely seven years old, had the capacity to wrestle with ideas that our best philosophers have yet to unravel.
What a gift this experience was to me! I was able to take that journey with my daughter, to connect with her, and share my own experiences, questions and beliefs. Would she have been open to hearing from me had I dismissed her grief as an overreaction? Would she have come to me the next time her tender heart was hurting?
In the end, Faith and her cactus collaborated on a beautiful drawing to welcome a new cactus, should one come into our lives. Then we bought a cake mix – yellow, to remind us of the desert – and began planning a farewell celebration for Faith’s beloved cactus, dubbed “buttercup” in these final moments.
Plants will no doubt come and go in the years ahead. But none will have meant more to Faith – or to me, for teaching me such a priceless lesson.