We Need to Have That Conversation

Submitted by Virginia Watts on Fri, 09/12/2014 - 15:59

The act of caring for plants, digging in the dirt, has also become a journey into my past.  Pulling a weed here, trimming a dead branch or clipping spent blossoms, I am making a more orderly, accessible garden. And while I am doing all of that, in my head I am weeding and trimming old conversations, events, trying to make sense out of what could have been said or not said, what could have been done differently, what would have fit the place, the occasion, better. I want a clearer picture of my particular past, and a deeper understanding, but I often find myself without the proper tools, wandering in a kind of wasteland -- weedy, overgrown, and barren. I am wounded by old thorns, find myself sticking in the mud of ancient, acerbic, family relationships. 

The phrase "we need to have that conversation," haunts me. What does it really mean? As a child, when I was powerless in situations that I ultimately had no control over, but had strong feelings about, I was put off many times by "we need to have that conversation" or "we'll talk about that later, young lady," which amounts to the same thing.

It's a dismissive phrase, isn't it? There is an implication that what someone has to say about a situation is so edgy that it can't be addressed now, and must be put off to another time. But it's a powerful phrase, too, because it also implies that the person saying it really means "I'll set you straight about that later." Language is, of course, an important tool. Sharpened just right it can really give you an edge. Like garden tools, conversation tools can wound, even kill. 

When did our communication become a competition? When did we lose out on the energy of the moment to address how we are really feeling? Putting off until later can mean both parties are not even addressing the same issue when getting around to talking about it again. I don't mean when anger boils over, in those moments it may be a very good call to put off the exchange until later. I'm talking about normal, everyday, human discourse, when there are differences that arise. Debate seems to be more and more involved in what is taken to be conversation. Debate isn't communication, it's a game of who wins, with facts that slip and slide depending on which side you have chosen. There is no reality in debate. When I was a kid, the adults always "won". They had to keep all the power on their side, all the sharpened tools.

I have developed great respect for real conversations, and an abiding conviction that they need to be a bigger part of our daily lives, moment by moment. But oh it can be risky business, trying to communicate in the moment. People don't generally get back to the crucial moments later. Sometimes they just want to move on, and to leave something unresolved or unsaid is much easier, seemingly safer. I have come to understand that my Dad's approach was simply not to have the conversations at all, if he coud help it. Not the real ones.

The Hare's Foot fern he bought shortly before he died now lives on our patio. There are many things that belonged to him that have found a place here in the garden. The table he made in the sixth grade is the one that holds my garden tools. I treasure the things he made, things he used. They hold a bit of him still, and so, then, do I. Which is undoubtedly why I sort through our past when I am out there with those reminders.

He left me when I was two to enlist in the Navy during WWII, and then again when he married, six months to the day, after my mother died. He came back when I was three, so that first leaving doesn't really count. Except for a child of two, a year can be forever. That second leaving, 40 years later, lasted almost 25 years. I was, of course, an adult with a husband and kids of my own, but still I missed him greatly. His new wife was threatened by old relationships (she had stopped speaking to her own daughter years before) and so he chose the new wife, and off they went to see the world together. The occasional phone call and Christmas card was all we had left. No postcards from foreign ports, no trinkets from Spain or Scandinavia or Puerto Rico, and no conversations. No birthday cards for the grandkids. And up until that marriage my dad and I had talked almost every day. Not the kind of conversation which had room for speaking my heart, but we connected. I counted on that. So the leaving this time left a vacancy, a tear in the fabric of my day. On the rare occasion when I did try to talk about the distance between us, he went silent. He told me once that he "couldn't work out the pragmatics of visiting, it was too complicated." What he meant, I believe, was "too painful." I wish he had been able to say it. That conversation would have to wait until after his wife was in an assisted living home with Alzheimer's, and twenty years had passed.

Then he came back. Phone calls began, visits were made, and the tear in the fabric of my days began to mend. We talked almost every day. And we had some, not all, of those conversations as gently as we could manage. He was now in his 89th year. We picked our way carefully through a lot of painful ground. My mother had been diagnosed with bipolar disease when I was in my teens. Life before the diagnosis had never been easy, or comfortable for any of us. As the oldest I was often in charge of my two younger brothers when my mother was unable to care even for herself. There was a lot of excavating through the shards of our shared past. We talked, we had some of the conversations. But there were still places I was afraid to go, and places he would not go, in sorting out our past.

He died just before his 91st birthday, and I miss him every day. The conversations we never had now go on only in my own mind, of course. I can create the answers to my questions by putting together some of those broken pieces we tried to sort through while he was still here. And so I care for the Hare's Foot Fern he was so excited to find shortly before he died. It retains, for me, something of his life. his spirit. I have moments of regret about missing the opportunity to really ask the hard questions, and bear the hard answers that might have come. But I have comfort too in the conversations we did have, and the ones I still create, just in my own mind.

The Hare's Foot fern needs to be tended carefully.

It will not take too much heat or cold, too much water can kill it. The furry brown rhizomes that hang outside the pot, though they look dead, are full of life. New ferns will sprout if these rhizomes are misted gently with water. Preferably every day. You have to pay attention.