When I was in middle school, my hobby was writing terrible historical fiction. There was the time-traveling doomed romance on the Titanic, and the Oregon Trail epic with no plot. But the tale I thought was going to change the American literature landscape was my revolutionary war novel, Eliza Jane. Eliza became a spy for George Washington by walking into his camp and seeing if she could, you know, lend a hand or anything. Her assignment? Keep tabs on her devilishly handsome cousin Ethan, who was a British general. He was conveniently courting her, because he was fresh off the boat from England and didn’t know they were related. Or something. Details. Unfortunately, after a series of escapades I can no longer remember and a few horrendous PG-13 sex scenes, Eliza’s cover was blown during the Debutante Ball. She was promptly sentenced to hang in a scene I thought would edge out Of Mice and Men as The Saddest 20th Century Novel Ending Ever.
Perhaps if I had changed Eliza and Ethan into witch-hunting zombies and amped up the sadomasochistic love scenes, I would be a billionaire by now. But the manuscript has been lost many hard drives ago, and I’ve spent the last decade forgetting and making literary amends.
But old Eliza crept up from the recesses of my consciousness last Monday. It was just before five in the morning, and the rural street outside my Oregon house was still cloaked in starlight. The porch lights were dark, but in the headlights of our idling truck, you could just make out my home office’s bare walls and the craters where my shelves used to hang.
A month before that morning I was sitting in that office, running spell check on my memoir manuscript before hitting “Send” to a potential publisher. I thought getting my book out into the world was the Big Step of 2013, a shot at the big time. A chance to change our lives. My husband Matt stepped into the office, holding his iPad up in the way I imagine our ancestors lofted their shocking telegrams. “I’ve been offered a promotion,” he said. “It’s in Tucson.”
The job offer was one of those proverbial “too good to pass up” deals, with compensation and opportunity outweighing the upheaval of all life we’d ever known. “I can be a writer anywhere,” I kept repeating to friends and family and coworkers and my terrified native Pacific Northwestern self, who was not quite so sure. Yes, laptops and pens would function in Arizona. But what about the Portland community? Could one continue to be relevant so far from Powell’s? There was a comfort to knowing that every book tour would pass by my doorstep; that any workshop I could dream up would be happening within the next year. There was a mental safety net to living in Writer City: if I’m around them, I can be one. Relevance by proxy.
On that Monday departure morning, after I stuffed last night’s takeout boxes into our bloated trash can, it was too late for reservations. I had rented the house, resigned my job, said goodbye to my friends. I was caught in a haze of surreal farewells and tied-up ends, unable to comprehend that in 36 hours I would be 1,438 miles away in a driveway I had only seen on a hazy Google Map.
As I turned toward the truck, a sliver of headlight caught the ground by my toe. A daffodil shoot had sprung to life overnight, spurred by the Portland weekend’s 60-degree heat wave. The bud bulged with bright yellow petals, the first spring flower in our yard.
Staring down at the plant’s promise, delirious with fatigue and worry, my chest seized with the last lines I’d written long ago: “The snow would melt. The flowers and the birds and the sun would return, but without Eliza.” My heart twisted so tightly in my chest that I could barely breathe, and my glasses fogged with tears. I need to dig it up, I thought, reaching in my purse for the ghost of a spoon. Pot it. Save it. I can’t let my life here die. What about the tulips and the lilies? The hydrangea? The pink dogwood? Everything I fell in love with when we bought this first house would be thriving on without me.
I had no spoon, or pot, or enough follow-through to begin transporting my lawn in the dark. I let my breath even, and I stepped into the truck.
Six days later I am sitting on a brick porch in the desert as a breeze cuts through the 84-degree afternoon. My new lemon tree’s leaves rustle, and the tomatoes I’ve just planted strain toward the endless sun. During the homesick morning I hadn’t realized how redundant, after 28 Oregon and Washington years, daffodils had become. I wore yellow crayons down to nubs in grade school filling in daffodil coloring pages. As a high school weekend job, I wrapped and sold daffodils at a Sumner bulb farm. I marched as the cymbal player in the annual Tacoma Daffodil Parade. Bouquets decorated every Easter table I’d ever sat at; stunk up reception desks I stood by from March to April. I had done daffodils. To death.
The flowers and birds and sun will return without me, but I will go on without them. I will plant cilantro, and see a monsoon, and meet lizards, and avoid bashing my knee into a cactus for a second time. And I will write not because it is where I am, but because it is who I am. Maybe I didn’t say no to the life I loved. Perhaps I said yes to an evolution.