“April showers bring May flowers.” In the Midwest, the empirical proof of this cliché is obvious in the abundance of blossoms, enveloping one with sublime sights and smells. The metaphoric proof, though, is more act of faith. Or rather, a willful delusion. We who inhabit this part of the continent want so badly for the months of deadening chill to open deliriously into the warmth of renewal — literally in the emergent plant life, and figuratively, from the cool-gray rain/reign of wintery depression into the smiley-faces of foliage. Lime-green baby buds self-birth, stretching quickly into tween, teen, and then adult verdant variations, many serving as tender arms to hold asundry petals of limitless colors.
Spring. In the Midwest or the Western tradition, at least, people think: rebirth; youth; promise; hope; love. Life.
We foolish humans. We dwell in a make-believe, denoted by “spring” as one placeholder for eternal return, for never-ending life, wanting so to deny death, even when it’s right before our eyes as equal partner in those “May flowers.” We foolish humans bring fresh flowers to adorn the funerals and graves of the dead, but it’s more an attempt to hoodwink ourselves. We leave the flowers at the ceremonies and burial sites, quickly retreating for fear of seeing them follow our “passed” ones into wilting, fading, decaying, decomposing, disappearing. As if we have no way to remember life, to keep alive love, without a cheerful bouquet of happily-ever-after fairy tales.
Yet it’s precisely in springtime that the dialectic of existence comes into its fullest, clearest bloom.
Life unfolds, death enfolds; they share the same stem.
Spring. If one looks at it, square in the sunny-yellow eye, then one catches the true scent of spring on the air: wistful; impermanent; poignant; bittersweet; love. Mortality.
Spring stabs our heart with its beauty, its possibility, because that beauty is already at once finite, destined to die.
My father used to stop by a dumpster behind what’s still called “people’s church” and reclaim the already-browning bunches of flowers, thrown into the garbage after a funeral. He’d bring them home as gift for my mom. Theirs was not a relationship I would want, and it caused them both to toss aside so much of what they wanted for themselves. They didn’t come to full blossom; a sadness clung to them both. But once they were both dead, I finally understood that they recognized that same pain in each other, birthed of abusive childhoods, and spent every minute of their days being there for each other, with delight. They loved within the joy-sorrow of a union that they both fully knew would end when death did them part. They loved fully, completely, not shying away from the truth of spring, nor trash cans overflowing with the discarded work of florists.
For some fifteen or maybe twenty years before his death, my dad wrote — and rewrote, rethought, rewrote… — his and my mom’s wills. He always advised, “Keep your options open,” and thus sticking to a decision wasn’t a strong point. One thing that neither he nor my mom wavered on, though, was their living wills, of which I was the executor. They leaned into life, in all seasons, always savoring the “little” things, like tulips opening up. They leaned into death, too, not wanting a living death, a life bare of quality.
On this May 16, three springs have turned since my dad took in his last breath. Outside the window that he faced from his deathbed there was a profusion of flowers. Over his eight days of drifting toward death, gently and with dignity in hospice, we watched a panorama of transformations. Whites to pinks to cherry-red floral trees becoming cotton-candy boughs and then confetti in the wind. Thickets of bleeding-heart plants bursting forth, hanging like so many valentines, and then drooping, as if returned to sender. Bushes of forsythia, blindingly yellow, then gone. Beds of daffodils, lilies of the valley, and so many flowers whose names I don’t know, come and go, and come and go, in wistful, wise, interdependent succession.
My mom’s longtime best friend (and recently, my second mom), Mary, died five months ago this May 19. Years past, when Mary got breast cancer, she planted some tulip bulbs below the expansive window in my childhood home’s “family room.” It’s the place we most often sat — whether eating, joking, telling stories, fighting, crying, getting good news or bad, watching seasons cycle by outside the plate glass. Mary wanted my mom remember her, and their shared deep and intimate friendship, whenever spring brought the tulips to life again. They planted them, both thinking of death and the importance of memory, of love. Yet my mom, dad, and Mary all outlived those bulbs, which either rotted away or were eaten by squirrels, or simply succumbed to my parents’ lack of green thumbs. They didn’t want or need to tend flower gardens; they tended toward living life to the fullest, to the most honest and clear-eyed instead, as did Mary — though alas, all three have now gone the way of those bulbs. Missing.
I see wilted tulips, in my mind’s eye, outside the hospice where my mom and I watched, three years ago today, as my dad died. We felt the warmth leave his skin, already wilted by the illness and dying process. I see wilted tulips now, this spring, the last two springs, and likely future ones, and see my dad. Or try to. As executor of his living will, I hesitated too long, in hopes of gaining consensus from all family members, even though I knew — from his summer coma, to his autumn slight reemergence, to his winter plateau, forever-more imprisoned to a bed by nonlife-support machines — that he wanted to die. Consensus never came. Some of us, including him with his finite ability to spell out letters like “H-O-S-P-I-C-E,” reduced the option to the one I should have, could have, set into motion nine months earlier. That I will forever-more wish I’d done differently keeps me from being able to remember my dad except as sick, dying, and dead. So I focus on wilted tulips as my placeholder for him, and didn’t make the same mistake when my mom and Mary’s turns came. I held space for their decision, post haste, and better held space for myself as informal death doula. I let nature take its cyclic course. Or perhaps nature was bigger than any of us; it always ultimately is.
After my dad began his death journey due to one mosquito carrying West Nile in summer 2012, season ticked into season. When the fourth, spring, rolled around, I signed the paperwork that like Mary’s bulbs, planted my dad firmly on the path toward dying. He was moved from warehouse “nursing” home to the caring community of hospice. He died well, taking his own sweet time, in a makeshift, albeit temporary, family room graced with an expansive window looking onto and into the world of life-death springtime, and the vulnerability and too-brief possibility it lovingly presents us in the form of flowers, when we dare to see them in their wholeness.
I like to think that his ashes will become nourishment for soil hungry, eager, to bring forth May flowers from April showers, especially tulips, strong and fragile, like us all.
(Photo by Cindy Milstein, Detroit spring 2016.)