5/13/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

I’m discovering it’s very, very hard to find a moment of happiness in a week that was very quickly dunked into sadness and grief. On Monday morning, I was told that a young student was in ICU and not expected to make it. On Tuesday morning, she died.

She was 34 years old. She would have been 35 in July, a few days before I turn 61.

I met Carla long before she became my student, but we both knew, on the day we met, that our paths were going to converge in that teacher/student way. Carla was a friend of my daughter Katie’s, living just down the hall from her in a dorm at UW-Madison. Before I met her, I heard of her, through my daughter. Carla had cystic fibrosis, had known about it her entire life, knew almost from the moment of her first breath that her time was limited. Yet she plowed ahead in the most amazing manner, accomplishing things she wanted to accomplish, reaching for goals, attaining them, and relishing every breath she took. The day I met her was on a step away from a goal – she was leaving the university. Her CF made it impossible for her to keep up, though she tried and tried and tried.

She knew I was starting a business, a creative writing studio. She called me in to her room because she had a kid’s table, that she used for doing crafts, that she thought might be perfect for the studio. Its legs looked like sharpened pencils, complete with erasers. At the time, the studio had a storefront, and I ended up using that table as part of my display during our entire time there.

I sat on Carla’s bed and we talked. At the end of our conversation, I said, “You have to write a book.”

She looked directly at me and said, “I do. And it has to be with your help.”

And so a new goal was created.

This was likely in late 2004 or early 2005. We stayed in contact, but Carla didn’t begin working on the book until July of 2018, 8 months after going through a double-lung transplant. It had been a rough road, but she was feeling good and she was ready. We began to work.

And then she was handed a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. It was another rough road, with complications and unexpected developments.

And then, a couple weeks ago, she went into the ER for a dangerously low blood sugar. She was also diabetic. From being hospitalized, and expecting to be released, she slid into unconsciousness last Thursday, with her liver and kidneys failing, and was transferred to ICU. Then Monday. Then Tuesday.

I have always cringed when people cry, “This is so unfair!” But when she developed thyroid cancer, that’s what I wanted to yell. And now I want to yell again, but something further. This is more than unfair. This is cruel. And I don’t know who is dealing out the cruelty. Fate? The Universe? God? I don’t know. I just know this is cruel. To Carla, and to those of us who knew her. And who love her still.

So where is my moment of happiness?

On Monday, soon after I was told what was happening, my husband texted me a picture from work. “Coming off the truck,” he said, and it was a photo of hibiscus trees.

Last summer was Hibiscus Summer for me. A hibiscus tree, whose branch reached out and grabbed me by the pants leg in the grocery store during our first pandemic spring, helped me through a pandemic summer. The blooms were constant and incredible. I took photo after photo. Carla and I spent a lot of time, talking about the hibiscus and ways to get through the isolation of the pandemic. Every photo that I posted on Facebook, she exclaimed over. I think that little tree kept us both going.

In the fall, I brought the little tree indoors too late. The shock of coming in from a cool-to-cold outdoors to a warm house was too much, and the leaves turned yellow, dropped off, and the little tree died. Both Carla and I grieved.

So on this last Monday, I went to my husband’s work to look at the hibiscus. As I walked down the aisle, I thought of Carla and I teared up. “Help me pick one out, Carla,” I whispered. These new hibiscus were a different color than last year’s, the one I loved so. As I circled the group, a branch reached out and grabbed me by the leg. I looked at the buds and saw they were the color, the right color, the color we both so admired. It was the only tree there with that color flower.

So that hibiscus came home. And on Tuesday morning, Carla died.

It was too cold to put the little tree outside, so it stayed in my office, in front of my desk. Late last night, as I started closing down, I walked by the tree and noticed one of the buds was starting to bloom. This pretty little flower was opening up. I grabbed my phone and took several pictures.

And then, all by itself, the bloom fell off. And I cried out.

A young and beautiful flower, lost before full bloom.

Well, I live my life in metaphor, donchaknow.

I picked up the little flower and said, “Hi, Carla.” And then I cried in a way I hadn’t been able to yet.

The tree is now named Carla. And I think she will get me through another summer.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

The photo my husband sent me, of the hibiscus being unloaded from the truck.
Photo of the first bloom, partially opened, moments before it spontaneously dropped off.
The new tree, outdoors today, enjoying the warmth.
Soon to bloom.
Carla on the left. My daughter Katie on the right.

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