The Day the Killing Stopped

I used to be a killer.

It’s hard for me to admit that. I never wanted to be a killer. But it just kept happening. Things kept dying in spite of my best efforts. And by things, I mean plants.

The first time it happened, the victim was a healthy aloe vera plant. It wasn’t sickly. It wasn’t circling the drain. I just happened to notice a few bugs in the soil, so I stuck the plant outside, hoping the critters would find a better place to call home.

Unfortunately, the temperature dipped below freezing that night. Such is life in the NC mountains (where I was in college at the time). The next morning I discovered the limp corpse of my aloe vera plant. Cause of death: freezing.

But that was a fluke, right? A blip. Not entirely my fault. Up until that point, the aloe vera plant had been totally alive. So okay, an accident. It happens.

I don’t fully remember the next plant, but I think it was a casualty of a long-distance move, too much time spent in a hot car. And it was followed by a long string of slowly dying plants.

I didn’t get it. I followed the instructions that came with the plants. I did exactly as they directed. Why were the plants always dying under my care? I’ve always loved nature. I was the kid who grew up outside, playing in the dirt and climbing trees. I felt at peace lying in the grass, staring up at the sky. Why was nature rebelling against me?

Then. One day. Something changed.

It was a gray fall day when my husband and I were wandering around the garden section at Lowe’s. A shelf full of small purple plants caught my eye. They weren’t in great shape, but I recognized them, vaguely recalling them gracing the yard of a childhood home. An employee saw me looking at the purple heart plants and called over to tell me they were fifty percent off.

My husband wandered over to me. “We can get one if you want.”

“I don’t know . . .” Images of previous victims flashed through my mind.

“Hey, at least it’s already half dead, so you won’t feel bad if you kill it.”

My husband’s confidence in me was overwhelming. We bought a plant.

I took home the tiny little sprout and separated out the dead portions, putting what was left in a new pot with fresh soil.

“Please don’t die,” I whispered as I gave it a good drink of water, promising it I’d do whatever I could to give it a fighting chance.

And something amazing happened. The plant lived. Not only did it live, it thrived, growing rapidly and producing so many tendrils, I’ve made half a dozen more plants from cuttings.

What happened? It wasn’t that this half-dead plant had a miraculous ability to live (although I’m nearly convinced it’s immortal). Something powerful changed in me: I stopped following the instructions.

Once I started doing my own research online, I realized how wrong the instructions that come with each plant actually were. One told me to give the plant a cup of water every week. But here’s what I later learned: the amount of water a plant needs depends on the temperature, the humidity of the air, and the water retention of the soil, just to name a few factors. So by following the directions with all the other plants, carefully doing exactly as they instructed, I was destroying my plants.

I’m happy to report that since the day I got the purple heart plant, I have managed to nurture not only that plant and all its descendants, but five other plants as well.

So if you want to know how to keep something alive, whether it’s a plant or a relationship, here’s my advice: throw away the instructions.

This is what a non-dead, very happy, sunlight-loving purple heart plant looks like.

In the Event of my Death

I don’t know whether it’s my Southern culture or the influence of my grandmother’s Eastern European heritage, but I grew up to have a pretty straightforward view of death (coupled with an occasionally morbid sense of humor). Death is something my family has always talked about honestly. So it’s not particularly surprising that I’ve thought about my own death.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t sit around pondering it, but I’m aware that death can be unexpected. Maybe that’s because I have a heart condition (not life-threatening, it just slightly increases my odds of dropping dead. You can read about it here). Or because the news itself is a constant reminder that life can be ripped away at any moment. Or it’s because of those let’s talk about life insurance┬ácards I get from my insurance company around my birthday every year. (Um, thanks?)

Whatever the cause, I realized that if death did come for me unexpectedly, I needed to be able to say goodbye to some people I love. Or, more accurately, they needed to be able to hear goodbye from me.

So I opened my laptop one day to write my potential goodbyes. It’s a weird thing, sitting down to write letters to be read after your death, ones you hope you’ll have to keep updating for a few more decades. How do you even start? “Dear Loved One, these words are coming to you from The Great Beyond and thus you must heed my Jacob Marley-esque warning…”

A strange thing happened as I wrote: I began to appreciate my life more, every angle and nuance, even the frustrating edges. It’s not that I took it for granted before—I try to never take my life for granted—but with every word, I started to value each second that much more. Every goodbye I wrote, every attempt to comfort a loved one, made me more determined to appreciate the good AND the bad in my life, to embrace each moment. (No, I’m not going skydiving or anything. I have no desire to get closer to death. Heart conditions and skydiving are generally not a recipe for living.)

It’s a strange perspective-shifter, preparing for your own eventual death. It’s one thing to acknowledge it by creating a will. It’s another thing altogether to write personal letters, and it’s an exercise I highly recommend.

Life is precious. We say that all the time, but too often we don’t act like it. We complain about unpleasant moments, vent about temporary frustrations, whine about momentary setbacks. But those things, they’re part of the life we declare is precious, so they too are precious.

One day I’ll be gone. So will you. What do you want your loved ones to know?