The shame inherent in killing a cactus

Clearly not my cactus. Photo by H is for Home, Flickr.

The spiny succulent graced my mantel for 7.5 years, but little did it know that yesterday would herald its demise.

My green-thumbed friend gifted me the plant on the occasion of my 25th birthday -- a most appropriate symbol of life and tenacity given that I'd ended up in the ER for the first time in my life just the day before. "Oh, good, a cactus," I thought at the time. "What could I possibly do to a cactus?" Nothing, it turns out. As in, I did practically nothing -- no water, no pruning, no nothing -- and thus the potted plant hung on death's door for many long, dry years amid my infrequent and insufficient attempts at revival.

Yesterday, when I was clearing the mantel of Christmas and graduation cards and giving it a long overdue dusting, I caught sight of two tiny, vivid green shoots amid the growing tangle of dessicated stems and, well, I snapped. I took the gasping little thing and dumped it straight in the trash. Then I put its moss-green pot back on the mantel, free of the specter of death that once obscured it.

For a moment I felt quite at home with my decision. I congratulated myself for recognizing the long-obvious: that I was not going to take care of this plant. Better to put it out of its misery and open the door to a new, living plant that I, further armed with the dubious ability to kill the un-killable, would commit to nurturing with greater, more fervent intention.


My stomach knotted. Was it the right decision? Had the situation been as dire as I'd evaluated? What about those two hopeful green shoots? Could I have extracted them somehow from the dried, gnarled thicket, replanted them, saved them? Or was the cactus sitting at the bottom of the trash can right now, gazing up at the molding inside of the white lid, wondering if this is what heaven looked (and smelled) like?

The doubt in my mind came down to expectation and obligation. On the first count, a grown woman should be able to water a small plant reliably. On the second count, I believe humans should do their best to avoid harm to nature -- the horticultural version of the Hippocratic Oath -- yet I'd just euthanized something that suffered only from my neglect.

The truth is, it was easier for me -- less accusing, less incriminating -- to excise the offending reminder of my incompetence. Watching it die on the mantel did not inspire me to positive action; rather, it fostered resentment, first at the plant's weakness, then at my own weakness in caring for it.

How often in our lives do we behave this way? How often do we see our mistakes and missteps as so entrenched that there is no way left to dig out of them? How often do we wait for the problem to solve itself, and then, seeing no solution arrive, take the "easy" way out, which really isn't easy at all because the ghost of the issue follows right behind, thunderous with its silent head-shaking? In such a shamed state, can we even spot the green shoots in our midst?

I did not try to save the cactus. I didn't look up how to salvage the living bits, I didn't consult the green-thumbed friend. I just decided I'd had enough. So the pot sits on the mantel, empty, holding loss alongside possibility. And maybe that is what remains when we let blame go, too. We are left with what might have been, but also what now can be.

Prayer #295: Suckulent

I hold shame like a cactus holds moisture -- close, greedy, sucking on it like a masochistic IV of self-recrimination. The thirsty pain demands slaking, but not like this. Not with moral hair of the dog, where the pleasure is poison, fleeting and life-draining.

You meant us for more than surviving. You meant us for thriving, too. And the only way to do both is to open ourselves to Your soaking, forgiving rain, which will sate what once we starved.