Pruning, non-fiction by Ginger Hamilton Caudill

Last night's storm raged for four hours. A friend­ly warm sun and bril­liant blue sky coaxed me out­side with the promise of new growth in the garden.

I inspect my pep­per and bean plants first. The pep­pers are thriv­ing. One even has a shy pair of white blooms nes­tled beneath a pro­tec­tive green canopy. In a month, they'll be glossy sweet pep­per fruit. All but the tallest of the bean plants sur­vived the blow­ing rain intact. I found it bent at the soil line, a casu­al­ty of hard rain, gusty wind, and its own fragili­ty. I lift its limp body and prop it against the bean pole, hope­ful it will recover.

I head for the tea rose sec­tion. Unat­tend­ed for a year, the ker­ria japon­i­ca vine is smoth­er­ing the north cor­ner. It's an attrac­tive plant with nick­el-sized yel­low pom-pom flow­ers gen­er­ous­ly sprin­kled on a lush green back­ground. I haven't pruned it since last sum­mer. Rig­or­ous can­cer treat­ment required that my ener­gy remain focused on repair­ing and heal­ing my body.

The ker­ria has flour­ished dur­ing my absence. As I cull unwant­ed growth, I envi­sion my immune sys­tem as a dis­tract­ed gar­den­er who got lazy and per­mit­ted can­cer to grow first—just in one small corner—and soon the aber­rant cells took over. My body's gar­den­er tend­ed a dis­tant orchard and, when it returned, was unable to stop the growth that had tak­en over my left breast.

As I cut back the ker­ria, I dis­cov­er four tiny green rose buds at the ends of long spindly shoots stretch­ing from a rose bush bare­ly the size of a can­taloupe. Some­how this minus­cule, pale pink tea rose sur­vived despite my neglect. The rose won awards for its beau­ty once. Now it's shape­less and wild.

I'm ruth­less with the ker­ria, trim­ming it back to its assigned three-square-foot sec­tion. With the vine cur­tailed, the rose now stands in a clear­ing. The scrag­gly shoots with their minia­ture pea-sized buds remind me of anten­nae. The plant relays a des­per­ate sig­nal to the sun: Feed me, save me; I want to live.

A rosar­i­an would say it's no longer a rose bush, yet the blooms smell as sweet as ever.

My left breast itch­es and I rub it gen­tly after remov­ing my gar­den­ing glove. The skin is raw and swollen from a sum­mer of radi­a­tion treat­ments. Sev­en weeks of radi­a­tion treat­ments destroyed my abil­i­ty to per­spire in the affect­ed area. Heat builds until I con­scious­ly pro­vide an out­let for its release.

My rub­bing doesn't pro­vide relief; instead, it sets off a chain reac­tion of more intense itch­ing. It itch­es, I rub. It itch­es more.

I gath­er the clip­pings and build a neat stack at the curb. The prick­ly sen­sa­tion in my breast is more intense now—maddening, real­ly. Under my straw hat, my hair is damp. I can't help imag­in­ing the dry San Diego cli­mate. We left San Diego and returned to West Vir­ginia; six months lat­er I was diag­nosed with breast can­cer. The high desert's thir­ty per­cent humid­i­ty would be kinder to me. West Virginia's sod­den sum­mer air forces per­spi­ra­tion to collect.

Mois­ture clings to the skin until grav­i­ty takes over. Rivulets of per­spi­ra­tion slide down my face and neck. I pile on the last of the ker­ria cut­tings and quit for the day. The heat and humid­i­ty have won.

I go indoors after set­ting my gloves and hat on a tow­er of unused clay pots. My eyes adjust to the dim light, and I'm momen­tar­i­ly refreshed by the cool air inside the house. In anoth­er hour I'll need to turn on the air con­di­tion­er, but right now it's comfortable.

I enjoy a tall glass of ice cold water before tak­ing a show­er. The cold liq­uid fills my mouth then slides down my throat until my body's heat defeats it and I can no longer sense the cool­ness inside me. I press the glass against the hot flesh under my shirt, steal­ing a moment of relief until the cool water of the show­er can soothe my over­heat­ed breast.

A few min­utes lat­er, I'm stand­ing under the strong stream in the show­er, lath­er­ing up with laven­der-scent­ed soap—a gift from my mother-in-law—which reminds me of the ker­ria vine she gave me.

"It'll take over if you don't watch out."

My fin­gers smooth across the angry red scars on my chest. I close my eyes and con­cen­trate on the water that beats down on my back.

Already, I feel better.

I won't know until tomor­row if the bean plant sur­vives. The tea rose won't win any con­tests for a year or two, but for now it's safe.

I'm back on the job, and I think they'll be just fine.


Gin­ger Hamil­ton Caudill lives, loves, and learns near Charleston, West Vir­ginia. Her fic­tion and cre­ative non­fic­tion can be found through­out Inter­net pub­li­ca­tions as well as in more than half a dozen antholo­gies. After a six-year hia­tus from writ­ing fol­low­ing a stroke, Caudill is back to pro­duc­ing her unique brand of writing.

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