For most of my life, I hardly noticed orchids. Years ago, my husband was given one that must have been blooming when he got it, but if it was, I did not pay attention. That flowerless orchid has sat by our kitchen window all this time, somehow not dying. My husband watered the bloomless plant whenever he remembered, which was every few weeks at best. The truth is I didn’t keep track. I didn’t care. I had a whole house of other plants to water and prune and re-pot as needed. And I had our dog who needed a regimen of medicine and had for many years.
Then this summer, one of our dog’s eyes got an ulcer, and my days became a schedule of eye drops along with her familiar regimen of pills. She started wearing a cone. Around this time, I determined that my husband’s orchid needed re-potting. I became fixated on giving this orchid a new lease on life, and I tried to find a nursery that could do the deed. I finally handed the orchid over to someone with know-how and gentle hands, and she put the orchid in a green ceramic pot with slits down the side—no more plastic cup with holes—and she taught me how to mix a gallon jug with fertilizer, how to pour the concoction without reservation over the leaves, how to let the plant drain til there was no liquid left.
“It’s healthy,” she said. She pointed to a teeny leaf just emerging. “See this? That’s a good sign.” This was nearing the end of July, and our dog’s eye was not healing, and she had been wearing a plastic cone for nearly a month by then, and we’d been putting drops in her eye like clockwork. My husband’s orchid became my obsession. I focused on that tiny leaf, and I watered the orchid with fertilizer every week as directed, and I watched that tiny leaf grow, becoming stronger and longer and sturdier.
Meanwhile our dog was taking two steps forward, one step back. Our vet said to keep doing what we were doing. It would just take time.
At the start of September, we went to North Carolina to see my sister, and she helped care for our dog, who was still wearing a cone, still needing a laundry list of medications and eye drops. One early morning, my sister told us something we didn’t want to hear: our dog was walking into walls. We knew what this meant: our dog’s one good eye had now gone bad. We made plans to see our vet as soon as we returned. Later that morning, still in North Carolina, while our dog — with her cone and failing eyes — stayed in the car, we ran into a grocery store to grab coffee, yogurt, maybe some bananas. That’s when I saw the orchid display, so lovely. I wanted one. Then I looked at how they were potted, and I knew enough by then to grasp that there was no way for the orchids to drain when watered. All these orchids were doomed. Doomed! So I bought one, only because I wanted to save it. I wanted them all, but I couldn’t buy an entire display of orchids.
We took our dog to the vet as soon as we returned home. It wasn’t good news: her good eye had an ulcer too. She needed a specialist. I took the new orchid to the nursery and had it repotted into a proper pot with drain holes. I set the new orchid by our old orchid. The new orchid dropped its blooms within days. I continued on: I cared for our dog; I cared for the orchids. I looked for signs everywhere that things were getting better.
But they weren’t, not for our beloved dog. She had procedures meant to help but that involved too much pain, and there was no way forward without a great deal more suffering. We made the difficult choice: we said goodbye to our great love.
In the weeks that followed I spent a lot of time inspecting the old and new orchids, searching for signs of new leaves, moving the plants around to give them the best light. Then in mid-October my parents handed over a flowerless orchid that had been gifted to them, and it had been so poorly potted by whatever store it had come from that nearly all the plant’s roots had rotted. I took it to the nursery. They said, “You can’t repot this now. You need to see if it can recover.” They took it out of its miserable medium and gave the orchid new bark mixture and told me to wait and see if the plant lived past six months.
Last week, I eyed the orchids at a local grocery store. Showy, full of color, vibrant. Then I peeked into the pots and saw that all I’d be signing up for was more struggle. But they needed me, didn’t they? I put an orchid in my cart. I rolled a few feet away. I turned around, put the plant back. I couldn’t risk that something else might die.
I know: it’s an orchid. But you and I both know it was never about the orchid.
A day later I couldn’t help myself: suddenly I was driving to the nursery, perusing the orchid display. These orchids were more expensive than the grocery store ones, but they were potted perfectly. “Grown responsibly from start to finish” the tag read. My spirits rose. And then there she was: a small orchid with big leaves and two stems crowded with lavender blooms.
A fourth orchid? Really, Shuly? But this one is blooming, I told myself. It’s so beautiful.
She sits on my desk now, beside me as I work. Sometimes when I go into another room, I take her with me. She’s all flamboyance, and I am all fawning. I know that she, too, will eventually lose her flowers. But in this moment, she has it all — and she is alive. In this moment, so am I.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is an award-winning author and writer living in Johnson City. Her new book, “What the Fortune Teller Would Have Said,” is due out next month. Learn more at shulycawood.com.