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    a red hibiscus flower

    Red Is for Remembrance

    The teacher of a lifetime is never finished teaching.

    Caitrin Keiper

    October 26, 2020
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    • Atar Hadari

      Lovely piece.

    Red was Amy’s favorite color, but she didn’t think of it that way until halfway through her life, when someone referred to this fact offhandedly as if she already knew. Her favorite color? This had never occurred to her; red was, objectively, the best color, and that was why it was on everything she owned. Her glasses frames were red. The accents in the elegant silk scarves and blouses that she wore swirled around red. Decorations throughout her home were red. When she started chemotherapy, I crocheted her a soft red blanket to cuddle under while she rested.

    Amy was my favorite teacher, and also, objectively, the best. I was neither her best nor her favorite student, but she always made me feel as if I were. It was only at her funeral and afterward, talking to so many others who had had this same intimate connection, that I realized how common my experience with her had been. Did this in any way diminish our relationship? Was I somehow delusional about what we meant to each other? No, I decided, our love was as it seemed; it was just that there were many more to share it. 

    On a long, tearful walk the day after she died, I saw a strange thing: a single, giant, velvety scarlet flower appear where it had never been before and where there was nothing else around like it, on the banks of an artificial drainage pond surrounded by drab weeds. I had no recollection of ever seeing such a flower in my life, but as soon as it made its impression on me I started to notice it in yards and fields and sidewalk planters everywhere. I learned to connect it to a name that I had heard before, hibiscus, but I called it the Amyflower.

    For months to come, I often had the eerie sense of catching glimpses of her on the street, some other silver bob momentarily conjuring her presence before she was once again taken away. A host of doppelgangers proportionate to the effect she had on people. I resolved to pay it forward, to try to be the kind of person who values others the way she did. I’m not the best at that, either.

    a red hibiscus flower

    Photograph by Tim Mossholder (Public domain)

    A week before she passed away, I visited to say goodbye. She was at home, with her hospice bed next to a window where she could gaze out at trees and birds. Those of us nearby were summoned one or two at a time to come see her. Her family was gathered around her, singing, at the end. If one must die, it was perhaps the kind of death to wish for – the kind that now, in the pandemic, so many people cannot have.

    I was expecting my first child, a son, and had kept the sex a secret from the world but wanted to tell her since she wouldn’t live to meet him. “What did you go and find that out for?” she chided me, unimpressed by this mystery-busting use of ultrasound technology – as I strongly suspected that she would be. There was nothing quite like a good scolding from Amy, as a rule; here, it also showed a precious flash of spirit as she edged in and out of consciousness.

    I promised her that I would teach my son the things that she taught me. But how could I? I had barely begun to understand them myself.

    The death of someone leaves a hole in the fabric of the world. Not simply in terms of what that person meant to others, but in creation itself. There is a moment in Madeleine L’Engle’s An Acceptable Time that has haunted me since I read it, and that I think about every time I hear that someone has died.

    In this science-fiction story, a girl named Polly is grieving the death of her beloved mentor, Max, when she begins to encounter people who had lived on the same land millennia before. She asks her grandmother one night about that phrase, to leave a hole in someone’s life. “I guess the planet is riddled with holes, isn’t it? From all the people who’ve lived and then died. Do the holes ever get filled?”

    Her grandmother can only acknowledge the question. Polly’s train of thought goes to the people from the past she has been running into.

    “They’ve been dead maybe three thousand years.” She shuddered involuntarily. “What about their holes? Are the holes just always there, waiting to be filled?”

    “You have always tended to ask unanswerable questions. I don’t know about those holes. All I know is that Max gave you great riches, and we would, all of us, be less than we are if it weren’t for those we love and who’ve loved us who have died.”

    Amy also had a granddaughter named Polly, and would no doubt say something similar if they had such a conversation. What more is there to say? The grandmother’s tender response is the best answer this side of eternity – but it still leaves the question hanging in the air.

    Today, as Covid-19 deaths tick up and up, I think about the holes each one has left behind. The shock of loss is just the start; each day and month and year without the deceased is a year that someone irreplaceable is missing, and missed.

    As the years without Amy wore on, I went through so many things I wished she could have been there for – joys and griefs and awfully tangled conundrums. 

    The fundamental purpose of a humanities education is to consider human life and how to live it better. We had unpacked any number of profound books together, and naturally she would always say that their authors were much wiser than she was. Of course all those were still available to me, waiting for their clues to be revealed.

    But life as lived felt so much murkier, beset by so many dead ends. There were the daily humiliations of a demoralizing job my family needed me to keep (but how fortunate I was to be employed in the first place), and year after year of failing to conceive another dearly wanted baby (again, how blessed I had been already). Was not my son an infinite gift in himself? He absolutely was. Don’t others with infertility suffer so much more, often without any child at all? They undoubtedly do. So I kept my sorrow to myself, and became lost in a fog.

    How many times did I ask myself what she would say to set me straight and help me recover my direction in all this? If only I could confide in her and she could tell me how to make peace with these circumstances. A friend admonished me that I shouldn’t wish to speak to someone who is gone, but should pray instead. Of course I should pray, and I did. But I wanted to talk to her.

    Years ago, I had walked into her office one late afternoon, and she had looked up and said by way of greeting, “My sum total accomplishment of the day was to break a stapler.”

    I would remind myself of the hilarity of this moment on days that seemed especially worthless. Did I do even just as much as break a stapler today? Then good, because the day she broke a stapler was a great day, one for the ages, simply by virtue of her being here on earth. What I wouldn’t give for another such day.

    It is the custom to put pebbles on a Jewish grave. Flowers wilt and die, but stones are everlasting; they signify the permanence of memory.

    Two dear friends were getting married in the city where Amy is buried on what happened to be the anniversary of the day she died. My family flew in early with the intention of paying our respects at the cemetery the day before. I picked up some colorful pebbles from the gift shop of the science museum where she had worked in college, and practiced again and again what I was going to say, how I was going to pour my heart out and tell her how much I missed her and how adrift I was, with the latent, irrational hope, not exactly sanctioned by either of our faiths, that somehow things would clarify when I did.

    “We would, all of us, be less than we are if it weren’t for those we love and who’ve loved us who have died.”

    When we set out to visit, however, I input the wrong street address and wound up clear on the other side of the city before realizing my mistake. At this moment, I was utterly defeated. I knew my son would not tolerate another couple hours in the car, and we were expected elsewhere already. We were not going to make it, not then, not ever. What was the point, anyway?

    My husband categorically insisted that we turn around and go. We had come this far, and we were going to find her. Miserable and incoherent, I allowed him to take charge, and we set out again across the city.

    Finally, we reached the entrance we were looking for, with a road quietly twisting through the green, grassy blanket of the eternally asleep. Round one bend, and round another, and at last there was a section with Stars of David and piles of stones. I found her name, and we had our chat. I did most of the talking, but even so, I didn’t have the heart to give the speech I had imagined. What’s the use? She is gone, she cannot hear me, it’s sad and terrible and futile, and I don’t really know why I came. I tried to arrange the pebbles somehow, but they kept slipping down the polished surface of the gravestone. I re-gathered them into a pile as best I could, and left.

    At the wedding the next day, her widower, the love of her life, came up to me. He too had gone out to visit her, first thing in the morning, and been speechlessly moved to find her grave covered in a rainbow of stones. Did I by chance have anything to do with it?

    This, I realized, this is the point. I am not here to receive a message but to give one to someone who needs it far more. There is purpose at work here after all.

    Two weeks later, I found out I was pregnant.

    I couldn’t truly say that she sent me this baby, but, well, I wouldn’t not say it. I named my daughter for a Shakespeare character we both loved, whose name evokes a flower as red as the hibiscus: a rose.

    Contributed By

    Caitrin Keiper is editor-at-large of Plough and a senior editor of The New Atlantis.

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