What We Leave Behind

Rhododendron occidentale
is the only native azalea that grows naturally
west of the Rocky Mountains in the United States

Someone said the 3 Bs of inspiration are Bed, Bath, and Bus. I sleep with a pen and pad by my bed; for an inspirational quick fix, I soak in the bathtub. For a leg up on a novel, I prefer a train to a bus.            
Another quick fix is watering my plants. Yesterday it was my poor pitiful native azalea, Rhododendron occidentale. It’s been in the ground for about 15 years, has never bloomed, and is leggy.
In the wild they grow in riparian areas, tolerate sandy soil and periodic flooding. I planted the poor thing in my clay-based soil and, when I think about it, supplement winter rains with a good soaking.  
The blooms can be white, with a yellow petal, the buds are a coral color—not that I’ve ever seen one on my plant. They are deciduous and smell heavenly.
When I brought the azalea home 15 years ago, I planted it near a red alder, another riparian species. Over the next decade the azalea languished and the alder grew and grew. Clumps of sword fern took hold in semi-circle around them, and eventually dwarfed the azalea.
Last year I had the alder taken out, only to have wild onions invade and cover every square inch of exposed soil. I spent hours digging them up, one tiny bulb at a time. I cut back the sword ferns, mulched and fertilized the azalea, and watered it all through our dry summer. This year the onions were back with a vengeance, but the azalea also has new growth. The leaves are green and supple. There are no flowers, but for the first time, I’m hopeful.
While I watered, I remembered all the care I’ve taken to keep it going. I don’t think there is another plant in the yard, I’ve held as high hopes for which reminded me of house-hunting 22 years ago.
Thirty-two years ago, I discovered and fell in love with the Mendocino Coast. From that brief visit on, my goal was to live here. I took an early retirement from my airline job, went to graduate school, and used one of my last free passes to fly out and look for a house. 
I created a rating guide for each place the real estate agent showed me. I assigned stars for places based on whether they possessed what I considered most important: trees, the ocean, a lake, pond or creek, a view, a garden, and remoteness from neighbors. What the house itself looked like was way down the list. I didn’t care as much about what I lived in as what I would be surrounded by.
One of our stops was a house near Pudding Creek. It was a plain little place, well inside my price range. This was late June so, although the yard was full of large robust rhododendrons, none were in bloom.      
An old man met us at the door. Inside was dimly lit, so it took a minute for my eyes to adjust, and to see his wife lying on the couch. She was pale and clearly quite ill. She’d lain there for some time, I guessed, since the sofa was made up with a sheet, pillows and blankets.
I nodded and she nodded, then her husband showed us through the house, often with his hand on a wall for balance. It was a small, tidy, dull little house, full of family pictures, dated furniture and assorted mementos. It wasn’t going to get more than a single star: too close to its neighbors, not enough trees, no to-die-for view, but I muttered ‘nice, isn’t this lovely,’ at each doorway.
After the tour, the old man led me to a stool at the kitchen counter, turned on a little lamp and opened a photo album.
“I . . .,” he said, and corrected to “we have 26 species of rhododendrons.” The pictures were of each species in full bloom: pinks, purples, reds, and whites.
I thought my heart would break.
This old couple had reached the end of their time together in the home they’d shared for 50 years. She was going into hospice, he into a nursing facility, and the house to a stranger. He wanted me to appreciate all the care and love they’d put into their rhodies, the only truly priceless things they had to pass on to the next owner. I looked at every picture, and when I got back to the realtor’s car, I started to cry.
Even if I had loved that house, if it had scored five stars, I don’t think I could have bought it. I didn’t want to be the one who made them move out, and away from their flowers.
I remembered all this while watering my poor azalea. I looked around. In the 21 years I’ve lived here, I’ve protected every tree, removing only 4—a dead bishop pine, two Doug firs to make room for an addition, and that alder. The forest that surrounds me is virtually intact. And I realize I was wrong: that old man wanted to sell to someone who would love his rhodies the way he had, and I would have been that person. I hope that whoever comes after me will love this forest, filled—at that very moment with the song of a winter wren—and will take care of my azalea.

My 15 year old azalea
Some day