White and yellow Chrysanthemums in a thick explosion filled a wide vase at the center of a display of get well cards decorating the window ledge. Chrysanthemums were Marty’s favorite, each like an exhuberant firework, like the flower world’s equivalent of jazz hands. Marty bought them for Carla twice a week, had been buying them through thirty-seven years of marriage. He would bring a new arrangement in two days to replace the ones currently grinning at Carla from the window. “More mums than you could know what to do with,” he had promised before he’d left at the end of visiting hours the night before. Carla couldn’t stand Chrysanthemums. She found them cheap and gaudy. And they made her think of funerals. For more than half her life, Marty had been showering her with the flowers of the dead.
“Your husband sure is sweet,” the night nurse had said. “Flowers twice a week!”
“He’s a good man,” Carla said.
“You’ve been together a long time. That’s what will help you heal, that kind of steadfast love around you.”
Carla had smiled. She liked the idea of Marty’s love being the magical elixir that would mend her.
When he came to visit that evening after work, Marty smiled at the flowers in the window as he pulled the chair beside Carla’s bed. “And tonight, my sky, how do you feel?”
Carla reached for his hand and smiled. “My nurse says you will heal me,” she said.
“Of course. Of course.” He nodded and squeezed her hand. “The flowers. That is my job and my pleasure.”
He hoped she couldn’t detect the fear in his voice, in the tightness of his breathing. He’d been with her in the car when the drunk had plowed into them, sending their little sedan careering into a mailbox and parked car on the opposite corner of the intersection they’d been waiting to cross. He had walked away with scratches, but not Carla.
When he’d turned and seen her silent, crumpled and bleeding beside him, the shock and horror of it had twisted his heart out of position. The sharp pain in his chest was the vision of a life without her. He’d sat, frozen, staring at her, not realizing the ugly screeching he heard was coming from his own throat until a woman outside his window had shaken his shoulder and asked where he was hurt.
The doctors had said Carla was lucky, that she should heal fine, probably without even a limp. He couldn’t allow himself to believe them. Not until he saw the truth of it, of wellness, in Carla’s eyes. In the first days at the hospital, he had only seen emptiness. Her eyes looked as if she had already left him.
It was Hanna, the youngest of their daughters, who’d figured it out.
“Pop, don’t you think Mamma misses her flowers?” she’d asked one night on the way home from a visit.
He’d felt stunned, slapped. “Her flowers! I’ve been so distracted!”
He knew the mums were the secret. As soon as he’d brought the first arranement, he’d seen a change in Carla, saw a light come on at the back of her eyes.
“What else does your nurse say?” he asked, smiling.
“She thinks you’re sweet,” Carla said, feeling the strong embrace of his smile.
“Oh, does she? And what about you? Do you think there’s still any sweetness left in me after all these years?” He stroked the palm of her hand with his thumb, and she rewarded him with a deep blush as she always did.
Carla laughed — it was maybe her first laugh since the accident. It hurt her chest, but it felt good, too. That was Marty. Good for her in spite of herself, in spite of everything.
She’d never told him she hated Chrysanthemums. In the beginning, she thought it such a wonder that a man would consistently give her flowers, she was afraid any negative comment would shut down the flow all together. Her best friend at the time had tried to warn her off Marty because of the flowers. “He just brings you what he likes?” she had said. “What kind of man does that? A selfish one. He’s no good for you.” But Carla’d had no trouble dismissing that argument. Mirelis was angry and bitter, in the middle of her parents’ angry, bitter divorce.
Carla accepted the generosity of the flowers and accepted Marty, saw that his whole heart was always on display, just as showy and in your face as the sprays of mums that had begun to invade her home. By the time she believed the bouquets would keep coming, telling him she didn’t like Chrysanthemums seemed mean. Marty by her side was what mattered. If ugly, depressing flowers were the price, she would pay it for the rest of her life.
Thirty-seven years later, the price wasn’t exactly feeling high, but having to stare at all the vases of mums when she had come so close to dying was hard. She had felt the moment when her balance had begun to shift had tilted toward the warm weightlessness of death. She had felt it and hadn’t immediately fought it, had paused to feel that embrace. Not to consider — she wasn’t yet 60 and there were too many things still on her myriad lists. But the gentle pressure against her heart was calming, oddly seductive.
When she had opened her eyes and seen Marty, felt the desperate pressure of his hands holding hers, her heart had raced, and the pleasure of seeing him had washed through her. When he had walked into her room four days later with the first enormous bouquet of Chrysanthemums, she had smiled, had seen in his eyes for the first time not just hope, but his belief that he hadn’t lost her.