The first real days of spring. We marvel at the speed of the tulips sprouting, budding, and blooming. We secure the trellis into the soft soil and sow morning glory seeds. We revel in the exciting new warmth.
We make our rounds to each garden, each day, weeding every square inch. The days grow longer and longer and the butterfly bushes phase from green to purple, butterflies flocking to the sweet flowers. She explains the endless phlox breeds, freeing them from stray grass, explaining the different soil pHs and the resulting different hydrangea colors. We pick and lay them to dry on the counter.
We continue pulling the weeds, which are relentless in their efforts to take over the garden. The weeding seems never-ending. I catch myself thinking it's pointless, but how could I when spending time out in the warm sun, listening to my mother share endless words about her gardening passion? The sky grows dark and dismal as I realize that in two short years I'll be off to college and missing her. A sudden rain washes over us. We laugh as we run inside, emerging a short moment later to find a pleasant sunshower colored gold and a double rainbow peaking through clouds. Before heading in for the final July day, we notice the blooming roses. My mom jokes, “Rose, you’re looking in a mirror!”
Nights are cooler and longer. We simply admire the gardens. We avoid discussing the diagnosis after the initial conversation. It's cervical cancer, stage one, and she seems unaffected. She's healthy as ever. It’s the chemo that will drain her. We marvel at the blooming lilies, sunflowers, morning glories, and even the grapes trailing the patio fencing. We laugh as we pop them into our mouths, their bitterness taking us by surprise, though we should be expecting that by now.
It should be the start of autumn, but the heat is still unbearable, especially for my mother. She asks me to tend the gardens while she takes frequent breaks in the shade of the maples. Protected from the harsh glow of the sun which she once loved so, she points to free spots in the gardens not visible to me. She has quite a keen sense of these spaces. I bury the peony and tulip seeds which will grow next spring.
I mow the lawn for the final time. I see my mom less and less while she’s treated. I start grocery shopping and cooking dinner for myself and for her when she’s here. The neighbors graciously appear at our front step with casserole dishes and vases of colored roses. I appreciate it, but the flowers are sickly sweet and overwhelming the kitchen counter. I try to recall my mom's perfect cake recipe, throwing ingredients into the mixer like she showed me. I sneak a slice into her hospital room with a stuffed dinosaur, her favorite animal. I resist the urge to clear the fallen leaves from the gardens. She tells me that they’re there to protect dormant plants from the harsh cold.
Winter’s four months. The earth is cold and lies dormant. I pick out some pink and white amaryllis to plant inside, adding some life for my mom to come home to. She spends more and more time away, the doctors uttering words like “interfering with her immune system,” “spreading,” and “weakening pancreas.” I didn’t hear them — I just wanted her back. By some miracle of events, I find myself digging through the red totes in the basement, the skin of my feet aching against the chill cement floor. “Jingle Bells” rings faintly in the air and I hum along mindlessly, but it doesn’t feel the same. I feel sick watching my mother’s now-frail body struggle to tear open the wrapping paper. My brother and I did the cooking this year, and though she couldn’t stomach much, her smile showed so much pride in her children’s efforts.
Winter is finally over, technically. Life sprouts through the dirt and brown leaves left over from the fall. My mom gives me a tour of the yard before school like I don't know it, but I’ll take any meaningful time with her. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but in moments I’m kneeling beside her in the grass as red and blue lights reflect on our skin. Before I can speak, she tells me she’ll be okay and I need to focus on school.
“Rose Viotto to the office for dismissal please,” echoes through the halls. I thought she’d told me to visit after school, and in fact was pretty stern about it. A thought crosses my mind that something must be wrong, but no, it’s just cervical cancer. It’s easy to beat. Maybe she can’t keep the good news to herself.
My first time driving on the highway — to see my mother post-operation.
When I arrive, my brother emerges from a hallway. I follow him down, stopping part way. He turns, takes the sickly clean air in through gritted and shuddering teeth, and speaks in a low and cracked voice. “She didn’t make it. She was too weak even for the surgery,” I’m silent. Tears pull at my head from all directions, but I can’t let them out yet. Maybe they brought her back. How does he know? All I can do is follow him down the long, stretching hall. Alcohol singes the hair in my nostrils as I spread hand sanitizer over my palms and fix the plastic protector over my hair and my shoes, a ritual that has become too normal to me.
Her hair lays in frizzy tangles on the pillow.
“You can hold her hand.”
But what would be the point of that? She’s not in there. This is just a body. It’s not her. She’s gone. I scoop her heavy hand into mine. It’s cold. Lifeless. Dormant.
My first birthday without her. The crocus’ soft purple petals open to the sun, her energy glowing around the new life. I tend her gardens daily, pulling old leaves from the plants that have grown right through them. I admire the way flowers seem so gentle yet have the strength to rip through anything with their growth.
Emily Blackwelder, who writes under the pen name "camryn rose" is a 19-year old student at Salem State University studying Creative Writing. They are from Westfield, Massachusetts, USA, and have published one piece in Salem State's Lingua Franca's Newsletter and three pieces in Salem State's Red Skies Magazine. She has one piece that will be published in the next issue of Soundings East, and has also read at a few poetry and short story readings.
"simple black and white flower" by elias_daniel is marked with CC BY 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse