Roses are a very powerful image to me, particularly, a powerful, sad image.
My grandparents, in their 11th story condominium next to 五棵松 subway station, had a greenhouse overlooking a field of a high school. In the distance, you could see the Beijing television tower looming over a plane of smaller buildings.
When I had been a toddler growing up in this condominium, my grandfather meticulously tended the greenhouse. Before I would wake up, he would water the plants and flowers. It was his morning ritual. Right before he would go outside to dance with his squad of other old men, he would spend some time in the greenhouse to admire his flowers. I imagine he was at peace.
There would be all sorts of flowers. All of them vibrantly shining in the humid air. Viewing the world as a child, I thought that these flowers were the most colorful things in the world.
I would ask him about the flowers. He would describe them in great detail, with a sort of pride as a poet would describe his poems. I use the metaphor of a poet because he was a poet. But, in particular, he glamorized his roses. He used metaphors I do not remember. Even though I had learned to speak Mandarin at quite a young age, I still could not conceptualize the concept of a metaphor at the time. He described them in the context of love. In retrospect, this conversation had been quite formative in terms of developing my interests in understanding love. While love is generally understood as one word in English, there are way to many words in Chinese to describe love.
He would never let me touch his roses. He said that he was afraid that I would prick my hands on the thorns, but I secretly believed that he felt too much pride for them to let me touch them.
I remember, when I had gone back to Beijing for my internship in the summer coming into sophomore year, I lived in this condominium once again. I arrived late into the night. Just landing from my direct flight to Beijing from Newark, I was eager to catch up on the sleep that I should have gotten on the plane. I found my way to the bathroom, where there were a couple of dead cockroaches laying in the sink. I was alarmed but not surprised. Then, I made my way to the furthest room from the door. It had been a three-bedroom condominium with only my two grandparents occupying it. When I had lived here as a child, the room had been designated to me.
The room had been next to the greenhouse. Although I had been tired, I still was not ready to sleep, so I opened the glass door and let the humid air wash over me as I walked into the room. Outside the window, the bright floodlights illuminated the soccer field, and there were a couple of high schoolers playing soccer below. Their shouting could be heard through the closed window. I opened the window, letting in the high-elevation summer breeze of Beijing air. Coming from being in a pressurized metal tube for the past 18 hours, I was appreciative to have any unrecycled air at all. But I have always thought of Beijing air at night to be the cleanest of them all. I was appreciative to have that moment to myself.
The greenhouse had also doubled as the space of drying laundry in the past, and lying immediately next to the door was a metal stick with two hooks at the end used to elevate hangers with wet clothes. I used to pretend that it was a sword. I may have stabbed my grandfather with it at one point. He may have scolded my two-year-old self. I fiddled around with it once again, as I had in the past, making lunges and slashing movements into the air. The memories washed back in my mind, possession my attention. For a moment, I had been convinced it was daylight. All of my childhood memories had happened during the day. Then, I looked up. I saw the plants. Or, at least, what was left of them.
There are a few moments of intense emotion that I have felt in my life. This was one of them.
The plants were dead. All of them. I do not blame the plants. The garden had been untended for quite some time. No matter how resilient, house plants are destined to die without human care. My grandmother had passed away from cancer. My grandfather has a stroke and is now living in a nursing home. The condo in which I had spent the first couple of years of my life had not been occupied for almost a decade. And, I suppose that this was the result of the negligence.