The Christmas Cactus

Three years ago, at the end of June, one of the two 6′ x 8′ windowpanes in our apartment imploded from the torrential power of straight-line winds. Glass, acting like pieces of shrapnel, gouged the wood in our kitchen floor and table and decapitated the row of plants beneath the shattered window.


The plants’ chopped leaves were blown as far as the glass shards (the latter were discovered beneath our office door), and rain lashed through the hole where glass used to be, fluttering the few blinds that had survived the blast. The wind’s force shoved up numerous tiles of the apartment’s drop-down ceiling, exposing streamers of pink insulation that looked like decorations for an end-of-the-world party.


For days afterward, my husband and I wore shoes to avoid stepping on glass woven into the fabric of the carpet and found specks of potting soil in the oddest places: microwave, fridge, cabinets, and stove. As we put our apartment and our life back together, I found that what I mourned the most was not the mutilated kitchen table that had been a wedding gift from my in-laws or the kitchen floor that was spongy and warped from the water that had saturated too deeply into the boards to dry, but the house plants I had kept alive through four years of college and numerous week-long road trips, through attacks of spiders mites and aphids.


In one fell swoop, over half of them were destroyed, so I carried the mortally wounded plants down to our store’s warehouse and unceremoniously dumped them into the industrial-sized trashcan. I was about to toss the Christmas cactus that had been a gift from my mother when I lifted the severed leaves and peered down at the plant’s base.


Although the potting soil sparkled with glass, and over half the plant had been squashed flat, I realized that the cactus might be salvageable. I plucked glass pieces from its leaves and soil and watered the pot in the store’s sink. I then carried it back up to our apartment and set it in front of the other 6’x8′ windowpane that was not boarded up from the implosion and decided it was up to the cactus to either perish or survive.


Three years have passed since that horrible storm. I haven’t really thought about that day or the plants that were destroyed in the blast until the other afternoon when I was typing on our new couch in our new home and happened to look over at the fireplace ledge. Peering through my glasses, I tried to discern what the flash of fuchsia was amidst the brown river stones and plant leaves. Then I realized that the Christmas cactus — though still smashed in places and bearing the scars that had almost taken its life — had bloomed right on time.


This week I was driving toward Nashville when suddenly I could hardly see through my rain-soaked windshield for all the tears in my eyes. For many, if not most, 2013 has been one of the toughest years. Due to the quagmire of the job market, people are financially stagnated and this stress often trickles down into their family and marriages, causing all to suffer immeasurably. But as I flicked on my wipers and continued driving, our nation’s economic crisis was the last trouble on my mind.


Instead, I thought of my circle of loved ones and the hardships so many of them have faced. I thought of the marriages I have seen separated by years of distrust; I thought of the grieving mother whose daughter died tragically four months ago; I thought of my best friend whose cancer battle has been fought and won while so many others have fought a similar battle and lost; I thought of the families who remain adrift even over the holidays because the misunderstandings among them cannot be merged.


While driving through the rain toward Nashville, tears again filled my eyes as I remembered the Christmas cactus. I remembered how battered it had been by the elements, how I had almost chucked it into the trashcan while thinking it had nothing left to save or offer. I remembered how I had tended it a little, and then set it in front of the window–letting it up to the plant to either perish or survive.


I may have seen that marriage separate over this past year, but I have also seen how other spouses are fighting for reconciliation. I may have seen that mother grieve for the loss of her child, but I have also seen how she has been embraced by her family and friends. I have seen family members rally around those who have been diagnosed with cancer, and I have seen cancer patients give others hope even while they are fighting so hard. I have seen daughters forgive their fathers and fathers forgive their sons.


This year I have seen so many brilliant flashes of beauty tucked amid the burdens of this life that I cannot help but compare it to that Christmas cactus that was almost struck down by the elements, and yet proceeded to bloom right on time.

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Jolina Petersheim, bestselling author of The Midwife and The Outcast, and her husband share the same unique Amish and Mennonite heritage that originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but now live on a solar-powered farm in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin with their young daughters. Visit with Jolina at

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  1. Lisa Wingatee says

    Happy Christmas eve, Jolina! May your day bloom just like that cactus and the rest of the season be bright. Here’s to new beginnings in the new year.


  2. Julie Cantrell says

    Jolina, you always have the perfect words. Love to you, sweet friend, and may your family enjoy a beautiful, peaceful, joyful Christmas. j

  3. Shellie says

    The healing gift of time. Thanks for the poignant reminder, Jolina. And a very Merry Christmas to you and yours! May it be full of beauty and light.

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