In Caring for my Ficus by Liliana Amador-Marty
"… And if my life is like the dust that hides the glow of a rose,
then what good am I …"
This Bitter Earth, performed by Dinah Washington
That winter the pitiful ficus sat sadly on the windowsill begging for care. An acquaintance had rescued it from a trash bin on a frozen sidewalk. What was a tropical plant doing so far away from its Mediterranean soil? And what made this person think I could care for this abandoned thing? It was pitiful. The dying plant just stared at me with three spindly branches reaching for help. What could I do for it? I knew nothing about plants and besides, I could barely take care of myself. I too was far away from the Caribbean waters of my birthplace in this cold, dark nordic city. We shared this in common. I had sentenced myself to three years of graduate school in the coldest, most homogenous place I had ever lived.
"What do you want from me?" I exhaled,
"I have nothing to give to you."
I could not know it then, but breathing so close to its three budding leaves was enough to bring it back from the dead. Just talking out load to the plant was reviving me too as I clung on to the pot, my head resting on the window, its large glass filling the room with the glaring yellow glow of the sun. It would soon be spring and as I sat in the burning sunlight, I was grateful for the heat on the nape of my neck. I often sat this way for hours studying this living thing I held in my hands. I envied its simplicity. Dependent only on water and light, it refused to die even when exposed to frigid conditions foreign to its tropical nature. But now it was in this warm place protected from the cold behind glass and it needed me to keep it alive. It felt good to be needed in this way, like a mother taking care of her child. But first I needed to care for myself. I had survived a dark period of dark thoughts and was emerging on the other side of this tormenting and frightening inner turmoil.
In an attempt to find the part of myself that seemed lost, that spring I went to Barranquilla, Colombia, the place where I was born. Barranquilla is a portal city on the Northern coast of Colombia in South America surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. On the crowded dirt streets of this city, foreign to me because I was not raised there, I felt the unmistakable sense of home. Everything about Barranquilla felt familiar even though my parents had immigrated to North America when I was two years old. These Colombian strangers looked liked family. We were all the same: our wavy black hair, our dark brown almond-shaped eyes, even our size was normal in my birth country. At five foot nothing, I was average height for a woman in Barranquilla. Even my name, Liliana, so rare in the United States was as common as Mary in Barranquilla. We all ate arepas for breakfast, said carajo when we got upset, and danced cumbia in the evenings after dinner which were meals my mother cooked back home. In the Caribbean sun, my body sweat in the heat and humidity cleansing the toxins from my body and the negative thoughts that poisoned me. My skin glistened radiantly. My hair was shiny, replenished by the natural oils that had dried up on my scalp. Though constantly drenched in perspiration, this climate felt right. I returned from my pilgrimage with a renewed sense of strength and recovered identity. I had a new perspective, a second perspective that I needed to fully understand myself.
When I returned to the Midwest, it was summertime and my ficus was parched, its soil cracking. All the tiny leaves that had begun to grow had now fallen off. I left simple instructions for one of my roommates,
"Water it everyday and talk to it occasionally."
I guess this was too much to ask. I felt as though someone had chopped off one of my limbs. I grabbed it from its home on the sill, filled the tub with warm water and bathed it, talking to it gently,
"It's going to be okay, you'll see, everything's okay now", reassuring words that I needed to tell myself.
Like a sick child of mine, I watched my ficus for weeks as it began to bloom again in its sunny spot near the window, misting it with nutrients and fertilising its soil. Occasionally I read Shakespeare aloud to my plant. We carried on this way until fall when we both feared the dread of approaching winter. But by now, its leaves were dark green and plump, filling me with a sense of accomplishment. The branches had exploded with many veins in the budding leaves and the roots were gripping the earth within it shrinking pot. I had also grown with a renewed strength. I felt hope again and like the stems of the ficus tree, my spine re-appeared in my awareness planting me firmer into the ground.
My ficus had been my companion for the past seven years at that period in my life. It was with me the winter I broke off my relationship with the college boyfriend I lived with, listening to me cry in the sunroom where the ficus grew the fastest. It lived with me when I took an apartment alone grieving my loss, filling my void with roses I gave to myself and the sweet smell they left behind even in death. That was when I cut the lower branches braiding the stems into a trunk so it could stand upright and firm. I braided my long hair the same way when it was damp. That same year though, I chopped off my long hair. I was changing, transforming. We both survived our last winter in this freezing midwestern state turning the bathroom into a sauna so that my tropical skin and its tropical bark could replenish their moisture. My ficus moved with me to New York City in the back of a U-Haul for three cold nights and almost died again. All of its leaves fell off by the time we arrived in Manhattan but at the very top of one of its branches was one tiny green leaf reaching towards the light. When spring arrived, I placed it on the fire escape where it grew with a renewed desire to live. My ficus was resilient, flexible and strong. I was like my ficus.
I often joined my plant on the fire escape that summer writing in the morning sun and sitting in rainstorms, letting the large drops trickle down my face as the darkened warm skies thundered above us. There was a time as an adult when thunderstorms found me huddled, afraid of myself. Now I felt overjoyed at being alive, feeling the water pouncing my eyelids, witnessing lightning bolts rip through the dark clouds photographing my tree and me, freezing that moment in my memory. Back then, I dreamt of someday taking my plant to warmer soil, freeing it from its restrictive pot, so its roots would spread out deep into the earth. I hoped someday my ficus would reach towards a tropical sun growing tall, limitless, its trunk thick, strengthened by warm breezes tossing its branches about, having found its power in its journey to a better place. And if dark clouds should hover over me again, I can look back on my competency in caring for my ficus and know that I too am resilient, flexible and strong. Perhaps I would look outside my window at my ficus in the ground, my face reflected in the glass and see the two lives I saved.