Sometimes in life, it's hard to have faith and keep believing when fate pummels us with heartache, pain, confusion and uncertainty. When my precious mother died in 1998 after a long and debilitating illness, I found myself wondering why God would dump so much pain and grief on me. I was bitter and angry and I didn't know if I believed in anything anymore.
And then the flower grew.
My mother loved gardenias, those delicate white blossoms that permeate the early summer air with their sweet fragrance. I remember buying her Jungle Gardenia cologne when I was a small child, just because it had the word "gardenia" on the bottle. The scent was rather pungent and a bit overpowering, but she loved it. Or at least she pretended to, because it was a gift from me.
Once, many years ago, during a surprisingly lighthearted conversation about death and dying, Mother informed me "I want to be buried in a black dress, holding a rosary and a single white gardenia in my hands." I smiled and told her she'd better plan to "kick the bucket" during "gardenia season," that short span of time when the flowers bloom, before the heat and humidity of late summer make it impossible for the fragile blossoms to survive. "I don't want to have to go on a horticultural treasure hunt when I'm ass deep in grief!" I told her. And we both laughed heartily.
After my father died in 1986, Mother sold her home in South Carolina and moved to Georgia to live with me. We lived in rental houses for several years; then, in 1995, I bought a lovely home in the northeast Atlanta suburbs for Mother and me. We moved in during the wintertime and much to our delight, when spring arrived, we discovered that there were two beautiful gardenia bushes located in the side yard of our new home. Sadly, Mother lived only long enough to enjoy the flowers from those bushes for three growing seasons.
Mother's health was never very good and it continued to get worse in a slow, but steady decline. Finally, when she wasn't able to leave the house, I'd pick blossoms from the gardenia bushes, put them in a vase and sit them by her bedside. The sight and smell of them never failed to bring a smile to her face and elicit sighs of pure delight.
As so often happens in life, plans change. Mother never wore that black dress, with a rosary and gardenia clutched in her lifeless hands. Later in life, we both decided that we wanted to be cremated when our earthly days were over. And indeed Mother was cremated after she passed away on August 12, 1998. I was devastated by her death. No matter how intellectually prepared I might have been, I was completely unprepared for the emotional shock of losing her. I felt like a part of my soul had been cruelly ripped away from me.
Mercifully, a sense of numbness overtakes us when someone we love dies and we muddle through life on "autopilot" for days, weeks, sometimes even months after the tragic event. Even though I have always been a firm believer in the afterlife, I found myself wondering where my mother was. Was she in a safe, peaceful, happy place? A place free from sickness and pain? I prayed for a sign, something unmistakable, that would show me that even though her body had died, her soul lived on.
And then the flower grew.
Late one afternoon in mid-September, just as the sun was setting, my dog, Bo, began to prance around, letting me know that he needed to go out. No matter how I tried to persuade him to go into "his" huge fenced back yard, Bo flatly refused to do so. He kept looking at his leash, hanging on the newel post of the stairs in the foyer, as he always does when he wants to take a walk.
Finally, I surrendered to his demands and took him for a walk in the front yard. After sniffing around a bit and "watering" several bushes, I figured he was ready to go back inside, but he most assuredly was not. I tried to coax him into following me, but he adamantly refused. Again, I acquiesced and tugging at his leash, Bo led me into the side yard and straight to the gardenia bushes.
In the fading light of that September day, what I saw literally took my breath away. One perfect white blossom was growing in the center of the bushes! I immediately tried to explain it all away, but logic told me that gardenias simply do not bloom during September in the state of Georgia. And why would there be just one blossom? One perfect blossom.
My prayers had been answered. I had been given a sign, one so personal and so profound that I knew it came from beyond. Someplace safe and peaceful and happy.
We expect miracles to happen on a grand scale, but oftentimes they occur so very simply. Like when a special song suddenly plays on the radio. Or when a rainbow magically appears in the sky. Or when someone we pass on the street smiles at us when we are feeling sad and lost and alone.
I never really expected a miracle.
And then the flower grew.
Despite the fact that I had received several signs from my mother following her death, my heart and soul ached to see her standing right before me as a full-blown apparition. It took nine years for that to happen.
One early spring afternoon, I was mowing the grass on my riding lawn tractor. As I rounded the corner from the front of my house into the side yard, I was literally stunned to see my mother standing near the fence, just steps away from her beloved gardenia bushes.
My mind began racing a million miles a nanosecond! My first thought was, "Oh, my God, Chip! You've had a stroke!" I felt to see if my mouth was drooping and it wasn't. I tried to speak and I was able to say a few words. I checked to see if I was overheated and my skin felt cool to the touch.
When my mother died, she weighed less than 70 pounds and yet, there she stood, right before me, looking healthy and beautiful. She was dressed just as she would've been during life on an early spring day: in a sleeveless blouse and polyester slacks. I stared at her for what seemed like an eternity, but, in reality, was only a few seconds. I was in complete shock and filled with disbelief.
But there she was! My mother! She smiled at me and I felt the love emanating from her. And then, she was gone.
I felt tears begin to stream down my cheeks. Finally, after all the years of loneliness and grief that came into my life because of her death, I had seen my mother! "Thank you, God," I whispered.
Those four or five seconds that my mother and I shared on that beautiful spring day will always be so precious to me.