Bob and I worry about the worth of things. Dara and Tony, our youngest daughter and son, never give it a thought. They’re tender, both of them, perpetually on the brink of adulthood, with all the promise of rich and engaging personalities and none of the skills necessary to maintain themselves. Dara is 33. She loves, teases, and sometimes sobs, wobbles on her bike, reads the simplest stories with relish, dances to jazz. But although woman-sized, she can’t do math, and higher altitudes of academia are cloud-concealed, bewildering in their wispy dimness. She lives a slower life, one centered in the gentle arts: cooking, cleaning, comforting. Her lavishly misspelled notes of encouragement or self-revelation turn up beside our dinner plates, or on our pillows when we drop into bed for the night.
Tony is a year younger than Dara. He is an artist, with publications of his line drawings in a couple of national literary magazines, but no ability whatsoever to create drawings to anyone else’s specifications. The world of his creation teems with snakes driving construction vehicles and wolves piloting hot-air balloons, personified rainbows, sneering volcanoes, whole armies of marauding car-wash brushes. On the other hand, our world impinges uncomfortably on his, defeating him with its demands that he learn to read, to converse on subjects of someone else’s choosing, to switch from one activity to another in a moment’s time.
We worry about the worth of people too. Who is worthy, after all, and what does it mean to be productive, to “earn” a living.
One of the gifts of adoption is the stunning awareness that there are a thousand problems more pressing than money. A thousand problems that money can’t touch. There’s the disjunction of families that casts children into homelessness in the first place. For that kind of alienation—through years of shifting among foster homes or an isolated childhood in an institution—money is no security at all.
And one of the gifts of being a family with disabilities is the understanding that becoming “a contributing member of society” depends entirely on the ways we’re willing to define a contribution—even if the definition we choose doesn’t include a paycheck.
Dara and I are cruising the mall, window-shopping, and we discover a set of novelty lights in the shape of lizards—a particular passion of Tony’s, whose birthday is coming up in a few weeks. As usual, I’m not carrying a purse—we are only window-shopping after all—but Dara is. “Have you got any money?” I ask, and Dara nods delightedly.
“Lots!” she says. She hauls out her wallet, clicks it open, and pours a dozen pennies and nickels into my palm. She is always pleased to be able to help me out, but a concept like $21.95 is beyond her.
“We’ll get it later,” I tell her, and she shrugs, accepting what she must assume is just another case of my own indecisiveness.
With Tony, the relative value of money takes an even sharper turn from the conventional understanding. “I got an idea,” he tells us following a late evening walk around the neighborhood. “Let’s get ice cream.” No argument there. We all climb into the van and Bob drives to the Dairy Queen, takes orders for cones or Dilly Bars, and emerges in a few minutes with his purchases. We sit around awhile slurping and licking and generally appreciating the opportunity to relax together.
Tony’s expression throughout is benevolent, practically smug. “You know who treated?” he finally says. “Me!” As far as he can tell, the real work of securing ice cream for a family of four is in the creative act of imagining it and the effort involved in putting his request into words. The rest of us thank him, and I remind him gently that the money to buy it came out of Dad’s pocket, the result of his years of teaching industrial arts, helping children learn how to get jobs for themselves. Mostly, that goes over his head, and mostly it doesn’t matter: in the end we all agree that some appreciation at least belongs to the one who dreams up a pleasure to share with the rest of us.
But is it enough? Does it qualify Tony as a productive member of society? I remember being pregnant with our first child, before we began adopting kids, and several years before ultrasound routinely allowed expectant moms to know the sex of their child before delivery. “Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?” friends would ask. How tempting to answer, as so many moms did, “Either, just so it’s healthy!” But even then I wondered, what if it’s not? If our child were to be born with disabilities, wouldn’t I still want to hold her with joy and wonder? Wouldn’t I want to look forward to the adventure of her life, whatever it might mean?
Tony loves to dig. When his cat, Casey, died, he excavated a hole the size of a bomb crater in our backyard garden. We wrapped Casey in a favorite towel and tucked her into a shoebox, and Tony began the massive task of putting all that dirt back in place. He never flagged, and his pride in the accomplishment had the desired effect of taking the edge off his grief.
So when Bob, who is retired, was offered the opportunity to manage a community garden, he was eager to accept: what better way to make value out of digging than to turn the soil in a dozen massive above-ground planters, then undertake the daunting task of keeping the crabgrass at bay. Could a passion for digging be turned into something others could value too, like vegetables for the table and flowers to please the senses?
I’ve strolled through the garden sections of the big box stores for years without once wondering what happens to all the plants that don’t get sold. Once we were faced with the expanse of planting area at our community garden, though, I was quick to notice the shopping carts at the very back of the store, crammed with trays of half-dead herbage. We asked: they were on their way out to the compactor—plants, pots and all. Could we have them? With a letter from the non-profit sponsor of our community garden, these sorry rejects of the plant world became our own.
Now whenever the store culls its shelves, they call us to retrieve our bounty. Smashed, wilted, dirt-dry, they travel home in the back of our van, where Tony and Dara gently unload them, reading the tags to try the sound of their unfamiliar names: angelonia, vinca, lantana, purslane, verbena, dianthus, hibiscus, butterfly bush. And edibles too: sun sugar tomatoes, yard-long green beans, Santa Fe peppers, stevia, chocolate mint and hot spicy thyme. We make neat rows of plants in the spangled shade of our silk oak tree—an area of our front yard our kids now refer to as “The Plant ICU.” Dara sings or talks to them in reassuring tones. Tony bustles among them, straightening rows, clearing away dead foliage and asking us at intervals, “Am I a plant hero?” Indeed, we assure him, he is—a kind of garden Green Beret.
With all that attention—and a good soaking from the hose—an amazing percentage of our stock survives. The morning after bringing them home, we’re all eager to dash outside and see the transformation. We’re never disappointed. Crushed stems struggle toward the sun. Wilted leaves drop, making way for new ones in shades of new-born green. Within a few days some are sturdy enough for the trip to the garden, where they’re claimed by the gardeners there and finally settled into the soil of the planting boxes.
Others never make it that far, adopted instead by neighbors jogging or driving by, stopping to admire the hundreds of determined blossoms and fragrant herbs. “Would you like some?” one of us will offer, with a sweep of an arm toward our charges.
They approach, stoop for a closer look, glance at us uncertainly. “You’re giving them away?” They don’t need to see a price tag to understand the worth of these living things. It’s inherent in the immediate appeal of their struggling leaves and hopeful buds. They lift a plant and turn it around in their hands, examining it—claiming it, a thing of obvious value.
A young husband and wife happen by on their bikes, stop to exclaim at the display, and eventually pedal off home, their selections balanced in their deep front baskets, blossoms waving in the wind.
One neighbor, recently widowed, comes by often to see what’s new and take home just the right ground cover for that difficult area beside the drive, or that citrus-scented mint to flavor her tea. She tells us how healing it is to dig into the earth, root her new acquisitions firmly, encourage them to flourish even through the brutal desert summer. The metaphor is not lost on Dara and Tony, who understand it instinctively—the need for renewal, life out of neglect and death. They love the stories our new acquaintances share with us, and they love to help them load their selections, glowing with color and fragrance, into their cars.
The manager of a nearby subsidized apartment building encourages her residents to plant the tiny bit of yard beside their front doors, then brings them to our house to pick their favorites from the ever-evolving selection. Tony and Dara listen as they reminisce about the moss roses their grandmother grew in profusion, or the huge tomatoes, deep red and sun-warm, they plucked from the vines as children. They hear about the lush gardens of one neighbor’s native Hawaii, where the soil is black with the memory of writhing lava flows. We all talk compost and soil pH, tomato worms and caliche, and the inspiration to be found in the resurrection of throw-away plants. Crushed, they spring back; parched, they bloom anyway. Our kids help us water them back to health and present them, free of charge, to would-be gardeners who need the feel of inspiration in their own hands.
Underneath, well below that fabled bottom line that every entrepreneur has been taught to reverence, what are we really worth? Why do any of us matter? Because we’re mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, cousins and friends. Neighbors. Plant heroes. Because overlooked is not the same as worthless.