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March 30, 2016

By: Dr. John Souza, Primary Therapist

Last year my wife and I visited the town where my Portuguese ancestors first lived and worked on the sugarcane plantations– Waimea, Hawai’i, on the island of O’ahu. There we discovered a fruiting mango tree with the most succulent mangoes. My wife suggested I bring a seed home to plant. At first I rebuffed the suggestion. But, with a little cajoling, I was soon toting home one of the seeds for planting on the Big Island of Hawai’i. From that moment I began to feel a sense of connection with the seed; it was both the symbolism of the seed as a part of my Portuguese heritage and also my worry about whether or not I could actually grow a tree from a seed I found in the wild. This is how horticulture therapy begins.

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When my wife and I returned home I was excited and anxious to plant my little bundle of joy. I hurried through online readings about how to grow a mango tree, to find the right container, and the right soil mixture. I was careful to find just the right spot in my yard for my little mango keiki (the Hawaiian word for “child”) to grow. I placed it near my front door so that everyday I would remember to check on it.

Horticulture Therapy and Seedlings of Hope

Each day I checked on my little seedling of hope, looking for any signs of life. Days became weeks, but alas nothing seemed to be happening. I began to lose hope and started preparing myself for the possibility that I had failed; either I wasn’t very good with plants or I hadn’t done enough. I felt pangs of disappointment in myself, a few times thinking I had let down my Portuguese kin.

Then, the following week, signs of life! I couldn’t believe the seed was actually sprouting! And what’s more, there were actually two sprouts showing. Twins! What joy! I was so relieved. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad gardener. I was after all, part Portuguese! I was beaming with joy as I talked to my twin keiki, showing them off to friends and family. I was a proud mango papa.

Months passed and my little mango keiki grew very well. Each had strong stems and bright almost fluorescent green leaves. All was going well, until I started to notice that their growth was slowing. At first I didn’t think much of it. But after another month of them looking relatively the same size, I wondered if it wasn’t time for them to move out of their comfortable little hale (Hawaiian word for home), into an environment where they could stretch out a bit. I knew this to be true, but subconsciously I put off actually doing anything about it. Two months went by and I was barely aware of the fears driving my procrastination: What if I hurt them? What if I killed them?! They looked so healthy; I didn’t want to do anything to cause them harm. Do they really need to be moved?

How a Mango Can Transform

But one day I woke up and knew it was time. I marched outside and gently picked up my mango twins. I began preparing two new pots for them, carefully placing in each another mixture of soil and tender loving care. Then, the moment of severance: I carefully pulled them out of their home. After a bit of clearing of some of the soil, I discovered they were still connected by the last remnants of the original seed casing! This meant having to physically pull them apart. I was aghast and worried as I pulled, hearing the snapping of little plant parts; heart-wrenching! I worked quickly to get each plant into it’s new home, offering a lot of love and several apologies for what seemed to me a cruel and unusual act of betrayal and plant butchery.

Then it was over. As I looked at my two beautiful twins, now in their own homes, separate, yet connected, I felt a bit of relief, but with a distinct undercurrent of anxiety and fear. Again, those pesky thoughts came to me: “What if they don’t make it? What if they die?!” However, I put these thoughts aside and went about my day, holding out hope that the twins would survive the transfer.

The next few days were nerve wracking. Each day I checked on my beautiful little keiki twins, and at first it looked like they were doing well. I knew that plants go through shock and that this could actually be a good thing for them to develop resilience. But as I looked at my twins, I noticed they were both starting to show signs of stress: Their leaves began to droop and on these leaves began to form dark spots. One of the twins was in really poor shape; it’s leaves beginning to brown. One day my wife noted that this particularly brown plant looked nearly dead. This hit me hard, as I had been in a bit of denial. But she was right. I had been blindly holding onto hope, not seeing what was happening right in front of me.

I began to panic. We’d had a few days of fairly heavy rain and my intuition had been telling me the twins were getting too much water. Why didn’t I put them under a shelter?! How could I have been so careless?! I texted a desperate plea for guidance along with a picture of the twins to my friend and Pacific Quest’s Horticultural Therapy Director Travis Slagle; no response. I looked online about what to do for a dying mango tree and websites offered the use of a weak sugar-water mixture. I jumped on the suggestion, but as I was about to pour the water, a little voice told me this was not the answer. They were already suffering from too much moisture. But I didn’t listen and poured the mixture onto the plants. Soon after, Travis replied texting, “They’re sensitive. Keep the faith and don’t over water.” Noooooo! Why didn’t I listen to that little voice in my head?! Why didn’t I wait until I heard back from Travis?! Why didn’t I do more reading ahead of time?! I was becoming overwhelmed with feelings, but not paying attention to the feelings; I was too busy trying to find a solution. I was in crisis mode.

Horticulture Therapy :: Life and Loss

Then my wife (clearly the level-headed one) noted that it seemed I was grieving something, and that it might be more than just the twins. This gave me pause and I considered the nature and source of my feelings. It turns out she was right (of course). In fact I was in the midst of a grief and loss response. The grief I was experiencing for the plants was interconnected with all the grief I had ever experienced throughout my life: The missingness of my father from my life subsequent to my parents’ divorce, moving to new towns and away from childhood friends, the deaths of loved ones, and on and on. All of it connected to the present sense of no longer being able to experience the joy of seeing my twins thriving. Moreover, I had imbued those mango twins with all myriad of meaning ranging from my ability to care for another living thing to my worthiness as the bearer of my ancestral heritage.

Again, I texted Travis, “I think one got too wet and may not make it.” Travis responded, “Namaste little mango.” And that was it; that was the correct answer. Namaste is the Sanskrit word for seeing the light in others. I interpreted that to mean to accept the good in all things, including life’s losses.

It remains to be seen if the twins will survive the transplant. Either way, I will accept that there is something good that will come from it, for they have already borne fruit by providing me insight into my own internal processes, compelling me to connect with friends and family, and most importantly, myself. And now it’s given me this story to share with you, which (hopefully) will inspire you to consider your own responses to life and loss. Then, be sure to share it with someone else. In this way, from a single mango seed from O’ahu, we will propagate connection with self and others.

Thanks for reading this far. Namaste.