Last November 20, my daughter Kieran called me right after I dropped her off at school to tell me that Natalie, an ’09 grad of St. Ursula, had died at 6:30 a.m. Since learning the previous evening of Natalie’s severe leukemia relapse and the inability to treat it, Kieran and I both felt our hearts breaking. Although we did not really know Natalie, we felt acute sorrow and could only weep for her and her family.
Nine months earlier, not long after Natalie was diagnosed, Kieran brought a prayer card home from school that said “Dear God, We place our worries in your hands. We place our sick under your care and humbly ask that you restore our sister Natalie to health again.” Touched by the simple directness of the petition, intuitively I placed the card on the credenza in our front hall with a votive candle. It seemed something that we could do, to keep our intention for Natalie in that visible spot at the crossroads of our home. The Nativity scene was still on display then, and it felt very right to join this prayer for bodily health with our icon of Christ’s incarnation.
Other seasonal or special occasion items came and went over the following months – baptismal candles in the Easter season, wildflowers in summer, balloons at birthdays – always with prayer for Natalie alongside. We did not follow the details of her treatment, but she was in our hearts. More than once, a passing glimpse of the prayer card brought needed perspective on life’s ordinary difficulties, a reminder that, in the words of poet Jane Kenyon, “It could be otherwise.”
On the day of Natalie’s death, I was moved to purchase flowers for the front hall, to comfort Kieran and myself too. At the grocery store, I considered buying two bunches but decided that one would suffice, a choice I regretted when I got home and could not make a pleasing arrangement in any vase. It was too small for a larger vase and too large for a small one and looked kind of scraggly. Frustrated, I refused to allow perfectionism to undercut my genuine intention and hoped that the flowers would last more than a day or two.
The days in between a person’s death and funeral feel like sacred time to me; there’s stillness and waiting that are meditative. Natalie’s visitation and funeral were held a full week after her death, so it was an extended time of contemplation.
Four days after she died, walking across the family room toward the hall, my eyes widened, noticing that the stilted, awkward bouquet had transformed into vibrancy, fullness and beauty; every single bloom was perfect. The white alstroemeria, orange carnations and yellow daisies burst forth with color, like the sun coming out after a storm.
Two days later, if anything the flowers looked even better, and I had only changed the water once. Amazed, I made a point of showing each member of the household, “Look how perfectly beautiful these flowers are, and it’s been nearly a week!” Then it was 10 days, two weeks. After the visitation, Natalie’s image was added to the display. Comforted, awed, we each quietly treasured this marvelous sign of life in our midst. You couldn’t help but smile as you passed by. A palpable sense of joy emanated from the bouquet; the extended bloom hinted at love beyond all telling.
The flowers eventually began to wilt, the carnations first, then the alstroemeria and finally the daisies. They never got really brown and the stems stayed tall, just slowly withered. It was hard to part with this tenacious bouquet, but after almost a month, I knew it was time. Standing in the hall, I grasped the vase with both hands, held it a moment and said aloud to I’m not sure who, “Thank you.” An unexpected rush of tears caught me by surprise, and I heard myself add, “Please help Kieran . . . please help the girls,” realizing that intention was addressed only to Natalie.
Conflict had erupted that week among Kieran and her friends over plans for the Christmas formal, and Kieran felt shaken and vulnerable. Standing helplessly in the background, I also felt pained. It was comforting simply to confide the hurt in another St. Ursula girl, a sister of sorts to Kieran. After a deep breath in and out, calmed, I processed with the vase to the composter.
The conflicts were not suddenly resolved, though dance plans did get patched up and Kieran enjoyed the event. But my prayer was answered, I feel certain. Beginning that same day, I noticed change in Kieran. No longer fearful, she approached the situation with inner strength, self-awareness and even compassion for the others. She also gained new appreciation for relationships, which led her to reconnect with old friends over Christmas break.
Now Natalie’s prayer card and photo reside on the windowsill near my desk along with other images and items of meaning to me or my children, a quiet reminder of “that great cloud of witnesses” in whom I believe so fervently.
Copyright Peg Conway 2010