by Heather Bartos

May 15, 2023

It happens as I’m trying to plant a French marigold. The marigold wasn’t even supposed to go here—it had the wrong tag and was supposed to be a Delta sunflower—but the sunflower was planted where I wanted the marigold to go. It’s late morning, my time is running out, and I’m getting irritable.

I dig down and find only the loose topsoil I had added a few weeks ago. Huh. I must have done a poor job clearing this area, since under the topsoil is just “duff”—old grasses and weeds, some mulch, but nothing here to sustain a little red-headed, orange-streaked life.

The marigold regards me, saying nothing, the strong, silent type. That’s good, since I’m going to be cruel to be kind. I clear a little space with the shovel, anticipating I will hit the real dirt, the good stuff, but all I get is a few tangled roots.

I can’t find the ground. My breathing accelerates, just a little bit, and my heart rate climbs to match it.

I have had anxiety my whole life. I’ve given up the hope that it will ever completely go away. Most of what I fear has never happened and never will.

Sometimes I can trace the fear to a specific event. When I was a kid, I was never afraid of flying. When I was twenty-one, I flew from Chicago to San Jose through a blinding snowstorm. The pilot announced we may experience windshear.

“What’s that?” I asked my mom, as the flight attendants rushed to collect our silverware and meal trays. We had just started dinner. None of us were done. The plane felt like it was on a trampoline.

My mom, who was snapping her little table back into the seat in front of her, said, “That means it’s easier to crash.”

The swaying of the plane made me nauseous.

“Lift your back off the seat,” my mom said. “You feel it less.”

When am I going to find the ground, the soil, so I can get this planted? How is it that I can’t find it? Isn’t it just under my feet like it’s supposed to be, like it always is?

I was a good kid, compliant and well behaved. I only remember being grounded once. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere after school for a week. Since I liked reading books at home, this didn’t have much of a sting.

But the stay-at-home order, coming late in March of 2020, felt different than being grounded, although the rules were the same. Stay home. Stay alone.

Who knew, before then, that just going to the grocery store could cause anxiety, that just buying a can of soup might kill you?

When I was twenty-three, I flew through a thunderstorm from Reno to Salt Lake City. The woman next to me had a panic attack. The plane bucked and bounced, a rubber ball thrown by a careless toddler, a beanbag hurled at a picture of a malevolent, grinning clown. My stomach flipped and flopped. I had trouble catching my breath.

After that, I couldn’t fly without fear for almost ten years.

Okay, my sweet marigold. Here’s how this will work:
I’ve cleared a little section, between some tree roots, and dug out the stones. It’s not the best set up and we both know it, but I’m out of time. There’s compost, but since your neighbor the delphinium is a self-centered water hog, there may not be much left to absorb.

In you go, my friend. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I won’t tell you what happened in this very spot, last week, to the bachelor’s button that was your traveling companion.

The thing that ended my decade-long fear of flight was helping an elderly relative. The only way to take care of him and visit with my work schedule was to fly.

I needed something bigger than my fear, and I found it in love. The plane couldn’t crash, because someone needed me.

About a month into the pandemic, I was walking several miles a week, trying to ground myself. I developed stabbing heel pain in one foot. At the same time, I developed vertigo. Out of nowhere, I would get dizzy and lose my balance.

“No walking for a month,” my nurse practitioner said.

The vertigo was caused by bones in my inner ear that were out of alignment. Eventually the bones would re-adjust, and the problem would go away.

And it did.

Some of us scrabble hard to find purchase, to become rooted, to obtain even the tiniest piece of peace. It is a mystery, why some growing things fail to thrive even with the best soil, the best conditions, and others stretch to the sky from the sludge, nourished by what seems to be nothing at all.

That marigold is doing fine. It didn’t have any other option.

About Heather Bartos

Heather Bartos has had essays included in Fatal Flaw, Stoneboat Literary Journal, HerStry, and elsewhere. Her microfiction and other short fiction has been included in Baltimore Review, Ponder Review, Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith, and elsewhere. She holds a doctoral degree and is pursuing a Master’s in English online through the University of New Orleans.