The Only Way is Up
My brother always loved a good bromeliad. Their flamboyant colours and big waxy leaves reflected his personality.
Natives of South American rain forests, and related to the pineapple, bromeliads are a dramatic addition to any garden. “We’re here,” they say. “Deal with it.”
Growing up gay in small town New Zealand in the 1950’s and 60’s was tough for Jim. Our parents never said much about homosexuality, apart from the fact it was illegal, like robbery and murder. They kept a bottle of French wine on the
mantelpiece for the day Jim announced his engagement. It sat there like an unexploded bomb.
The second he finished school he bolted out of town for bigger, less judgmental centres. Though he never gave himself credit, he built a successful career starting up a small television station that still runs in Auckland.
Jim’s tone was unusually calm and tender the morning he rang to say he had esophageal cancer. Stage four, he said, in his liver and lungs, but it wasn’t going to beat him. He wasn’t even going to honor it with a name.
A balloon of silence formed as I absorbed his words. He assured me things could be worse. He could’ve been caught in the 80’s Aids crisis the way many of his friends had. Nevertheless, I believe we both felt cheated he was unlikely to survive past his mid 60’s.
I put the phone down, went out and bought a bromeliad. On the way home, I phoned a medical friend who’d seen Jim’s results. He said my brother was unlikely to survive three months.
The bromeliad sat in a pot on the back deck through a bitter Melbourne winter while my dying brother embarked on an arduous tour of China. A few months later, as the plant toughed out 40 degree days, Jim and his partner Aaron moved back to the beach in our home town.
Three years later, my brother and the bromeliad were, amazingly, still alive. One survived on chemo, the other on an occasional squirt of water. They were indestructible.
Some people become demanding with illness, but Jim grew more gracious. Old hurts were forgiven. After a harrowing hospital emergency, he technically died for a while. He later told me that if that’s dying, there’s nothing to it.
Nearly four years after his diagnosis, Jim succumbed to his illness on his sofa at home. A golden sunset beamed through the windows as Aaron and my sister Mary wept and said goodbye.
Mary was visiting me last year when a storm knocked the bromeliad out of its pot. The plant snapped off at its roots, and we both assumed its days were over. Unwilling to chop it up, we transplanted it to the front garden so it could curl up its leaves in peace.
The bromeliad has since doubled in size and is overshadowing neighbouring succulents. A crimson, spikey flower stem has sprouted from its centre, grown a metre tall and shows no sign of stopping. It’s wonderful and outlandish. Jim would approve.