Cry, Heart, But Never Break: Part 1

Karen Greenwood

When we turned into the driveway of the ranch house, our eyes were drawn to the agave.

We gasped.

As always, the massive agave stood stately and bold in stature — extending a human-scaled welcome, as if from a guard on post, assuring us all was well under her protective watch.

The unquestionable strength and vigor of this plant now met the ominous haunting of a newly present mast, and sadness instantly gripped us — a sadness we knew, understood, and feared — it was a sadness of looming death.


Like the chaptered story of a human life, an Agave salmiana, nicknamed “Green Giant,” grows through stages.

Rising from a center stalk and radiating in rosette form to capture maximum sun while directing moisture toward its root,


deep-green rigid leaves with margins of razor-toothed spines


terminate in hard needle-like spikes.

Karen Greenwood

The leaves open standing straight, stretched to the sky, before gracefully curving outward, slowly sinking toward the earth as newer leaves emerge, all the while expanding the footprint and prominence of the plant.


Weathering wind, cold, drought, and heat, an agave takes in food and fiber, nourishing a future finale of giving back the same.

This final act of giving bursts from the agave flower, blooming only once, until the fate of being monocarpic is sealed by dying.

But the march is not quickly paced.

Over many months, my camera lens captured the physical change — growth on a grand scale culminating in an explosive inflorescence — an event so stunning, beautiful, and dramatic, and very much deadly.

Over many months, my thoughts were captured by the meaning of the march — an impending end to life played out before me — an event too similar to observing my strong and present parents struck with cancer and dementia.

The mast that took our breath away appeared out of nowhere


and now was omnipresent


— like the unexpected news of a diagnosis that once known cannot escape the mind, and yet it must be known intimately to fight the battle.


How desperately I longed to make it be no more. “Just sever the stalk,” I said to myself.

However, the years of nourishment stored to set the stalk in motion — through sometimes unforgiving weather — is the work and energy required to flower and seed, ensuring the colony will continue, and yet that level of fuel is also the signal that the Green Giant is already on its way to dying.

With a determination to face the journey, not with blindness to the task ahead, but with clarity of a choice, I asked myself,

“why wither while wondering what might have been when moments of wonder, smiles, and laughter can fill the time we have together and make memories that will elicit smiles into the future, like photos framed on the shelf or stories written in a book?”

A celebration ensues, along the difficult path.

Only two weeks time passed, and what started as an asparagus-like tip,


shot toward the heavens like a dagger.


Two weeks more and a few “fists” emerge,

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and I smile at the symbolic warning that despite a cancerous speed of growth, power to fight remains.


At the heart of the body, the show is well, putting on the face expected of a giant,


while signs of the army to support living forever report for duty.


If you look closer, there is extraordinary beauty in the change — no longer the swagger of youthful confidence, but an expression of wisdom from a giant tested — the straight line now curves, for at the pinnacle, the giant is willing to share weakness, and the result is a more lovely form.


Night by night, the calm of the evening settles over the giant, but I still see, I still know, I still cry.


The giant is never alone.


Day by day, glittering sunlight advances the march toward the finale.


The giant — and the unspoken knowledge of what comes next —towers over all.


And when the turns on the path seem unrecognizable,


another turn appears,


and then, the finale arrives.


Massive flower clusters erupt — a glorious show along the certain journey — with color, scent, and an invitation to feed.


The nutrition that supported a lifetime now nourishes others — a coevolution of giving and accepting.

For those accepting, there is a flurry while celebrating the nectar. They take because the nectar is how they are fed and cared for, and in exchange, they bear the burdens and joys of dispersing the pollen to sow the seeds of the giant.


It is not always an easy responsibility, but the creator provides strength to face what is before them,


and a willingness to accept reveals a sliver of strength, an iridescence within.


For the one giving, there is an acceptance in giving the last to give.

That acceptance holds a faith that the food given to loved ones and strangers over a lifetime will support the parts they will play in the greater kingdom, parts the giant will never know, but the knowledge is there that it is so.

The day the agave burst open in bloom was the same day the body of the agave gave way.


No longer were the leaves of deep-green color and razor-toothed margins swirled like a sweet smelling rose.

With its armor laid down, exposed was the faltering core


and scars from years of standing tall against the sharp swords strewn along the path,


like final tales of trials revealed — both successful and failed.

As the days went on, the flowering fruit shriveled — an image that hauntingly reminded me of dementia.


The mangled mess, a decline from its former orderly beauty, still held my faithful attention.


Through change after change,


I wished for sunlight to cast an understanding of the view.


Nothing looked the same.


The darkened ganglia of unceasing degeneration were unfamiliar.


Yet from time to time, I saw the look of knowing — unspoken but aimed in such a piercing manner that no test or scan was needed to confirm some recognition is still there.

I had to look closer to celebrate the beauty and power still within.

I cut down a cluster.


When elevated in the sky, the black bundles evoked darkness and death, but observed up close, a different story is unmasked.


Thick, callous, oblong pods — split open like husks of ripened pecans —


reveal stacks of seeds,


papery thin,


snuggled tightly together but ready to spread their genetic fingerprint


in the wind that sings a song of legacy.

The final seed leaves the pod and silence, and a tear, again, falls down my cheek.


I knew the beauty was there, inside.

The ugly shell of life’s last stage was a protective covering, insulating the precious child.


The pod was exquisitely lined — ribbed to cradle the cargo carefully, and coated with a hard, and shiny, lacquer-like finish to safeguard the seeds until it was time for them to leave.


Along the ribs were stains from the seeds — the mark of the child left on the home provided.


My watch of the agave march is over.


I remember and celebrate sturdy stalks, fists full of fight, and glorious blooms of brilliance.

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I reflect about trials that never leave.


I smile about notches in time with mixed sentiments, like seeing the measurements on the laundry door jamb marking the growth of my children.


And, I search for beauty in the collapse.


Let your heart travel on a journey intertwined


— the good and bad, the wonder and worry, love and laughs, along with tears and heartache — but never break.


To be continued…




15 thoughts on “Cry, Heart, But Never Break: Part 1

    1. Thanks! Please do share! I would love for you and all readers to share with anyone you think would enjoy reading. Thank you.


  1. Oh my dear Cousin Karen – I have never read words like you can write. I have never felt like I was right there watching with you the Giant reach for His maker. Your talent is beyond words. I think you could make millions writing and your photography is tremendous ~ bolder in tiny details and vibrant colors than any National Geographic pictures I have ever seen. I am so proud of you! I can’t wait to read the “rest of the story”. I was on pins and needles reading. I am a cuz of simple words but Breathtaking and Majestic is all I can say. God is truly using your talents. We need to get your writing out to the world. I love you Karen! Your daddy would be sooooo proud and I know your mommy is of your writing!!!!


  2. Thanks Julie. I know you understand the toggle in the story between the agave that has greeted us at our ranch home for years, my dad who battled cancer, and my mom living through dementia. The journey gives inspiration and my faith, friends, and family keep me strong. I so appreciate everyone who is reading along. Thank you for your support.
    Love you.


  3. Great metaphor. . . passionately shared and beautifully written. Having navigated similar waters, I shed some tears with you. I also learned something about the agave! Keep writing.


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