by Lowrey Brown
I was waiting when the Cactus Cradle truck arrived at my parents’ now-vacant house. The realtor wanted the saguaro moved before showing the house, saying that prospective buyers cool when they see something eye-catching and then learn it isn’t included. There was no leaving it behind, despite the realtor’s hinting, and I was having it transplanted at my house, farther out of town where the nights were still dark and the air clear.
I had slept poorly the night before. Intellectually, I knew this would not be the most challenging time for the saguaro; the test of its mettle lay ahead, but I would have no role to play then. When the last shovel had been tossed into the truck, there would be nothing more that I could do but water a little, on the strictest of schedules. How odd. I tried to think of a parallel in human life. Would it be like walking your son to the gates of the town’s monastery? Once he crossed that threshold, he would enter a foreign land and you could not reach him, yet there he would be, passing his days on the hillside you could see from your window.
Rob, the owner of Cactus Cradle, must have seen my knotted brow and, patting my shoulder, assured me that in twenty years of moving cacti, he’d rarely lost one, and when he had, it was because an over-anxious homeowner couldn’t resist the urge to water it …
I nodded, obediently. Everyone here knows about overwatering cacti, but apparently, cacti are like donuts; there’s little connection between what we know and what we do.
“I won’t even sweat near it,” I promised.
He laughed and turned toward his charge. At over six feet, it was still too young to have arms and was a good candidate for transplant. He pulled out a compass, and, cutting a length of red yarn from a ball he kept in the truck, he tied a necklace around the saguaro with the knot marking north. For all the hours I had gazed at it, it looked uniformly green to me, but Rob got a faraway look.
“Failing to transplant a saguaro in its original orientation is a mistake you only make once.”
He described what had been the north-facing surface, carelessly planted facing south-southwest, first yellowing, then crusting into a mottled brown scar that remained to this day. I cringed inside, relieved that an unforeseen disaster had been averted. This saguaro had its honorary place in my family, and, now that my parents were gone, it was just the two of us.
Removing the saguaro was something of a process, and I retreated inside to spare the crew my worried supervision. From inside I could hear their muffled voices, and then, eventually, I heard the whine of the hydraulic lift. I waited for it to fall silent before going outside. There was my saguaro, lying in the lift, angled from tailgate to cab. It looked so small and sad. What had been only hours before an imposing figure before my parent’s doorway was now a small, helpless, bandaged spear, waiting to be carried on a diesel gurney. When the mighty fall, I mused, it might look something like this.
Rob sauntered toward me, “all tucked in like a baby. Everything went smoothly. Don’t you worry a quick drive to your place, and we’ll get it comfortably settled into its new home.”
When he first came to the property to give me a bid, Rob had asked about the saguaro’s health and whether it had it flowered. Sadly, no, I told him, though we’d been watching for one expectantly over the last decade. Rob smiled. “It’s a youngster, not much older than you!” At sixty, I didn’t feel like a youngster, and the saguaro probably had at least a decade on me (though I guess that isn’t much older, by saguaro standards); it had been about two inches tall when my parents planted it to mark my birth.
Rob warned me that the stress of transplanting would likely push back the appearance of its first flower for a few more years. “Even plants that have flowered often don’t bloom for a few years after transplant.”
My mother was eleven when her family emigrated from Ireland, and though she had mostly lost her accent, she was clumsy at integrating culture and landscape. I think she imagined the saguaro would sprout like a tree, keeping pace with me and shading me as I grew, but it didn’t, of course, and it became our garden gnome that couldn’t quite lord over its front-yard territory where we greeted it as we came and went.
I remember that Christmas Eve when I realized it was as tall as I. Arriving for supper, I had paused before approaching the house and stepped from the walk to give it a more personal greeting. There it stood, tall and proud, no longer a child among us. Growing up, we had lovingly tracked its growth along with mine, measuring our heights every birthday and marking the butcher paper my father had taped to the side of the refrigerator. He would draw a green hatch-mark for the saguaro’s height and date it, then do the same for me in red, in honor of my then-fiery hair.
I don’t remember when we stopped performing that ritual. Maybe when we got a new refrigerator, no one thought to save the butcher paper, and by then my height had ceased being of interest. While we prematurely watched our saguaro for signs of a flower, the length of its shadow had slowly extended, decade-by-decade, without my notice. After all these years, it was now as tall as I, and I was caught off-guard. I had wanted children of my own, and there the saguaro stood, looking me in the eye, telling me, with its patient clock, that its time had come, but that mine had passed. I have no idea why I made such an association with a cactus, but my mood stayed muted throughout those holidays.
The planting went quickly and, like the cutting of the umbilical cord, Rob removed the red piece of yarn that had marked north. Measuring the saguaro’s diameter, Rob explained that if the saguaro survived the first year, the transplant would be considered a success, but it would only be after five years that I could be comfortable it had survived the move.
That night I kept checking out my window as though, having tasted mobility, my saguaro might decide to shake off the sand encasing it and walk homeward. It’s funny, that cactus had always been a part of my life, but it took me two years to become comfortable with it here. It had always been a part of my life, but it had always been at my parents’ house. It marked where I came from; its roots marked my own. Oh, I know … with my pale skin and red hair, I am no more native to this land than I am to the surface of the moon, but I grew up here. This desert is my home, and these shifting sands run through my veins, not some babbling brook, green-choked with reeds. Were I to move to the verdant hills of Kilkenny, it would be as foreign to me as the streets of Shanghai.
Rob would come again in a month to re-measure the saguaro’s diameter. It was subtle, he had explained, and I shouldn’t pin any hopes or fears on it, but if, about ten days after the initial watering—which I was NOT, under any circumstances, to do before two weeks had passed, and not at all if it rained—the saguaro’s diameter had increased, it would suggest the roots were taking up water as they should.
“But don’t make too much of it,” he said, preparing me for disappointment. “I’ve had successful transplants that don’t show signs of water uptake for a full year. After that we can start to worry.” He paused. “Saguaros are stoic creatures. There’s no way of knowing what’s going on inside their heads. They can take years to die, and wait until the day before they’re dead to show any outward sign of it.”
I must have looked horrified, because he quickly assured me that he hadn’t seen anything like that in fifteen years. “We’ve got a ninety percent success rate, and this little fella seems tough. I’m not anticipating any problems.”
I bristled inwardly. “Little fella?” It was one thing for me to see my saguaro as nurtured beneath my wing, I felt I could take that maternal privilege, but for Rob, over whom the saguaro stood too, that seemed somehow presumptuous. Though I suppose the saguaro’s life had been more in his hands than mine.
I put on my best air of nonchalance when Rob returned. I couldn’t tell how I felt: somewhere, perhaps, between an anxious parent at the pediatrician’s and a foster parent when an agency rep drops by. Rob fussed with his device a little too much, checked his notebook, and measured again.
“Well, I’m not picking up any change, but, as I said, the swelling can be subtle, even when it’s there, and, if it takes a few months for the cactus to get its roots comfortable and growing, that’s not unusual. We’ll measure again in a year; that’s the more important benchmark.”
Realizing that a year is a long time by human standards, he added, “Don’t you worry, these are hearty plants. They’re built for this environment; there’s nowhere else on earth they grow. Never mind the logo on the BBQ sauce, there ain’t no saguaro in Texas!” He chuckled. “The Tohono O’Odham were so impressed by saguaro they didn’t even consider them plants. They thought of them as an alternate form of humanity.”
This, too, is known to anyone who went to school around here, and, for those of us who live with saguaro, it makes perfect sense.
As that first year drew to a close, I called Rob. We arranged a time, two weeks out, when he would come take another measurement. I gave the saguaro what would probably be the last watering it would ever get from me and watched it like a jealous wife. Did it look a little fuller? Were its angles softer? That could just be the light … and so my mind spun. I had gone from thinking obsessively about the saguaro during the move, to ignoring it. My unconscious must have decided that the less I noticed it, the less I would suffer if it didn’t survive. After the final watering, however, I was back to obsession, morbidly wondering if I should leave its woody skeleton if it died or if that would merely serve for self-flagellation.
Rob arrived and we greeted each other minimally. It would only take a minute. How could something so significant be done in less time than it takes to make my coffee? The Cactus Cradle truck was parked for less than five minutes. Straightening up from taking the measurement, he slowly started nodding; he wasn’t grinning broadly, but he was nodding and that was enough. We weren’t out of the woods, of course, but the riskiest year had passed.
On the second anniversary of the move, I took the tiniest teacup of water and, when the sun was high overhead and the sand so hot the water would evaporate before it reached three sand grains deep, I poured it in a ceremonial ring around the saguaro’s base. It started to dry before I could even close the circle, and I smiled at my irrational desire to provide for one who had no need for me.
The teacup watering became an annual ritual, a sort of rebirthday, something to replace the long-ago-abandoned marking of butcher paper. It was shortly after that second anniversary that I started greeting the saguaro as I came and went. I don’t remember making a conscious choice to do so, but then I hadn’t made a conscious choice not to.
My saguaro’s fifth rebirthday came without the elation I had been expecting. My mind was weighed-down by the small lump I had felt in my abdomen the week before. I was going in for testing that afternoon, but the teacup watering came first. Eight years ago a mole had been removed from my back. It had been melanoma, but the margins were clean, and there hadn’t been any more sign of the cancer. It seemed unlikely, but maybe the doctors missed the tiniest piece of it. Could it take that long to reappear?
The cancer had spread, and while there was an aggressive treatment, it was brutal, and the doctor had admitted it would only give me a five to ten percent survival chance. I had nodded numbly, telling her I needed to think about it. I did not tell her I needed to talk to my cactus about it. But I did. Sitting on my front step that night, I told my saguaro about the diagnosis.
I told it about my life, its joys and its disappointments, and I told it about my fear. I told it about watching my parents’ painful decline, and their endless trips to doctors to preserve lives they no longer seemed to enjoy but didn’t think to question. And it listened, patiently, as it always did, giving me the space to find my own understanding. Three days later, I told my doctor I did not want to ruin the last year of my life with chemotherapy.
On May twelfth, I turned sixty-six. It had been over a month, and I hadn’t had any misgivings. I can’t say I was ready, but I was resolved, and that gave me a confidence that was new to me. Arriving home after celebrating my birthday with friends, I paused to spend a moment with my saguaro in the warm twilight. Walking around it, I was startled by a protrusion near the top, on the side facing away from the house. I ran inside to get a stool, but I didn’t need it. I already knew.
I had not, to that point, shed a tear, but the invisible band that had been tightening around my chest suddenly snapped, and there, standing on a stool in the fading light, gazing at the beginnings of my saguaro’s first flower, my chest heaved in long-held sobs. I sobbed in grief, yes, but more, I sobbed in gratitude. It would go on, this beautiful cactus of mine. In my mind’s eye, I could see deep into a moonless night, bright with stars, where a long-nosed bat, its dark wings holding its soft body aloft, its belly full from feasting on my saguaro’s fruit and carrying the undigested seeds, would fly to the hills and scatter them; where, in ten years time, rising from the sand, there might grow another tiny, two-inch saguaro.