Reading: Flowers by the Fistful

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Flowers by the Fistful

She was a war correspondent in the Middle East. Parenthood could wait. Or so she thought.

By Courtney Kealy

Photo by Christopher Beane from the Gardenia Series, 2005. Courtesy of Jim Kempner Fine Art. Jimkempnerfineart.com

If I had a daughter, I would wish her to be sentimental about gardenias and pragmatic about everything else.

Gardenias were my grandmother’s favorite flower. My mom and her seven siblings always ordered them from Vance Florists in Westfield, New Jersey, for Mother’s Day.

My mother loved them too. After a night out with my dad at Trader Vic’s, in the basement of the Plaza Hotel, my mother would bring home the gardenias floating in the tropical drinks and leave them by my bedside. The leaves were a waxy green, and a single palm-sized bloom took up a whole small bowl of water.

 

Gardenias in Beirut

The scent was the same when I found gardenias during my first spring in Beirut, though the ones that grew on bushes there, by the fistfuls, were smaller than the ones at home. Beirutis would string them into necklaces and sell them along the diesel-filled streets. Drivers hung them from the rearview mirrors in their banged-up Mercedes taxis. And a friend brought me a bag of the blossoms to put in saucers all over my apartment while I was recovering from an appendectomy. It had been a rough surgery: The doctors in the land of bikinis and bombs apologized profusely for the two-inch pink scar just under my right hipbone. By the time I was conscious enough to call my mother, it was afternoon in New York City. Several hours before, on her way to work, a sharp pain had made her double over. She told me it was so sudden that she actually thought she’d been shot; then she threw up.

That Mother’s Day, I photographed a bowlful of my flowers in the sunshine and sent it as a card to my mom. I was a photojournalist covering the region’s conflicts, and emergency surgery had been the best vacation I could have hoped for, which I knew was incredibly messed up. But I wasn’t ready to come home. The US would soon invade Iraq, and there were plenty more stories to tell.

 

My Brothers are the Nesters

I often called my mother in New York but always took care to minimize the constant danger I was facing. On the same day that I telephoned to share my excitement about my first ride in a Black Hawk helicopter, my two brothers, Sean and Ben, called her to ask for some of her recipes. It pleased her no end that her boys were nesting and cooking while her daughter was feeding her wanderlust.

Back home, Sean’s wife, Cara, slogged her way through chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer and mourned not being able to conceive a brother or sister for their son, Harrison. But soon after deciding to adopt, they found themselves welcoming a “miracle baby” when their second son, Declan, came into the world. Harrison, five, was elated at becoming a brother, as was my mom at being made a grandmother again. Cara was the quintessential mom in our family, making Halloween costumes and beaming with love and joy over her brood even as she endured medical treatments that included the removal of her ovaries. Sean said that if they could have had a third child, they would have wanted a daughter who they would have called Michaela. But the cancer made that idea an impossibility.

When Declan was two and Harrison was six, Cara’s cancer came back, depositing spots on her lungs and her brain; in early 2006 she had surgery and a full course of radiation. I stayed with the boys in their suburban New York home during breaks from my Baghdad rotation. I was still single and childless but wasn’t worried about settling down and trying to have it all. I figured I could adopt someday if I wanted children, but only if I had a partner who’d make a great dad.

 

My Sister-In-Law Does Not Get Better

This time Cara didn’t get better. After treatment, her hair never grew back and her short-term memory impaired her ability to do tasks as simple as setting the table or making dinner. Then the doctors found that a meningioma on her optic nerve had wrapped itself around her brain stem. One eye closed over. After Harrison’s eleventh birthday, Cara was given a year to live.

We tried to keep things normal for the boys, who weren’t told their mom’s prognosis. Neighbors brought over meals and drove the kids to school. Sean continued to coach his son’s flag-football, basketball, and baseball teams. Cara cheered from the sidelines at every game.

Then suddenly, Sean died from a heart attack — the kind called the widow-maker. I still believe he died because his heart broke knowing that his wife had less than a year left to live.

Within four hours of Sean’s death, I was on my way home from the Middle East. I moved into their house and helped Cara fight for 18 more months. One afternoon, when she was lying in her hospital bed in the sunroom off the kitchen, Harrison and I were outside playing catch. He had just turned 13 and he asked me if I could answer a question. He told me he was scared even to ask it, but summoning his courage, he did: “Is my mom going to die?” I took a deep breath. “Yes.” Was there any way to soften that? “Yes, honey. Your mom is going to die, but we’re not sure when.” He asked if we could keep their house and I had to say no. He liked math, so I explained how the numbers didn’t add up. “If I pay for the house, there’s no money left over for fun stuff like camp and toys.”

 

I Promise to Take Care of the Boys

I promised him that by the time he was 16 he would love living in Manhattan and that, no matter what, his Yaya (my mom) and I would always take care of him and Declan.

None of this is the natural order of things.

When Cara was admitted to the hospital for the last time, she fell into a coma and had to be taken off life support. Declan climbed into her empty hospital bed at home and refused to go to school. The au pair called me at work and I told him to just let Declan stay there as long as he wanted. He spent the morning crying, wrapped in his mother’s blankets and sheets.

The boys, who now live with their grandmother and me in Manhattan, still wear their father’s cologne. I can tell the days they’re particularly sad by how much they smell like him. Mother’s Day is now a celebration of Cara.

And we don’t do gardenias anymore — not big ones, not fistfuls of smaller ones. Gardenias aren’t as readily available in New York as they were in Beirut or in decades past. Mother’s Day, the boys honored their mother with white and pink roses. On a warm, sunny Sunday, their Yaya and I watched them pull the blooms off the stems with their fists, then lean out our ninth-floor apartment window and let the petals slip through their fingers and catch the wind.

  1. Karla The Losen

    Courtney,
    This story is so beautifully and artfully crafted. We feel so deeply for the loss of Sean and Cara but cannot be happier that Harrison and Declan have you and Christine.
    Xo Karla

  2. Patricia Mirasol

    I am so sorry for your family’s loss. Your nephews are fortunate to have a devoted aunt and Yaya. I wish Harrison, Declan, your mother, and you all the best. – Patricia

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