WHEN MY FATHER DIED, I began making weekly visits to a public grief house. I mean greenhouse. For seven Mondays, I rode the streetcar across town to warm myself in a glass building full of plants. No one had warned me that hard-hitting losses sometimes take the form of ordinary problems such as temperature-related discomfort. I had not seen this play out in stories, so I was not prepared for the cold current that entered my body and spread like ice through my veins. I did not know ski gloves and wool fleece would be my mourning vestments.
For seven Mondays, I sat with leaves the size of airplane wings under a glistening dome. I basked in winter sunshine, buried myself among the dripping fronds of palms and cycads. The busy trees put on a good show as I folded inward, as the vines tunneled through me, binding the grief. Slow, slow, the leaves and petals moved at a pace I understood.
For seven Mondays, I came to this glass church to sit with the plants and feel their deep sweat. It now occurs to me with some curiosity and a little sadness that people, particularly the “faithless” and those without reliable rituals, grieve in unusual places and that these places are not always so obvious. We all have ideas about what happens after a loved one dies, but these ideas are often wrong or, at least, incomplete—because everyone has a different grief and, therefore, a different bereaved state of being.
During those winter weeks and months when I began visiting the greenhouse every Monday, I craved rooted, growing, ongoing things. Rolling moss, misty leaf, moist vine. I wanted more leaf of all kinds: wispy fronds, bubbly strings, wide strips, loopy lines, huge paddles, serpentine ivy splaying like my heart in all directions.
I missed my father’s charm and his sly humor. As far back as I could remember, my favorite activity was to sit with him and have long conversations about politics and life. If someone had asked why I was hiding under glass, I might have answered: I am waiting.
What immense journeys had these plants endured, across oceans and seas, occupied lands, through dramatic shifts of weather and landscape, parted from parents and community, to arrive in this living museum, this plant zoo, brimming with pampered “exotic specimens”? What had they lost?
One night, I began reading Jamaica Kincaid’s old gardening columns. Openly enchanted by the deep history of plants, Kincaid described how the world of the garden changed in 1492 when Columbus set sail from Spain. She traced snared histories of violent transplantation and radically transformed landscapes, the grand dreams of landed gentry enthusing about native flora, the looting in the name of inventory and order.
But she also insisted the colonial encounter was not a finished or unidirectional story. And maybe this was why I came across visitors from all over the world at the greenhouse, each with a different history of migration. The plants might have been a strange mix, opening and closing at the wrong time; the clusters of orange clivia and hibiscus clearly out of season. But, still, people sat with the floral riot, to breathe familiar smells and for a moment be among others far from their homescapes. The well of a “back-home” flower was not just a fraught vortex of loss but also a deep, fortifying pleasure.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE rooms at the conservatory was the Palm House, with its cathedral ceiling. This is where I came to eavesdrop on conversations and this is how I knew that others, quiet as orbits, were lugging phantoms too, carting them to this place where they could be freely acknowledged. The windows were fogged with trickling ghost breath. The inverted glass jar, which we knew as a conservatory, held us in a bubble of soft dewiness. This is what it must feel like to live inside a terrarium, I thought.
Most Mondays it was snowing. The light kept shifting in the small green world. The sun that reached through the conservatory windows glowed weakly. But somehow that weak sun filled me.
One Monday on my way out to the greenhouse, I watched my fifteen-year-old son light incense at our Buddhist altar, ding the singing bowl three times with noisy solemnity, and offer up a long and focused prayer. I stared at his back as he knelt. I stared at the inwardness of his prayer, the way he sat in his own solitary dimension, and the heat kicked back on in my body.
That was my last Monday visit. I had spent seven weeks at the greenhouse to mark my father’s passage between worlds. I had gazed at the sky through all the different windows.
In many Buddhist traditions, seven weeks, or forty-nine days, is the traditional mourning period. On the forty-ninth day, the spirit arrives at its destination, and attention is returned to the living. It was time to break the glass case and leave the small green world for the wilds. I would show my sons it was okay to let others hold you and un-sequester the sadness as it worked its way through you.
The father I had trapped in my mind needed to be free, his spirit needed to ascend.