David and the Flower

A dozen years ago, towards the end of our son David’s battle with leukemia, we accompanied him in his wheelchair out into the hospital garden. We’d been there many times before, but this time was a little different. As we slowly worked our way around, we stopped longer than usual while he gazed at a flower. I have no recollection of what kind of flower had caught his attention (nor of other details of the visit that day), but I remember that he was unwilling to tear himself away from it.

Finally, after many minutes, he whispered, “It’s so beautiful!”

In my memory a tear formed in the corner of his eye as he spoke those words. I can’t say (nor could I then) whether he was expressing the joy of seeing that flower in a new way, or perhaps saying farewell — or maybe he was giving voice to a sense of gratitude, or (though he’d never admit to it) offering some kind of prayer. Maybe all were in play somehow.

That moment comes back to me often. Lately I was reminded of it again during a short vacation on Cape Cod, reencountering some of the powerful natural beauty of that place. Serafin and I had taken David to the Cape for a few days in 1997, the first time he was able to leave the hospital after his initial diagnosis and treatment — we had stayed in a cottage in Brewster, not far from Nickerson State Park, where we were camping this time.

But that memory also returned because the poet Mary Oliver makes her home on the Cape, and some of her poetry meant a lot to David, and to us as well. Her poems bring the cosmic and the immediate together, to reveal “the world in a grain of sand,” as Blake put it, and I think they may give voice to some of what David was experiencing when he beheld that flower. Here’s one (from House of Light, republished in New and Selected Poems) that seems especially fitting:

            The Summer Day
                        by Mary Oliver

      Who made the world?
      Who made the swan, and the black bear?
      Who made the grasshopper?
      This grasshopper, I mean—
      the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
      the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
      who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
      Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
      Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
      I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
      I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
      into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
      how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
      which is what I have been doing all day.
      Tell me, what else should I have done?
      Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
      Tell me, what is it you plan to do
      with your one wild and precious life?

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