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Bitter Roots

Be careful what you cultivate

My mother once told me bitterness would kill me, and I wish she’d explained herself a little—like was this a proclamation or a warning? But she didn’t. She simply said it with no context as I was driving her back from the hospital. “Kid,” she said to me through the cloud of smoke emanating from her Salem menthol, “bitterness will kill you.” Then she opened the door of her Buick Regal and vomited onto the asphalt.

Again, I don’t know why she said it. I wasn’t feeling all that bitter at the time. I was trying with immense effort not to feel anything at the time, attempting instead to bury my panic like an iris bulb at the base of my gut and leave it there—maybe something to be uncovered later. Maybe even by accident. Like the time I was certain the odd mound in my front yard meant that the homeowner before me had buried a pet there, and to prove it I took up a shovel and started digging. I should have known better. There were iris bulbs, tons of them. My neighbor Dolly sidled up to the fence then and mentioned that five hundred years ago, or something like that, her father made a neighborly gesture for the woman who lived in my house before me by planting a garden that traversed this entire yard, front and back. Her name was Iris, so he planted hundreds or maybe even thousands of iris bulbs.

But that was decades ago, and today the flowers have stopped blooming. Instead they remain embedded in their bulbs, which are themselves embedded in the soil, forming, over time, suspicious-looking mounds in my yard and making it look as though it were peppered with the graves of a dozen or so small mafia hit victims.

Thus excavating the yard has proven to be a project. Dolly’s father had been very thorough in his neighborly gesture. He must have spent untold hours landscaping here. The trouble too is that he evidently used truckloads of random old objects lying around in the neighborhood to create this garden: terraces made from old railroad pilings picked up from the tracks down the way, a path laid with flattened Coke cans, a tree bed delineated by cinder blocks, and the garden itself outlined with hosta bushes that are themselves outlined in basic red-clay bricks. In its day the garden might have been quite a sight, with the mums, date trees, birdbaths, and bushels upon bushels of irises, but when I bought the place, time had turned all this folksy glory into faded ruin. I would have dug up and disposed of the entire abandoned garden if not for the fact that Dolly’s mother was so attached to it. So I let them be, all the iris bulbs. Who knows, maybe one day they will bloom into something beautiful. I just try not to be bitter about it.

Because that message, “bitterness will kill you,” was a very powerful one, given as it was by a woman who herself was dying. A long adversary to established medicine, my mother considered chemotherapy a last resort, so when she agreed to it we knew it was a worrisome sign. I remember everything during the last days of her life—especially her message, “bitterness will kill you”—but overall I don’t remember my mother ever being so bitter that it could, with any measure, be considered an accomplice to her condition. She seemed to think it was, though, and the sentiments of the dying are often weighted with a solemnity that isn’t afforded the future-ful, so I took her words to heart. Probably too much.

Because I can’t say I don’t have thoughts of bitterness. All I can say is that I try to banish them before they surface, as though their mere whisper can unleash evil talismans that will number my days. It is almost like a superstition, waylaid only by a hundred inner apologies. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I say to myself, or at least I think I am saying it to myself. “I’m so sorry.”

But I do wonder sometimes whether the bitter thoughts ever get banished at all, or just buried. Hundreds or maybe thousands of them, buried like iris bulbs in my heart. Seriously, though, how do you begin to excavate that? They were probably planted there with care. I could dig and dig, but I will most likely just unearth more and more. Better to let them be. Who knows how they will surface. Maybe they won’t kill me. Maybe they will simply bloom into something beautiful.

Illustration by Peter Arkle