Ties with loved ones bloom beyond death, as one orchid shows

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I don't believe in ghosts or Ouija boards or anything supernatural. But I do believe that sometimes our deceased loved ones send us messages.

My story begins the day after my grandfather's life ended, one month after his 92nd birthday. The next afternoon I answered our doorbell to greet a white orchid wrapped in cellophane, a bereavement gift compliments of my husband's mother and sister, both avid gardeners.

I had mixed emotions. Don't get me wrong, the orchid was beautiful, exquisite even. And it was a fitting tribute to my grandfather, who was a wonderful gardener in his day, once even building a lattice in his backyard to showcase his lush roses.

But I had a terrible track record with houseplants. And aren't orchids tropical plants? I've admired them at Phipps Conservatory, but those lucky devils had a team of experts caring for them. How was this lone, fragile-looking plant going to survive in my crazy household of three boys? Even if I could protect it from harm, how much water would it need?

I had a sinking feeling that water was the key to the downfall of my previous houseplants. Apparently you have to notice plants to water them. And I rarely noticed them. When I did notice them, I overwatered to compensate and ended up drowning the poor things.

When I did talk to my previous plants it was mostly to apologize for their untimely deaths. I remember my first words to my orchid being something like, "I promise to keep you alive as long as possible. Please survive. At least until my mother-in-law visits."

I carefully cut away the cellophane, set it on the window ledge in my dining room and promptly forgot about it.

After the whirlwind funeral weekend something very strange began happening. I began to notice my orchid. Not every day, but at least once a week I would see it, think of Papa and smile, and then here comes the key: I watered it, just enough.

Perhaps through Papa's intervention, I finally learned what enough meant for a plant. I remember being amazed that the flowers that looked to me like little faces lasted for weeks, until they all shriveled and floated down from their perches within days of each other. Was it due to my excellent care that they had survived as long as they did?

Before I could congratulate myself too much, I took a good look at my naked orchid. The once tall and proud stalk was listing forward as it slowly turned brown and brittle. And the pitiful roots didn't look much better. Was there anything still alive on my orchid?

I confess that I was so convinced of my orchid's demise that I came extremely close to following my "open trash bag, insert dead plant" ritual. Thank goodness I didn't, because soon my dead-looking nub of a plant began to push forth something green.

At first I thought it was a root, but then I realized that it was growing up toward the light instead of down toward the soil, a dead giveaway that I was looking at a stalk, not a root. A little hope!

Sure enough, from then on each time I noticed my orchid the stalk looked a little greener and a little sturdier. I can't remember exactly when, but sometime later that year it bloomed again. When the now-familiar bloom faces reappeared, I greeted them like old friends -- and thanked Papa.

I do remember when my orchid bloomed for the third time under my care: the week of Papa's birthday the next April. Perfect timing!

And then came a long, barren period and a string of bad luck. An errant ball knocked my orchid over, snapping its biggest leaf in half. Another time an unusually strong May breeze upended it, reminding me to be grateful for small pleasures like an unharmed orchid during a particularly hectic spring.

Somehow it survived our move a few summers ago, even though it was stuffed in our minivan along with a wet mop, ?lthy broom, some framed pictures and a bag of toiletries as part of the last load we moved.

Luckily it seems to like its new home. It has graduated to a generously wide ledge behind our kitchen table. And it continues to blossom with uncanny timing.

When I received the sad, but not unwelcome, news that my frail, lonely grandmother had passed away almost three years to the day after her beloved husband, I was not surprised to notice that my orchid was blooming.


Sarah Falbo of Mt. Lebanon, a teacher consultant, can be reached at sfalbo@verizon.net.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255.


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