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August 22, 2023


Amy DeBellis

When my mother starts planting trees in the backyard, it’s almost violent. A burial with none of the peace. The way she digs in the soil and pushes the seeds into the dirt, it’s like she’s trying to shove them down into the darkness for good.

Given enough time, she declares, the trees will dwarf this house. She says it like she’s proud, like she longs for the day she and her home will be completely eclipsed. Her collection of seeds fills two drawers in the kitchen: ash and maple and ironwood, white oak acorns and apple seeds. After she runs out of room in the yard she drives out over the countryside with the containers, looking for flat patches of soil.

Eventually she starts to have trouble planting. Getting old, she tells me. I sense that I should offer to help but I beg off, claiming a bad back. It’s more that I don’t want to look at the seeds. I don’t want to touch them. Like the memory of Grandpa, they hibernate, biding their time.

Over the months her coordination turns rougher: fingers twitching, muscles twanging stiff like plucked strings, speech slurring muddy. Finally, a diagnosis confirms what we both knew. In the doctor’s office her face is calm like the wallpaper, her fear buried so deep it may as well be a seed, and when I drive her home, it’s me who is shaking.

When she is moved to the hospital, there is barely a hint of green. I catch her searching for the color, her eyes the only part of her that can move now, and the momentary glint of victory when she finds it: an emerald-tinted bandaid, the nurses’ spearmint scrubs, the green number on the monitor next to her bed that eventually ticks down to nothing.

She has left me the house. In the kitchen drawers, as always, are the seeds. There are enough to fill a landscape, enough to fill the backyard hundreds of times over. I dig my hands into the containers, take big greedy fistfuls, roll them on the counters like I’m spinning tiny, faceless dice. ALS is sporadic in ninety percent of cases, but in the remaining ten percent the disease is familial, caused by mutations in a gene. Capable of being passed along just like my mother’s straw-colored hair and sandy laugh. Her father, too, died paralyzed.

I take another handful of seeds, but this time I don’t put them on the counter. I don’t roll them; I don’t want to know my fate. Instead I press them to my lips, one by one, and swallow them. Inside me they will take root, I know; they will blossom, they will grow into a forest of sheltering trees.