Roses –– One Red. One White.
One of the things I’ve learned from my son Kenneth is that you have to be prepared for the possibility that some writing projects won’t work… that sometimes the best thing you can do is set aside twenty or thirty thousand words and begin anew, or put those words on a shelf for a while to see if they find a new home at some point in the future, or abandon the work all together. One such project for me had the working title Twenty-one Days in May –– the 21 days in 2006 from the moment my mother was diagnosed with cancer on May 5th to the time she passed away on May 25th.
Although it has been shelved for reasons I won’t get into today, I’m going to share a portion of the opening pages… because the words that follow will answer questions I’m asked about why I include images of one red and one white rose on social media posts on certain days, like mother’s day, her birthday, and most recently, May 25th. And because seven years ago today on my birthday, I awoke in a hotel room with my husband, checked the newspaper for an obituary, then wrapped myself in a black suit and went to the first day of my mother’s wake.
From Twenty-one Days in May
If you are reading this having previously read A Daughter’s Gift, you will know already that flowers, roses and stargazer lilies especially, have immense meaning in my life. But even if you have read that book, you would not know about my mother and her older sister, Lillian.
I remember Aunt Lillian as a tall, regal woman who suffered greatly with arthritis, migraines, and as time went on, a myriad of other health problems. She lived with her husband and five children in a stately home in the heart of St. John’s. As much as anyone, she was one of the key reasons I existed –– it was her husband who had, when they were still dating, brought my father to meet my mother who was at the time sick in bed with tuberculosis.
My mother and Aunt Lillian were extremely close, much closer than I ever realized as a child. Aunt Lillian was sister and friend, and almost a second mother as well. As they both aged, the two sisters had a conversation in which they made a pact. Whoever died first would send the other a sign, to prove there was more than this one life, to reassure the other they had arrived wherever this other place was, and were happy and well. But they would tell no one about either the pact or the sign. They could only trust its meaning when it appeared if no one else ever knew of their promises.
I have no idea how long after that conversation Aunt Lillian died, though I do know it was much sooner than either of them would have hoped. It was also still in the period when I would attend funerals only if I had absolutely no other choice, and I would avoid funeral homes and wakes at all cost. I did not want to see death.
I was therefore surprised at my own determination to be at the funeral home the first morning of the wake… surprised, but willing to go along with the feeling that doing so was essential. Standard practice under these circumstances would be to order flowers and have them delivered; for some reason I could not have explained I wanted to bring them with me, so my first stop after I left my office was a flower shop.
The discussion with the lady in that shop would likely have been fairly normal as I tried to figure out what I wanted to order and finally decided on a half-dozen white roses. But she looked at me in confusion when I said that I’d wait for her to get them ready. And I looked at her in distress when she said that was impossible because the florist wouldn’t be there until the afternoon, but she would have the arrangement prepared and delivered as a first priority.
I insisted I had to bring something with me. She tried to convince me that the delivery would in fact be better. But I knew I couldn’t walk into the wake empty-handed.
Ok then, I told her after thinking for a moment or two, just give me one white rose. Yes, that would be perfect, just one white rose. Wrapped in paper. And the half-dozen can come later.
Tears filled my mother’s eyes when I walked into the funeral home, holding what could only have been a wrapped flower. You brought it, she said. You brought one white rose, didn’t you?
Aunt Lillian, you see, had told my mother she would send her one white rose. And I hand-delivered it for her.
Time stands still… just for an instant… in moments like this.
This was the context that caused me to ask my mother, on what we both knew would be her last morning, if she would send me a sign. Speaking was torture for her, and I regretted not having had the courage to ask her this question at some earlier point. But I leaned over her hospital bedside anyway and asked whether there was a sign I should look for… a sign like the one Aunt Lillian had sent her… one that would let me know she was with my father and all was fine.
She moved one hand to pull the oxygen mask aside, then raised the other hand towards me, her index finger pointing forward.
One red rose… a pause, her voice like gravel… and one white.
One red rose, and one white? I asked, wanting to be sure.
One red rose, and one white. A nod. My hand and hers, returning the oxygen mask to her face.
Lillian’s white rose, my father’s red rose. Together they would be my mother’s sign.
I told my aunts who were gathered at the hospital that my mother had told me what to look for. But I wouldn’t tell them what it was until after I’d seen it.
Such was the backdrop against which Peter and I arrived at the funeral home before anyone else that day, entered the room and moved to stand beside her casket. I wasn’t even thinking of flowers or signs, though. I needed to see her to make sure everything was as we had asked.
She lay there, the mother of my memory, in nurse’s uniform and cape. She had wanted her nurse’s cap, with the black band that marked her as a registered nurse, with her in the casket but not on her head. They had affixed it to her head, leaving us with the decision as to whether or not we should risk removing it and messing the carefully arranged hair, or leave it in place. But she wanted it off, so we took it off… relieved that only slight adjustments were required to ensure her hair was as it should be.
It strikes me as odd, in retrospect, but as important as the flowers on my father’s casket had been some 12 years before, I no longer even recall the ones that adorned my mother’s. But perhaps that is partly because the room was overflowing with flowers. There were so many, in fact, that they had to open the neighboring room to accommodate them.
I turned my back on my mother for a moment and moved away to look at them. Lilies, carnations, other flowers I don’t recall. And in the midst of them all, one single red rose, and one white.
There was a physical jolt in that instant –– part joy, part agony. Profound. Intense.
That’s her sign, I told Peter between the tears that had already started to fall. It’s what she told me to look for.
Remember, I will be with you always, she told me before she died.
And afterwards, she sent me roses, via our dear friend Esther.
Which was in itself profoundly significant. But that’s a story that will wait for another time.