Weekly Feature: Karen J. Storm

The Bonsai

By Karen J. Storm

The bonsai tree arrived in a cellophane package tied at the top with an unassuming white bow. To me, unschooled in Bonsai cultivation, it looked like a baby pine tree with a gnarled, narrow trunk. The aesthetic was pleasing, however, with branches, thoughtfully suspended, like a dancer’s arms. It was in a shallow bowl, and the surface of the soil was covered with colored stones. The effect was a sculpture, carved, though stunted, by human will.

The tree was a present for my husband, Gary, who’d recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I set it on the kitchen counter next to the jar of shark cartilage, a bottle of colloidal minerals, pamphlets on securing Laetrile, pamphlets on living with cancer, and numerous articles from well-meaning friends on how to eat to cure cancer. Gary had mostly ignored these offerings, although the shark cartilage came from his sister, so he at least listened to her pitch when she phoned to tell him she’d sent it. Our minister brought the colloidal minerals, promising that they would strengthen Gary and help him fight his cancer. I would have preferred a few solid prayers from someone who might have special sway with God, but the minister shied away from that. Maybe he didn’t want to disappoint. Gary opened the bottle of minerals, smelled the murky liquid, and suggested that I drink it, since he was probably a lost cause.

Other plants and flowers arrived at our house, timed to his discharge from the hospital in early June. We had a U-shaped kitchen with a big peninsula that overlooked the family room, and as the “cures” and green stuff arrived, I lined them up on it, thinking I’d find places for everything all later. Gary read the cards and usually remarked something like “that was nice.” The bonsai, though, was different. We’d seen bonsais for sale at the mall, and we knew they were costly. This one looked as though it’d been cultivated for years. That impressed Gary. When he opened the card, it was from an old friend whom he hadn’t heard from in a long time. His friend’s message noted that this particular bonsai was very old and that bonsai trees symbolize long life. He suggested that if the bonsai was kept alive, Gary might also be favored with a long life.

There were instructions for taking care of the bonsai. Most important was watering, but there were no specific rules. Instead, the instructions said not to have a schedule, rather to watch the tree to see when it required water, when the top soil was slightly dry (this one had stones on the soil). You should water it with rain water, from a sprinkling can (we were in Utah, a high desert with little rain). And bonsai trees like humidity so if the air isn’t humid, you should set it over a pan filled with water. The owner should also fertilize it regularly from spring until autumn. Bonsais need a few hours of sunlight every day. Most important, the directions said that it should be kept cool, about 50 degrees. Again, we were in Utah. In summer it wasn’t uncommon to hit 104 degrees daily.

I tell you all this because Gary took the card seriously. He was a man who believed in miracles. When his cancer was diagnosed, he’d told the doctor, “I’m not like other people. Things don’t happen to me like they do to them. I jumped out of a plane, my parachute failed, I crashed to earth, and I survived.” If keeping a bonsai alive could metaphorically keep him alive, then he wanted to try.

Unfortunately, Gary was not a plant person. He was an urban development person. I, on the other hand, prided myself on my green thumb. Somehow, almost by default as Gary was absorbed with recovering from surgery, it became my task to not only keep it alive but thriving. At the time, I didn’t feel daunted by my task nor did I resent that it had fallen to me; I was confident I could make anything grow. Now, several years later, as I look in my living room, there are four orchids that I’ve had for years steadily sending out new flowers for me to enjoy. My desk and bedroom are filled with plants. I can look at a plant and sense what it needs. Plants and I are sympatico. But most important then, aside from my green thumb or anything else, what mattered was that I would do anything to save Gary, whatever it took, even tending a plant with the notion that keeping it alive would keep Gary alive.

The bonsai, however, did not cooperate. I started out hopeful, carefully following the instructions. I kept two pans with water that the bonsai could sit over to get humidity in the dry Utah climate. I placed one in our sunny living room where the bonsai hung out for its four hours of sun. Then I’d move it to a cool room in our walkout basement and place it over the other pan of water. I talked to this bonsai tree, like I do my orchids, said it was beautiful and breathed carbon dioxide on it. Meanwhile, I drove Gary to downtown Salt Lake City once a week to get his chemo pack, I nursed his nausea, propped his pillows, paid the bills, kept the house clean, called friends and relatives with updates, and tried to keep his spirits up—all while holding a full-time job. Later that summer, when it was time for radiation, I drove him to it and listened to him gripe in the car about my driving, which I translated as “I’m in pain and every bump hurts.”

Every now and then Gary would ask, “How’s the bonsai doing?” I wasn’t sure why he asked, because he hardly looked at it. His enthusiasm for the symbolism seemed to have waned. He’d given it over to me, that was certain. I’d tell him that it was doing fine. I couldn’t bear to admit that one by one needles were turning brown and falling off. First, I thought I wasn’t giving it enough water, so I gave it more. Then I reasoned that I’d overwatered it, so I cut back on water, trying to keep the soil moist and not let it dry out, all the while having no idea what the soil on the bottom of the pot looked like. For all I knew, it was sitting in water. I watched it die, little by little, and I felt my failure. Yet I kept searching for the solution, the one treatment that would reverse its decline.

Watching the bonsai wither was nothing compared to watching Gary slowly decline. He lost weight, not little by little, but almost overnight. His once round face sunk into bony hollows, with two intelligent eyes fading as he bore under the treatments. He spent more and more time in bed, and I watched how he rationed his morphine pills so he wouldn’t be too sleepy to read the paper or do some work on a project he loved.

In February of the following year, we moved back to our home state of Minnesota. Gary and I flew but we had someone drive a few of our belongings and the bonsai back for us. In Minnesota it was far easier to have sun and a cool room at the same time. We bought a four-bedroom house, and the bonsai had its own room, which doubled as the guest room. I resumed checking it daily. I not only encouraged it but also pleaded with it, live, hoping it would perk up in the different climate. It continued to drop needles. And Gary continued to shrink, his body an outline of skin, bones, and what had once been muscle.

I make it sound like I was all about loving care of the bonsai, never giving up, but I knew enough about plants to know that I’d never save it. Once a plant starts downhill, it takes a miracle to change the trajectory. I resented that. I resented the bastard—fortunately I don’t remember his name—that sent the damn plant to us. It was a plant, after all. Why did he have to imbue it with such meaning—if you keep it alive, you will stay alive. And I couldn’t believe Gary and I bought into it. Truth was, we were each grasping for a glimmer of hope. I knew there was no magic in shark cartilage or colloidal minerals and so did Gary. But the bonsai with its regal beauty, tamed by human hands, seemed to embody hope, and hope is all you have with a cancer like pancreatic, with its terrible survival rate. Short term hope for a good day when you can get out and enjoy the sunshine, maybe take in a movie. Hope for the longer term, maybe Gary could live the entire eighteen months the doctor gave as the longest survival time he’d seen for someone with the surgery Gary had had. Eighteen months meant he’d be able to give his daughter away at her wedding.

By late spring Gary was in bed most of the day. He had lived almost a year from his diagnosis. Now and then Gary inquired about the bonsai, I suspect because he knew I checked on it, still fretting over it, afraid to give up. He didn’t know I secretly cursed it, too. But then who doesn’t curse when there is no foundation for hope, even while clinging to it?

In early summer, our hopes ran out. Gary died on June 7th. I don’t remember when the bonsai died. I do remember tossing it in the trash. I had lost everything, and I didn’t need a reminder of that loss. I’ve not bought one since, nor do I plan to. An orchid might be a challenge to grow, but a bonsai is a torment, to be reserved for those who believe humans have control over nature. We, Gary and I, did not have control. We had cancer instead.

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Karen Storm, who has been writing in her head ever since she discovered the magic of words, has now put pen to paper or maybe that should be, fingers to keyboard. She writes about death and dying, the nexus of experience and self-understanding, and identity. Storm was an academic for many years with many such publications. She’s also a graduate of the MFA program in creative non-fiction at the University of Minnesota. She blogs about issues of retirement and aging at karensdescant.com