My mother died 16 years ago on February 28th. It took me about a decade to write this small thing, but I did finally write it. A few years ago I read it on the radio show 51% The Women’s Perspective.
It’s ironic that the flowers my mother loved so much were daylilies. Weedy, and with the ability to spread like a disease, my mother transplanted her lilies from our childhood home in Connecticut to Williamsburg, Virginia where they bloomed and she died.
Throughout a two-year struggle with pancreatic cancer, the daylilies were her strength. She planted her garden, and we cultivated it with hybrid varieties named after us: Megan’s Love, for me; Jenni Love, for my middle sister; and Lulabelle for my youngest sister. We laughed that it was our family plot and that someday she’d be pushing them up through the springtime soil. It was part of the gallows humor we all shared during her illness. It got us through.
One day, I saw Mom had put a Ziggy cartoon on the refrigerator, next to a magnet that said “Quilter’s Keep You in Stitches.” The cartoon read, “Today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.” It was one of the only things I kept after she died that really meant much of anything to me.
I spent the month of February that year in Williamsburg. Out of vacation days at work, I had been allowed to take my laptop, hostel at our kitchen table and work whenever I could. I wrote science stories and news releases while Mom lay in a morphine-induced sleep in the hospital bed we had planted into the living room. In many ways, I still think I did my best work there.
She slept, nearly unmoving, for most of the day, with IV morphine in her left arm holding a mechanism that allowed her to push a button for more anytime the pain got too overwhelming. We called it her morphine coma. I didn’t think she could hear anything, but every now and then when I was deep into writing she would suddenly say, “If this is what heaven is like, it won’t be so bad: You tapping away at your computer. . . I could handle that.”
We had never talked about her death really. Not really. Of course, it had been the elephant in the room since the doctor’s had given her six months to live. So I asked her: “How will we know you’re ‘in,’ Mom. Heaven, I mean. We all need to figure out a sign so you can send it to us when you’re ‘in.’ You know, move something around in the house, levitate it, or push something off the counter. What’s your sign going to be? We need to agree on this so we’ll know you’re okay.”
There was nothing in bloom that late February in Williamsburg. Everything was brown and wilted, and the thick stench of the West Point paper mill was as heavy in the air as lacquer. After she died and we’d had a wake and a full open-casket funeral (Mom had told us we were free to just “put her in a baggie by the side of the road’), we returned from Mom’s funeral in a cold drizzle. Dad had picked the flowers – Stargazer lilies. It was a romantic gesture on his part, and none of us had the heart to tell him that she had always considered Stargazers “stinky” and “toady.” She never could abide fuss, especially fuss over her.
Hospice had organized an amazing array of food for us at the house so we wouldn’t have to worry about anything. Mom’s nurse, Janni, was there for much needed hugs and to remind my sisters and I to eat something.
My parents’ kitchen overlooked the screened-in porch and Mom’s daylily garden. I looked out through the drizzle and there was a rainbow. I swear it was a rainbow: A corny, Ziggy rainbow. It was her sign. She was ‘in.’ We didn’t have to worry anymore. I ate something.
It was devastating for my father, living in that house that spring. The daylilies pushed themselves through the earth and he felt trapped; surrounded by vibrant, living reminders of Mom. My sisters and I gathered in Williamsburg to uproot Mom’s lilies, divide them among ourselves and replant them in our own gardens so they could bloom where our families were planted.
I still maintain what I call the family plot. My mother’s daylily is a delicate, buttery yellow with frilly edges; Dad’s lily is a maroon flower with tiny, vibrant lime pistils; my grandmother’s flower is a stalwart magenta with a lemon-colored throat.
I mark every season by their rebirth and each summer morning by the fistfuls of cocoon-like blooms that burst open and turn their colorful faces to the sun.