The withering bonsai sat on the outside table without saying a word. I was waiting for the branches to start moving in a spooky way, a la Disney movie, and the trunk turning into a mouth in an accusatory tone saying, “Did you intend to kill me? Haven’t you learned that you can’t take care of anything alive?”
I was house-sitting my friends’ home and its Elm bonsai tree for a few weeks. There must’ve been some miscommunication between my friend and me because while we Face Timed for instructions before he left, I took copious notes. “Just a few sprinkles at the top, like this,” he showed me through the phone’s camera. “Is that all it needs?” I wondered incredulously about a tiny tree’s resistance to the elements, and my luck. Not much to this caretaking, I could succeed, I thought.
A few years ago, I had traveled to visit a friend in Barcelona and rented her friend’s flat for a few weeks. As soon as I landed, I fell sick, coinciding with an intense heatwave in the old continent. I lay in bed for a few days not giving any thought to the plants on the balcony. By the time I realized I should water them, the plants were wilted and lifeless. No additional extra watering was helpful, and out of a deep sense of shame, I didn’t mention it until I was out of the apartment. The fallout was intense. Her friend couldn’t comprehend my behavior, sad, and distraught for the state of his plants, and my friend, wouldn’t speak to me for the longest time because of my carelessness. This incident was added to an already long list of shame-inducing actions in my life.
Now, in front of the dying Bonsai, memories flooded me. My beloved Australian Shepherd, Pedro, at the end of his life, and after much deliberation, cried when injected with the first dose to be put to sleep, and the veterinarian, a Scientologist, said, “Oh, he must not be ready.” When I was packing to move to our new home, with a cup of boiling tea, I placed it atop of the dining table not paying attention that my 15-month-old toddler who was following me around and out of curiosity leaned forward, grabbed the cup, spilling the boiling tea over his neck and chest causing a third-degree burn that required hospitalization and surgeries. When my sister Karen asked me to caress our father, unresponsive, in intensive care after a suicide attempt, and I couldn’t bring my hand to touch his face.
I’m not new to shame. It follows me wherever I go. And again, it was confirmed. Consequences will come. My insides were turning upside down, my throat started aching, and I couldn’t sleep. This once-lovely-looking Bonsai tree was emptied of leaves and drying out in my care. I needed to act fast to attempt to revive the tree. I knew a Bonsai nursery, 10 minutes away, who might know what to do. I rushed the infirmed tree, arriving at the nursery flustered, frightened, knowing that the moment they took a look at the tree, judgments will come rushing, like when people send missile eyes to the parents of a crying child in public.
“Hi, my friend didn’t tell me how to water the Bonsai and it needs help,” I blurted filling the air with excuses. The Bonsai doctor, Miguel, came over, took a quick look at the tree and pronounced, “This Elm is between life and death.” A very appropriate statement, I thought. Did he mean just the Bonsai, or also its caretaker? “But I know what it needs. Two weeks in the Bonsai hospital, with some pruning and fertilizing, it will come back to life.” I knew what he meant. Perhaps it was time to wrap my branches around my trunk, feed myself with compassion, and prune out my shame.