Monstera Deliciosa Variegata: Grief and the Search for a Rare Houseplant

Once you discovered the plant community on Instagram, your relationship with your phone changed. I would wake, roll towards you, and your face would be bathed in blue. Giant-leafed elephant ears. Succulents of all kinds in terrariums, in tiny clay pots, in boxes built into walls. Ferns. Greenery blinked by with the flick of your thumb. 

It was here you first glimpsed the object of what would become a months-long, loving search: the monstera deliciosa variegata, a plant as lovely as its name. We first noticed variegation in prehistoric-looking century plants, during our neighborhood walks around San Francisco. Some of the massive blue-green agaves in people’s desert-scaped yards had healthy yellow edges. Those were your favorites. On the little back deck attached to our first apartment, you found you liked getting your hands dirty, and you began to save seeds: apple, Meyer lemon, orange. You saved pits, too: avocado, olive, date. You filled paper coffee cups with dark soil, pushed your index finger into the center, and planted what you’d saved. 

Most things didn’t grow very big or even grow at all. They would sprout and then stop. Some molded over, drooped, and died. You kept at it. We had our first Christmas tree for almost two years, until it got sickly and yellow, and you placed it at the curb, admitting defeat. 

*     *     *

The evening of October 13, 2017, we had a housewarming party. We had just moved into our new, more permanent place—our fifth move in three years—and celebrated by having friends and family over. We cooked beans and rice, opened chips and salsa. A friend serenaded us all with her soulful voice and guitar playing. We played Cards Against Humanity. Another friend spilled chips on the carpet.  

Twenty-one fires were active across California. Our home-state burns every year now. Two of the fires were within miles of your mom’s home, and she’d moved all of her most important belongings—her photos of you and your brother as babies and then children and then adults, her legal documents, supplies for her dogs and cat—into her car’s trunk a few days before. She was ready to go that night, if one of the close-by fires encroached too near and an evacuation was ordered. We were supposed to have kept our phones’ sound on, to be ready to go to her, or at least be updated by her about where she was, and where she’d taken the animals. 

We’d been hearing stories. I told you about a teacher of ours from community college who was making trips to Napa and Sonoma to help rescue goats and chickens. Entire senior living communities were being evacuated to the East Bay. 

You and I made love after our friends went home, and I was so tired that I fell asleep face-down on our mattress as soon as we finished. You went to the bathroom and laughed when you came back into the room and I hadn’t moved. We curved around each other in the usual way. The nights were just beginning to get cold—then in the low forties—though the days were still warm. The next day would be Saturday. We didn’t need to set an alarm. 

*     *     *

We don’t usually sleep into the bright shock of morning. I got up and rushed to the living room. Picking up my phone and seeing multiple missed calls from your mom, I thought for sure she’d had to evacuate. That the house you grew up in might be gone. That she’d needed us, and we’d gotten drunk and gotten off and slept so soundly, like fools. Instead, her voicemail, timestamped 3 a.m., conveyed a different loss. 

She sobbed, inhaled loudly. Your brother was gone. The words. So fast, but it felt as though I’d already known, or still didn’t know. My feelings didn’t shift, but my body did. I knelt beside you on our bed and brought your head to my shoulder. I repeated her message. But you already knew. You had seen my face change.   

*     *     *

In the weeks that followed our party, I held your mother’s hand as she bathed. I shampooed her hair. I washed so many dishes and burned myself so frequently on the oven racks that my hands cracked and turned puffy around the knuckles. We spent those days in grief, paying our dues to the process, to the specter of your brother, with eyes brimmed full and then dried out and red. The three of us slept in one bed, alternately laughing and crying, cracking jokes and sharing memories, and repeating jokes and memories shared the day before. We were spoons in a drawer, nestled together. Then, our bodies would scatter over the mattress during fitful, dreamful sleep. 

We viewed your brother’s body and saw that thirty-two years wasn’t enough to use a body up, but sixteen years of opiate addiction and alcoholism was. You were so silent. Your mother wailed. His sunken features. The blood pooled in his joints. The odd, off angle of his neck. He was there and gone, and so were we. 

We all knew he would have wanted cremation and scattering. He wouldn’t have wanted prayers. We should have poured libations and danced and cackled at whatever obscene joke had just been made. He should have been the center of attention, as he always wanted to be in life. Instead, though you argued with your father for a week, it still happened the wrong way: a funeral. We wore black and gathered in a small low-ceilinged chapel. A few friends (we got the impression they hadn’t seen or spoken to your brother recently) said words about their last times with him. A Catholic priest performed a service, scattering prayers and holy water over the casket and then over us, where we sat clutching each other in the front row, the water frizzing your mom’s straightened hair. 

We drove to the cemetery and saw that your brother would be interred in joint plot. Your father, still alive, would take the second plot when it was time. Your dad, who had been so disdainful of your brother’s love and longing for other men. The father with whom your brother shared proclivity for drink and who had prepared his firstborn, through years of abuse, for the addictions that killed him. 

We baked in the afternoon sun as you were forced into white gloves, into being a pallbearer, not wanting to watch your grandfather, greatly reduced by the loss of his first grandchild, trying to heft this physical weight of wood and body, of woe over his boy. 

Life, we know, is made from this aggregation of death, most famously from pieces of stars, but of our bodies, too.

After the small graveside service, and people grasping the wooden box, and its lowering into the hole—that perfectly shaped rectangle (how did they make it so perfectly?) surrounded by rolled out plastic neon-green turf—and your mother wailing, and the people disbursing in clumps of three and four, I went and pulled the car around, and you came and got in and put your seatbelt on, and you were looking at the grave. I pulled over beside the giant graveside eucalyptus and urged you to get out. To say a private goodbye. You went, and I watched you surreptitiously add your own offering to the pile of roses and white gloves atop the casket. You gathered one of your long hairs and I saw it float into the ground slowly, catching the light before being covered in darkness. 

I wonder if its comforted you, in the months that have now passed, when you’ve thought about his body, knowing that a piece of you, however small, is there with him, being gathered back, clutched by whatever is living down there, and used to start the process again. Life, we know, is made from this aggregation of death, most famously from pieces of stars, but of our bodies, too. 

*     *     *

Months into years, time has passed in gasps and groans and stretches of silence. Though you’ve looked and looked, you still haven’t found your monstera. You have taken trimmings and clippings and droppings of many other things. You’ve gathered and soaked and scrubbed labels from empty alcohol bottles portly and slim, short and tall. Into these, the startlings of plants have gone, and now we care for aloe, waxleaf, spider plants, and apple mint. We have fostered growth between the two of us, too. Without realizing shifts were taking place, we adjusted to new roles. You were wise and newly facing mortality. We often practiced “pressure therapy”—something I invented (I think) in the early days of the afterward. For this therapy, I would see you sitting silent, the sadness soaking your features, and I would straddle your lap, holding your head to my chest however tightly I felt necessary. Soon enough, you began to ask for this. Occasionally, when our touches and talks weren’t enough—was anything ever enough?––you wrote. You surprised me with your depth. Over and over, your grace, your stillness, have impressed me. 

In the last months of your brother’s life, he’d burned through relationships, his addictions leaving few intact. His loss has ended other relationships in your life: You haven’t spoken to your father since the funeral. I see you get emotionally stopped up and then cycle widely to incontinence. You can’t express and then you express all at once. The bodily metaphor isn’t wholly metaphoric—your stress and grief settle on you, laying bruises around your eyes, bringing a jitter to your hands. I want to hold you and set you right, but we’ve lost the innocence that for years allowed those simple actions to be enough. Where we’re at now is a place that demands deeper actions, a place which causes cavernous exhaustion. We’re fully adult now, I think. We’ve been left spinning by this non-event, by this ceasing of action, by whatever dying is. 

Though you haven’t gotten the plant, your obsession with its bone-white and deep green leaves has gotten you through. Living things and ideas of living things help us choose to keep living, too. Lately, we hear our alarm and stay in bed for a while. We hold each other and play, telling jokes or exhuming memories. Sometimes, we’re just quiet in the gray light. These days, too, will be over so soon.   

Sarah studied creative writing (BA) at Mills College in Oakland, CA, and journalism (MJ) at UC Berkeley. She’s now working on her PhD in comparative literature at UC Irvine. She writes about many different subjects—from  inequities in the maternal healthcare system to Jesus Christ’s Instagram account—for a range of publications. She recently returned from Sri Lanka, where she was a 2019-2020 Fulbright scholar.