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Greenhouse Apocalypse III

Friday, February 1, 2019

I was in town with Bill from dawn to 3 pm on January 31. It was famously cold, two below zero, and Jupiter, the crescent moon, and Venus were in perfect alignment in the southeast sky when I awoke. Color bled up from the horizon, tangerine into peacock into midnight blue, slowly fading to salmon to lilac to turquoise as the light came up. It was so beautiful I kept imploring Bill to look, but he was too sick to enjoy it. We were on our way to a full day’s chemo, and he wasn’t looking forward to it one bit.

We are watching him disappear, watching his body and his energy, his Bill-ness ebbing away, and it’s happening so fast we can’t even believe it from one day to the next. There’s nothing his doctor can do about it, either, but to keep slamming him with biweekly baths of poison to try to kill the cancer before it kills him. He’s lost fifty pounds. His pants fall off him now, but he doesn’t want to buy new ones. “Just more stuff to give to Goodwill,” he says. He doesn’t have any more belt holes to tighten.

I try to make him comfortable, but I can’t. I try to give him foods he’ll enjoy. I try to engage him in conversation, to redirect his thoughts to something other than his sorrow and dissolution and disillusionment, to all the things he has to give up, and all the things he believes he won’t get to experience. Which is everything. Everything. It is difficult. He is difficult. He doesn’t want to do any of this. He wants things the way they were. So do I, so do I, my love. I wish for a magic wand. I wish for anything good, however small. I scratch and search but everything I offer seems so meaningless. I’m not doing enough. Nobody can.

When his treatment was finally over, I brought him gently home, helped him get back into his pajamas and tucked him into bed for a nap at the pink house. I came back to the red house and when I stepped into the foyer it felt awfully cold. I checked the thermostat. It said 57. The vents were ice cold. I ran out the front door and around the side of the house and as I neared the greenhouse, I could see wilted geranium flowers, red as old blood, plastered up against the wall. Opened the door, and was hit in the face with the stink of dying green. It was 22 inside. Everything was dead. I gathered up an armload of small succulents that hadn’t yet wilted limp and brought them in the house, figuring they were just going to take longer to die than the thin-leaved ones, but maybe they were somehow still living.

Creole Lady, her leaves hanging limp as washcloths, standing 8’ tall, and  dead. The Path, her glorious golden red flower, blasted and dead, buds hanging straight down, her leaves dark bronze. This is my third such greenhouse freeze. I know this stench, I know this grief, I know the irreversibility of it all, and how it feels to lose beautiful things you’ve loved for years, without a whisper of warning.



I didn’t wail, didn’t weep. I just closed the door and went back into the house to try to figure out what to do. If the gas line was frozen at the wellhead, I was screwed, screwed, screwed. And, with the temperatures below zero, and the welljack jammed and inoperative for at least 2 ½ years, that was a highly likely scenario. It hadn’t pumped for two winters. The oil company doesn’t give a rat’s ass, either. They have all but abandoned this and many other shallow wells in the area, operating them on a skeleton crew. Who cares if people’s houses go cold? One by one, the welljacks jam up and quit pumping, and none of them get fixed. I’ve been told the natural pressure at the wellhead would keep me in gas. OK. I'd go through a second winter like this. But if it wasn’t frozen at the wellhead, if there was just some condensation in the line, brought out by the deep cold, then sudden bright sun, I could trip the regulator and have gas again. Too late for my greenhouse plants, but at least the ones in the house wouldn’t have to die, too. I wouldn’t lose the aquarium, the orchids, the pipes to this cruel freeze.

 I called my neighbor, Bob Harris. He told me to call the guy who tends the well. Jeff’s wife, who answered, was very sympathetic. She said he’d call me back, and he did. Oh yeah, he said, he’d seen the wellhead pressure fall to zero on my well around noon. (Oh, good. Thanks.) He told me to trip the regulator by the back door and I should get my gas back. While I was gathering tools to do that, Bob drove up in his white truck, honking. I thawed the frozen regulator cap with a Ziploc bag full of hot water, then unscrewed it. The regulator tripped with a hiss, and we were in business again. Bob and I re-lit the pilots on the big furnace, the water heater, and the small furnace. We re-lit the greenhouse heater. We made sure everything was working. I popped him a beer and we sat at the kitchen table and talked. I asked him about all the neighbors, and I told him some things he didn’t know about some of them. He told me more about Gary, who ate pileated woodpeckers and pretty much all the squirrels for miles around. About what it looked like inside that white farmhouse the day Gary died, the bottles and cans in piles.

I wondered why we’d never done this, sat down at the kitchen table and talked. It was because in 25 years, I’d never asked him for help. I’d asked him not to mow his milkweed, and he’d been happy to help with that.  He’d been so nice about it, too. Now I needed real help. I have no one now who can take over when I’m too rattled to think straight. No one to lean on, no one in charge but me. So I call my neighbor, and he comes over and helps me, and he says he will do that any time. That’s good, that’s money in the bank. And Lord knows if there was anything I could do for him and Debbie and Sam, I’d be there. Imagine, feeling community after 25 years. It takes awhile when you think you have it all figured out, when you think you've got this. And then you realize you don’t, and you are unequivocally alone, and nothing about that is going to change. You pick up the phone and call, and he’s there ten minutes later, in your driveway. What a feeling.

I called Phoebe and told her everything in the greenhouse was dead. She said she remembered the first time it happened when she was quite young, coming in and seeing me in a fetal position on the bedroom floor, crying and crying. And she thought, “Well, she still has me and Liam.” I felt a rush of shame, that I’d let her see me cry over some flowers. That she’d had to have that thought. That it seemed to her that flowers mattered more to me than she and her brother did. It sure looked that way to a child. If anything, this is a time for facing hard truths and bad behavior, for telling the truth to each other. 

That wailing woman was the old me, the one with the luxury of crying over dead geraniums. That was the one who hadn’t seen real loss yet. I cried a lot the second time, it froze too, in November 2013. But I cried for all that was happening around me, things I couldn't reconcile or control. I referred to it as Greenhouse Apocalypse, the plants a metaphor for a far greater loss.

I met this third freeze with a different face. For this event, I had nothing left but numb resolve. Face it, they’re all dead. Let’s see about getting some heat in the house, or I die, too. I told myself I didn’t care about a bunch of plants. They were just things, after all. I don’t have cancer. There’s that. And for awhile I didn’t feel anything. I made myself a nice dinner, knowing that would help. I wondered at my steely calm as I ate in the silence of the evening. It frightened me. Was my soul frozen, gone? It started to hurt about six hours later, after dark, about the time I'd usually go down to open the door and say, "Hello, Ladies!", to stand under the soft multi-colored twinkle lights and look at the lush flowers in half-darkness. I figured I'd better check in with someone, so I called Shila, left a message and she called me back. I told her what had happened today. And there was something about her shock and anguish that broke through the ice on my heart. “I am a little…sad about it,” I stammered, and my voice broke. Yeah. That's it. I’m a little sad.

My reactions, I realized with a sinking feeling, are those of a dog who has been kicked so many times it no longer thinks that’s anything unusual. It’s just what happens. With everything that’s happening to Bill, I’m abashed to feel sad about a bunch of plants. Just another kick. So what. I don’t want to go down that path, of weeping. There is too much far more worth weeping about. I haven't even been able to cry about him—there’s too much to do yet to try to help him. What good would crying do? I moved through the house like a robot, got ready for bed, slept two hours, and awoke to begin the grieving.

For Creole Lady, with the Hawaiian sunset in every blossom.

Same flower, before and after freeze. Ain't it grand.

 The Path, like a fire burning, lighting the what? 
What 21 degrees does to a tropical hibiscus. Same flower, below.  

That hybrid balcony geranium that just wouldn’t stop blooming for anything. The willow leaved fig, 8 years in bonsai training, almost a yard tall, magnificent with its great coil of roots, now black, dead.


That giant rosebud geranium smuggled as a cutting from Ecuador, just coming into bloom almost two years later, dead now. All the fuchsias, all the Happy Thought geraniums, my very favorites, all thinking about blooming. All dead. The day before, I had just shown my “woman cave” to Geoff and Paco and Ben, taken their picture posing with the two enormous hibiscus trees I loved so much. I remember telling them the trees were too big for me to move now, so I hoped it wouldn’t freeze up this winter. But I’d known all along that it would.

The gas line would freeze again this year. I'd lose everything, and I knew it. So in early December, I decided to make a plant ark. I went through the greenhouse, gathering up one specimen of each plant that I’d be heartbroken to lose: the pink fuchsia called "Trandshen Bonstedt;" the plectranthus "Cerveza ‘n’ Lime" from Donna; an impala lily seedling; the chartreuse-leaved geranium called "Happy Thought." One dwarf pomegranate seedling. The yellow kalanchoe that makes me happy. A begonia called Jurassic Watermelon. A painstakingly rooted cutting of the willow-leaved fig bonsai, only three inches tall. I took cuttings of geraniums Vancouver Centennial and Rosina Read, gathered them up and brought them into the house, to grow on the windowsills, where they wouldn’t die instantly when the gas went off. I made a genetic bank, taking just enough DNA to get me through when everything had to die. 

I even bought a heat mat and got an old fishtank and made great plans to take cuttings of Creole Lady and The Path. Bottom heat is the only way to root those, I'd decided, having failed at it for years. I was going to do it as soon as I could get some cuttings without flower buds. I’d wait, let them bloom first. I needed every flower so badly. And then on December 16 Bill was diagnosed, and later that week I carried the fishtank and the heat mat to the basement, because I suddenly no longer cared to try to start anything. It was more than I could do just to be present, to help.

But I kept my little ark of treasured plant starts in the main house, and I watered them faithfully, and they began to grow nicely. So I haven’t lost everything. I have the genetic material for some of my favorite plants, right here. I had taken out a little insurance. The big hibiscus I loved so much are dead. I can’t escape to the warm, softly lit greenhouse any more. I'm not putting anything back in there, no way. So what. I’m a little sad. But I don’t have cancer.

 Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation  can that which is indestructible in us be found. 
 Pema Chödron

 January 31, 2019



You feel what you feel. Grief has its own rules. Don't let guilt rob you. Mourning the loss of your plants doesn't mean you value your family any less.

I send a hug over the hills and extend an offer to help in anyway possible. Thinking about you and yours every minute of every day 💗💗

I am so sorry, Julie. Pema is always right on. And the more we choose to love, the more annihilation we invite.
Wrapping you in a big hug. 🌺

Clip on suspenders will help hold Bill’s pants up during this time. I’m so deeply sorry for your botanical losses. Amazing prescience about your greenhouse’s heat supply. So thankful you have great neighbors and friends to lean on. Continuing to hold you and your family close in prayers.

I am so very sorry Julie. My heart truly breaks for you. You seem to have a life full of joy. Having this happen must truly seem unbearable. I know you have many around you that will help you stand strong. You having such a soft heart makes life seem so cruel at times. I wish you well and your husband who must be a wonderful man. I only hope his suffering is minimal and you get a chance to say all of the things on your heart. Of course the loss and grief of those things you care for is very real, no matter what.

Big hug coming your way from Canada.

Julie, We don't know each other outside of Facebook, that said, I'm sending you a hug anyway. Hang in there. Your writing is fine art. Twf

I know you and Bill only through your writings and his but wanted to put him on our Prayer List at my church. Every week on Sunday morning the congregation will pray for him. God is all powerful and good.

My thoughts and prayers are with you and yours daily. I wish I was closer so I could give you a hug. Your posts have gotten me through more than one bad day and how I wish I could help you through one of yours.

I'm sitting here, tears rolling down my cheeks. I tried to read some of this post out loud to Roger, but my voice kept cracking and fading. Our hearts break for you, for Bill, for the flowers who fell to the freezing cold there. Love and compassion travel the many miles from our hearts to yours. We are thinking of you and the family and the flowers.

We can thrive after a pruning. You will flower again.

I have no I let Mary Oliver's poem do the talking...

Heavy – Mary Oliver2 (Written after the death of her life-long partner)

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying.
I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It is not the weight you carry
but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
When you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger
to admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind and maybe
also troubled—
roses in the wind,
The sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

Hugs... and good vibrations! You’ve spent umpteen years fashioning this blog as an idyllic respite for your readers from the negativity/despair permeating the world. I think at some level we all knew it couldn’t be as beautiful and wonderful and ideal as you painted it, but we loved going for the ride. Your Whipple life often reminded me of the Willoughby of an old Twilight Zone episode, just a tad less fictional. Such a different post now, yet with the same intrepid, powerful, balanced word choice, wisdom, and feeling.
The one thing I wish you hadn’t told me though, that will stick with me a long time, and you could’ve so easily left it out… is that your former neighbor Gary ate Pileated Woodpeckers! I mean SOME things just aren’t meant to be told. ;)

We are not on your particular "roller coaster", but we feel as if we are through your sharing heart. Know we are trying to hold you up through the invisible beams of love that we have developed through reading about your life, adventure and loves.

Took me so long to read through streaming tears. Life’s cruelties can overwhelm us. Hard to maintain balance. Thank goodness for friends and neighbors. Sending love.

I think all of us are reading this with tears in our eyes, pain in our hearts, for you, Bill, and all your family & loved ones - which includes the plants. We've all enjoyed the beauty and tranquility you've shared from the greenhouse, so so much. Thankful you wisely started your plant ark! New plants will bloom, old plants will survive, here and there. Sending love, trying to send hope and strength - your plants and birds and wildlife give you those things too. Spring will come again. No words to convey how much we feel the pain of Bill's illness and the fight you are all in, but you are always in our thoughts.

I’m so sorry for all you are going through and got the loss of things that have you splice.

You gave me pause, made me think about how my son, my husband may view my grief over animals I've loved and lost. I know they think it's extreme. I have also mourned over some plants, particularly Japanese maples. But I will not apologize, or feel shame. These things, these creatures, give me pure joy without any of the complications of human nature. Losing them feels like losing Eden or a piece of heaven, whereas losing a human is clearly losing something from THIS flawed sphere.

Your hibiscus were otherworldly, incredible; just seeing them on your blog was transfixing. I'm so glad you saved some of the others; we will all mourn those that didn't leave progeny. And rejoice with you that in your time of need you learn that you have COMMUNITY; not just us 'blogpals' who are too far away to be of any real help, but flesh and bone and willing heart. Hallelujah!

I thought it fitting that Mary Oliver's poetry shares space on my table with your books. Mary Oliver's brave words, in her poem 'Heavy', could perhaps be a healing balm when it is time to turn our gaze toward the cracked open places in our hearts. I love that someone thought to post it here. Wishing you a healing balm wherever you may find it.

Julie, I'm not one prone to emotions, but this blog brought tears to my eyes. You have for many years made us smile with your adventures and now you are hurting on many fronts. I wish I could just have a magic wand to wave and make everything better, but that's not possible.I hope you know how much we all love you and Bill.

We love you, Julie. You can lean on us. We will listen to your words when you want to share them. We will stand by when you don’t, waiting in the wings for you. You aren’t alone. Your presence reaches far and your griefs are spread amongst many. We absorb it and cradle you and your family.

Love, love, love to you, Julie

Wayne, PA


Our plants and pets help us reset our minds - thank goodness you thought to construct a plant ark. We are all hurting with you Julie.

Your love for your family and the plants and animals around you is still radiating out here and keeping others warm. I don’t know how that works, but it does; somehow the chill in your life still has warmth in it and not dead despite everything. Christie B

AB and I are here, crying for you and Bill and the flowers and Phoebe and Liam—and snuggling our Mateo, and hoping that life and joy and hope find a way. Big big hugs to you.

Wishing you strength and hope. Hang in there Julie. Crying doesn't make you weak. Sometimes it releases all that pent up anger and energy that we can't defuse. Big hugs and prayers for you and your whole family.

Julie, you provide inspiration at your worst times as well as at your best--or possibly even more so. You are dealing with the entire situation with a grace I don't have and doubt I could muster. Wishing you peace of mind and a few hours' sleep here and there.

And I too am reading a lot of Pema Chodron these days. Her wisdom works pretty well for me in my present situation too.

We freeze, we burn, together. Your neighbor reaches out to take your hand, you give him coffee and a bonding heart, and then offer this exquisite and exquisitely painful story to all the folks who love you; and we reach back, we reach back to you with so much love and gratitude for the piles and piles of beauty, joy, confidence, information, entertainment, humor, warmth and stories you have given us all this time. My heart freezes with yours; my tears burn with yours. But those tears will water more than my face, you courageous soul. I want to send you 50 Creole Ladies RIGHT NOW, and a hundred Paths. But for now, I and all your readers can only send a huge mug of sweet love. We freeze and burn together and that can help the indestructible in you (and us) emerge solid through this stupid testing pain.

I’m so sorry this happened to your beautiful flowers during such a difficult time. Thank you for all the beauty and inspiration you have shared with us over the years, and I hope spring comes into your life again soon.

Oh, Julie....I have met you twice but not your beloved Bill. I hope & pray he will be cured. Love, Cathy

Sometimes Pema just annoys me. This is one of those times. No need to suffer so the best can be found. No need for annihllation to burnish anything at all. Your indestructable jewel is the gift of the three graces. Your three graces come through in every writing and every photo always. Heavy by Mary Oliver, I should wish to always keep close at hand.

Thanksful for photography!

My prayers are for you ,Bill and your family. Our flowers and plants are so special to us. They are a gift but our families are always closet to our hearts. Blessings to you all. Please continue to spread your love of nature for all of us.

Please please please, don’t give up. Not on anything. Not on those plants. Many, if not all of them are not dead. They’re likely just sleeping. A tropical hibiscus can handle 21deg. It may loose all its foliage, but that does not mean it’s dead.
Keep them all cooler and dry for the next several weeks. It’s likely, Spring will deliver them, and you into a new. (symbolic)
My thoughts and prayers are with you!

Thank you for sharing with us. You probably know this already, but there may be life yet in the roots of your plants. Depending on how long they were frozen and what kind they are; the geraniums are especially resilient. What a good idea to have cuttings inside the house already. I wish I could send you a hug. I am holding you and all of your family in my prayers.

My heart breaks for you as you go through this time of questioning and sorrow. It hurts to see you and all your family going through this, one devastation piled on top of another. Like everyone else here I wish I could do something meaningful to easy your pain and difficulty. I hope my meager words serve to lift you and help you continue on. I only know from my many years as a nurse how resilient and strong we are beyond our imaginings. I give you that so that you will know too.

Blessings on you and yours.

Julie I did not know Bill was sick?? Did you post about this before and I missed it? I am so sorry to hear about what you are going through.
Sending much care with this email. from RF WI

So sorry for Bill's health. I am Merlin Wright from Bluebirds Across Nebraska. I hope you will be able to attend the 2020 Kearney Nebraska festival. I am watching my mate suffer with health concerns also. To jog your memory just for fun, Darlene and I visited your display one year at Nebraska City BAN conf. Darlene was wearing a dress with your art on it and you graciously signed the dress. It has not yet been washed. Also so sorry for the greenhouse disaster. I enjoy your blog lots and have had much pleasure 'watching' your kids and Chet Baker in the blog over the years. I shall leave you part of an old poem,

You get a thorn with every rose but aren't the roses sweet. with admiration, merlin wright

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