The day after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I walked into the garden center of the nearest home improvement store. My mission: Bring home the prettiest rose on the lot.
My garden is my sanctuary and plant stores are my happy place — verdant showrooms overgrown with aspirational beauty. Under normal circumstances, I can spend hours wandering blithely, smelling flowers, indulging daydreams.
That day was different. I wandered up and down the aisles in a daze, an uneasy feeling burrowing under the breast that betrayed me, an ugly squatter setting up residence in my chest.
Then I saw her — the Miranda Lambert rose. This was no ordinary rose. Impossibly large and pink with petals spilling forth from the center, this was a fairy princess petticoat of a flower, a Southern belle on the way to her Sweet 16, a rose that exuded sassy femininity like its namesake country crooner.
For a moment, as I imagined her blossoming in my front garden, the fear and worry dissipated. I felt at peace.
This is not a story about that rose. If you’re waiting for the glorious rose bush at the end, spoiler alert: It still hasn’t happened. But it is a story about the magic of plants and every time Miranda blesses me with a bloom, something magical happens inside me.
Let’s be clear: I never thought I was going to die. My diagnosis was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). I was classified stage 0. It was non-invasive. This wasn’t hard cancer. I had done that seven years earlier when my 2-year-old daughter was diagnosed with an aggressive form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia that required a grueling two-year course of chemotherapy, most of which was in-patient.
Did you know there’s a tunnel between the ’Specially for Children clinic building in the Mueller development and Dell Children’s Hospital? We used to check in at the Children’s Blood and Cancer Center on the top floor of the complex early in the morning, then walk through the basement tunnel to the hospital to admit for surgery (a spinal drip of chemo), usually followed by treatment stays that lasted three to 10 days. We did this over 20 times. One day we walked with a woman who had lost a daughter to bone cancer and now had a son battling leukemia. She told me she didn’t like being in the basement because she had to go down there to collect her daughter’s remains.
I know the way cancer ravages people’s lives, and what I was facing was certainly not that.
In truth, I was lucky. I had put off getting my first mammogram for a couple of years and only forced myself to do it when my company changed ownership, triggering a change in my health insurance. While the cancer was unable to spread beyond the milk duct where it was discovered, the cells were dividing rapidly — so fast you could see it happening under a microscope, one doctor told me.
It was April, that brief season when Texas is blissfully temperate and exploding with natural beauty. I’d taken to working out my emotional issues in my garden a few years earlier, after my husband and I completed a remodel of the East Austin home we had owned for a decade. Piece by piece I reclaimed the front yard from strangling Bermuda grass and weeds. In the winter I laid down slabs of cardboard and brown paper bags, then covered them with mulch, and now I had the final section, one of my only sunny patches, ready to plant. That’s where I put my girl, Miranda.
My treatment plan was not difficult. There would be surgery, a lumpectomy and reduction — my plastic surgeon called it a "lift" and my girlfriends and I decided to go with that because it sounded like something fancy ladies do after brunch — followed by 21 rounds of radiation and no chemotherapy.
Physically, I knew I could handle it. I had delivered two babies, one by emergency C-section. But something strange was happening with my mental state. So much of my job is forward-facing and suddenly I didn’t want to be seen. I wanted to disappear, to hide in the shadows.
A few weeks before the surgery, I hosted a Facebook live session in the Statesman studio with Black Pumas, a band I love that was about to be famous. They’re the nicest guys in the world and it was an easy interview, but I felt stupid and awkward. Afterward, the producer said I seemed nervous.
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The only thing that put me at ease was working in my garden, which I did at a fevered pace, knowing that I might not be able to dig in the ground after the surgery. My mom bought me a golden thryallis, which I made a centerpiece of the bed at the front of my yard, and my uncle sent me two dwarf fruit trees, a goji berry and the adorably named Little Miss Figgy. In one of my few sunny corners at the edge of my yard I planted the most symbolic addition, an esperanza, a shrubby perennial with beautiful clusters of yellow trumpet flowers and a name synonymous with hope.
Cancer changes the way you think about your body, breast cancer maybe doubly so. As women we’re constantly judged by our appearance and this society is obsessed with breasts. I’d been busty since I was 11. My adolescence was defined by fending off unwanted touch and fighting to be known for my mind, not my body. In my 20s, surrounded by a badass group of sex-positive hip-hop chicas, I learned that it was possible, powerful even, to be known for both.
"I don’t want to lose my titties," I told my husband, tears welling in my eyes.
"I don’t want to lose you," he said.
And he held me tight.
Again, I was lucky. When the post-op lab results arrived, my margins were clear. No further surgery was required. I was part of a Facebook group for women my age and younger facing breast cancer, and I was in awe of the strength and dignity of these women — some with tiny babies, some factoring the children they might one day have into difficult treatment decisions, some facing unfathomable challenges with incredible grace.
Still, I felt like a shell of myself. Who was this person who had been sliced apart and Frankensteined back together? For four long weeks, I had a daily date with a gamma ray machine and no promise of superpowers. My confidence was shaken. At work, I was faking it, fumbling my way through.
But the esperanza began producing cheery yellow flowers, alongside the fiery blooms of the huge pride of Barbados at the front of my yard that was gifted to my family years earlier when my daughter fell ill.
A pair of massive pecan trees blanket my yard in almost full canopy shade, and for several years I had obsessively searched the garden sections of discount stores like Ross and Marshall’s for interesting, affordable containers to place around their bases. Now, unable to dig in the ground, I doubled down on these efforts, painstakingly arranging pots in colorful collections that made me smile.
A few months out, when the pain from the surgery subsided enough for me to work with my arms, I bought a set of drill bits that cut through porcelain. Soon I was combing the kitchen sections of thrift stores, in search of interesting mugs and bowls that could be repurposed as whimsical planters.
No stranger to rooting plants in water, I began diving deeper into the art of propagation. I bought rooting hormone and began taking cuttings of everything around me and sticking them in small pots filled with dirt that lined my front steps. It was my private laboratory. Sometimes the stalks withered and died immediately, but sometimes they flopped over, looking sad but still green for a week or so, then miraculously pulled themselves up as new little plants.
Obviously, a true botanist could explain the scientific process behind how this happens, but I didn’t care about any of that. To me, this was pure magic and the fact that I was secretly becoming an amateur plant wizard was rebuilding my morale. If I could dig in the dirt and create life and beauty with my bare hands, who knew what else was possible?
In October, as the oppressive grip of summer loosened, I realized I was starting to feel like myself again. For the first time in my life, I decided to plant annuals. I had never understood why people would waste time putting something in the ground that they knew would die a couple of months later, but that winter, as pansies and snapdragons adorned my garden with dazzling bursts of color, I got it. Ephemeral beauty is magical, too.
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Since the country shut down in March, I’ve been relishing the comfort of my garden. Spring was spectacular and even in the dead of summer, the thryallis is blanketed with tiny yellow flowers and the esperanza and pride of Barbados are blooming brightly. After dark, heady perfume from night-blooming jasmine drifts up to my balcony, adding an air of enchantment to my outdoor lounge.
Desperate to add to my container collection, I went foraging in a neighbor’s backyard and found a few rusty tin buckets. I drilled holes in them and filled them with flowers. I’ve doubled down on my propagation lab and now angel wing begonias with deep green and burgundy leaves and sprays of delicate pink flowers are scattered around my garden alongside heat-hardy kalanchoes.
This year, I moved Miranda to my backyard, where she doesn’t have to compete as much for the small patch of dappled sun I can offer her. And like she has for each of the last two years, she provided me with just a handful of beautiful, decadent roses. Do I wish she’d bloom abundantly? Of course. But I’ll take what I get. Every time I see one of those extravagant flowers my heart sings.