There’s a portal to my mother’s living room in the middle of a park in Seattle. Go to the back room of the Volunteer Park Conservatory, past the native plants room, through the seasonal plant exhibit and there, you will find the succulents.
The succulent in question is a cactus (not mutually exclusive; ask a botanist) called the Blue Candle: myrtillocactus geometrizans. Native to Mexico, it’s a popular decoration in many homes that, like most living things, only gets more complicated as it matures.
It builds on itself as it grows from one singular bulb; one branch to two; two to four; four to eight, and so on, into ever-widening dimensions.
It has the potential to take over the entire space but exists as a promise not to.
This cactus, in a far wing of the conservatory, will take you straight to my mother’s living room.
Don’t touch it, of course. It’s a cactus. But look.
There she is, my mother.
She’s watering her own myrtillocactus geometrizans, the cactus she’s had in her living room since before I was born. She’s watering it in the late ‘80s, in the mid ‘90s, in the early aughts.
She’s repositioning it, repotting it.
My mother has successfully pulled this cactus through decades; from one millenium and into another.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says. “But I’m doing something right.”
It’s been so long that it’s stretching halfway to the ceiling, winding its way out of the pot. It’s been a character in my dreams once or twice. It’s been the culprit in one or two good cries when I was a curious toddler, playing too close.
I know she left it on the floor so that I’d learn my lesson through the splinters.
But why did she keep it? What is the impulse to keep something alive just because it’s been alive?
It wasn’t until this year, six years after moving to Seattle, that I finally made it to the conservatory in Seattle’s Volunteer Park. I’d been to Bruce Lee’s grave, here; the Asian Art Museum; the koi ponds; but never spent the eight dollars to stroll through the hilltop indoor garden.
It was a blustery fall day, as most days in Seattle tend to be. The uncultivated, wild twigs and leaves that scratched at the windows through the storm seemed to be trying to get inside. The nurtured and trimmed plants inside seemed to be grinning, self-satisfied.
You’re not worthy.
Small tour groups, mostly grayed women with white sneakers in groups of six or seven, meandered about. A photography class poked at the flora with rented lenses. Rain pummeled the windows. My glasses fogged up. It was hot, humid. I carried my jacket, my hat, my gloves in my hands. I didn’t know what to look at. I came here on another inexplicable impulse. An impulse to do something, to rebel at the notion of hibernating or hiding during the season’s first official storm; an impulse, I guess, characteristic of much of modern life.
Somehow, though, my mother’s cactus never truly hurt me. The Blue Candle never burned. A prick here and there. A splinter. It was my brother who, at three, dropped a vase on my head. I can see that scar, relatively fresh, as I watch myself watching my mother watering her cactus. I must’ve been four or five.
It was probably the last time I ever did nothing. Just sat on what was, then, a peach-colored shag carpet, and watched—literally watched—a cactus grow. I watch myself sitting and watching, and I can see the appeal. I’m lying on my belly, chin in my hands, feet kicking in the air. I have unruly red curls and, at that point, a wide separation in my two front teeth. It looks nice. The slowness, the deep breath the cactus takes when it drinks in its once-a-month watering is, at the same time, a desperate call to action.
Stay here. Stay here forever.
I started piano lessons a year later. This was the suburbs, so I gave that up for soccer; then drums, swim team, rock climbing. I moved away at 18. I lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan then Missoula, Montana. Finally, Seattle, Washington. State by state, I moved west. Early 2010s, I met a girl. Mid 2010s, she was gone. My brother went to prison. My brother got out of prison, reading Ayn Rand. I met another girl.
Then, I decided to spend a rainy afternoon in the quiet warmth of a botanical garden.
It was a housewarming gift from my grandmother to my parents. A cactus. Not a rhododendron, not an ivy; a severe, angry thing whose only hope for survival is to be left alone.
They’d moved across town from a small two-bedroom bungalow to a large four-bedroom bungalow after I was born and my parents spent all they had, selling most of their belongings, to find the extra room for an extra (my) tiny body to grow into.
I imagine her there, my mother, in that living room--peach shag carpet and all—still unpacking boxes, propping the cactus up in the planter and looking at it with her tongue in her cheek, her brow furrowed, until she finally accepts that this, too, will become her responsibility.
She holds me in her arms as she wanders from room to room in her new, empty house and can’t seem to avoid coming back to the cactus.
I will make you live, she tells it. I will learn to love you.
We are told that two bodies cannot occupy the same space. But can’t one space occupy two bodies? I imagine the thread is time: glinting gossamer tied between drifting forms like a boat to a dock.
I am here, therefore I am not there. But I will always have been there and there is no way to un-go there.
Because here, in the succulent room of the Volunteer Park Conservatory, is also my thirteen-year-old self or, rather, while in the succulent room of the Volunteer Park Conservatory, I am also in my mother’s living room. And there, too, is my grandmother. She is weeping because we are singing the mourner’s kaddish around a candle placed on a dish on the peach shag carpet.
My grandfather has just died. It’s fall there too. Wind is raging outside, there, as well. And behind my grandfather’s kaddish candle, the Blue Candle of my mother’s living room.
My grandfather took over a year to die; his kidneys pumping out bile and acid into dialysis machines until, finally, the doctors took pity and placed him on a morphine drip.
I lay my head in my grandmother’s lap.
What my grandmother knows in this moment, which my mother is just beginning to learn, is that keeping a thing alive is also a form of defeat.
There are, of course, other succulents in the Volunteer Park Conservatory. Ponytail palm, hoya plants, agaves and aloe veras. They are all particularly out of place in this, the wettest, rainiest season in the wettest rainiest place I’ve ever been.
Botany, after all, is a form of violence. The rare science that is also accessible to the amateur.
Millions of hands from millions of places have pulled and plucked plants and created a web of species and subspecies with no particular home and no particular place. Nativeness has become irrelevant. There is no reason to ever venture outside the warm, wet walls of the greenhouse: we’ve brought it all to us.
These succulents in their muted pastels, the purples and pinks of light refracting off sand, are beautiful specimens. And we should all enjoy them. But they are living creatures. They breath.
The moisture on the glass is proof, the condensation from countless imperceptible exhalations.
This place is a zoo, by any other name, and if these creatures made sounds the way zebras, bears or gazelles did, would they be the plaintive sounds of homesickness?
Place is moveable.
Mere weeks before I happened upon the Blue Candle in Volunteer Park, I had gone home for my grandmother’s funeral. I was the first person in my entire family to leave the midwest and so travelled the farthest to bury my last remaining grandparent.
Sylvia took a very long time to die as well; depending on your metric, she began dying the day my grandfather died. Or when she moved into an assisted living facility. When her speech started to go. When her balance failed. Or when, the previous summer she was riddled with the pneumonia from which she never, fully recovered.
My mom told me a secret near the end: “I just wish she would die.”
My grandma had said the same thing. But she just kept living.
For whatever reason her body wouldn’t let go. As if she were being kept alive.
My mother is a grandparent, herself, now. My nephew will be there, his head on her lap, when it comes time to bury my father. When I hold my nephew, I am never not in that place in the, hopefully, distant future, as well. That’s what his life is. His tiny body: all the time that will ever flow through it.
The cactus in the conservatory is still there. As is the cactus in my mom’s living room. I’m tempted to believe that they are one and the same, an enormous organism spanning the entirety of the country. I know that’s impossible.
More likely is simply that, instead of moving around in space, we are all simply bringing it with us.
Josh Potter received his MFA from the University of Washington in 2015. His fiction, non-fiction, and reviews have appeared in River Teeth, Driftwood Press, Sick Lit, Shelf Awareness, City Arts and others. He won the Juxtaprose fiction contest in 2017. He runs a reading series in the basement of a bar in Seattle, where he lives with his dog, a big mutt named Beckett. You can find him (and Beckett) on his Instagram @jmaxpotter, as well as on twitter at @jmaxpotter and online at www.jmaxpotter.com.