When All Else Fails

a prose poem by
MARY ELLEN GAMBUTTI | Gardener + Writer

This piece attempts to address my frailties as a sensitive human, and the way I found to cope. It also examines my experience surviving a stroke: the imperfections and moral challenges it presented me, and my choice to survive them. 

Photo by Jessica Furtney

I WAVER, sometimes stumble on snags. I encounter hurdles I’m powerless to overcome. When I falter, my frailty is plain to all. Since I’m human, I can recover my footing with love, magic, and even grace.

My lifelong passion is to grow plants, work in life-affirming nature, with flowers and green plants that imbue my spirit, strengthen my fiber, inspire creativity, and help me through dark times. I rejoined my center within a good marriage. I embraced the study of Horticulture. Strong and able, I happily ran a solo gardening business for 15 years. Although not perfect, life had purpose among the plants that thrived in varied gardens.

A brain hemorrhage struck me one unsuspecting June day of my 57th year. I woke in a West Virginia intensive care unit to absence of feeling and strength on my right side. Dread filled my core, recalling the dire moment, changing into jeans in a tour bus rest room, while stopped at a picnic pavilion, as a storm gathered.

The inconceivable weight of my right hand and arm on a crisp white sheet: not asleep; dead. Testing my will, I couldn’t move my right leg, foot, toes. Stroke killed my speech, disrupted clear thought, and blurred my vision. Months of therapies loomed ahead.

I could hold nothing with my dominant hand. No pruning or clipping. No pinching new growth for a fuller plant. No lopping branches for form and shape. There’d be no gardening. No kneeling in friable soil. No bending for a weed. No reaching for a fragrant rose. No staking floppy Asters. No planting, hauling or mulching. No striding, no hiking to summer borders beyond the trees, where I’d found joy.

I’d miss the scent and feel of dried grasses, brittle in the fall breezes. The aged, crisped stems; the turgor gone. Or ones that never strengthened – too much shade, not enough wind to batter, nor sun to nourish, or weeping rain.

I knew I’d either stretch or move–there was no choice–to reach, try to find the strength I’d always had inside, but didn’t always know. I could have acquiesced to tempting, constant, healing sleep. Unless I once again aspired, I would only lie in bed and try to feel, or think I feel. I’d lie and dream I might once again stand, or take a stand, or move my hand. Try, try, and toes might move. And did. Then my foot! I worked, and they coaxed me, “You can do it. You must do it!” Start now, or lose the chance.

My spirit broken, crumbled, fragile, and frail, I cried and struggled, even fought myself in anger and wounded pride. Self-pity for what I had become. I could be bitter. Why should I be weak? How could this be?

I turned away when asked, “How do you feel about the weakness?” You can’t possibly understand! You can’t know what it’s like to have nothing. And when the crying ceased, I remembered my toes told their truth of determination. A small thing, but there it was. I learned I could become again. I would find my strength within my soul. Courage. Determination. Not perfect, but able. I hoped and prayed to overcome this trial. I tried, and that made a difference. I would not be a dainty, flimsy flower. Frailty is not this woman. She’s a survivor.



Gardener + Writer

From girlhood, I wrote essays and poetry, and later, wrote and published gardening pieces. Now, I write short pieces, a number of which appear in literary magazines. I self-published a memoir about the hemorrhagic stroke I survived at 57, which curtailed my gardening career. Today, my husband and I enjoy small space and container gardening; our orchids, and succulent plant collection.

Enjoy more of Mary Ellen’s work on her blog, Ibis and Hibiscus.