“What Can Still Grow” by Kelly Renick

What Can Still Grow

Mom sits on her side of the porch table, an unashed cigarette cradled between her fingers. Corn and soybean fields stretch for miles in every direction, punctuated by lines of trees that give respite from the dry Kansas wind. I can’t tell if she’s grimacing in pain or frowning at the past or looking out at a future she won’t be part of.

I sit in her husband Jim’s chair, light another cigarette with the one I’m smoking. Between us are two full ashtrays and a large petunia with purple flowers, the color of pancreatic cancer. She plucks the dead blooms, shucks them over the railing.

“When I’m gone, please tell Jim I said bye.” “He’ll be home soon, Mom.”
“That’s not the Jim I’m talking about,” she says.

I learned of the Jim she was talking about after affairs became another thing my mom and I had in common.

I spent several years of my twenties making myself available for a past-love I couldn’t seem to let go of. And even though this man had a budding life with someone else, he sometimes secretly returned to me.

We crept underground, avoided the light, flooded the guilt with amber-colored poison. Met in corners of the city where the familiar wouldn’t find us. But we almost always ended up at the small warehouse he lived in. The smell of oil from his shop, the first letter I wrote him in his drawer, the bed we’d shared. It was almost as if I could walk right into the life I wanted. Aside from the women’s shoes near the doorway.

I imitated her. Fit my feet into dainty sneakers. Bought the soaps she kept in the bathroom. Tried to cultivate myself into a person he would want to stay with. But he always sent me back to whoever I was half-heartedly dating at the time. And in the silence that followed, the pain of his absence spread inside of me, growing until it was larger than any moment we ever spent together.

My mother had a green thumb, something we did not have in common. When I moved to the city, she gave me African violets that I returned to her, wilted and brown. She could always bring them back to life.

“You have to remove the dying leaves,” she would say. “Let the plant focus its energy on what can still grow.”

Long after Mom’s affair was unearthed and mine had taken root, she stopped to say hello to Jim while she and I were out to lunch. It was my first time meeting him. He still worked at the place they’d met; the tire shop where she left a note on his windshield. You have beautiful eyes.

I watched his eyes find my mom and soften, lighten. He wrapped his arms around her, lifting her in the air. They shared the current landscapes of their lives; the kids off to college, the ball-and-chains, updates on friends in common. Their attention was entirely focused on each other. Every word was rooted in I miss you. And when he walked her back to the truck, he held open her car door and looked at her tenderly, saying “I love this Kid so much, you know?”

When I was seven, my mom’s brother died unexpectedly. And in the grief that followed, the family she created became just another thing that drained her energy. She tried to stay grounded in our home while numbing the pain with her secret-love. When the affair came to light, she tried to drown her guilt with alcohol. But eventually, she cut us off and started over on her own.

In the years before she left, I felt her absence like I would later feel during the last days of her life. She was there in front of me, asking me to fetch her another beer, blowing smoke into the fireplace, staring past the flames. I brought her everything she wanted. Tried to hold onto her. But the part of her I needed was elsewhere. Somewhere I couldn’t reach.

My past-love didn’t want from me the foundation he already had. He wanted to hold lightning in his hands. A sunny day in winter. Someone that still noticed the beauty of his eyes.

All I wanted was a home in him, but I knew better than to ask for it. Wanting things had never worked out for me. I tried to live off the brief moments he gave me and hoped it would be enough. It never was.

Mom did say goodbye to Jim. On the way home from one of her last visits to the hospital, she asked me to take her to see him at that same tire shop where a seed was planted so long ago.

She was too weak to get out of the truck. Her bald head was covered in a fleece cap despite the warm spring air. Her soft, round body halved in size, etiolated and delicate. He held her withering form in his arms and said, “You can’t leave me, Kid. We were supposed to grow old together.”

The things Mom and I had in common felt so deeply rooted that they seemed inescapable. We shared fears and enemies. Loved the same vices. But each year she’s gone, I feel more severed from her. As if these similarities evolved to bring me closer to her, and they now have no purpose.

Still, I watch my new-love quietly building things with his hands, our dogs in their beds, the strong foundation of the life we’re slowly creating, and worry what may someday grow inside me. What may need to be cut out.

Kelly Renick is an MFA candidate at Miami University. Her work explores themes of grief, control, growth, and loss.