One December evening, while my family was living in Hawaii, I took a walk around the neighborhood. It was, of course, balmy and warm. A few straggly, leggy roses grew in one yard. It was the first time I’d seen anyone growing roses in Hawaii.
I went home and looked up a rose catalog. Growing roses in Hawaii is like growing them in a greenhouse. They need a dormant period that doesn’t occur naturally, so you have to cut them back. The catalogs I saw didn’t ship to Hawaii, so I didn’t buy any.
Credit Image: Candie_N on Flickr
As I scrolled through the catalog, I was amazed at all the rose varieties. I began wondering how new roses were created, and found that there are hobbyists devoted to breeding roses. Many of these folks seemed to be engineers or scientists, I suppose because the process can take many years and requires a methodical approach.
I imagined, from this, the character of Gal. I sort of based her on my sister-in-law, Deborah, who was a chemist and teacher. She had the personality of a scientist, no-nonsense and kind of always thinking she was correct. But very, very funny, with a dry sense of humor.
Deborah also suffered from childhood kidney failure and went to dialysis every other day. The lack of a functioning kidney had caused her short stature and a host of other health ailments. Yet she never let her health problems stop her from doing anything. She got a master’s in chemistry, she volunteered at the baseball stadium, she held a full-time teaching job. And she rarely complained. When her third kidney transplant failed last year, she was not willing to undergo the pain of dialysis again. With a new kidney absolutely unlikely, she passed away last Christmas. Before she got so sick, I was able to interview her about her experiences, and she read the manuscript. She actually passed on the day I received the preview copies and brought her one.
I didn’t consider this consciously at the time I started writing, but there’s a parallel between the seasons of rose growing and the challenges of a life with a chronic disease. Indeed, there are parallels between rose growing and an average life. Periods of dormancy where pruning is necessary, period of wild blooming, periods where there are no blooms but lots of leaf growth. Attack from pests and fungi that must be controlled. Watering and feeding schedules that must be observed.
I gave Gal a niece to take care of unexpectedly to show how entrenched in her particular patterns Gal had become. She has to learn to be flexible, and that, while she can survive alone, she flourishes when she has to care for this other person, though with her guardianship come new challenges. Also, when I was about 23, my husband and I had temporary guardianship of his 13-year-old nephew. Having a teenager suddenly in your house is a challenging experience, especially when you haven’t seen the kid grow up through all the stages.
I also wanted to explore some of the family dynamics you have in a house where someone has a chronic illness -— what those sibling relationships are like -— and what happens when you have someone else who seems sort of lost to the family, like Gal’s sister, Becky. You wonder if Gal’s parents should have parented differently, or if Gal should have responded in another way to her sister and niece, or if Becky’s problems could have been prevented -— maybe all of them have some regrets -— but ultimately, there are no easy answers, and nothing is black and white. When you raise a child, you try to do your best, but you never know if your child will grow up to be happy or write a scathing memoir about her childhood. I wanted to portray that uncertain, delicate aspect of being a parent.
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