It’s this time of year I’m always surprised by the bundles of lilacs that seem to have bloomed overnight. The lavender aroma shocks me with beauty.
They were my sister’s favorite flower.
“This is what heaven will smell like,” she would say, sitting on the porch of our childhood home. “Close your eyes, Ginny. Just smell the air.”
“How do you know?” I’d ask. “You been to heaven?”
“Oh, shut up, you sassafrassy.”
“They are pretty, though, Betty. Let’s cut some for mama.”
We would fill old jelly jars with water and snip lilacs, setting them on the window panes all around the farmhouse. We knew that the bushes would only hold the blooms for a few weeks before they would wilt. Betty couldn’t stand to see them wasted.
Years later, after marriages and kids and divorces, Betty moved into the old house with me. Mama and daddy were gone for a long time by then. My kids were all making families of their own. I was glad to have my sister with me.
“Ginny, I’m sick,” she told me. “I can’t live alone anymore. I need help.”
I set up a room just for her, on the main floor and with plenty of sunlight through the windows. I papered the walls with a lilac print, had lavender carpeting put in. It looked just the way I thought she’d like it. I even transplanted a lilac bush right outside so she could look out at it whenever she desired.
She only lived in that room for three months. After she died I kept the room exactly as she’d left it. I didn’t even have the heart to move her slippers from the foot of the bed.
Every once in awhile I still go and sit in her room. The bed remains unmade from when the mortician came for her body. I try to pull the sheets off the mattress, so I can wash them. But something prevents me. That rumbled bedding and crushed pillow are all I have left of her.
It’s all I have of anyone.
In-home nurses lived with us, around the clock, for the last two months that Betty was here. They fed her, bathed her, looked after her. All I could do was stand and watch. And that last day, it took so long for her to pass.
“It would help her if you told her it was okay,” the nurse told me in the kitchen. “I think she’s holding on for you.”
“Oh, she wouldn’t do that,” I answered. “She isn’t even sure of what’s happening.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. They say that the hearing’s the last thing to go.”
“What do I say, then? Go on and die?” The force in my voice startled me. “I can’t do that. No. I won’t.”
And I didn’t. I just sat and watched her dying. It took hours, longer than I ever imagined. Then finally, it was over. My body was paralyzed in the chair by the window in her room.
Now I sit in the chair again. Sometimes I’ll talk to her. I don’t know if she can hear me. I really wish she could.
“Betty, I’m sorry. I should have let you go,” I say it out loud. “It was selfish of me. I was just scared.”
I look out the window. The lilacs have just started to bloom. I saw the buds a few days ago. The aroma, rich and familiar, follows me through the yard.
“Is it true, Betty?” I ask the empty room. “Does it really smell like that? Because if it does, then you’re in a good place. And if that’s the smell then I can only imagine how great everything else is.”
I stand up, walk across the soft floor. Without meaning to, I kick a slipper with my foot. Something inside me tells me that it’s okay.
“When you came here, I thought we’d have more time. I guess I just wasn’t ready to be alone again. It wasn’t right for me to lose you so early.”
Bending over, I pick up both slippers. A stabbing feeling moves through my stomach. It passes and I’ve survived it.
“But if you’re okay, then I need to be happy for you. And I believe that you’re better now.”
The wind is tossing the lilac blooms ever so slightly on the other side of the window pane. The window moves stubbornly as I push it up and open. I breathe in the fresh air.
“Good-bye, Betty. I’ll always miss you. But I’ll see you again real soon.”
The case slips off the pillow with a smooth movement. It falls in a heap on the floor.