Here I am in the middle of December wanting to write down a memory of roses. My memory starts with a grape arbor and my father-in-law. You see, Allen (my father-in-law) wanted to build a grape arbor to hang off the north fence of Actions de Grace (which is the name of the house we both live in. You’ll find the name etched by the door-bell on a marble plaque, which was something that Allen found in the trash while he was in France). The house is in the French style—stucco, an arched doorway, flared eaves, a pergola, and the like—so my father-in-law and I, of course, set out to install a grape arbor on the fence by the shed. He would cut the wood and do most of the work, because of his desire for perfection, and I would stand by, making sure that he didn’t forget the tape-measure or the straight-edge, reminding him of numbers he called out, having just as much concern for precision as he did, lacking the skills, but having the energy. But my enthusiasm outdid me, and I found myself, between tasks, next to the shed pruning the rose bush, which looked rather sickly from lack of water or from general neglect. In the place where the yellow roses had blossomed weeks earlier and then wilted, I noticed that there were swollen brown dead heads that looked as if they were trying to fall off on their own accord; but, at the rate with which they were falling, I’m sure they wouldn’t come off anytime soon. So, I cut the dead heads off and tried to work the bush back into its own arbor. The next week, when we resumed our work on the grape arbor, I noticed fresh foliage finding its way toward the sun, and the following week there were wee buds on their way to becoming yellow roses. By the end of the summer I found myself cutting the roses off before they died, or wilted, or even became dead heads that needed pruning, instead giving those roses to my wife.
And it is this process that fascinates me: the flower blooming: the dead head removed: all the motion of color: the eeriness of a flower appearing from nowhere, the color coming from that muted soil below: the ambiguity of brown, the mystery of crispiness, the meaning of maturity.
It brings to mind the birth of our first son over two years ago. Kylie, my wife, was stuck in transition for hours, in that moment right before birth. I imagine that it felt like a sneeze that never lifts off the nose, that just settles there in the gape of your wide open mouth for more moments than usual. I had a friend who was once in this wretched condition, and I watched him pull out his nose hairs, sniff pepper, and act out an array of other attempts to convince the sneeze to leave him be. My wife didn’t pull any nose hairs or use any pepper. I hung there under the weight of her groans and body, watching the blood trickle out of her, not knowing her placenta had pulled off and was practically drowning our son in blood, singing with my mother-in-law every hymn we knew, asking my mother-in-law if that was the normal amount of blood, wondering if we shouldn’t go get the doctor, regretting that I hadn’t studied medicine instead of poetry, reassuring my wife that it was going to be okay. After twenty minutes of being bent over under her weight, I asked her if I couldn’t stand erect for one second, one brief moment, so I could handle the next hour better. She asked why I would ask for a break when she hadn’t had one for four hours, then pleading for anesthesia, telling me that she didn’t want a natural birth but wanted to live. I told her she didn’t know what she was saying. More blood came out and her faced turned even whiter. Earlier that summer we squeezed small white ice cubes in our hands at a birthing class, her practicing pain, me empathy, feeling and water trickling out of our blood-less and frozen-white hands onto the hardwood floor in the hot attic of a Salt Lake City cottage. I went to get the nurse. The doctor came in, more people rushed in, gloves were on, aprons were on, someone said forceps, scissors, towel, oxygen, and before I knew it I was leaving my wife, following my son on a cart to the NICU, whispering welcomes and introducing myself as dad, letting him curl his small fingers around mine, hearing an explanation about sucking the blood out of his lungs, learning that he would be okay, seeing my wife hours later still white but well rolling up in a wheelchair. I suppose it was this memory that prompted the empathy I had for that sorry looking rose bush, to snip something stuck in transition for more than just hours.
Just two months ago I was wheeling the lawn mower down the lawn and found some more dead heads in the front yard. I’m not sure what kind of flowers they were, but I knew they weren’t roses. The rose dead heads were orbicular and glowed with a small gloss set on long skinny necks. I’m sure the phrase “dead head” originated with that acorn image. But these flowers in the front yard, on the other hand, had sharp splayed dead heads that appeared more like skin peeling off chapped lips and felt more like a pile of toe and fingernail clippings glued onto a stick. Had any phrase originated from here I’m sure it would have been something along the lines of grooming instead. I cut those dead heads off as well and was delighted to find that they too came back in full pink bloom.
As I think of dead heads, rotting peaches, bean vines with no more beans, mint heads that are heavy after pollination, lavender that has a strained neck from it’s own dead heads, all in the backyard and all covered in snow I begin to realize that winter, the original dead header, is not here to introduce death, but rather to relieve us from it; like a ghost itself, coming to decapitate, coming all white, all heavy, bearing down on the brown and stale necks of dead heads. I feel my own head begin to tear off during this time, my own neck breaking. My mind and body are numbed by the cold. I rarely turn my head or use my neck while walking in winter outdoors, staying indoors more, moving less when I’m under my blanket at night, feeling myself slow down. By the time spring rolls around there’s a different feeling. Winter won’t leave dead heads hanging on the edge of life. Those lavender stems with their dead heads shaking in the wind, in that painful place between life and death, that line between the brown neck and the green stem, we leave them there. And so winter must come along and clean up our neglect, clean up what autumn left; and spring cleans up what winter leaves; summer cleans out all the confetti left by spring.
The summer my son turned two, he and I often wandered the neighborhood. I noticed my neighbors’ lavender bushes had dead heads, and I wanted to take them and grow some of my own lavender. I had an absurd query crop up in my head, wondering whether we could utilize dead human heads in the same way, although not by planting them in the soil or even placing them in any public space, which makes me think of posters that I see at church: someone smiling and advertising some event or message, but his or her eyes are poked out with a pin and there are other pocks all over the teeth, and even Christ is not exempt from this abuse. I wouldn’t want anyone’s dead head to be desecrated or vandalized like that. No, I thought, those human dead heads would have to be on display on a family fire place—much better and more life-like to have a row of ancestor’s heads rather than a painting or photograph. While relaxed on the couch as I look up from my book, I would converse with my grandfather and entangle myself in fading memories of him. Or I might bring my great grandmother’s head to all the family reunions or to the birth of my son, so Kylie and I, in the middle of the terror of our first birth, could look her in the eyes and think about how she gave birth to her daughter and our grandmother in the heat on the plains in the summer under a handcart, holding her breath and heaving breath at the stars. And after Kylie heaved at her own stars and our son came out, we could calculate all the family features found in his fresh face, turning all the dead and living heads this way and that. But I withdrew from this thought, knowing how disturbing it would be to others to have dead heads hanging about, and I thought that the least we could do is hire more sculptors to make more busts.
But the absurdity persisted, as I contemplated the lavender, how beautiful it is to see its purple flesh fade into a skull with black seeds rattling around inside; and I thought it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to go to liberate all the seeds in the skulls at the cemetery. And the metaphor continued to morph in my mind, which wondered if the seeds weren’t in the head stones instead, and wouldn’t it be better to burst grandfather’s head stone, after it was planted above the entombed body and take the resulting pieces home, to treat the head stone as a dead head? It would be important to bury the body, set the head stone and then demolish it and give a piece to all those that are interested in taking home a memory catalyst. The body is the bush, the head stone the withered flower now become dead head. It’s when the dead head and roots are still connected that they don’t reach their potential, don’t blossom into new roses. I suppose the point of head stones is to have a static location for death, but I wouldn’t mind having a small piece of granite from the head stone of my grandfather on my desk. I could pick it up and it would grow all sorts of memories. I would think: this is the stone from my grandfather’s gravesite. I remember the time I saw him smoking with my uncle in the front yard. And I also remember the time I tried to make him laugh because he always had that stern look and tight lip about him. I remember the time that my mom said he was the devil. My dad said he was an alcoholic, who gambled the family into poverty, who burned copies of the Book of Mormon, whom my dad hated. Maybe people don’t want dynamic head stones. Aren’t there enough ghosts?
Here I am in the middle of an essay on dead heads and on the sepulchral feeling that comes from the shrunken headed frankensteinian rose and the bone bleached skeletal lavender, and I want to move onto another topic: the flowers on the plum tree in the backyard that bloom and wither only to become a plum: the living, juicy and sweet heads of life: the weight and message fruit carries when compared to planets and babies. Already I want to cut these words loose as they stand in full bloom, before they begin to wilt, begin to conclude, begin to become sepulchral and die.