My husband died in March. On what would have been our 49th wedding anniversary, I received his last order of roses, with a daisy in the middle. He asked our son to order them and told him exactly what he wanted. The roses got me to thinking about how he loved flowers. A friend suggested that I read Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom’d,” because it was Whitman’s way of dealing with Lincoln’s death through remembering the secular trinity of lilacs, birdsong, and the Eastern Star. This poem seemed so appropriate for remembering Bill.
Bill and I took a trip a few years ago to Bar Harbor, Maine, and luckily for us, the lilacs were in bloom and they were bounteous. I had never smelled them and was immediately addicted to the fragrance, as was Bill. We would stop by the side of the road whenever we saw a patch of them, stand and smell them, and smell some more. We could hardly travel more than 50 feet before we stopped again. Anyone behind us would have thought us to be a comedy troupe. Finally, we had to get back to the hotel for the meeting that Bill was there to attend. But we long talked about and remembered that happy day when lilacs bloomed in the dooryard and everywhere else we looked in Bar Harbor. They became something of a talisman for us.
Bill was a birder. He studied them with passion all of his adult life. The sympathy cards from his colleagues at Hospice all say things like he was a mentor, a leader, a devoted physician, and he taught us so much about birds. Over and over, the cards repeat that refrain, “he taught us so much about birds!” When we sat on our deck and heard the cacophony of birdsong, he would interrupt himself and say, “What bird is that?”
I would look at him and say, “I didn’t hear an individual bird.”
He would say again, “Listen. That song. That one.”
I would dutifully try to guess the bird. It was a safe bet to say either wren or cardinal. But we had many other birds pass through our yard, like the titmouse, the purple finch, the chickadee, the towhee, the robin, and my two favorites, the brown thrasher and the white throated sparrow. Finally, I would ask him to just let me listen to the symphony and not pick out the different instruments. It was a game we played most every morning in the spring and summer, until the birds went silent in late summer. And, oh, it was a wonderful day when we heard the symphony burst forth when the first azaleas bloomed in our yard.
Bill’s other non-medical passion, beside family and friends, was in the study of the stars. When we dated, he impressed me with his vast knowledge of the constellations and their alpha stars. He would take my head and help turn my gaze in the right direction to see the star about which he waxed eloquent. One of the best purchases I made for Bill (and myself) was a laser pointer that he could use to point right at any star he desired, as he told the myth surrounding the constellation, or the tales of nomadic desert tribes that named the brightest stars.
So, the secular trinity that my friend told me about – lilacs, birdsong, the Eastern Star – that gave Whitman solace will give me solace. My heart has a hole in it right now through which blows a hard wind, and I cling to the hope that, as our Jewish friends say, his memory will be a blessing. I know in my head that it will be. That hole in my heart just needs to stitch up a bit first.
My other solace is in the friends and family who offer their hands across this ocean of grief, not letting it swamp me. I gratefully take their hands every day. I stumble. I fall. But they help me get up again. Perhaps, the day will come when I can walk on my own. But not yet. Not yet.