Verses for reflection: Happy are those … who find joy in obeying the Law of the Lord, and they study it day and night. They are like trees that grow beside a stream, that bear fruit at the right time, and whose leaves do not dry up. They succeed in everything they do. (Psalms 1: 1a, 3.)*
In the middle of winter, 2002, I walked into my office. The philodendron plant that I loved and nurtured for 30 years had totally withered. It looked completely dead. It wasn’t just wilted. The leaves had turned brown and wrinkled: grave-yard dead.
I was pretty upset. This was a plant that, a day before, had been vibrant, probably full of hundreds of leaves and myriad vines. I know it is just a plant, but when you’ve had something for 30 years, and it as alive and growing, it is almost a part of your life. My father bought it for my very vacant dorm room when I began college because he thought the room needed a “homey touch.” Those were the days when you arrived at college with only a trunkful of belongings.
The plant had gone through a previous “molt” or “almost-dead” time. But this time it was especially ominous to me because a couple days earlier, my mom had called at 7:30 a.m. and said, “I don’t have good news.” You wake up fast when your mom starts off a phone call like that. But Dad was just in the hospital, and they thought he would be okay if they put in a pacemaker. I’m not superstitious, but the timing with the plant looking limp seemed a little unusual; a little like E.T.
The housekeeper for our building, Doris, who usually waters our plants, was equally bewildered and upset about my plant. She had not changed anything in its care. We debated: too much sun, not enough, too much heat, too much water? I delayed taking off the dead leaves for a couple days, wondering if they would rejuvenate. Finally, sadly, I started cutting all the dead leaves away. I removed everything but two small leaves that still appeared to be a little green. The other vines I cut back to stumps. They looked dead.
But you can guess the rest of the story: soon new leaves appeared, and then one day I noticed fresh green shoots out of the brown little stumps. It was exciting! Doris and I rejoiced together. The new shoots seemed to grow a quarter of an inch overnight. I also found a very gross fungusy-looking thing, and wondered if it could have caused my plant’s sudden near-death episode.
It was great watching my plant sprout new life. The plant had been stripped of everything superfluous: I could see shoots and leaves I never saw before in the thick undergrowth. Its new life gave me hope.
It made me think of the legend of the phoenix, or the not so legendary butterfly, which goes through a similar cycle. A lowly caterpillar lives out its existence, plodding along the earth. Then one day it spins a chrysalis. For all practical purposes, it dies. Then another fine day, it emerges from the chrysalis to become a gorgeous butterfly, freed from its humdrum, plodding, earthbound existence.
We also think ahead to Easter. If the caterpillar can change its form from worm to butterfly, why is it so farfetched to believe in the resurrection? Why can’t there be a real heaven, where we will surely have changed body forms? Why is it so hard to imagine ourselves flitting about like butterflies or angels? Who knows?
P.S. The pacemaker kept Dad nicely ticking another four years. And now he lives in a much better place. And the plant, well take a look.
The philodendron from Harrisonburg’s Woolworth store, originally purchased in 1971!
Action: Never give up hope. When all is brown and withered and depressed, maybe we just need to prune our lives back to the essentials.
*Psalm 1 was always one of Dad’s favorite Psalms. I can hear him reciting it from memory.