I am one of seven children. Both of my parents are still living. They have two boys, and they had five daughters. The eldest of the clan, named Amy Ironside, left us in July of 2015. It was a startling thing for everyone. We each reacted differently, as do many people in the wake of a death out of sequence. No one is supposed to predecease one’s parents. Amy’s departure disrupted the natural order of things. Some of us clung together with ferocity, others pulled away.
Two months after Amy’s passing, I went on a trip to Portugal. I was numb to what had occurred within my family and tried with all my might to push it out of my mind. On the beginning of this trip to the Iberian Peninsula, I was blind to the rugged beauty of a fishing town along the Atlantic. There just so happened to be a local feast in this village. These elaborate celebrations are meant to honor the local patron saint of each town. This particular feast celebrated Our Lady of Encarnacion, the saint of the village in which I visited. I was unprepared to witness the townspeople carry enormous wooden statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and Our Lady of Encarnacion through the streets. Men in dark suits held these statues high above their heads, a local priest reared the front of this parade, and little girls wore the exact clothing of the patron saint, as the procession wound through the main thoroughfare of the village.
I learned that this pink flower blooms only in early September. It is a member of the amaryllis family and is called meninas por escola by the Portuguese people. This translates into English to mean “the girls go back to school”. The history behind the name for the flower is that in many Catholic countries, girls often still wear pink uniforms when they attend school. Portugal is a very Catholic country. And these pink flowers bloom only in September, the ‘back to school’ month for many people throughout the world.
Amy has two daughters. She had been very sick for several months before she died. Her younger daughter Lucy had finished a bachelor’s degree and applied for a master’s degree program for Speech and Language Pathology. Amy’s elder daughter Maddie had also finished her undergraduate degree and had been vying for a spot in a local master’s degree program in Occupational Therapy. Maddie had been placed on the waiting list to get in.
Our mother, Amy’s and my sisters, had been a bit of a stickler regarding the need for higher education when it came down to her own daughters. She believed that a woman could not only make her own money, but that a woman could command her independence with a college degree. It is because of her insistence in this path for her girls that we have all become successful in our own right. We have all gone back to school at various stages of our lives, in large part because of a woman who refused to allow us to believe that high school was the end of our schooling. In fact, our mother didn’t throw us parties or give us money when we graduated from high school. “Finishing high school is a basic expectation in life,” she believed. Because finishing high school was not the end of our path to becoming women who could stand alone and make our own living. Our mother was on to something. She wanted more for us.
And we all earned more for ourselves. Just as our mother had wanted for us. Until Amy got very sick during the February of 2015. The winter before she knew if her own daughters were accepted into their graduate programs. It was a terrible time, one when we were not sure if Amy would make it from one week to the next. Yet, Amy rallied and became medically stable. She returned home to live with her husband Dave.
Some might say it is unfair to pin hopes and beliefs onto people who have died. I was not in a very good frame of mind after Amy left, though I am one of those people who happens to believe that people wait for something remarkable before they choose to leave this plane of existence. Amy’s husband Dave, a staunch agnostic, recently said that scientists believe there may be eleven different dimensions in which realities can exist. Perhaps Dave and I are on opposite sides of the playing field: spirit versus science. Maybe none of us know anything about life after death. But in this argument, we can converge in the theory that anything is possible.
I do know this. Amy should have died sooner than she did. Her body was shutting down. But something inside her waited to pass into another dimension. Something inside her needed to see her girls succeed. Even after she was gone, maybe something inside of Amy watched that procession in Portugal, as the men hefted large statues onto their shoulders and the local girls marched the streets in their handmade costumes of the patron saint, adorned in pink flowers. Perhaps Amy waited to die until she knew her daughters would march in their graduation gowns. This was her last, and most important act, as the primary caregiver of her children. She must have exhaled her final breath and thought, “My girls are going back to school.”
Amy’s two daughters, Maddie and Lucy, now work together in the same school to help children with disabilities. They both hold master’s degrees. Their grandmother, the mother of Amy and her sisters who hold her close, will now witness two more of her granddaughters go back to school this fall. She is an avid gardener, this mother of Amy. She planted the bulbs of the meninas por escola in her garden a few years back. They used to bloom pink, as they do in Portugal. Yet the soil is different in Baltimore and the blooms have adapted to new land; they are now the color of tangerines. That is what has happened within our family, as we learned to live without Amy. Our flowers still bloom, they are just a different color now. But some things have remained the same in our family and always shall. The girls will always go back to school.