Changed, Not Taken Away

On their 40th wedding anniversary, Phil and June received a number of gifts from their family and friends. But there was one they particularly liked. It was a cheesy little plaque which simply said, “This marriage was made in heaven – and so were thunder and lightning!” They hung it on a wall in their home for all to see. Surely, anyone who knew them knew just how right-on it was.

After taking an early retirement a few years later, Phil finally had the time he had always longed for to pursue some of his interests and hobbies. As a professional photographer, he had an artistic imagination and a sharp eye for the aesthetic everywhere he looked. One of the things he had more time to look at was their yard. Although he was physically unable to do gardening, he still enjoyed the idea of a beautifully landscaped yard. Every winter and early spring as the gardening catalogues arrived in the mail, he imagined what the yard could look like if they planted this bulb, that shrub, those seeds.

June, though able bodied and energetic, was pursuing interests of her own which did not include spending a lot of time hanging around their house. After thirty plus years at home raising seven children, she was a woman on the go. “Don’t you dare order anything from those catalogues,” she warned him, “unless you are going to plant it yourself!” As far as she was concerned, that was that.

Early that summer, without any warning, Phil died suddenly from an aortic aneurism. After all of the usual rites of gathering family and friends to remember and mourn, June was left with her own private grief. Day by day, she slowly tended to the tasks of trying to make sense of her new life without Phil. As is normal for those early days, weeks, and months of grieving, she had her good days and her bad.

>One day in late October of that same year, a package arrived in the mail from a seed store several states away. Curious, she immediately opened it. What she saw made her cry, then laugh, then shake her fist at Phil’s portrait grinning at her from the bookcase. The package sitting on her dining room table held bulbs and seeds, ordered by Phil that previous spring! It appeared that Phil had gotten the last word.

Or did he? The following spring, on April 21, one of June’s adult daughters called her from Phil’s graveside. It was his birthday, and she had gone to the cemetery to leave flowers there for her dad. When she arrived, she noticed that Phil’s grave was covered with a stunning display of blooming tulips. At first June pretended to be as surprised as her daughter. But she never was a very good liar, and so June proceeded to tell her daughter about the package which had arrived the previous autumn and how she had figured out just what to do with those bulbs Phil had ordered. A few weeks after the package had arrived, she took them to his grave and, after carefully looking around to make sure that no cemetery personnel were watching, June planted those bulbs on Phil’s grave with a triumphal, “Hah! Now who has the last word?”

But just then, after hanging up the phone, June realized that those tulip bulbs had come to mean something far greater to her than just another argument between her and Phil. To June, they had come to symbolize the nature of the change in their relationship. The previous autumn, when she had planted the bulbs, her grief was still raw and intense. What she had planted in the cemetery soil was not just a few bulbs, but with those bulbs all the complicated and mixed feelings that accompanied her grieving Phil’s death after forty-five years of their “thunder and lightning” marriage. What she had harvested six months later was not only the beauty of those tulips but a dawning appreciation for the reality that her relationship with Phil goes on, radically altered by death but not taken away. And, like the tulip that grows from a modest bulb, she could appreciate a beauty in their changed relationship now which she could not possibly have seen last autumn.

And she felt gratitude.

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