Botany and the Life Cycle

[Warning: This entry is about grief]
When I was a young girl I used to visit Mr. Scott across the street. With each visit he would give me one of those cookie sandwiches with white icing in the middle. I scraped off the icing, placed it on my bare knee in the summer, and saved it until I finished the cookies. I still do that with dessert, it’s just not usually a cookie and I don’t tend to put it on my knee.
When I was about six, a neighbor visited my mother with the news that Mr. Scott died. Mr. Scott’s death was my first lesson about death. I lost a grandmother about six years later, a grandpa ten years after that, as most young people do. My mom took advantage of each opportunity to teach us about life and death but, luckily, she didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities.
For my son Frederick, the first death in his memory is approaching its first anniversary. Uncle Mike died just before Frederick’s fourth birthday last year. For Frederick, Uncle Mike’s death was the first major discussion of the life cycle. When Frederick mentions heaven, he invariably mentions Uncle Mike (and to my amusement, he often mentions Ella Fitzgerald).
Uncle Mike was ear-marked to teach Frederick Botany and they were to start this spring, around Frederick’s 5th birthday. Uncle Mike taught Botany for thirty years at Delano High School, a rural school in a poor town. His students did college-level work as sophomores primarily because he never bothered to tell us it was college-level work. We thought all sophomores used the Jepson Manual to key California wildflowers.
Since Uncle Mike’s death, heaven has gotten awfully crowded. Over the summer we lost Daralyn and Linda, Carla in the fall, and then in the time between the Thanksgiving season and Valentine’s Day, we lost Padmini, Shirley, Mr. Stahl, Jim, Pete, and Felix. Someone close to us lost a baby we were eagerly expecting. Besides Felix (who was a centenarian), everyone died well before their time.

As a result of our friends’ passing, the topic of death and dying has become quite normal these days. Our discussions have strayed into issues of the food chain and the life cycle for animals and plants. Frederick asks questions so specific that he is now charged with burying my body here on the property, wrapped in a traditional burial cloth, with a grave covered in granite stones. He plans for his preschool friends Natasha and Matthew to help with the ceremony. Of course, no adult will entertain my plan primarily because it’s illegal and sounds a little crazy (particularly when I add a discussion about the link between my funeral plan and keeping the soil fertile). But Frederick is game.
We sent out annual holiday newsletters three months late and, for the first time, had to edit about 10% of our addresses. Heaven doesn’t get the U.S. Mail and, as my mom taught me, folks up there stay on top of our news anyway.
This year also brought the first time I’ve had two funerals to attend on the same day. I managed to squeeze in a hospital visit in between. That day was way back I January and I still stay up nights staring at the ceiling. There does not seem to be an emotional economy of scale in bundling all of the deaths together.
Tonight (or this morning as it has become), I thought I would at least do something more productive than toss and turn. I could write something about wild fish or Omega-3 eggs, but it’s the wildflowers that are on my mind. Spring is here to my great relief – the fresh air and sunshine have been good for me. But as healing as sun exercise can be, those wildflowers have been stealing my sleep.
The golden fiddle neck and the early popcorn flowers — the first flowers to make a show every spring — are in bloom in the low foothills and just starting to bloom on the property. When Sander and Frederick return from their weekend outing (the outing which was supposed to allow me time to sleep and work), we will begin to collect the wildflower specimens. I was “Botanist of the Year,” after all, way back in Uncle Mike’s Botany class. When I ask “who is going to teach Frederick about Botany?” the fingers point my way. This was to be our season to start and so we will.
Spring flowers provide a great opportunity to learn about the life cycle to a little boy who has become fascinated with life and death. The topic is wearing on me, but I’ll do my part. I am ordering a scalpel and a magnifying glass to get started and can surely conjure up some great speeches about flowers, seeds, and decomposition.
“Mama, I’m going to be as old as Felix when I go to heaven.”
“From your lips to God’s ears, honey.”

One Response to Botany and the Life Cycle
  1. Smokey the Bear: Pest or Dinner

    [Note: I light of some reflective blog posts on grief, penance, and more penance, I need you to submit more entries to our Pest or Dinner? contest. Besides, you are running out of time. The deadline is Saturday.] Last weekend…

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