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first person

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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

After my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the plants in our house began to die. At first, I would find her white watering can on the kitchen table adorned with a bright sticky note saying: “Water the plants today.” Later, it would pop up in random places, perched on the landing of the stairs, where she had forgotten it on her way somewhere.

In years past, I remember the deep, earthy smell that would rise up in our house after my mother had made her weekly watering rounds. Back then, I never associated it with the caretaking that was the hallmark of her life. Now, I see that it was part of the myriad ways she kept our home running: the meals cooked, the fridge filled with food, bills paid, clothes bought, dishes washed, all of it done over and over again.

The plants my mother tended were hearty and had been there for many years. Some sent vibrant leaves cascading down the side of our piano, and others sat in the corner of the upstairs hallway with branches reaching almost as tall as a tree. Still more luxuriated in the afternoon sun by the window of the family room.

But now, leaves were dropping, some shrivelled and edged with brown, many of the stems barren: an emblem of how my mother is no longer able to care for all the things to which she lovingly attended. I had been so focused on the increasing demands of her own care that her beloved plants had escaped my notice.

I have never had plants in my own home. I was not very good at keeping them alive. But now I found myself at my parents’ house looking for my mother’s delicate white watering can. It’s the same one she has had since my childhood: plastic, with a small gold embellishment in the centre, the end of the spout cracked. But, as with so many things, my mother never threw it away, cherishing it instead, no matter how broken or imperfect.

I set about her old rounds, pouring water into the thirsty soil. I tried to imagine how many hundreds of times she had done this. After she had sung me and my sister the thousandth lullaby, put up the millionth load of laundry, she somehow found the love and energy to tend to the plants, too. And they thrived.

That’s the thing about house plants: unlike children or pets, they demand nothing. They wait quietly, no matter how thirsty they are, no matter how desperate for attention. To undertake the care of a plant requires a kind of vigilance, a sacred pact. A willingness to care gently and constantly for a living thing that is entirely dependent on you for survival, but can’t even ask for help. This is the truest expression of love.

Even after my best attempts, some of the plants could not be revived. My mother’s kind caregivers have since brought new ones to add to her collection, and my father buys fresh flowers every week at the fruit and vegetable market. This past Mother’s Day, I took my mother to choose a basket of flowers for the front steps of the house. She wandered among the blossoms, enchanted. When she finally decided on a vibrant fuchsia arrangement, she was brimming with excitement to see it installed at the entrance to our home. All summer long, whenever she stepped outside, she was struck by its beauty as if for the first time, and then was quick to wonder whether it was getting enough water.

Even as Alzheimer’s steals so much of her moment-to-moment memory, the instinctive act of caring persists. I would guide her down the steps to water this one herself, with her little, white watering can. I watched as her trembling hands plucked any leaves that turned brown. Each time, she smiled up at me with deep satisfaction, because being able to care for something is still what brings her the greatest joy.

My mother is the kind of person who worries about if her caregivers have eaten lunch or if they will get home okay in the rain or snow. When anyone calls or visits, she inquires eagerly after their families and is invested in their stories. Whatever she may forget moments later, while she is with them, she is entirely present. Even as basic functions elude her, I am amazed at how she is still insistent that we send cards and thoughtful gifts for the birthdays of all those she loves. Though she has lost so much over the last few years, this core trait has distilled into some kind of potent essence. The caring that has no limit and no end.

I look at plants differently these days. I see them as my mother does: quiet reminders of the need for steadfast compassion for every living thing. It is clear to me that the things we spend a lifetime cultivating are never truly lost; the kindness she has planted in me still blooms. The highest expression of it now lies in my ability to care for her. While I may never have a green thumb, my mother continues to teach me all I will ever need to know about what it truly means to love.

Suzanne Socken lives in Toronto.