By Michael Milton The Art of Seeing
It is December and the words which are meant to bind us closer together during the holiday season are cropping up everywhere– on cards, in advertising, gracing music lyrics. You know the words I mean; love, joy, rejoice, hope, gratitude, happiness, best wishes.
Nice words, to be sure. Still, nowhere to be found is my 2020 favorite word.
Where is loyalty? If ever there was a time to reach out for a powerful word with some punch, loyalty would be my choice especially considering all we have already faced this year and with all looming ahead of us in the next.
Loyalty means nothing unless it has as its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice. Woodrow Wilson
There it is. Loyalty is a workhorse word. The other word choices of the holiday season are sweet, blurry, watercolor ideas as to what they mean and almost no indication as to how to act on them.
Loyalty needs effort. And I suppose Jolly Loyalty just doesn’t have the same ring as Happy Hanukkah or Merry Christmas.
Loyalty and I have a long history together.
For almost as long as I can remember I have been a gardener. I was given the responsibility of caring for my parent’s yard when I was eight.
My stepdad had planted a dichondra lawn in front of our San Jose subdivision home. Dichondra makes a beautiful if somewhat hard-to-maintain lawn. Really, it is a perennial ground cover, a fast creeper, topped with tight circular leaves. When well cared for, a lawn of dichondra resembles a golf green.
Love in gardening, however, is not enough. Maintaining a yard asks for more; consistency, observation, patience.
Loyalty is that faithfulness to which someone is bound, sunny day or gray, easy or hard, tired or energized. Loyalty is the part of my love for my garden that says “I will always be there for you.”
I say “Love ya!” to lots of people. I say “I am loyal to you” to very few.
I relocated from New York City earlier this year to the desert regions of southern California. I left to help my mom deal with my stepdad’s death; to help her decide her next move; and to give myself some distance from New York City during the worst days of the pandemic.
Loyalty was drawing me West. Love, sure, had a hand in it. Yet, loyalty fueled the engines to proceed with the move. My loyalty towards my mom was predicated by a lifetime of the allegiance displayed by my parents towards me. There were certainly times we were angry or frustrated with each other and times we went months without speaking. We had diametrically opposed political views; an unresolved question around my being gay. Yet, our shared loyalty for each other never wavered.
Loyalty isn’t an attitude. It’s not nice or good or friendly. It is a job. And often there is nothing nice about it.
My understanding of the word was tested recently. I moved into a new house here on the West Coast. It sits on a large lot and came with a well-tended, desert-scape styled yard. It is in this house my mom and I will live together, hopefully for some time to come.
Nice as the house was, there was something missing for us about the new place.
The yard came with a plethora of palms and rocky ground cover. But not much else. We wanted at least one tree that would provide more shade than palm fronds. I was happy to discover that there are plenty of big trees which flourish here in one of the hottest regions of the nation during the summer.
The Chilean Mesquite tree quickly became one of my favorites. It soaks up very little water, has a dramatic weathered, deeply furrowed trunk and its branches are covered in lacy pale green leaves.
I had abandoned gift buying for my folks years ago. Instead, I sent plants, flower arrangements, potted orchids and easy-to-care for terrariums to honor holidays and birthdays.
And in keeping with that gift-giving history, my Christmas gift this year to my mother was to have planted–unbeknownst to her–two fully grown Chilean Mesquites in the front yard of the new house. She is 95 and I wanted her to have the time to experience the trees at their fullest.
The planting date was arranged for an afternoon when my mom wouldn’t be around. The two trees arrived on a flatbed truck. Huge holes were gouged out of our front yard and then a crane lowered the trees in. And when the work was done and all the workers left, it seemed as if these trees had flourished for a decade.
My mom adored them. The gift, it would seem, was perfect.
My instructions from the nursery to care for them were simple and fit in well with my practice of loyalty; a minor sacrifice of time to water and fertilize and aerate the soil of each tree daily for a month.
That first day, neither of us could look at them enough. We stood on the porch staring at them in wonder. Then we’d move in a slow circle, admiring the way they looked from the driveway, from the street, from the far street corner.
I woke the next morning, excited to see them again.
And I immediately noticed that the leaves on both had turned yellow overnight.
My mom’s eyesight is troublesome and she didn’t see the change as quickly as I had. By the third day, however, even she was aware that something had gone seriously awry with her gift.
It is not unusual for trees to go through major shock when they are transplanted. Yet this seemed far beyond transplant shock.
My love alone for these trees wasn’t going to save them. And though they were betraying me in this perverse way, my loyalty never waned.
As they withered, I never wavered from my schedule; water, fertilizer, aerate the soil, all done exactly as directed. I touched them. I spoke softly to them. Still, my daily search for some sign of appreciation, some new spurt of green, some skyward reaching action from one or the other all went without reward.
Naturally, I called the nursery. They said try more water. More fertilizer. I redoubled my efforts, still with no visible response.
They were dying. That’s all there was to it.
I was angry. I felt cheated. I was embarrassed by the money I had spent, money I could hardly afford to make such a grand Holiday gesture. Still, I came to them day after day convinced some special magic-incantation I held deep within me would revive them. My loyalty kept me in this situation that perhaps common sense should have taken me out of far sooner.
My mom said, “Give it up. I know you love me but we’ll get something new there someday.”
Was she kidding?? I wasn’t never going to give up on her and I certainly wasn’t going to give up on the mesquite trees. One wonders if common sense had any real meaning when it came to loyalty.
When my friend Jim died of AIDS it was love, sure, that kept me going in caring for him, focused, helpful. But loyalty was our stronger connection. It was the energy that overcame my common sense; he was dying, no matter how often chose to deny it. I stayed loyal to the remembrance of our times together, to all he had taught me, to all he was teaching me as he was slipping through life’s fingers. And loyalty kept me by his side when he finally passed.
Loyalty to my newly single mother was what had brought me to the west coast, leaving behind the bulk of my happy and exciting adult life experiences all in New York City.
She must have understood as we began our new life together that I was here for her–just as I was now with the trees—whatever the future held.
Maybe that explained my overweening loyalty to these trees. She had expressed worries early on that I might want to return to New York and she was afraid she would be holding me back from the life I had cultivated there for decades.
Her Chilean Mesquites proved different. She now knew her son was here to stay.
A few days ago, one of the mesquites finally gave me a clue that it would be fine; a few shoots appeared, a greening up of the remaining higher leaves still clinging to the branches, and the trunk was resuming its darker shade.
I believe it will make it. A representative from the nursery felt less optimistic about the chances for the second tree.
I still water and fertilize the less healthy of the two. I am stubborn in my loyalty.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Those that cannot make sacrifices cannot be loyal to anybody” ~Younus AlGohar.[/perfectpullquote]
I love my mom. Who knows how much time we will have together? We will clash, that’s natural. We will make all sorts of adjustments. I love her. Yet, it is my loyalty that will have me by her bedside each morning with coffee and vitamins. Loyalty will keep me grocery shopping for our at-home meals; keep me changing her bed, taking her on walks, watching television each evening together.
She took a huge chance. A retirement home might have been the better fit. But her heart knew something about me that trumps a nurses’ care and talks with social workers.
Sure, I’m, nice and kind and loving. Sweet words but, you know, kind of useless when the rubber hits life’s road.
What she knows about me is that I am so damned loyal to the people I love.
And she knows, because of that, she will be fine while I am on watch.
And as we are poised to tumble into another challenging year, I wish you all Jolly Steadfastness, Happy Truth-telling, and yes, even Joyful Self-sacrifice.
Mostly, I wish you all Merry Loyalty.
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