My father gave me a Bird of Paradise flower after my first competition. At 90% teasing, 8% irate, and 2% raw unbridled care, that specific choice fell decidedly in the 2%. Not to say that I struggled with trusting that smaller fraction; some folks put their care out in ways that make their other parts cohesive. They tell you in the way they hear you when they’ve teased too hard, or when they smirk through their irritability because you’ve commented about how someone shouldn’t skip meals if it will make them rage-splat on everyone’s day.
Dad wasn’t much into the specifics of my music. Sure, legend (ahem, according to him) has it that the music gene swims on his side of the family, but he was always jazz, bluegrass, and reggae while I splashed mercilessly through Vivaldi Concerti and Bach Sonatas and anything Mozart. He left the wretched wrongness of my intervals to Mom’s discerning ear and showed up for concerts and competitions with the forbearance of a soul that has waited through many moments of supportive acquiescence.
Unfazed by this lack of commonality, he found other ways to let me know he saw me. I’d finished playing the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at some competition, nine years to the average 14 of the group. I sat, waiting on a bench, while they called out the winners. I didn’t fully understand the decisiveness of not being a winner until I was handed a participation award. I remember marching up to the podium and taking that piece of paper with a large grin, because their verdict seemed so separate from my experience.
I met my family at the doors. As we walked out, Dad handed me a single Bird of Paradise flower, in full bloom. He said,
“You played like you meant it. You were the only one smiling at the end of it. Not even the winners smiled. But you made me want to be there; that’s what music is.”
I looked at that flower, with its thick, stiff neck, its angular, rubbery petals, and carapace-esque spathe. I thought it was awkward. Belligerent, even. I thought it said my playing was weird, unwanted. Singular. Other.
It took me years to learn the elegance of this flower. Years of performances and competitions where my dad would hand me its solitary brilliance in tissue and ribbon; of me noticing, suddenly, that the orange of its petals is unmatched by any comparison; of me, enjoying the silky smooth of its rubbery spathe after a particularly fraught Sibelius. Me, embracing its unabashed form and fragrance and feel, one glorious detail at a time, as I shed bits of my insecurities on stages and in practice rooms. Me, crying over its deliberate message in a hand drawn doodle from my dad, on a card he mailed when he couldn’t be there for a show.
This flower followed my growth, and I have always supposed my love for it to be a marker for my humanity.
I didn’t understand the power of a single bloom. I didn’t see it. But it was there, it existed with me and often for me, and stood unfettered by my struggles and my lapses.
I didn’t understand the power of this single bloom until I understood myself. I’m not much for bouquets, but I will reach for the blossom and its ease at picking the flower of our struggles.