Selfishly, I Planted Flowers | Rachel Sussman
I planted flowers whose delicate blooms and soft fragrances remind me of you, but what I really miss is your razor-sharp tongue and tart humor. But I can’t grow that, even if you are closer to dirt than to flesh and blood now. Just ash and bones. How is that possible? Even just weeks before you died, your words crackled with life, your texts zinged across miles and miles of land and sea to ping my phone with a jolt of humor and snark. But your body was ebbing, ebbing then, breaking down, and was I selfish to say that you not being dead was still my favorite thing?
What I mumbled like an incantation (or a rant) to the flower bulbs as I planted them this fall—hands numb from the cold soil, body aching with repetitive labor, mind grateful for the expression of its grief—is that we don’t talk enough about how friendships are, in some sense, the greatest love stories of our lives. There is no altar at which we pledge our undying affection, just a collection of hours and days spent together, our feet tucked underneath us on couches as we tell and retell the stories that make us whole. Or sitting, legs stretched out like an offering to the whining mosquitoes, for hours after dinner on still-humid summer nights, opening our hearts to share all the things we secretly hate. (You can share what you love with almost anyone, but for your scorn, you need a trusted friend.) And I’m grateful to girlhood for the skill of being able to wile away an entire weekend doing nothing but sitting and talking—the light outside shifting gradually, the drinks in our hands changing, the people around us coming and going, while we remain fixed in our spots, cataloging the entirety of our lives, analyzing, considering, meditating. But, without any rite of passage, the years just go by—weekends spent together greedily soaking up as much of each other as we could, months or years spent apart, meaning to call or write, but always in each other’s thoughts—more or less uncounted until somehow they span decades.
Without realizing it, our friendship grew roots so deep and far-ranging that, by the time the call came that you were dead, you were interwoven through every aspect of my life—like a delicate, complex nervous system, ready to activate with the slightest brush. Everywhere I turn I find you again, your memory still filled with so much life and energy that I am almost ashamed. I wish I could grow you again in my backyard. Reconjure you somehow to recapture another lifetime of conversations, even though I know that’s a selfish wish, too. Your body suffered long and hard, and who am I to wish it anything but rest?
After you died, people were quick to tell me the things you were like to me—an older sister, a mentor—but I recoiled at them all because friendship was always more than enough. Now I wish I had captured every word we said, every inflection in your voice, every gesture of your hands, every expression of your face. Instead, I’m left with fragmented memories. (I worry I’ve already forgotten too much. I worry I was never good enough to remember.) I remember you standing in your yard, pulling weeds in your pajamas, the morning sun catching off your coke-bottle glasses, which you swore you let almost no one you see wear. I remember the first time you hugged me, surprisingly strong for such a slight body, and isn’t that so you? Surprisingly strong and fierce for just one person. I remember your admonition that I shouldn’t question your habit of keeping chocolate in your bedside table because You never know when you’re going to need some. And it’s true. We should always keep our comforts close at hand. I remember you teaching me to hide terrible children’s books down the back of the couch. Most of all, I remember sitting by your side, your face almost lost in the dark, both of us beyond tired, but not yet ready to say goodnight, your laughter and the sound of your voice, keen and luminous, filling the night.
I told myself when the flowers come this spring—pushing up from a dormant wait in dark, cold earth, leaves unfurling—I will tell them about you. Into their translucent petals, their delicate heaps of pollen, and their thin stamens, all of which belie their fortitude and strength, I will whisper your name and your stories. And they, in turn, will pass it onto the bees, the rain, the dirt, the seeds, the birds, the clouds, the squirrels, the roots, until there is no corner of nature where your name and life will not be whispered or shouted or burbled or sung—although people may not know to listen for it.
Now, though, the flowers are finally beginning to show above the soil, like small green spikes of promise. Now the birds are gathering, practicing scales, building, arguing in the tree outside my window. Now there is an insistent hope for spring.
And I do not want it. I feel a frantic scrabbling in my chest to push it all back down. Not yet, flowers. No more, birds. Wait. Stay dormant. Because when they blossom and pollinate and sing, you will still be gone. And, selfishly, greedily, furiously, I am not ready.
It doesn’t matter what I say. The hyacinth I planted bloomed today. Little purple flowers that opened like trumpets without any warning. I stopped and stared. I stopped and thought of you, of you, of you. I stopped and wept. I knelt beside the plant in the still frigid dirt and whispered your name.
Selfishly, I Planted Flowers by Rachel Sussman was selected as the winner of the 2023 HoneyBee Prize in Nonfiction by Hugh Reilly. Here’s what Mr. Reilly had to say about the piece:
“Selfishly I Planted Flowers,” is a lyrical exploration of lifelong friendship. Insightful commentary like, “You can share what you love with anyone, but for scorn you need a trusted friend,” stopped me in my tracks and made me read the line again and savor its power and truth. I thought of my own best friend and what it would be like to lose him. Authentic anecdotes like pulling weeds in your pajamas, help this story ring true. The careful word choice, the judicial use of repetition, and the consistent and memorable metaphor of a flower garden resonate and make this story unforgettable. The final paragraph reminds us that there is a finish, an end to all things, and an inevitable new beginning. Sorrow and hope intertwined.
More about the author:
Rachel Sussman’s work has appeared in Into the Void, Months to Years, My Chronic Brain, and is forthcoming in The Pinch. You can read her movie and television reviews, which have been called “snarky and piercing,” on chronicallystreaming.com. She is also on Twitter and Instagram @RachelXSussman.