ByThe People: Orchid Dad

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I received my first orchid the same winter my father died. White with pale pink centers, the flowers—like cherubic faces—dangled in single-file from two arched stems that curved in the same direction, one much longer than the other. The waxy structured leaves—short and close to the soil—curved opposite the flowers making the orchid look as if it were pulled in different directions.


My father loved orchids enough for them to merit a mention in his obituary. This I vaguely knew, a peripheral detail, like the shape of his face, or the sound of his voice. My parents divorced when I was very small, and despite a handful of childhood memories—sitting on his broad shoulders at Mardi Gras parades, playing with a Venus flytrap while he read in silence, going to dark bars in the middle of the day—my father was an amorphous shadow. I remember smells of beer and sweat and the way his stubble scratched my face if we hugged.
Because plants cannot see, they have signaling molecules and complex genetic activities that help shoots grow toward the light and roots grow away from it finding nourishment in the soil. Survival is built into the structure of a plant. Orchids are finicky plants. They require attention to detail and consistent care. Orchids make you work for their blooms.


My Mom tells me that in the weeks before my birth, Dad kept watching his orchid. He watered it on schedule touching the soil first to confirm it was dry. He made sure it had adequate light despite the gray winter of northern Wisconsin where we were living at the time. On a cold day in early February, my mother’s water broke. It took hours on icy roads to get to the hospital, but when they made it, I took my first breath just shy of midnight. When we returned from the hospital a couple days later, my Dad’s orchid had a tiny row of buds on it that eventually became yellow flowers freckled with deep maroon dots. They called me the orchid girl.


I resented my Dad for most of his life because after the divorce he rarely made attempts to include me in it. No phone calls. No emails. Even the once-a-year birthday cards were written and signed in my stepmom’s handwriting, though they also said Love Dad. He pruned back the brief life he had with us. Silence became permanent absence. I took it personally and matched his with my own.
So many years passed, so many experiences went unshared until one day when I was 31 I decided to visit my Dad after he had had some close calls, no doubt due to drinking. I traveled with my sister, niece, and nephew to the sticky summer of southern Mississippi where my Dad was living with my stepmom at the time. Gray hair, puffy eyes, skin loose below his chin. I noticed orchids all over the house tucked in corners with dusty leaves. None of them were blooming.


“I can’t drink beer anymore because of all the medication.” That’s all Dad said about his cancer. Afterward, he looked away and laughed—that guttural sound—then he changed the subject and with a casual southern twang asked us about our lives. For the first time, he seemed genuinely engaged in our stories. It felt sad to play catch-up this way—condensing my life into a few sentences, not knowing how to ask a dying person how his life has been lately. After that visit, I tried keeping in touch more with frequent greeting cards and phone calls. In the weeks before his death, I kept telling myself you need to call your Dad.


At the memorial the photo display of my Dad showed him as a child in a cowboy hat, a teenager wrestling with friends, a disciplined academic typing his dissertation. This was the first I saw of these photos. He had a mischievous smirk in all of them, an expression that seemed to cover deeper selves. I spent my life angry with Dad for never getting to know me, but I never got to know him either. We were both stuck in the same rocky soil.

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