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Mourning For My Vanished Succulent

Senior staff writer Owen Fitzgerald-Diaz wonders where his plant is, what it might be doing, if it’s safe… and what could have led to its disappearance, as well as exploring the complicated mourning process after one loses a plant.

My room in Wien does not have proper windowsills, at least not anywhere near the size required to support potted plants. Thus, my succulents are perched precariously on the slightly tilted ledge outside the window, constantly just a hair’s breadth away from a two-story drop to certain death on the concrete below.

A few weeks ago, I dropped by an event that was giving out free succulents– I don’t remember what it was, just that it crossed my Facebook feed and I saw “free succulents” and resolved to drop by briefly to acquire another plant. It’s how I acquired two of my three current succulents, as a matter of fact.

In any case, my new child– my plants may be the closest things to children that I ever have, given my animal allergies and distinct lack of paternal instincts– arrived that day in a small plastic pot, tiny and vulnerable. I placed it beside one of its larger siblings (housed in a sturdy terracotta pot), on top of a little ceramic dish to make sure it couldn’t just slide or fall. Having to open my window to put it out gave me a reason to water all four of the succulents that were now flourishing on the ledge.

I do not water my plants frequently– they are succulents, adapted for life in the desert, and don’t need constant attention. So a couple of weeks passed before I thought to water them again, and I wasn’t feeling any guilt about it, since they’d gotten a healthy rainstorm or two (though the overhang from the room does shield them from the full water dosage of a storm). I opened the window, plastic water bottle in hand, and began my task.

And then I realized my newest plant was gone.

There were no clues as to what might’ve happened– my greatest fear has always been a rogue pigeon landing and toppling them all, but the others were unperturbed, and no bird shit stained the ledge. No dirt was scattered across the little dish it had been placed on, indicating a violent spill, but there had been wind and rain… could that light, delicate little plastic pot have been lofted by the breeze, perhaps? It was a chilly night, and I was in my pajamas, but I immediately went outside to search the ground below, shining my phone flashlight into the grate that sits directly below my window to see if I could spot any sign of my vanished child. It was useless; there was no evidence above or below the grate, or anywhere on the sidewalk, that my plant had ever been there.

I was overcome with guilt– it could’ve happened days ago without me even noticing; I could’ve even been the culprit, when I accidentally knocked a bunch of books over near the window in my room. Had the vibrations from the impact, from my clumsiness, sent my innocent baby catapulting to its death? Had it been the violent winds that had made sure the rain from the previous week’s storm actually reached the ledge?

I had lost a plant before, at the end of last year, but this was different. Last spring, my parlor palm (not a succulent) had been sick almost since I had first gotten it at the very start of freshman year, slowly turning yellow and brown as I forgot to water it, getting infested with little mites that I had to spray it for, and then wilting under the chemical assault of the insecticides. It was a long and gruesome illness, and I knew that when the end of the year and moving out came, death would have to take the poor thing. I dumped it and the soil that had failed to nurture it in the trash, and its celadon pot now houses one of my succulents, after it outgrew its old pot over the summer. That case had none of the ambiguities of this one– its death was foreseen for weeks, its ultimate fate known (if shameful). But my new succulent had seemed a perfectly healthy little thing that would thrive among the ranks of my growing plant family, and I haven’t the faintest notion of what could’ve happened to it.

Maybe someday, a body will be found– lofted by high winds far to the east to plummet off the cliff onto the asphalt path in Morningside, picked up by a bird and found desiccated on the roof of some apartment in Washington Heights. Maybe it’s still alive somewhere, and its waxy skin will soon poke up from beneath the carpet of dead leaves that lies under the grate under my window, or it will greet me from the flower beds of Morningside when I next pass through. Maybe, carried off by a passerby who found its broken form on the pavement or stolen from my ledge while I slept by some conniving second-story man, it now lives as a captive in someone else’s home, lonely and afraid.

But for now, I must learn to live with the not knowing.

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