My wife lost her battle against breast cancer last month, leaving me alone to take care of our daughter Ellie. Every single night Ellie asks if mom is going to tuck her in, and every night I have to beg her before she’ll let me do it instead. How can I even begin to explain to a four year old that she’ll never see her mommy again? I don’t even know how to explain it to myself.
If I’d died instead, I’m sure my wife would have known the right things to say. Death wasn’t a mystery to her like it was to me. She told me that a person’s life force never really goes away: it only changes form. I hated hearing her talk about her death so casually, but she was always so soft and patient that even in her final hours it felt like she was the one who had to protect and comfort me.
“You’ll understand when I’m gone,” she told me, leaning on my chest where we both crowded on the narrow hospital cot. “Some flowers only grow from corpses, and when you see them, you’ll know that I’m still with you.”
She died that night, and no matter how many times I repeated her words, I couldn’t feel her anymore. I told Ellie that mom was a flower now, and she asked me which one.
“All of them,” I’d said. “She’s every beautiful thing in the whole world.” Ellie couldn’t understand why I was crying, but she held onto me until she fell asleep, almost like she was the one trying to protect me — just like her mother did.
I thought the flowers were just a metaphor for the good which still remained in the world until the hospital called me the next day. They started asking me questions about my wife’s mental health at the end, and I told them she was always the calmest, most peaceful person in the room. I guess I got kind of defensive about it and snapped at them, but they explained:
“We’re just trying to figure out all the bumps on her body that were found during the autopsy. It looks like someone made a deliberate incision, stuck a seed inside, and sewed it back up. Hundreds of times.”
Some flowers only grow from corpses. She must have thought it was symbolic, but it was disgusting to me. Imagining her sitting alone in her hospital, stabbing herself over and over again — I thought I was going to be sick. They asked me if the mortician should take them out, and I said yes. The funeral director gave me a small velvet bag with all the seeds afterward, and I would have just thrown the vile thing away if Ellie hadn’t stopped me.
“We can plant them!” she squealed, although of course I couldn’t tell her where they really came from. I still wanted to throw them out, but then she added: “If they grow up to be tall and beautiful, then maybe mom will come see them.”
I let her keep the seeds and helped her plant them in the backyard. It still grossed me out, but it gave Ellie a project to focus on to distract her from mom’s absence.
“Mom has turned into the flowers now,” I told Ellie. “It’s what happens to everyone… sooner or later.” A pretty weak explanation, but it was the best I had, and my daughter accepted it as a fact of life.
And what flowers! I’d never seen anything like them before. Blue and purple ones like galaxies being born, and great red trumpets burning brighter than living flame. They grew quick too — three inches with buds in the first week, and almost a foot tall with the first blossoms by the second.
“It’s mom! She’s almost back!”
I’d gotten used to those little shrieks lately. Someday I knew I’d find the right words, but until then the flowers were hope. I just hadn’t counted on how convincing a hope they’d be.
“That one already has her hair. And look over here! She’s smiling!”
Hair and teeth had started to grow by the third week. I thought it was just stringy stems at first, but it didn’t take long before my wife’s bushy brown hair was cascading down one of the the plants like a lion’s mane around the flower. The teeth were even stranger — tiny at first like a babies, but growing everyday until a complete set of dentures encircled another blossom. And it didn’t stop there either.
Fingers, starting with the bone which sprouted a new layer of muscle each day. A heart, swelling like a ripening fruit and beating where it hung below the flower. Each plant was devoted to a specific body part, growing from child-size to full grown in a matter of days. I was absolutely horrified, but Ellie was ecstatic. First thing she did every morning was race to the garden to see how much bigger they were, and every night she’d sit in the dirt and talk to the plants as though they were her mom.
I wanted to cut them all down, but even mentioning the idea made Ellie scream like I was plotting murder. I didn’t know what to do or who to tell, and honestly part of me wanted to believe too. Something miraculous was happening, and I didn’t think it was my place to stop it.
Hope can be more even blinding than despair though, and I didn’t see my mistake until last night. I’d just gotten up to use the bathroom when I passed by Ellie’s room and found the door open. Ellie wasn’t inside, but something else was: a long vine stretching from the garden, wrapped around her empty bed.
The garden — I was wide awake in a second, tripping and scrambling over myself as I raced through the house. The front door was open too, bright red flowers twined around the handle, looking more the color of blood in the ghostly half-light of the moon. Ellie’s stuffed bear was discarded along the way, completely encompassed in thick vines which had grown long, vicious thorns overnight.
The whole backyard was alive. The ground looked like a storm-tossed ocean, dirt teaming with masses of squirming, unseen roots. The plants had all converged on one spot where they formed a giant, pulsing bud.
“Ellie!” I screamed, charging toward the mass. A hand caught me by the wrist before I’d taken two steps. A fully formed hand — my wife’s hand — but she would never keep me from our daughter. I wrestled with the plant, ripping the hand cleanly free from where it sprouted. The roots were trying to entangle my legs, but I managed to kick loose before they had a solid hold.
The shovel — I leaped back toward the house, and the plants seemed to momentarily forget about me as they re-converged on the twitching bud. A moment later and I was charging back in, hacking and slashing with the metal blade, severing root and stem, crushing fingers and splitting arms straight to the marrow — whatever it took to get through to my daughter. I was soaked in blood by the time I reached her — some my own from the jagged thorns, but most bleeding freely from the wake of mutilation I left behind.
Ellie didn’t look like she was in pain. She was lying perfectly still, eyes closed as though asleep, entwined in hundreds of thorns which punctured her little body from all sides. As peaceful as my wife when she’d gone — but Ellie wasn’t gone too. She couldn’t be. I severed the vines with my shovel until I could pull her free, carrying her in my arms as I fled the garden, her warm draining blood drenching me as I went. These flowers need a corpse to grow, and after they were deprived of my wife’s body, they’d found their own instead.
My daughter wasn’t breathing. Her heart had stopped. In each of the hundred wounds which covered her body, a tiny seed had been carefully planted to fill the hole. The whole garden was dead by morning, shriveling without its corpse like a drought stricken field.
Ellie died that night too, but I know she isn’t gone. It seems like death is the end, but I understand now that it’s just a transformation. I’ve planted her and the seeds in the garden so they will have a body to grow from this time. And if I’m kind to this death — if I nurture it as though it were my child — then I know someday soon new life will sprout again.