Bernadette Murphy is the daughter of Irish immigrants who grew up in Los Angeles. She has published four books of narrative nonfiction, most recently Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press 2016), a hybrid combining memoir with neuroscience and biology. Her essays have appeared in LitHub, Ms. Magazine, The Rumpus, Climbing Magazine, Palm Springs Life, New York Observer, and elsewhere. She previously served as weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times and Associate Professor for the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Currently, she teaches at The Newport MFA at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island and lives in Park City, Utah.
The Largest Gathering of Flowers in the World
My stepdaughter Anise, an artist featured in galleries across Los Angeles, paints flowers in the arts-and-crafts style of 19th century British artist William Morris, smallish canvases of bougainvillea populated by bees and dragonflies. Her art asks viewers to stop and carefully look at the flowers, to acknowledge that the tangles and creepy-crawlies are part of the environment without losing sight of the intricate perfection of each blossom.
Before being diagnosed for the second time with breast cancer and moving into an apartment on Orange Grove Boulevard, the starting point for the Tournament of Roses Parade, Anise was a model, hairdresser, college English professor, playwright, arts critic, wife, and mother. Now, she mostly paints.
I first met Anise’s father, E, after leaving a 25-year marriage and wading through a bog of grief that felt like it might swallow me whole. On one of our first dates, he suggested rock climbing, a pursuit that requires muscle and a willingness to cozy up to risk, traits I didn’t think I had. Slowly, he taught me to trust not in his strength, but in my own, to dig deep when I was sure I was depleted. With this kind of climbing, one person belays the other by a rope and harness system. The belayer provides either slack or tension to catch a climber in the event of a fall. In this intimate duet of mutual trust, an experienced belayer will allow her climber extra slack when falling. While this creates a more dramatic fall and feels way too scary, it results in a “soft” catch and the reduced likelihood of injury. It’s the closest we can get to ensuring another’s wellbeing.
E is a mountaineer who, two years after we met, became the oldest man to ascend the North Col of Mount Everest from Tibet. It was a dream he’d postponed when Anise was first diagnosed, waiting until she was declared cancer-free.
Returning from that Everest expedition, though, he’d lost ten percent of his body weight, had fought off frostbite and high-altitude edema, and needed a week of bedrest to recover. When he came out of hibernation, the concern that had surrounded Anise since her first diagnosis turned to alarm. The cancer was back, Stage-IV mets, spreading to her liver, bones, and lungs. She resumed chemo immediately. E dropped back into hibernation.
Every New Year’s Day scores of flower-attired floats line up next to where E and I live in Pasadena. The Tournament of Roses Parade is meant to be a celebration of all that’s to come in the approaching 365 days. The explosion of petals and blossoms begs the bystander to examine closer, to wish for the parade to slow enough to fully absorb what the senses are sluggish to record. This annual spectacle reminds me of Anise’s artwork. The pageantry unfurls early with a flyover by the Stealth Bomber acting as the parade’s starter’s pistol. The event is always held on New Year’s Day unless it falls on a Sunday, then postponed until Monday. Some contend that God signed on to the agreement: If parade organizers didn’t violate the Sabbath, then God wouldn’t spoil the parade. The bargain must have stuck because rain almost never falls on the Rose Parade.
Anise has moved out her family’s landmark home overlooking the Rose Bowl with her eleven-year-old son Cyan into a modest apartment a few blocks from us so that we can be nearby to help. Cancer extracted a price from her marriage that had become too much. Though her husband had been on-board with the first diagnosis years earlier, had stuck by her through the initial pain, hair loss, and reconstructive surgery, he had no reserves left to go through it again. E and I walk the six blocks from our condo to visit, make dinner, drive her to chemo, or take Cyan to a movie or the trampoline park.
In February, Anise and I travel to DC to attend a writers’ conference. She’s had a round of chemo and the cancer seems to be in check. Between panels and events, we walk the entire city, trodding in the freezing weather, sometimes throwing open our coats to feel the sun cut through the frosty air. We stop to see the Capitol, buy hot soup at the Smithsonian, climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We share a hotel room, swap thoughts on relationships, literature, art, our careers and desires, becoming girlfriends on a getaway, humans making our way toward each other.
As we log the miles, though, Anise starts to fade. We need to take a Lyft back to the hotel. Her back pain is worse. Fatigue and lethargy prevent her from attending a rally we planned on. When we return to California, the unspoken fear has to be acknowledged. While we’ve been proclaiming our faith in the power of new medical interventions, the Stage-IV cancer, its own Stealth Bomber, has continued its belligerent movement forward.
The Tournament of Roses is the world’s largest consumer of flowers, featuring blooms grown from as far away as the Amazon and Indonesia. The non-perishable items—bark, seeds, leaves, coconut husks—are applied to the floats first. Then, in the days following Christmas, workers apply the ephemeral blooms. The more delicate flowers are put in individual vials of water and then placed, one by one, with the precision of a jeweler. Over 500,000 roses in their singular vessels are meticulously situated with a keen eye.
Parking near Anise’s apartment is brutally incoherent, requiring visitors to park on a side street then dash across four lanes of traffic. When Anise’s mother, bringing groceries, is towed for parking without an authorized permit, I drive Martha to the impound so she can pay the fees and retrieve her car.
Our dispersed family has come together to care for Anise and to let Cyan know that we support him. Last year at Thanksgiving, we hosted my three grown kids, Cyan and Anise, as well as Martha and her husband of 25 years. For Mother’s Day, Martha hosted all of us at her home. Divorce has wrought its damage, but love is traveling a long distance to patch it up.
In June Cyan mentions that, if there was one thing he could do with his mom, he’d like to take her to the Louvre in Paris. She loves art and, as an infant, had lived in Paris. He wants to share that with her. We plan a surprise brunch.
E and I hang the French flag outside our home, along with street signs from France, procure berets, play classical Parisian accordion music, and spread the dining table with baguettes, croissants, quiche, crème brulee, and assorted cheeses. We’ve hung reproductions of famous Louvre works of art on every wall in our home.
“Look, Cyan,” she says as they enter and see the Mona Lisa. “We made it to Paris together.”
Anise dyes her brown hair a platinum blonde that she keeps in an edgy, short boyish style. She says she feels most herself when she’s platinum, that finding the right shade helped her locate her true being. Her cat-eyed, black-framed glasses are iconic, her perfectly arched eyebrows topping out just over the rims. Her skin is flawless; she looks to be in her 20s. This can be deceiving. She looks so good that, even when she’s doing poorly, we’re tricked into thinking she’s mostly fine. Though we’ve grown to love each other, I sometimes think her polished finish keeps me at a remove. I can’t fully touch her and fear I never will.
As the year creeps into fall, E and I have discussions. Perhaps we need to be ready to co-parent Cyan. His father has been inconsistent in caring for Anise and might not be up for the job of full-time parent. Anise is worried, too. Should we turn the office into a bedroom for him? If he attended school across the street from us, we could oversee his homework.
As a teen, I raised my three younger siblings when my mother’s mental illness made it impossible for her to parent. Then I became a parent to three children of my own. I am supposed to be past the years of tending, of being responsible for another. This was the time I believed I’d be able to focus on my own growth. I don’t want to agree just to please E. If I’m going to coparent this child, I will need to do so with my whole heart, no reservations whatsoever.
I weigh it up and come to this thought. Maybe this is what genuine love is: making oneself available to catch another before they fall.
I say yes.
As long as we’re preparing to help raise this young man, we decide we might as well get married.
I ask Anise’s permission to marry her father and she hugs me and confides how she’s long lamented her father’s revolving door of girlfriends. She’s pleased that he and I found each other. As we rush to throw together a wedding, she wants to see pictures of the dress and talk about the menu. We race the calendar, afraid that her health might take a downturn before the big day. She’s run through pretty much every treatment available. Still, she seems okay.
Five days before the wedding Anise calls, needing to be taken to the ER. She’s hospitalized and E remains at her side, sleeping on a cot. When she’s released three days later, we hold a tiny spark of hope that she might yet come to the small backyard ceremony. By making our commitment to each other public and official, I hope it might help me prepare to love her father through the approaching, grievous loss.
E has taught me to be fearless and to climb cliffs and frozen waterfalls, to discover and trust my own strength. My role will be to teach him to be vulnerable, to allow himself to recognize how deeply this loss will wound him. I will promise to be by his side as he pieces himself back together, and to take on the tasks that Anise’s death may leave us. At our wedding, we will ask our friends and family to belay us during this difficult time, as we belay Anise and Cyan.
E moves into Anise’s apartment after the hospitalization. The night before the wedding, we eat take-out while she sleeps. It’s obvious she won’t make it to the ceremony. In fact, she’s too fragile now to be left on her own. Martha is due to relieve E for the wedding, but then her husband develops the flu and she might be contagious.
E calls Anise’s cousin Kelly in San Jose and explains the situation. Within minutes, Kelly packs essentials, stops her mail, and is in the car making the six-hour trek to Pasadena to allow E to leave Anise’s side long enough to marry me.
The wedding officiant, a dear friend who herself lost a child to a cruel and heartless illness, asks us all to hold Anise in our hearts before the wedding vows commence. I picture us all as a web of belayers, doing what we can to keep each other whole, giving slack, taking up tension, sharing the burden. It’s December 2.
The next day, Anise sits up in bed to see the pictures on our phones and to ask a few questions about the wedding. Then she sleeps.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, grandstands to hold thousands of parade watchers are erected in Anise’s front yard. The area is now flooded with preparations and we worry. Parking is near impossible in normal times. During the parade and for a number of hours before and after, even driving in the area will be out of the question. We move Anise’s car to a friend’s house to make room in her garage for a hospice nurse. But what happens if Anise needs additional care while the parade blocks the boulevard? We speak with the City of Pasadena, the Pasadena Police Department, and the Tournament of Roses Governors, developing contingency plans.
It’s clear her life is winding down. Whatever closeness she and I have shared is now in the past; no further connection will be forthcoming. When Cyan performs in the school Christmas pageant, we all go as Anise’s stand-in, taking pictures, telling her about it. Cyan’s father takes on more responsibility, is perhaps priming himself to be a full-time parent. E and I stand by, ready to help if called upon, ready to give our all.
Anise rallies what remains of her energy to go to Christmas Eve at Martha’s house. Mostly she sits on the couch, shrunken in her overcoat throughout the evening.
Christmas morning, Anise’s plummet begins. With her consent, all efforts to prolong her life are withdrawn and home hospice is called in. Cyan, who’s been staying with his father, visits. He doesn’t shy away, though it’s painfully obvious how ill she’s become. He climbs into bed and holds her, saying the words I think must cost him dearly. “I’ll be okay, Mom. You’ve been the best mother possible. I can make it on my own now. It’s okay for you to go.”
The days and nights all run together as E, Kelly, Martha, her husband, and I, this mismatched family, take shifts caring for Anise. Cyan stays with his dad full-time now. Hospice brings oxygen, a hospital bed, and a subcutaneous patch for delivering morphine. We acquire nursing techniques we’d hoped never to learn.
In the week between Christmas and New Year, we hold Anise’s hand and tell her we love her. We say we’ll keep an eye on Cyan, that we’ll make sure the job of parenting him will not be left incomplete. We intone prayers over her, we prepare to lose her. Still she hangs on.
On New Year’s Eve, E and I walk from our home up Orange Grove to sit vigil, passing groups of people camping on the curb, kids on skateboards, the sidewalk jammed with cots, firepits, Aerobeds, and sleeping bags. Television crews clot the other side of the street with a white tent for each network. The floats will line up here in the next few hours. Soon residents, some wearing furs with champagne in hand, will stroll up and down the boulevard lit by Klieg lights to see last-minute touches being put on the floats.
Kelly, Martha and her husband stay in Anise’s apartment on New Year’s Eve, occupying every sleeping spot. E and I walk back to our place to grab some shut-eye.
At 4 am, Kelly calls. “She’s getting close.”
We walk back up Orange Grove where the pre-parade buzz has risen to a steady clamor. Police cars, security guards, and television reporters fill the areas around the floats that now clog the boulevard. A limo bringing one of the TV celebrities who’ll narrate the parade is escorted up the closed-off street.
“I think she’s ready to go,” the night nurse tells us when we arrive. “But she wanted you to be here first,” she says to E. “She seems to want her father by her side.”
E and I sit next to her bed and talk to her. Only minutes pass before the nurse says, “There. I think she’s gone.” Anise stops breathing. It happens so fast.
Martha enters from another room and Anise summons one final breath. Clearly, she wanted both her parents present. We note the time for the death certificate: 5:28 am.
Later I will look up that time and learn that she died in the last minute of true night of the old year, in the final sixty seconds before the breaking of the first of the dimmest of twilights. Dawn was preparing to come for the rest of us, but not for Anise.
Earlier, E had asked me to be in charge of washing and anointing Anise’s body. Now I gather the lavender soap and essential oils, and with the help of the night nurse, Martha and Kelly, we take the nightclothes off Anise and prepare her body, thanking every part for the key role it played in her life, for the hands that made art and cuddled Cyan, for the feet that ran after him, for the arms that hugged each of us. I select the navy sundress with embroidered flowers she wore to Cyan’s eleventh birthday party. The hospice nurse, who’s in charge of recording the death, is called.
When I’m in the room alone with her, I take a photo. I feel ashamed, but I want to capture the moment, I want something to hold onto. I take a second shot of her right shoulder, twined with tattooed flowers framing the letters of Cyan’s name. I want him to know that even until the moment of her death, his wellbeing was her most fervent wish. Over the coming weeks, whenever I open the photos file on my phone, I will feel a wash of embarrassment, remembering my need to record the moment. And still, I will not delete the photos.
The parade begins at 8 am with a flyover by the Stealth Bomber. We can’t see it but we feel the sonic boom, and then the crowds of more than a million, many just beyond the living room window, explode in cheers. The bands start playing and the floats begin to roll. The jubilant celebration of a New Year filled with expectation begins in earnest. Day has fully arrived.
I’m annoyed. Does no one understand that death has just occurred? An eleven-year-old boy has been left motherless. And my new husband, married not even a month, has lost his only child.
I sit with Anise’s body. The mortuary people will not be able to get through for hours and it feels important that she not be left alone. She looks lovely and peaceful, a slight smile on her face. Her shoulders are visible in the sundress, each upper arm blooming with inked flowers. I think of her most treasured paintings, some still unfinished: all of flowers. The dress we selected is awash in embroidered blooms. The room smells of lavender soap and essential oil. And mixing in, just barely present, are the scents from the countless sprays of flowers adorning the floats. Just out the window, so close I can almost touch them, pass vehicles garlanded with some 18 million familiar and exotic flowers.
The promise every young mother believes is implicit in her pregnancy—that she’ll be able to shepherd her child into adulthood—has been broken. As has the assumption that E and Martha shared when they gave life to their daughter all those years ago: that they would not have to witness the death of their only child.
Is it wrong to believe in such ephemeral promises? Or is that flimsy hope the only faith that carries us forward? We do our best to pay attention, to note the shape of each flower, its fragrance and beauty while it’s with us. We try to notice all the details of the spectacle passing before our eyes, but it’s simply too much to fully take in. We fail to appreciate it all.
Rain seldom falls on the Rose Parade, but some years it comes down in buckets.
For two and a half hours, the Tournament of Roses Parade thunders and explodes just outside the door. We try to watch it on the television, blocked from seeing it live by the large grandstands in the yard, but the cable reception is faulty. Still, we know this: forty flower-covered floats pass under Anise’s front window, and whether they know it or not, they all pay her homage. The bands celebrate her life. Or so I tell myself as we begin to cobble together a way to live without her.
In the aftermath, we grieve, each in our own way. When Cyan’s father insists he’s prepared to parent Cyan as a single father, E believes he and I should keep our plans to attend an ice climbing festival three weeks later in Colorado. Being in the mountains is a balm. We gear up: layers of technical clothing, climbing harness, helmet, mountaineering boots, crampons, ice tools. Step by step, we climb up frozen waterfalls, belaying each other. He tells me I’m strong enough to climb the next pitch and I try to believe him. In my own way, I tell him he’s strong enough to feel this loss fully, and he tries to believe me. We belay each other knowing that, in the long run, we can save no one. Still, we’ll do all we can to help each other along the way, to provide a “soft” catch for the inevitable fall.
The flowers have come and gone. Anise’s illness has taken its toll. E and I have bound ourselves to each other in a commitment to life. To breathing. To taking the next step. And this is what that commitment looks like: E climbs above me, farther away from me with every step and grasp he makes. I hold the rope and hope he’ll return for as long as we have with each other.