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It was the beginning of December, and the church committee's request was simple: "If we bring in poinsettias, could you please water them?" Watering would be the easy part. Remembering would be the challenge.
The request had come right after the Sunday morning service, when my hands were occupied with coffee and a muffin. I didn't write a note to self. I was going to be working at the church office on Tuesday: Surely I would remember to enter the sanctuary to see if the committee had bought the poinsettias.
All went well Tuesday morning. I came, I saw, I watered. I even went the second mile and, like a hen gathering her chicks, clustered the eight plants on the carpet by the stairs in such a way that they would receive beams of colourful sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows.
These plants would soon be distributed to those among our seniors who could no longer leave their care homes to attend services. Meanwhile, the plants would remain in the sanctuary adding to the Christmas decor.
With the plants well in hand, I returned to my office, preoccupied with family matters. Two weeks earlier, I had been in my mom's apartment calling an ambulance for her. She was admitted to hospital because of an infection. Since it appeared that she would be there for a while, she was on the church list as one of the seniors unable to attend our services, and she would receive a poinsettia.
At the end of the week, I returned the poinsettias to their designated spots as temporary decorations.
One last check – they needed water again. They were dry, very dry. In fact there was something odd about the soil. My hand brushed against a leaf. I was stunned. It wasn't real! I touched another and another, desperately searching for reality. For a moment, I sat motionless on the carpeted stairs in the empty sanctuary, facing the poinsettias.
I know I had a lot of things on my mind, but could I really have watered silk plants and even gathered them into the sunlight? Apparently, yes.
How could I not have known they were fake? They looked so real. Who makes these things? Where was the miscommunication?
I went over the simple instructions several times in my mind. Where on earth did I go wrong? But the mystery of my error would have to wait. Water had been sitting between the Styrofoam, the plastic pots, the glue and the gold-foil wrap all week.
Bounding up off the stairs, I began carrying the "plants" down to the kitchen, arms filled with red, green and gold. I tipped each plant into the sink. With some, I had to gently peel back the stubborn glued foil to release the water.
Back at my desk, a few e-mails solved the mystery. The committee had decided not to buy poinsettias for the seniors, substituting Christmas tins of home-baked cookies instead. Meanwhile, our faithful church decorators had innocently come in on the Monday evening to add a few final touches.
How badly had I ruined those final touches? Did I get all the water out? Would a bit of dampness between the layers be okay? Should I return tonight with my blow-dryer?
In the end, I didn't need to be concerned. The silk poinsettias recovered from the impact of my careful attention that week and looked wonderful for the entire season.
When the Christmas tins of home-baked cookies were ready, I took my mom's and visited her at the hospital. Always having had a sweet tooth, she was delighted. I told her how my work was going and the story about watering the silk plants. She thought it hilarious, as I knew she would.
I wasn't going to ruin the moment by telling her how difficult I was finding this particular moment to be. To me, she should not be sitting in a hospital bed opening a tin of cookies from the church. She should have been in her own kitchen, doing her own baking, just like she enjoyed doing and was capable of doing only a month before.
But that was no longer our reality, and it wouldn't be ever again.
Instead, her time in the hospital became a transition into a long-term care facility. Our family would be moving her from her apartment into a small room. I knew she would need a lot of encouragement and support with all the changes that were coming. She would need time to adjust. That was the real picture – so suddenly the real picture.
It's been a few years now and the silk poinsettias continue to decorate the sanctuary each December. They look lovely, healthy and, as always, unchanged.
But life isn't like that. My life is always changing, and I never know what it will look like from one December to the next. And that's okay, because through the difficulties, challenges and changes, I know it's not silk – it's real.
Kim L. Clarke lives in Calgary.