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Stargazer Lilies

Stargazer liliesIn preparation for this week’s Author Notes, I’ve been scanning my post-1994 journal entries from the month of October. As I wrote last week, the past echoes most loudly for me this time of year, and I suspected that reality would be reflected in my writing in years gone by. I was right –– while relatively few, the October entries I found were almost entirely about my father.

One passage from the year 2000 reminded me that while readers of Standing Tall: A Daughter’s Gift would understand the significance of stargazer lilies, I’ve never explained their importance in any of my author notes. I’ve written about three pink roses, one white rose, and the one red, one white rose combination… but not about the lilies.

The journal entry I’m referring to was written on the anniversary of the day (as opposed to the actual date) when I kissed my father on the forehead and told him “I love you… have a good rest now.” After I said that, I went home for a few hours of sleep, and then I received the phone call that told me I needed to get back to my parents’ house right away.

Six years later, on October 28, 2000, I attended a function I didn’t really want to attend, and this is what I wrote about it…

In a place I did not want to be with people who did not know me, a young lady walked by with a tray… and on the tray there was single flower. Guess if you can, what that flower was.
A lily of course.  A stargazer lily.

In this same place where I did not want to be, each table had a centrepiece and each centrepiece had a flower. Guess if you can, what that flower was.
A lily of course. A stargazer lily.

So here is the story… as originally shared in Chapter 1 of A Daughter’s Gift… that explains why stargazer lilies mean so much to me:

I remember the moment as if it had happened yesterday. My father was near the end of his struggle with Alzheimer’s and though physically weak, he would refuse to sit or lie for any length of time, choosing instead to shuffle painfully, slowly, and unsteadily from one end of his house to the other. Sometimes he would allow my mother or me to walk with him, holding his hand or arm for support; mostly, we had to remain a step or two behind, ready to catch him if he stumbled but knowing that if he did, the best we could do was slow his fall to the hardwood floor.

But on this particular night, he was content to clutch my hand as we walked. There was no conversation for he had long since lost his ability to effectively communicate with words. Nor was there any recognition, since his children and grandchildren had all but ceased to exist for him a couple of years before. In fact, his periods of lucidity were now so infrequent and so brief, I no longer really hoped for them. So we simply walked back and forth through the living room and dining room of my mother and father’s house, past the windows from which he’d hung Christmas lights through all the years of my childhood; past the antique piano I had struggled on through seven years of music lessons; past the couch where we would sit for birthday and anniversary photos. Back and forth. Back and forth. Past memories that filled my heart and mind, even as I wondered what was filling his. Back and forth. Shuffling. Walking. Going nowhere.

At some point in the evening’s journey, the straight path we’d been following changed. Veering to the left, as if choosing some fork in an invisible road, my father led me to the dining room window. His left hand still gripped mine as his right hand awkwardly pushed aside the edge of the heavy lace curtain. Still grasping my hand with his left and the curtain with his right, he looked upwards to the sky, lifted our joined hands and said: Look. The stars. Look for the stars. Clearly. Articulately. Peacefully. My father’s voice as it would have sounded years ago. My father’s smile as it would have looked. My father’s eyes when he looked into mine, as alive as they had been in the past, before Alzheimer’s had turned them from a lively and mischievous grey-green to the dull, non-existent colour of emptiness.

I don’t remember what I said to him. I only remember that at that particular moment, I knew this man was speaking to his daughter, that my father was speaking to me –– the married woman who still counted him as one of her very best friends; the little girl he’d loved and protected.

Seconds later he let the curtain fall and we went back to our walking. He slipped back into his world and I slipped into mine, wondering where these brief moments of recognition come from and thinking back to the stories he’d told me about sailing, about using the stars to find his way through uncertain and uncharted waters. His eyes became vacant; his body fought unsuccessfully to stay erect; his walk again became the anguished, slow-motion struggle to move one foot in front of the other on legs that were ready to collapse.

My father died some weeks later. I honestly can’t remember the exact period of time that passed between his reference to the stars and his early morning death on October 30th –– the final weeks were a blur marked only by heartbreaking images, unshed tears and an agonizing helplessness, not the calendars or clocks of normal times.

After he died, my mother and I visited the funeral home to take care of the ‘arrangements’. I had never before made the arrangements to bury someone, and so had no experience with this type of session. The funeral director, a kind and gentle man, led us carefully through the steps and listened patiently while we talked about how special a man my father had been, how much he’d suffered, how we wanted our farewell to him to be as perfect as we could make it. When a book filled with photographs of flower arrangements was passed to me, I wondered silently how I could possibly find flowers beautiful enough for my father. I knew he must have red roses, because red roses had been particularly special to him. But roses alone didn’t seem to be enough.

I slowly turned the pages of the binder, only half aware of the conversation continuing in the background and returning always to a single page and a particular arrangement of red roses, white carnations and another type of flower I didn’t remember seeing before. What are these flowers? I interrupted. They’re beautiful.

I turned the book back towards the funeral director and slid it across the desk.

They’re lilies, he answered, stargazer lilies.

I believe moments like this prove that the people who love us and the people we love, never really leave us; that messages across time and space and lives are not just figments of over-ambitious imaginations, but realities of everyday existence; that if the bond between two souls is strong enough and loving enough, communication is possible, even in circumstances where logic tells us it is impossible.

And I believe, in that moment, my father completed a message he had somehow found the strength and awareness to begin on the nameless night of weeks before.

I told my mother and the funeral director that this was the arrangement –– these were my father’s flowers. And exquisite stargazer lilies and rich red roses adorned my father’s casket. A precious gift to him; a precious gift to me. Look for the stars, he’d told me, and without even knowing where or when to look, I’d found them –– at the moment I needed them most.

My father died of Alzheimer’s, but I haven’t lost the man who had been such a powerful and positive influence in my life. He is still with me, his stars and his lilies are with me.