“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk in my garden forever.”
–Alfred Lord Tennyson
Last Friday, February 25, was my mother’s birthday. It has been just shy of sixteen years since I’ve seen her. One of the many things I’ve grown to admire about her since losing her so many years ago was the fact that she not only loved life, but lived it –truly lived it– every moment of every day. Even while dying.
During the last two years of her life, the longest period of time she was out of the hospital on any given occasion was about ten days. But despite sometimes intense pain and inordinate frustration, she rarely lost her good humor and never, ever, lost her kind heart.
One of her most memorable characteristics was her ability to give freely of herself. Just for the pleasure of giving. She never looked for a return, a gift back, or even a thank-you. She gave because it made her heart happy. Every hospital stay, and there were many over the years, ended the same way. The day prior to her release, she would remind whichever of her children was coming to drive her home to bring “just a few pieces” of her hand-painted china. Painting was a talent she discovered somewhat late in her life, when she had moved on from wood-fiber flower-making and after her love affair with making jewelry. The family garage morphed into an artist’s studio, complete with a large kiln, room for plenty of inventory, and eventually, a teaching space for her “Tuesday girls” to come share their talents and learn from her. So we would run to her studio the next morning, gather a box full of her painted wares, and head to the hospital. Every nurse, every doctor, every floor-mopper, every blood-draw tech, and every roommate received a piece she had painted, her way of saying thanks for their kindness, even when she didn’t really believe they had been very kind. Even the woman she nicknamed “Nurse Ratched” for banning her favorite orange sherbet was not left empty-handed.
The extent of my mother’s kindness became poignantly apparent in a letter we received just a few days after she passed away. Tucked inside a thank-you card was a brief note written by the woman who, as it turned out, had been Mom’s last roommate in the hospital. The woman had been dismissed several days earlier and penned this note, dated the morning my mother passed away:
That’s such a beautiful name. I’d never heard it before and I love it. It fits you beautifully. I wish I’d known you sooner. Not in the hospital, but as an everlasting friend.
I pray your health has improved in the past week.
I came home on Monday eve. after I left the hospital on Sunday. It was sure good to get home. I’m doing good. I feel like the wind has gone out of my sails. I felt much better yesterday and am sure it will improve soon. These pretty days there’s so much I’d like to do outside, but I’m not going to let it worry me.
I’d better sign off and get this to the mailbox. It’s time for my walk. I want you to know your acquaintance was the highlight of my stay in the hospital.
God Bless You.
My mother was many things — an artist in multiple media, a wife (three times, widowed twice), a mother (four times), a grandmother. But in everything she did, she was in her heart, a writer. While her first husband attended seminary for graduate work, she worked at the local Veteran’s Hospital and wrote instructional manuals about the craft projects she created. While her second husband spent hours on end tending to his fields of corn and beans, she perfected her painting as well as her recipes and wrote a cookbook. When she knew her own time was coming to an end, she began writing her story.
She taught her children many things, not the least of which was to have a kind heart and to give freely. In that, as with her writing, she provided a model to follow, a path to walk through her garden.
I don’t always stay on that path, but the memories of her always lead me back. And as Tennyson so aptly noted, with those many thoughts of her, I will be able to walk through my garden forever.