“It’s dead, Mom.” I looked toward my neighbor’s house, which used to be blocked by a wall of solid green. Lauren’s outstretched finger pointed to a row of skeletal shrubs and a carpet of crispy leaves. Beyond it, our neighbor’s house was clearly visible.
Our hedge was dead.
When we bought our house in the desert three years ago, I planted that hedge myself. It was a million degrees outside, but I slid a shovel into the sandy earth over and over again and watched a barren landscape give way to transformation.
This summer, though, while we were busy vacationing, monitoring wildfires, and dealing with an extended stay at the hospital, our sprinkler must have broken. Some afternoons, the thermometer here tops 120 degrees, and without water, it doesn’t take long for most plants to give up. Now our hedge looks like it has cancer.
Lauren and I walked along the row of shrubbery listening to the crunch beneath our feet, and I felt sweat soaking through my T-shirt. Thirty-eight ficus trees, some in crisis mode and others completely dead, stretched in a long, bleak line.
My husband, Gary, was in the hospital, and I had spent the week running back and forth between him and Lauren, doing my best to take care of both of them but falling short of the mark. Lauren and I shook cascades of brittle leaves off thirsty branches and then went in for the evening.
Early the next morning, while Lauren slept and before my first visit to Gary’s bedside at the hospital, I connected three hoses together, heaved them to the side of the yard, and started drenching parched roots and sculptural formations of bare branches. We’d spent thousands of dollars on those plants, and they were just coming into their own before this disaster.
A handful of green leaves clung stubbornly to a few of the limbs while water pooled on the ground. I wondered if those tiny shoots of life be enough to pull this hedge through.
Maybe it’s because my husband is still so sick or maybe it’s because my next cancer checkup looms on the calendar, but the hedge feels like a metaphor. I looked at its sickly pallor and thought about my long year of breast cancer treatment. I was so weak back then. My hair was gone. My muscle tone was gone. Clothes that once were tight hung from my shrunken frame. I was the human equivalent of those tortured plants.
“We’re going to take you as close as we can to death,” my oncologist told me while I was in chemotherapy, “and that’s how we’re going to save your life.” His peculiar explanation of the cancer-curing process underscored for me how life and death and everything in the middle are intertwined. It also underscored the importance of my mindset.
The medicine I needed to ingest had a skull and crossbones on the label. Nurses wore protective clothing and masks when they had to interact with me. It would have been easy to indulge in negative thinking, but that would have meant surrendering the only part of the cancer experience that is within my control.
Watching water flood my enormous row of dead foliage, I realized I faced a choice: I could look at the lifeless branches with despair or I could focus on the few remaining brilliant green leaves, fragile though they are. I could assume there was no chance or I could let tiny bits of green inspire me with hope and promise. Life wants to persist, I told myself. Its nature is resilient, and it wants to grow.
For a minute, I had allowed my brain to get sidetracked. I forgot the mental discipline I practiced during chemo and briefly believed that my sick husband, our messy house, an empty gas tank, and the endless list of chores is what’s real just because it’s what I can see, taste, and feel.
But the hedge reminded me that hidden deep within those stark branches — in places I can’t see — a strong, determined life force is asserting itself. Even if that force ultimately doesn’t prevail, its inherent beauty is undeniable, and it’s undeniably real.
“Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers Grow! Grow!” –Talmud
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