The lily in winter

Author: Jamie Goodrich Ziegler '80

It’s now two years since my father’s death, and I am left with memories of his quick — and often pointed — wit, his endless grief over losing my mother to emphysema (worsened by his secondhand smoke?) and a lingering lawsuit over the carbon monoxide accident that turned our last Thanksgiving together into a funeral instead of a celebration.

And two peace lilies.

They were sympathy gifts, and for some reason they have survived in my house. I am surprised by them, because I don’t grow plants, I kill them. Countless poinsettias give up the good fight in my house at Christmastime, littering the living room floor with their dry, brown leaves, their once-red blossoms curled to reveal pale, skeletal undersides, and their wilted stems hanging over the gold foil like noble soldiers fallen in battle. Look, there’s one in there now, drooping on the table next to the couch and doomed to go to the back hall before the three kings arrive next Sunday. Then a trip to the trash cans in the alley on Thursday, a quick vacuuming, and no one the wiser. This silent tragedy will repeat again next year. We will never speak of it.

So I am surprised by these peace lilies. Amazed, actually, that they have not only survived but have flourished in my plant-unfriendly environment. They sit on either side of the fireplace, and every few months they send up dramatic white blossoms to remind me of their pleasure to be in my care. I begin to think of them as the spirits of my parents, one for my mother and one for my father. I water them every Sunday, and I am reminded of my parents each time. If I am late, they droop a bit — even a lot — but a quick trip to the kitchen sink revives them in a matter of minutes.

And so it’s been for two years.

Until New Year’s Day, when we return from a week-long trip to Naples. We don’t stay home for Christmas any longer because the memories are too painful. My brothers leave town, too. We see each other before we leave and try to enjoy our family celebration, but we know in our hearts that we are sad and we want it to be over. We want to leave town and the memories and the cold and then come back in a new year with our focus forward, not back. A brief escape from the knowing that the past still lingers somewhere, and we will have to face it again when this year ends. We never speak of this.

So on New Year’s Day, we return home at 4:30 in the morning, weary but hopeful for a fresh start. I drop my suitcase in the living room and look at the Christmas display on the mantel — my mother’s Steinbach nutcracker collection, my father’s Ulbricht smokers, the four pewter reindeer anchoring our needlepoint stockings. I smile. Then I look down at the lilies.

The one on the right is not right. It is flat in its pot, collapsed, with the tips of its once-glossy but now-shriveled leaves lightly brushing the floor. It is beyond wilted — I am sure that it is dead. I must have forgotten to water it before we left for Florida.

I feel a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat.

But like the paramedic who performs CPR even after the time of death has been declared, I find a glimmer of hope in my heart. So I carry the plant to the kitchen sink and turn the faucet handle. “Please come back,” I whisper, though I know it is too late. I carefully water the lily, soaking the soil and gently rinsing the brittle leaves. Maybe it will bounce back, I tell myself. Lilies are hardy plants, after all.

I wait, but nothing happens. I wait a little longer. Still nothing. “These things take time,” I try to reassure myself. So I place the lily on the kitchen counter and head upstairs to bed.

But I sleep only a few hours. I am wondering about the lily. If it were coming back to life, it would be by now. With equal measures of hope and dread, I walk downstairs and through the living room with its decorated mantel and the single lily next to the fireplace, then through the dining room with the gold walls and trestle table and, finally, into the kitchen. I see the lily on the counter next to the sink.

It is still limp. I lift the pot and look more closely. No sign of change in the shriveled leaves, which are still damp from their final watering. Not one bit of spring to the stems, which no longer reach to the sun for light but have slipped back to the earth for their final rest.

I have no words for this. I feel only failure. The same failure I felt when my parents died and I knew that I failed them by not keeping them safe, not being attentive enough, not protecting them from the risks that the world presents when you are older and weaker and not taking good care of yourself any longer. Yes, I have failed again.

I leave the lily on the counter until evening, when, of course, it is still as it was. Lifeless and dry. It is time, I think, and I carry the lily to the back hall. Tomorrow it will go to the alley, to the trash cans, to be hauled away and forgotten. The guilt, as it always does, will remain.

I deal with the sadness as I always do. I try to put it out of my mind. Forget. Move on. Don’t feel. It’s too late to change anything, so why dwell on the sadness? A small voice asks what to do about the other lily. Will it be lonely? Now it has no mate. I dismiss the thought. Forget. Move on. This is only a plant, for God’s sake. It’s not a person. So I shut down all the feelings and head to bed.

The next morning, I wake early with no thoughts of the lily. I am back in the world of the living. There’s a schedule to keep. I head to the kitchen to make the coffee. But first I must take yesterday’s newspaper to the back hall. Then I remember. The lily. I look at the spot where I left it last night.

And I catch my breath.

The lily is standing in its full glory, every stem firm and green, every leaf reopened to the morning light pouring in the back hall window. It is as glossy and brilliant and full of life as it was on the day I received it.

And I recognize at that moment, in that lily, the perfect and eternal rhythm of the universe, where there are no mistakes or failures, and all is exactly as it is meant to be. That here, in the cold and dark of winter, I experience the light and hope of Easter. As I feel the essence and blessings of life fill me, I feel, too, the endless spirits of my mother and father, and recognize that they will always be here, as they always have.

I carry the lily back into the living room and place it gently on the floor on the right side of the fireplace. As I marvel at the miracle I have just experienced, a small voice whispers that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the poinsettia, too.

Jamie Ziegler writes, speaks and consults on leadership, teamwork and culture in the investment industry. She lives in Wilmette, Illinois, with her husband and two children.