Despite your grandmother’s example, your thumb is not green. In Arizona, where you lived briefly after college, you even killed a small cactus. Your husband laughed when he noticed it on the mantel, shriveled and brown. You killed a cactus in the desert! he cackled. Its short limbs had begun to hollow. Where spikes had been, there were now just indentations, holes where defenses once stood. You let it sit decaying for a few weeks afterwards in its small blue pot. Eventually it looked so fragile that you thought about pushing it gently with your finger, wanted to know if it had become so hollow inside that a simple gesture might break it completely. When you finally touched it, the needles had softened so much they grazed against your fingers like silk. Your newest therapist tells you one day as you are sitting on her couch, your arms wound up, crossed into a tight protective knot, that even if trauma has been intellectually processed, the body can hold on to it. What a racket, you think, and squeeze your legs tighter and tighter together. You wonder if maybe there are more muscles you can tighten in order to become smaller, to hide better beneath the mound of pillows on the couch. What would it take to become an ant, you wonder? To be so small you might be able to crawl into the lush fern at the corner of the room and remain unseen forever. In the book The Body Keeps the Score—assigned to you as homework by your therapist, you’ve read it cover to cover now twice—the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk writes that trauma “is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.” The thing you remember most about your grandmother—besides the time in the late stages of her life when you watched as a nurse poked a needle into the crux of her arm, drew from it vial after vial of blood—is her garden. On the large, covered porch of her house in Melbourne, Florida, not the last place she lived, but the second to last, the place you remember best, she maintained a magnificent garden. There was no dirt from which to really grow things, so she lined shelf after shelf full of potted plants instead: geraniums, multicolored petunias, hot pink zinnias—your favorite—even marigolds, a bright yellow like the sun, all nestled in terra cotta pots. She hung even more flowers along the trellis—chrysanthemums and touch-me-nots in short plastic planters strung up with thick twine. You can remember being handed the large green watering can, hoisting it up on your shoulder so you could sprinkle water over the plants, help them bloom. As you get to know the new therapist, she pushes you harder. After you discuss a feeling or traumatic memory, she asks you to sit with it. Sit with it? you balk, crossing your arms again. You’re used to placing your feelings into a locked tackle box as soon as they materialize, storing them right away alongside freeze-dried worms and shiny metal hooks, pushing them under the bed with the dust bunnies, with the bins of clothes you’ve outgrown since your pregnancy. How do you sit with a feeling? you have to ask. After all, you’re just now beginning to name them, to print from the label maker in your brain tiny white stickers: sad, mad, scared, lonely. You’re only given the most basic vocabulary to start with. You’re like a child in a kindergarten classroom, the furniture and materials around you all labeled to help you learn to read: sink, book, backpack, jacket. Van der Kolk writes, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside.” Your mother is neither as gifted as her mother nor as inept as you at tending a garden. When she moves out of your last childhood home, she takes with her one potted plant: a red winged begonia known for being tough. Drought-resistant, the begonia is also self-cleaning—it drops flowers on its own as they die. Your mother is proud of the plant’s resilience, brings it inside just in case though under each threat of frost. She is happy to report that she has managed to keep some portion of the plant alive for nearly 15 years by clipping off pieces and replanting them. In the most recent iteration, the begonia has begun to overgrow its host pot. She knows she’ll need to clip more soon to keep it alive, won’t hesitate to make the cut. When invited to housewarmings, she often gives a clipping in a carefully selected ceramic pot to the new homeowner. When you buy your first home, she gets you a trash can instead, a tall, cream colored one that takes bags you have to special order off the internet. You would have killed the plant, she tells you directly as you open the large rectangular box that contains the trash bin. When you tell the therapist you’re anxious, she doesn’t take it at its face value. Instead, she demands that you survey your body from top to bottom to identify the places where it hurts. Where in your body is the anxiety? she asks you, as if your body is a separate being entirely from the mind you use to control it. You try earnestly because you don’t like being a disappointment. There’s a crunching in the thighs, you say, a numbness in the stomach, almost like hunger, a tension running through the shoulders. Good, she says, as if you’ve answered a difficult question, that’s good. She asks you to breathe into each of those places, to picture your breath like a light you could shine on each spot where it hurts. The very act of calling attention to the pain is supposed to relieve it. Van der Kolk writes that traumatized individuals often “learn to hide from their selves.” The year you were seven your father was out to sea on the USS Lincoln, his second deployment since your birth, and your grandmother visited you and your mother for over a month. Over the course of her visit, she enlisted your help to plant a garden on the small plot of land behind the apartment that belonged to your parents as tenants. With her, you kneeled in the silty California soil, dug up holes so you could plant stalks of sunflowers, bulbs of tulips. Your mother stood at the sliding glass door and snapped a picture: in it, you are wearing oversized gardening gloves, your hands deep in the dirt. Your grandmother is perched behind you, holding a small shovel. She is not looking at the camera, you notice one day, thumbing the copy of the photograph that sits on your dresser, but rather directly at you. Although you’ve told your new therapist about the bad days, the cloudy ones where it’s hard to pull yourself from your bed, where you want to collapse on her office couch as soon as you walk into the room, you haven’t actually laid down on the couch ever. Once, bravely, you tucked your knees up under your legs, leaned a bit on the cushion. But even then from the semi-relaxed position, you felt exposed, as if in relaxing your body, you might be letting the therapist too far into your mind as well. You know this is the space for the ugly bits, for the parts you’re too afraid to look at alone in the mirror, but you still have boundaries, iron gates overgrown with ivy. Van der Kolk writes that “as long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.” At the next duty station where you lived from ages eight to ten, your mother didn’t keep as many plants and your grandmother was too sick to visit. Instead, your mother let things stay mostly wild in the small, fenced backyard: desert soil and yarrow, citrus trees blooming fruit at the top of the steep hill. From the edge of the fence, the valley below seemed to descend infinitely into a pit of tickytack houses, a ditch filled with red Spanish tile and desert shrubs. You were in that backyard when you got news of your grandmother’s death. Your mother, who had spent the last month in Florida, taking turns with her siblings at your grandmother’s bedside, had called your father from the hospital and told him that it had finally happened. Your father then passed the news along to you. Okay, you had sighed, staring down into the valley, what else was there to say? It’s from the memories of that house too—you remember watching the small lemons drop from the corner tree, you remember walking from the patio through the french doors into your parent’s bedroom, remember tracing your hands along the green walls in the hallway, remember turning the corner into the dining room, remember taking the three shallow steps down into the sunken den, remember sitting down on the tan striped couch, its raised furry lines cutting indentations into your legs—that you uncover as if from underneath a thick sheet of soil: the time your mother French kissed you. I thought you wanted to know what it was like, she told you as you backed away from her on the striped couch. It’s not a big deal, jeez. You acted like you wanted it. Okay, you said and stood up, retreated slowly down the long hallway to your room. What else was there to do? When you arrive at that particular memory with the new therapist, you spend less time filling in the details of the occurrence and more time defending your mother. Your limbs are twisted so tightly that you are afraid your muscles might tear from their connective tissue in stress. She isn’t so much a predator, you try to explain, as someone without boundaries. She often treated me like a friend. I was just learning about puberty and kissing. She thought it would help. Or maybe you really did ask for it, you think. You are the turning mechanism of a wind-up music box, twisted and twisted clockwise until you can no longer budge; soon you will have no choice but to spin the other way and from you, music will spill into the air like a dense and sudden fog. Van der Kolk writes, “The essence of trauma is that it is overwhelming, unbelievable, and un-bearable. Each patient demands that we suspend our sense of what is normal and accept that we are dealing with a dual reality: the reality of a relatively secure and predictable present that lives side by side with a ruinous, ever-present past.” Your grandmother had been dead for four years by the time your mother attempted a death stunt of her own. In the bathroom attached to your bedroom, the door locked with a flimsy hook and eye latch, she went for a swim in the old narrow bathtub after swallowing a handful of pills. The next morning when your father sat you down in the kitchen and tried to explain what had happened, the doctors were still unsure of the exact type of pill she had taken and could tell your father only that they had to pump her stomach, weren’t sure for a minute if she would live. In your fourteen-year-old mind, unable to process what you’d been told, you imagined your mother as one of the mermaids she admired, a lady at the Weeki Wachee theme park with a fake blue tail, fingering strands of seaweed as she twirled under the water. When you’re unsure of the feeling word to fill in the blank with (You felt —— when your mother attempted suicide, you felt —— when your father pierced his belly button at 40, you feel —— when you picture now your father’s car pulling away from your mother’s new apartment), your therapist makes you sit silently. It will come, she promises, though you are often convinced it’s a lie akin to advertisement, a wish instead of a prediction. Sometimes instead of reaching for the feeling word, you count the stems on the office fern: one branch, two branches, three branches, four. In a pinch, you simply say you feel numb, which your therapist will accept sometimes. Other times, when she can tell that you’re lying, she will insist on you trying again. I’ll close my eyes if you want, she tells you. She knows you don’t like to be looked at. Van der Kolk writes, “Beneath the surface of the protective parts of trauma survivors there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious, and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival. Once those protectors trust that it is safe to separate, the Self will spontaneously emerge, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process.” Your grandmother, you’re told, was the first person to hold you. After your birth at the Naval hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, the doctors handed you, freshly swaddled and rinsed of the aftermath of birth, not to your mother, but to your grandmother. She held you for whole minutes in her arms before she handed you back to a nurse, rushed downstairs to the hospital gift shop to buy a bouquet of flowers for your mother’s room: yellow roses and baby’s breath in a pink cellophane wrapper. You don’t remember that moment, obviously, but your mother points to it sometimes to explain your connection to your grandmother, to explain why you always seemed to like her better. Even on her deathbed, your mother says one day, you were her favorite, that portrait of you as a toddler, your hair still golden and curly, in a silver frame next to her hospital bed. You don’t mean to cry when you tell your therapist about your grandmother—such an old wound, you think, remembering that she has been dead for two thirds of your life by this point — but you do cry a little upon reopening your eyes, a surprise wetness trickling down your cheeks. You wonder if you might water the fern with it, wet the leaves with your tears, be useful. Your therapist asks you where it hurts and you figure the correct answer is everywhere, but you say aloud instead, my head feels heavy, my feet a little numb. Van der Kolk writes, “Children are also programmed to choose one particular adult (or at most a few) with whom their natural communication system develops. This creates a primary attachment bond. The more responsive the adult is to the child, the deeper the attachment and the more likely the child will develop healthy ways of responding to the people around him.” Your mother’s relationship with her mother, your grandmother, is by all accounts much different than your own. These are the stories you are told: your grandmother was in her 40s by the time she had your mother and so was already exasperated with parenting, she often left your mother to her own devices for days on end, which resulted in adventures such as regularly swimming in a rainwater filled ditch, getting sun poisoning once on a beach vacation, and being raped by a high school teacher she had naively befriended. Your grandmother, also as a consequence of being so removed from parenting, repeatedly ignored the signs that your aunt, nineteen years older than your mother, was physically abusive when left in charge. Your grandmother, despite knowing how to sew, cook well enough, and garden exquisitely, did not teach these skills to your mother. Your grandmother, one time while riding on a bus, gave away your mother’s all-day sucker to stop another kid from crying. The scariest thing you say aloud to your therapist is this: I don’t know if I really love my mother by which you actually mean you don’t love her the way you’re supposed to. Even thinking it makes you feel like a monster. From your perch at the edge of the couch, you squeeze your body tightly as if you’re in the middle seat of an airplane, worried your limbs, the meat of your thighs, will cross immediately into your neighbor’s space if you relax. And how does that make you feel? your therapist asks predictably. By now you’re used to the game, the give and take you step into once you cross the threshold of her office. Guilty, you respond, an easy answer, but you know the real answer is sad even though you’ve taught yourself it’s pointless to feel sad about the things you can’t control. Van der Kolk writes, “Parental abuse is not the only cause of disorganized attachment: Parents who are preoccupied with their own trauma, such as domestic abuse or rape or the recent death of a parent or sibling, may also be too emotionally unstable and inconsistent to offer much comfort and protection. While all parents need all the help they can get to raise secure children, traumatized parents, in particular, need help to be attuned to their children’s needs.” At the house you buy with your husband, you leave the yard work, the mowing, the gardening mostly to him. You try for a while to be helpful, trim the English ivy that lines your front walk, do some raking in the fall, but eventually you both decide that it’s easier to let the yard get a little wild. Clover sprouts fluffy white heads in the summer, your camellias grow tall like trees, sometimes wild strawberries even bloom, small red hearts nestled among weeds. Once a month your husband spends the weekend in the yard, cutting down what he must so there’s space for your children to roam, for the dog to do its business. You watch him from the kitchen window, peering over the line of knickknacks you’ve placed there over the years. Among the keepsakes—tiny art prints, empty wine bottles—are three now dead plants, given to you as gifts on different occasions: as a thank you for serving as room parent, as a wedding favor, as a mother’s day present from your older son, a small now decayed fern in a haphazardly painted pot splashed with aquamarine glitter. A few months into therapy, trying to work, at your therapist’s insistence, on not overthinking how much space you take up in the world, you make a joke on Instagram about not being able to keep plants alive. Except that part about loving plants, you write on a repost of a story about Virgos, I kill cacti in the desert 😂 😂 Your husband’s cousin replies to your post almost instantly: not being able to care for plants is a reflection of not caring enough for the self. i say this only with love. Van der Kolk writes, “As we grow up, we gradually learn to take care of ourselves, both physically and emotionally, but we get our first lessons in self-care from the way that we are cared for. Mastering the skill of self-regulation depends to a large degree on how harmonious our early interactions with our caregivers are.” After the suicide attempt, your aunt, your mother’s middle sister, took you to the psychiatric ward of Baptist Hospital so you could visit your mother. It’s not that you wanted to see your mother at all, just that it was the right thing to do, your aunt told you, and so you climbed into her green Subaru and rode reluctantly across town to the hospital. On the way, your aunt stopped at a grocery store to pick out flowers, asked you to be the one to give the small bouquet of white and yellow daisies to your mother—you reached out cautiously to hand her the flowers when you arrived, it was the first time you had seen her since her swim in the bathtub. During the visit, your mother showed you and your aunt around the building, took you on a tour of her small room, introduced you to the other crazies (her words, not yours), walked you into the main sitting area where an elaborate arts and crafts table sat in the far corner. That’s where I spend most of my time, your mother said, babbling on about the limited things she could do there, about how they weren’t allowed scissors or staplers, how even pipe cleaners were forbidden, so instead they made bracelets out of rubber bands and small plastic beads, the kind meant for children. Until it broke when you were 27, you kept the small rubber band bracelet on your nightstand. Eventually the rubber wore down so much where it had been tied that its bond disintegrated, and the beads fell to the floor like loud, loose marbles. One day you tell your therapist a story about a recent visit to your mother’s: I called her out about something, you start, I pushed where I shouldn’t have, I was in the middle of trying to cook dinner for everyone, I said something like go ahead and walk away, blame me, you did it my whole childhood. And she got so mad, you could just see it on her face. And she was like my god, I don’t know what I did. You’re still walking around holding these grudges. All we can do is do better than our parents. I did and you are too. You take a deep breath when you’ve finished the story, try to shine a spotlight, just like your therapist has told you to, onto all the places that hurt. But for the first time, you know it’s really everything and nothing that hurts all at once. You think maybe, for all her faults, your mother got that one thing right: we’re all just trying to do better than our parents. You imagine the tall begonia sitting on your mother’s new back porch, its red wings visible through the doors she replaced last summer with glass. There’s no use in hating her. She’s learned at least, you think, picturing the tiny buckets of begonia clippings sitting in neat stacks, to take care of herself. After a few more months of therapy, you begin to wonder if the fern in the therapist’s office is real. Each time you see it, it seems impossibly green, lush and full as if the office is some climate-controlled greenhouse with an expert gardener on hand each day to trim away the dead parts and water what’s still growing just the right amount. One day as you leave the office, you run a finger along a stem, brush your hand against a particularly green leaf—you know now: real.
Emily Lake Hansen (she/her) is a fat, bisexual poet and memoirist and the author of Home and Other Duty Stations (Kelsay Books). Her work has appeared in 32 Poems, The McNeese Review, The Shore, and So to Speak among others. She lives in Atlanta where she teaches at Agnes Scott College.