Arboretum Afternoon


Was there ever a more beautiful day to be alive? When I close my eyes I can still see it: San Francisco, warm sun, crisp air so clear that from the peak of Mount Tam, we could see Texas. Our son and his wife toured us around the sights, delighting us with their obvious affection. We laughed a lot and I privately savored every moment, storing it away to be retrieved and relived on a less cosmic day. What a marvel to be blessed with this day; statistics had given me only 30% odds. Do career cancer patients see a little clearer? Laugh a little louder? Open their hearts a little wider to let in more of life’s wonders? Do we really have the best deal after all, because we learn to live more in one day than some people know in a lifetime? Do we eat more chocolate??

Fourteen years of chemo has left me short of energy, so our itinerary was “the most for the least.” Flowers love California, I love to paint flowers – the arboretum was a must. The greenhouse was an enormous fairy castle which promised Amazonian wonders. Anxious to see the ancestors of all my dead house plants, I paused on a fairy’s bench for a chocolate fix, changed shoes to relieve Doxil-distressed feet, and ventured in. Gleefully groping our way along the jungle path was a trip down memory lane. “Oh, look,” my husband teased, “it’s the ficus tree you killed on Water Street.” It wasn’t my fault – the ambitious stick was bowing over at the ceiling so I cut off the top and it died within twenty minutes. (Obviously no survival skills; we know people like that.) We marveled at the regal display of rich, velvety gloxinias. I’d received almost every known variety over a lifetime of surgical events, and they all died before my stitches dissolved.

Feathery ferns, mystical hanging gardens, enchanting orchids – they dazzled and delighted, reminding my husband how many he’d rescued from the “dead plant pile”, revived, and brought back in the house to succumb under my care. Our party stood dwarfed by the outrageously aggressive dieffenbachia: “Hey, Mom, wasn’t this the twelve-foot tall plant on Spring Lane? We came home and found it collapsed on the floor.” (Yep…chemo has brought down a lot of giants.)

“I need to pace myself – find another fairy bench and sneak a few chocolate-caramel clusters. Is that a clearing up ahead? Maybe I can sit down without being absorbed by a Venus Fly Trap (yeah, I’ve knocked off a few of those in my sordid past). There seems to be an ethereal aura of light just ahead…I need to sit down.”

Gratefully, the path opened into a large patio – destination bench in sight. I hurried to claim an open seat, then halted transfixed. Proudly displayed like the fairy godmother in all her splendor, bathed in glorious California sun and surrounded by a mock chemistry lab, was a botanist’s dream: a Taxol tree! Slumped on the bench under the tree, I rummaged for an emergency Almond Joy, and simultaneously considered dry heaves, convulsions, and the ever-popular primal scream. Foremost was an uncontrollable urge to grab the fairy bench and transform the Taxol tree into toothpicks.

Years of riding the cancer roller-coaster prepared me for these moments: Deep breath, more chocolate, assess the options. Was I here to enjoy this day because of Taxol? Comprehensive details quoted statistics on depleted forests, and how many acres were harvested for a certain “Chemo Lady” in Texas. Most comforting was how scientists learned to duplicate chemicals in the Taxol tree, so unless someone brings me another plant, I won’t be responsible for more botanical mortality.

A less-experienced chemo-clubber might choose to stay on the bench, recounting the gallons of Taxol they’d absorbed, feeling the painful damage in every nerve and muscle, and eventually dissolve into a puddle under the tree. Too much of my life was spent sitting under an IV tree with Taxol dripping into my veins. Through a door on my right was a flower garden with over 100 varieties of dahlias. Fresh air, warm sun, brilliant colors, and bright promises awaited; all I had to do was get up and walk through that door. Which would you have chosen?

Fran Di Giacomo is an artist, and author of I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears. Visit Fran at www.TheChemoLady.com

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