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Roses – Part 2

The last long weekend of the North American summer is now behind us, so it’s back to a regular schedule of Author Notes for the Iceberg Publishing website. For my first of the fall season, I decided I should pick up where I left off in Roses–One Red. One White.

In that post I talked about the sign my mother had told me to look for so that I would know, after she died, that she was with my father and all was well. Her one red and one white rose found me just two days after her death in May 2006, and I said in that post that I would explain why it was profoundly significant that my mother’s roses had come via her dear friend Esther. Here is that story, told mostly, as the previous one was, in words that have already been written…

From Chapter 8: A Bed of Roses – Standing Tall: A Daughter’s Gift

Early in the morning on a cold, dismally gray and foggy day in late November, when I was just fourteen years old, I sat on a bed in a hospital outpatient clinic and learned I would be going into surgery within days. The diagnosis: bone cancer. Possibly another extremely serious and very rare condition of the bone, but that possibility was so unlikely it was entirely discounted. In either case, the best-case scenario was that I would walk forever with a straight leg. The worst-case scenario was obvious –– loss of leg or even life.

The terror that filled me at that instant etched those moments on my mind and in my heart as if they were scenes from a slow motion horror movie I would replay over and over again in my mind for years to come…

After a few moments, my mother stepped outside the room to protect me from the intensity of her own fear and answers to questions she didn’t want to ask in my presence. My father stayed in the examining room but almost fainted after the others left, and it was the severe whitening of his face as he swayed beside the bed that must have finally penetrated my shock. He lay down; I sat beside him and cried. And cried and cried and cried.

We spent the rest of that day shopping for the clothes you take into a hospital –– nighties, dressing gown, slippers. The day’s defining feature was the fog. It was thick, oppressive, damp and heavy, seeming to add to a weight heavier than any I had ever carried. It seemed to me that we met more friends and acquaintances than usual that day, and I would stand silently as my mother explained she was not at work because I was going into the hospital –– a problem with my knee… a rare condition and, yes, a serious one… thank you for your kind wishes and please, if you don’t mind, could you please say a prayer.

The next morning, when I was admitted to the hospital, I was 5’ 8 1/2” and weighed ninety-six pounds. During the months that had passed since we’d discovered the section of iceberg on Bellevue Beach and placed it for safekeeping in our freezer, my knee had continued to deteriorate, my walk slowing as I dragged a heavy and weakening leg. I concentrated on being a Grade 9 student –– dreams of still making the volleyball and basketball teams, of boyfriends not yet met and dances not yet danced. I also carried inside me a profound fear that was sometimes just beneath the surface and other times buried so deeply I was almost able to ignore it, until the morning I awoke to find my knee swollen to illogical and unreasonable proportions and realized it contained lumps that, when pushed, would dart suddenly from one part of the joint to another.

What my parents must have felt when I walked into their bedroom that morning to show them my knee, I can only imagine. My mother says she began to pray immediately –– we were a Catholic family and had always attended church on the weekends… We prayed most regularly to St. Anthony and it was widely known by friends and relatives that if you’d lost something important, all you had to do was call my mom, tell her your dilemma, she would say a prayer to St. Anthony and the item would be found… My mother always seemed to know when St. Anthony would be able to find something, and she’d explain this to whoever was seeking her help. She didn’t mention it to me at the time, but she felt, on this particular occasion, that St. Anthony was telling her he was dreadfully sorry, but this was too much for him. He couldn’t help her this time.

Sometime over the next two days, in the midst of x-rays and doctors, tests and examinations, appointments and buying nighties, Esther, one of my mother’s colleagues at the School of Nursing in the hospital where I would be having surgery showed her a photo she’d brought to the office for another instructor. It was a 3” x 5” black and white photo of a young nun. This is a photograph of St. Therese, she said… My mother looked across at her, told her quietly that I was very sick and she really didn’t know who to pray to this time or how we would cope. Could she please have this photo, she asked. Would the other person mind waiting a little longer for another copy? Esther gave my mother the photo with the explanation that St. Therese, who was known as the Little Flower, had died when she was in her twenties. If you prayed to her and she was able to grant your request, she would send a sign –– roses. We prayed.

They leave you with so little to grasp when they say you must prepare yourself for bone cancer. Years are added to the day you spend waiting for surgery. You are paralyzed and eventually become numb. They come to your bedside and blankly you stare at the nurses who try to be kind; you stare at the doctors and build walls against their expressions of barely hidden concern and pity; you watch the ceiling; you watch the sun rise and set; you count the footsteps in the corridor; and you’re so afraid, but you laugh at the silly jokes that are made just to cheer you…

They scheduled my surgery for 12:30. My dad waited with me through the morning, and I know that I took as much of his strength with me to the operating room as my own. They poked me with needles; they pumped me so full of drugs that everything grew hazy and so, so dry. I couldn’t swallow, but I fought to hold onto my consciousness and my mother’s and father’s hands. Until I had to let them go. We had prayed, we had looked for a sign, but we had seen no roses.

My parents waited back in my hospital room while I was in surgery. Save her life, they asked. If at all possible, save her leg, but please save her life. My mother walked from the room periodically, too restless and worried to stay in one place for long. She knew everyone at the nurse’s station –– they’d been her students or her friends or both; they knew nothing of wishes for roses, but they were kind and caring.

The surgeon made a large incision on the front of my knee, a curved cut that would allow him to fold the skin back and work on the bone. He cleared away the remnants of the front of a joint lining that had become calcified and was breaking into lumps of various sizes. Beneath, the bone was healthy. We’re told that the doctor smiled –– a huge smile of surprise, relief and joy. It wasn’t bone cancer; it wasn’t even the serious but discounted condition; it was another rare disorder that didn’t match the symptoms or the history. My mother also smiled; she’d seen a greeting card that had, at some point in the afternoon, been placed on a shelf by the nurse’s station. On the card there was a rose.

When I was wheeled back from the recovery room later that evening, three pink roses followed immediately behind me, a gift from friends of the family who knew nothing of our prayers but somehow became part of our answer. I’d entered the operating room awaiting a death sentence and left with my leg and my life. 

The photograph of St. Therese that sits beside my bed, almost 40 years after Esther first gave it to my mother.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the photograph Esther gave my mother has, since that day, had a place at the side of my bed. You also won’t be surprised to know that we have kept in contact with Esther over the years… that she and her sister Jeannie who sent the flower arrangement that contained my mother’s one red and one white rose, have a special place in our hearts. Indeed, Esther got an iPad earlier this year, so occasional letters have been replaced by frequent emails and Facebook posts, and I smile every time I see her name or read one of her messages.

Esther and Jeannie Buckley are amazing women –– strong, independent, accomplished, witty, modest, down-to-earth and so very very kind. I am grateful to call them friends. I am grateful for their faith and their gifts of roses. And I know I will embarrass them when I say they are inspirations to me, but I will say it anyway, because they are.